Smartphone Directions May Put Beginner Hikers At Risk, Experts Say
For inexperienced hikers, smartphones are a versatile tool: a flashlight, a distress beacon, and a GPS, all in one device. But it can be misguided, even fatal, for hikers to rely solely on their phones when heading into the wilderness, experts say.
Online apps and maps have confused hikers on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Scotland, climbers are warning visitors that Google Maps can direct them to ‘potentially fatal’ trails that would require them to climb over cliffs and over rocky, craggy terrain.
A number of visitors have recently relied on Google Maps to reach the summit of Ben Nevis, a 4,500-foot mountain, according to a declaration Thursday from Mountaineering Scotland, a climbing organization, and the John Muir Trust, a charity that maintains natural areas in Britain.
Ben Nevis, a popular but dangerous climbing site in the Scottish Highlands about 70 miles northwest of Glasgow, is Britain’s highest peak.
If hikers follow Google’s directions to the parking lot closest to the summit, the map points them to a route that climbs straight up the mountain. Even experienced climbers would find it difficult to take this path, Heather Morning, mountain safety advisor for Mountaineering Scotland, said in the statement.
“In good visibility it would be difficult,” said Ms Morning. “Add low clouds and rain and the Google suggested line is potentially fatal.”
The problem is, while smartphones have made a lot of activities easier, from calling a car to ordering take-out, the devices have complicated things for some hikers who don’t realize they will need a lot more than their phone.
Mountaineering Scotland has reported that a number of people across the country have been injured recently after following hiking routes found online. Ben Nevis has been the scene of a number of deaths in recent years, including a 24 year old woman last month and three men in 2019.
The mountaineers warning comes as hikers have flocked to the outdoors and trails during the coronavirus pandemic. While hiking itself is a safe and socially remote endeavor, injuries have become a problem as more and more people take to the trails.
Ben Nevis is not the only mountain where hikers have had problems. In New Hampshire, mountain rescuers said they had saved many people who were ill-equipped for their outings.
Hikers who have strayed into the White Mountains call the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department at least once a week in the summer, said Sgt. Alex Lopashanski, a conservation officer for the department.
“They’re trying to follow a lead on their phone, which takes them into the woods, and they get so lost,” he said.
These hikers cannot tell where they are because their screens are much smaller than paper maps, said Sgt. Lopashanski. If officers cannot redirect them to a lead over the phone, rescuers can take several hours to locate them.
Other complicating factors include wandering remote areas without cell service or devices running out of power, making them unnecessary to call for help.
The emergency services join the operation if the hikers are in danger. Rick Wilcox, a member of the Mountain Rescue Service in New Hampshire, said many of the people he rescues did not have maps or compass.
“People think a magic cell phone is all they need and they say, ‘Let me check Google,’ Wilcox said.
American Hiking Society spokesperson Wesley Trimble said he was concerned about people using apps to follow routes that are not approved by experts.
“A lot of information on the internet comes from participatory sources, so there is not necessarily input from land managers, parks or trail organizations,” he said.
In Scotland, authorities recommends visitors bring a paper map and compass to Ben Nevis, even on novice trails.
For those who wish to brave the icy mountain terrain, steep climbs, and poor visibility, this is an eight-hour round trip to the summit from the Visitor Center. But if hikers follow Google Maps to the recommended starting point, their journey will be much more dangerous.
The John Muir Trust has posted signs in the area directing inexperienced climbers to the visitor center, but people often ignore these messages, a spokesperson for the association said.
In a statement, a Google spokeswoman said the dotted line on the summit parking lot map is meant to indicate the distance to the top, not a passable trail.
“Our driving routes currently direct people to the Nevis Gorge trailhead parking lot – the land closest to the summit – which has prominent signs indicating the trail is very dangerous,” the statement said.
Regardless, the company said users will now be directed to the mountain visitor center instead of the parking lot. The Google spokeswoman said the company was looking at its other routes near Ben Nevis.