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Hiking With A GPS? Mountain Rescuers Who Might Have To Find You Say, 'Get A Map!'06:51
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Wesley Trimble of the American Hiking Society on a hike. (Courtesy of Wesley Trimble)
Wesley Trimble of the American Hiking Society on a hike. (Courtesy of Wesley Trimble)

If you're planning to hike this summer, experts say to consider bringing a paper map. That’s because hiking organizations and rescuers around the country are seeing an increase in injuries and rescues.

One of the reasons for the additional mayhem on the trails is sheer numbers. Hikers logging treks into the popular AllTrails website increased by 171% in 2020.

The other reason though is the one causing concern: More people are relying on GPS programs — like Google Maps — for directions.

One problem with using these apps is unreliable data, says Wesley Trimble with the American Hiking Society.

“Most trail applications out there use a variety of base layer maps,” Trimble says. “These layers are crowdsourced a lot of times, and then people upload GPS tracks of places that they've been when there's really no way to verify whether or not those uploaded tracks are on designated trails.”

More reliable maps can be found on National Park Service applications. Though these can still be downloaded, the trails are verified. But because cell phones can lose reception, or end up wet, dropped, or damaged, these should be used in combination with paper maps or printed before the hikers depart.

Another issue with cell phone reliance is the small screen, which makes it difficult for hikers to understand their larger environment. One New Hampshire rescuer explains that the small screen also makes it difficult for rescuers to find lost hikers since the hikers can’t see enough territory to describe where they are.

Wesley Trimble of the American Hiking Society on a hike. (Courtesy of Wesley Trimble)
Wesley Trimble of the American Hiking Society on a hike. (Courtesy of Wesley Trimble)

And Trimble, an avid hiker, has also had his share of personal experiences using GPS directions — including ending up on nonexistent trails.

“I was checking out trails and I had been on two sections of trail before,'' he says. “When I was using one of these trail apps, it said there was a connection between them but when I got to where they said these two trails connected, there was absolutely no trail connection.”

The person who uploaded the information, he says, hiked up a 35-degree slope which could have led other hikers to fall. Ascending that type of slope with no trail can also create erosion and destroy fragile ecosystems.

On another occasion, Trimble realized the map he thought he’d downloaded wasn’t there at all.

“I was pretty positive I had downloaded the map before I left cellphone reception,” Trimble says. “Then when I was on the hike and pulled the app up... there was no data or map saved so luckily I was able to rely on a print version.”

The best way to stay safe on trails is to use multiple sources for directions, he says. People can talk to locals in the area, outdoor retailers or the park visitors centers.

In addition to paper maps, the American Hiking Society recommends compasses. But there’s a caveat: People need the skills to use the device properly, Trimble says.

New Hampshire rescue and trail conservation workers say they’ve been busy this summer, reporting about one GPS-user rescue a week.

Still, Trimble says that with a few simple precautions hiking can be safe and enjoyable. He cites an Outdoor Foundation report that says there was an increase of more than 7 million people on the trails from 2019 to 2020 as a good thing.

“The more people who are connected to these special places, the more people who value those spaces that want to advocate and protect those places,” Trimble says. “But it also does mean that there's an added impact.”


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtCamila Beiner and Miller-Medzon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on August 17, 2021.

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