In July, I had the privilege of traversing Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains with Kula Cloth Founder Anastasia Allison. During the months leading up to the trip, I poured over my map of the area, linking together a beautiful route of my own creation.
Looking at maps and imagining ways to travel through terrain is simply one of my favorite things. It’s what drew me to packrafting — at the water’s edge, inflate a boat and just keep going. And it’s what drew me to adventure racing, a sport that’s not only involves a mix of activities — trekking, mountain biking and boating are the staples — but also requires the exclusive use of maps, compass and an altimeter for navigation.
And my love of navigating by maps extends to the frontcountry as well. Several years ago, while visiting a friend in Santiago, Chile, I found myself with the entirety of a day to explore the famed city. As my friend headed off to work, I opened a map of the sprawling metropolis — complete with the subway system — and made a mental note of places that looked intriguing. Then off I went.
The day ended up featuring an exploration of a random fish market and wanderings through an off-the-beaten-path museum. It also included more well-known destinations, such as the city center plaza, where old men played chess. I was delighted by all of it.
While I’ve been quick to embrace technology in many aspects of my life — as the co-founder of GGG, I run an e-commerce store from rural Idaho while working with a remote team — I’ve hesitated to let that seep into my time outside.
This is in part because my time in the mountains is my chance to take a break from work, to get away from the dings and buzzes that fill my day. And, it’s also because I don’t want a phone interfering with my relationship to the natural world. I love noticing subtleties — the hue of the clouds, the texture of the earth and the hoot of a far-off owl.
But this approach has its drawbacks too. A couple of weeks ago, while out trail running, I severely sprained my ankle. As I hobbled home in tears, I kept wishing I had my phone to call my husband, so he could come pick me up at the trailhead, avoiding the last mile of road. And, while in the White Cloud Mountains with Anastasia, I found myself re-thinking the idea of using a GPS.
When Anastasia reached out before our trip to get our exact route so she could download it to her GPS app, I was slightly taken aback. A follow up mention of an inReach did nothing to ease my concerns.
All I could picture was being on the Wind River High Route the previous summer and observing people with their eyes down, glued to their phones, using them to guide each and every step. At one point, I wanted to shout at someone, “The pass is super obvious. It’s right up there. Just put the phone away and walk toward it.”
But with Anastasia, I took the ‘each to their own’ approach, keeping my mouth shut and still bubbling with excitement for our rendezvous at the end of a long, bumpy forest service road.
Our White Clouds trip ended up being amazing on truly every level, and also a bit hilarious, at least to me. At every junction and confusing turn, I’d pull out my map and Anastasia would pull out her phone. We’d each pour over our respective devices and then compare notes.
In this way, we wound our way through the limestone peaks and sapphire lakes with ease (minus a few obnoxiously dusty sections of trail and one night of mosquitoes so numerous that they turned the sky from blue to grey.)
I have to admit, more than once I was grateful for the extra layer of certainty that we were on the right track. And, yes, even the inReach ended up giving me a certain peace of mind, knowing we had a way to communicate with the outside world, if it ever became necessary.
Input from Instagram
After this experience in the White Clouds, I began to wonder about other’s opinions on the question of whether to map or to app. So, here at GGG, we posed the question to our Instagram community.
In our super informal, non-scientific Instagrm poll, 81 people voted for map and 96 people voted for app. The follow-up comments proved fascinating, with a lot of folks finding utility in a combination of both.
Nothing wrong with using technology for navigation, but it’s a fool’s errand to rely on such things. — @mtncrusher.
App is primary navigation, quick and easy to see where you are. Map is a backup. — @lonestarultralight
If I can’t find a map, I screenshot the app and print it out, batteries die. — @jonbarton56
Both. Always have a map for backup. — @tbryceryan
Use an app but you still gotta have and know how to use a map and compass. — @csmith_on _the _fly
And, then my personal favorite:
Neither … I get lost. — @elenabrianne
Input from the Experts
As part of my curiosity on the subject, I was interested to know about the possible long-term effects to our brain. A Vox article titled Is GPS Ruining our Ability to Navigate for Ourselves offers some interesting insights.
"I do think GPS devices cause our navigational skills to atrophy, and there's increasing evidence for it. The problem is that you don't see an overview of the area, and where you are in relation to other things. You're not actively navigating — you're just listening to the voice," Nora Newcombe, a Temple University psychologist who studies spatial cognition, told Vox.
The Vox article goes on to say …
Eleanor Maguire of University College London has found that the city's taxi drivers (who are forced to memorize some 25,000 streets as part of an legendarily rigorous licensing test) have significantly larger hippocampi than non-drivers and bus drivers.
This work raised a key question: Were spatially adept people (with larger hippocampi) flocking to the taxi profession in the first place — or was the process of creating a gigantic, detailed mental map of London causing their hippocampi to grow?
Further research by Maguire indicates that it's actually the latter. She tracked 79 aspiring taxi drivers for four years as they trained for the test, and found that the 39 who'd passed saw significant growth in their hippocampi during that period. Failed drivers saw less growth, and a control group of non-drivers saw less still.
This points to a key fact about navigational ability: It can change over time. Newcombe has come to believe that some people's ability to create spatial maps isn't some sort of genetically determined trait like height or eye color, but a skill they must improve through work. People who are "bad" at navigation, she says, simply don't exercise this skill frequently enough.
Piggybacking off of Maguire’s 2011 study, a 2014 study examined the question of whether a smaller hippocampus can lead to age-related dementia. After following 97 subjects for two years, the study concluded:
After adjusting for age and vascular risk factors, hippocampal volume was a significant predictor for mild cognitive impairment and dementia.
The long and the short seems to be that much like exercise, using spatial thinking to navigate builds on itself creating potential long-term health benefits. While the inverse is also true i.e. lose it if you don't use it.
While I won’t be ditching my paper map anytime soon and still get annoyed when I see people glued to their phone in the backcountry, I do now think there’s a time and a place for GPS apps. I view them as sort of a fact checker, a way to confirm that I’m actually where I think I am. While this at times can diminish a sense of adventure, it can also bolster confidence — in both myself and the excursions I choose to take on.
Let’s keep the conversation going! Please leave a comment below with your 2 cents. I’m also quite interested to know people’s navigation apps of choice (for a likely follow up article). In our Instagram poll, Guia and Guthook were mentioned frequently. Do you all use these apps? What other backcountry navigation apps are out there that you love? How about ones you strongly dislike?