On the Importance of Being Lost

It seems that the GPS is now considered to be a part of the essential outdoor kit, and most of the people I meet ‘out there’ seem to have one (the other day I saw someone ‘navigating’ the towpath along the Forth and Clyde Canal using one). The experts even assure me that it is possible to program in hazards to keep me safe!

With all this technology keeping us on the straight and narrow, I wonder, have we stopped being explorers and became followers of (other people’s) tracks? When does adventure stop being adventure and becomes haulage? And is it really keeping me safer?

I learnt the rudimentary outdoor 'craft’ in summer camps on the 'evil’ side of the Czech - Austrian border. For many years each July, together with some thirty other boys, four weeks of camping in the woods, no running water, no electricity, doing everything for ourselves, parental visits discouraged and resented by those who’s parents dared (few did), the 'seniors’ of an age that these days I barely think of as 'adult’. These were some of the happiest times of my childhood, like when we … I am getting sidetracked, and that would take for ever.

We had this game we played, sort of a rite of passage into teenagehood. It had a legend that I can’t recall too well, something to do with British commandos airdropped into occupied France (these were not the camps the Party leaders would have approved of, and now that I am old enough to understand, I am grateful to those who took such personal risk to make these things happen for us, but I am, again, digressing). The game went like this: you got woken up in the middle of the night, blindfolded, frisked to ensure you had nothing on you other than an ID card, bundled into a car … and dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Your task was to be back in camp in time for the daily conditional at 7am, avoiding any human contact.

This part of Southern Bohemia was covered by beautiful deep forests, where deer and wild boar roamed. To say it was underpopulated would be to imply that somebody lived there. With just a few kilometres separating us from the 'depraved’ West, the only vehicles on the roads at night were the military and the police, and there were plenty of them, for those were tense times when the Wicked Witch and the Evil Thespian plotted bad things. To be delivered to the camp in the back of a police car would have been the ultimate failure and shame (not to mention a lot of awkward explaining).

Once the sound of the engine died down and you took of the blindfold (for those were the rules), you could be sure there wouldn’t be the slightest glimmer of artificial light, and you would have no idea where you were, the lads who dropped you off made sure of that with great dedication and pride. But you knew you were long way away from the camp, you would count yourself lucky if you ended up walking less than 20k by the morning.

The game generated its own lore passed down the 'generations’, stories of boys climbing trees like Hans of Hans and Gretle, boys walking for hours at brisk pace in the wrong direction, boys hiding in stinky ditches from passing cars, boys taking till lunch to return. Lore, nostalgia, and H&S aside, it occurred to me recently that after that first time of finding my way back through the spooky forest, I never again felt threatened by being lost. The game taught me that in these micro-wildernesses of ours, the 'problem’ of being lost can always be solved by walking for a few hours, and if worst comes to worst, for a few hours more.

It seems to me that nowadays we put lot of emphasis on location accuracy, while the biggest threats in the outdoors, come, I think, from not being prepared (physically, mentally, equipment-wise) for the environment we venture into. Sure, walking of a cliff is a problem, but it is not one that the GPS magically solves, the accuracy is not that good, and neither is the accuracy of the maps we use to program our routes.

Over the years I have found the most important navigation skill to be, for my needs at least, the ability to read terrain, to be able to judge how far things are, how tall, how fast I am likely to be able to move forward, upward, downward, backward. Different plants like different things, it is often possible to make an educated guess about what ground lies ahead from the colour of the vegetation, and suddenly venturing off a beaten track is less of a gamble. In Scotland being able to identify Sitka at a distance can save hours of time and ton of effort; not all rock is made equal, especially when wet, etc.

When the ability to read terrain is combined with an ability to read a map, much of day to day navigation can be done without any other tools, at least in good visibility. That is not to say I don’t need a compass – compass is my lifeline, especially in a place like Scotland, where poor visibility is common, dare I say, even the norm. (If it was up to me, I would make proficiency with map and compass part of the Scottish school curriculum!) But what I think makes the biggest difference to my safety is situational awareness, which becomes progressively more critical as conditions grow more 'awkward’ – being spot on the planned route will do me f*** all good if that spot is a loaded snow slope about to avalanche – and situational awareness comes from paying attention to my surroundings, here and now, and over days, weeks, years.

Long time ago the philosopher Michael Polanyi coined the expression personal knowledge to describe type of knowledge that can only be acquired first hand. A simple example is 'pain’; it is not possible to teach someone what pain is, that knowledge can only be acquired by undergoing pain first hand. I think situational awareness is also a type of personal knowledge, we can teach people about terrain and hazards, and we can point out specific hazards, and techniques for dealing with them, but we cannot make them aware on an ongoing basis in a constantly changing environment; that requires first hand personal knowledge which builds up over time from first hand exposure to the 'out there’.

And here lies my problem with the GPS. Being little lost all the time is a way to learn to 'find’ myself, it forces me to keep working out where I am, and, through the process of trial and error, I get better at it, and, while I am doing so, I become more acutely aware of my surroundings. Navigation becomes an instinctive, ongoing, nearly subconscious state, rather than an occasional, discreet, disjointed activity – when I rely on GPS for day to day navigation, I am depriving myself of learning opportunities, not developing my more rudimentary navigation skills, which, nevertheless, remain critical, because gadgets get broken or lost, batteries run out, signals get disrupted, etc.

It is tempting to think that I might, in fact, use that accurate information at my fingertips to learn inversely from it to achieve the same, i.e., that I can test my independent judgement against that referential knowledge. But in my personal experience at least this simply doesn’t work. If I tell my brain 'you are here, where did you think you were?’ it will invariably answer, 'I knew that, of course’, but if I make it commit itself before hand, it will often be wrong, at which point I start analysing why it was wrong, so I can be right the next time.

So, does it make me safer? I think that is, in fact, a wrong question to ask. There are many things that, viewed on their own, make me safer; if I were to bring with me all the things that can make me safer, I’d need a caravan of Sherpas to accompany me each time I head for the hills. The questions that need to be asked instead are 'by what margin does it improve my safety?’ and 'how good investment to improve the safety margin is it?’.

I have an inkling that when it comes to the GPS, the answers might well be 'small’ and 'not the best’ respectively. As long as I still have to be able to navigate competently when the batteries run out, then the gain is convenience, rather than safety margin. And in that case, would the same money spent on better waterproofs / boots / sleeping bag, or a course on using map and compass, not, in fact, provide a greater improvement to my safety margin?

So, I can’t help to see the GPS as a convenience rather than a significant safety investment. But convenience is a funny thing. The old fashioned compass is a very simple device, it has no buttons, no menus, easy to operate in thick gloves. And in high stress situations simplicity greatly improves safety margins. I was given a poignant lesson on this a few years back, on an ugly winter day, needing to navigate off the Ben Nevis summit, in zero visibility, fast. I had my GPS, with the 'escape route’ programmed in, but when it came to it, the speed and accuracy with which my mate Bob was able to do this using a compass made it no contest. (Shortly after that the GPS got relegated to a shelf, and it’s been there ever since; every so often I come across some trade-in offer, but then I think, what’s the point?)

I am also under no illusion that there are significant commercial pressures at play. Safety sells; safety products have naturally bigger profit margins. It is in the interest of the industry to make the GPS about safety. But when it comes to gadgets, I expect there are ones that score higher on the safety margin improvement scale. Why, for example, are we, in Scotland, not talking more about avalanche transceivers? There is a gadget with a proven track record (but with a smaller market …).

And so, I am back where I started; to me the GPS is little more than a way of sharing and following tracks, and at the end of the day, I don’t want to turn into a haulier, I like being lost, a little bit at a time.