Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Map Skills in the Digital Age

A Guest blog by Past President Neil Van Dyke

There was an interesting piece on National Public Radio recently about map making in the digital age.  While the discussion was quite broad reaching in scope, there was some very interesting commentary that related directly to search and rescue.  One of the points was that the younger generation in large part has no experience with the use of paper maps.  Their map and navigational world revolves around Google maps or other apps on their computer or smart phone. To this generation one navigates by asking their phone how to get from point A to point B then watching their progress, whether they are travelling by vehicle or on foot.  We increasing see this in the backcountry.  This past summer while on patrol one ranger I work with encountered a young man with an iPad slung around his neck which he was using for his map. I was personally involved in about a half a dozen incidents this year where people got lost while trying to navigate using their phone.  

Some of the issues these folks encountered:
-One party thought a blue line on the map was a trail, when in fact it was a stream. (This would have been obvious to anybody familiar with reading a standard USGS map.) They lost the trail, a search was initiated and they spent an uncomfortable night out in the woods.
-A solo hiker was navigating using his phone when the battery went dead.  He had no other map. He also spent a cold night in the woods and needed to be “rescued” and escorted out of the backcountry.
-Two different hikers got “lost” on or near the same trail which was not shown on the mapping app. We were able to talk them back onto the trail and convince them to turn around and retrace their route back out.
The problems associated with using electronic maps seem self evident to us old timers who grew up on paper maps and a compass:
- Batteries can quickly go dead, or even if not quickly then inevitably! This is especially true in cold weather. 
- Much mapping software requires cell coverage - obviously an issue in many remote areas.
-Most  electronic maps have incomplete (or non-existent)  trail data on them.
- Phones and other electronic devices are susceptible to damage or other operational issues in inclement weather.

So what’s to be done?   I wish there was a magic bullet on this one, but if there is I’m not sure what it is.  Some thoughts:
  1.          Incorporate this topic into any public education efforts that we are involved with. Point out that sometimes  paper trail maps and a compass will be one’s best friend in the backcountry. They often have the most relevant information, don’t need an internet connection, and the batteries never go dead!
  2.        As rescuers we need to be up to speed with how to use this technology to our advantage.  This can be a whole new topic, but every SAR team should know at least how to instruct somebody who is “lost” on how to text them their location from the mapping app. This has been a great tool for us on numerous occasions.

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on this!

Neil is team leader for Stowe (Vermont) Mountain Rescue, works as a seasonal backcountry ranger in New York’s Adirondack Park, and is a Past President of the Mountain Rescue Association