Maps Can Save Lives: A true story of GPS and the importance of navigation

Global positioning systems have ostensibly become the new atlases — most if not all new vehicles have internal GPS mapping devices, rendering old-school paper maps obsolete. But as drivers and navigators become more reliant on these devices, their safety may be put in severe danger.

This was the case for Alicia Sanchez and her six-year-old son Carlos, who ventured into Death Valley National Park in August of 2009, equipped with a GPS device and no paper maps to verify her surroundings. When the two traveled twenty miles into the park and got their vehicle stuck deep in sand, with little to no cell phone service available to call for help, Carlos passed away when their water supply dwindled and they did not receive assistance.

Another GPS user faced a similar dilemma when traveling in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah. After traveling 60 miles into the park, she hit Lake Powell — which had inconveniently not been documented in the GPS.

These stories, as well as the stories of many other GPS-wielding travelers, are documented in an Oregonian story from yesterday, with some advice on how to travel appropriately:

“Never ask the question, ‘What is the shortest route?’ if you are on a dirt road,’” said [Charlie] Callagan, a National Park Service wilderness coordinator in Death Valley, Calif. The technology often trumps common sense for unwary visitors who put too much faith in the units that receive satellite signals at the speed of light. “It’s fancy, it’s the newest thing,” Callagan said. “How could it do me wrong?” [...] Travelers should know that map data displayed by GPS units can be outdated, with roads that no longer exist. Callagan, for instance, said he has persuaded some manufacturers to remove dangerous road segments from their Death Valley databases. Outdoor experts recommend always carrying several maps and plenty of water and food. They suggest taking four-wheel-drives with heavy-duty tires into the backcountry or even two spare tires.

Having and knowing how to use a paper map will always be helpful to travelers, even in the age of ubiquitous technology. Whether it be operator or mechanical error, GPS devices (and the underlying systems/companies that operate them) are fallable, and being able to handle yourself around a paper map and a compass could end up saving your life.