GPS, SPOT Trackers, & Other Gadgets: Are The "Oh Shit" Handles of Outdoor Adventure Losing Their Appeal?

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Among the usual suspects who drive dirt roads or take in the back country by foot and paddle there's a healthy amount of laughter and, more often, ridicule directed at the general public that trusts and abuses gadgets like GPS receivers and emergency satellite messengers when headed outside for some fun.

Stories like this one from the New York Times (link goes to really drive the enlightenment.

Check this out: On Christmas Day 2009, a couple drove down a remote road in Oregon at the suggestion of their GPS, hit deep snow, kept driving, and subsequently lodged their SUV in the snow. They were stranded for three days.  Shortly thereafter, the newspaper headlines made assertions like, “GPS Strands Elderly Couple.”   Blame is such an interesting, and often misguided (how ironic), thing.

“I'd never undertake this trip/trek/trail without the tracking device.” Isn't that an alarming sentiment?Do you know about the SPOT personal messenger?  It's similar to a personal locator beacon (PLB) used by adventurists who risk burial in an avalanche – except SPOT is aimed at more amateur clientele like weekend hikers and families traveling off-the-beaten-path. I openly admit that I own one and hardly use it at all.

Riding the GPS satellite constellation, SPOT lets you notify a list of people (that you've chosen) via email and/or web-based mapping page that you're either 1). okay or 2). in need of some help.  If the crap really hits the fan, you can also notify emergency responders through a “911” function – a form of a panic button, which could mean a visit from some very seriously trained dudes in a helicopter, depending on where you're located at the time.

Great concept, really. SPOT has saved numerous lives.

Alas, the consuming public has found a way to bastardize this device, too: “a group of hikers in the [Grand Canyon] called in rescue helicopters three times by pressing the emergency button on their satellite location device. When rangers arrived the second time, the hikers explained that their water supply 'tasted salty',” writes Leslie Kaufman in The New York Times article.

In case it's not clear, that's not the intended use of the 911 function.

What's the problem anyway?  This type of thinking: “I'd never undertake this trip/trek/trail without the tracking device.” Isn't that an alarming sentiment and an admission that one is not really prepared?  Should the inexperienced (hell, or the experienced!) lean on fancy gadgets and technology as a way to get around the requisites of experience, physical ability, planning, or plain sensibility of bringing, for example, water on a hike in the desert?

Our urban, plastic coated lives are fooling us. We're used to small luxuries presenting themselves throughout our daily activities and we take them for granted so easily: Starbucks drive-thrus, dishwashers, trash pick up, the ability to order lunch delivery via Twitter and Facebook, free Wi-Fi everywhere . . . hell, what would Alexander Graham Bell say about mobile phones? Luxury, maybe?

Yes, mobile phones contribute to the chaos as well: National Park rangers are reporting hikers calling in from trails and ordering hot chocolate to be delivered to them.  Cute.

From an office building, sure, we can order lattes for the whole office through Twitter and I find that fascinating, efficient, and smart.  From the top of Half Dome or from under Rainbow Bridge the story is far different. How do we define that difference?

I'm afraid we have some hard work ahead of us. I'm afraid that the luxuries and conveniences we enjoy in suburbia make us numb to what it means to be self-reliant. And our children are worse off for it.

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Clay Greathouse
+2 / 0
# Clay Greathouse 2011-07-13 20:12
I took this family on a Snowmobile Tour last winter, when we got to base camp it was snowing a bit and these people insisted we turn around, despite these other folks who where ready to go,(was able to put them on with another guide) because they where sure it would be to much for their kids. The day before in a full bore blizzard I had taken out a family with kids from Cally, and the one little girl was actually a actress, and we had a very interesting trip. So as I was turning around to take these folks back I just had to tell them, Some times adversity is a good lesson to learn! Kids need to learn that life is not always easy and the sooner the better the way I see it.
Some day I will have to tell you about our daughter at age 2 and having to Sled out 2 miles to reach our vehicle to get some grocery's and on the way home she was displaced by grocery's on the Sled and walked through deep snow to get back home. What a trooper!
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