Recalculating... Don't Trust Your GPS


Technology Is Not Always Fool-Proof

Today, it is second nature to look toward a scientific authority as the source of truth, whether that authority is a textbook, a professor, Google or a GPS. The couple that got lost in Nevada represents this kind of trust at its most intense.

"These are the most extreme cases, where people have ascribed so much faith in the advice given by the GPS navigation system that they're willing to completely ignore all other warning signs and other sensory inputs and just trust blindly in these things," Stearns said. "They are treating the navigation system as an ultimate authority, something that is infallible."

Like nuclear power plants and other promising technologies, however, GPS units can and do fail their users, sometimes leading to disaster.

The pattern has parallels in religious settings, Stearns said. He offered the example of a rock-star pastor, who convinces his followers that God is always good and loving, only to be devastated by a natural disaster that kills thousands of people.

"Those who treat the leader as an absolute authority will rationalize away the evidence before them to maintain the truth from on-high," he said. "Others will realize that perhaps the authority doesn't really know everything, and that they should seek other sources of knowledge."

Using multiple navigation strategies is always a good idea in wilderness settings, Borrie said. As useful as GPS devices can be, plenty can go wrong. They can run out of batteries. They can't always connect with satellites, especially if you are in a deep-sided gully. And they don't always recommend the most sensible paths through forested areas. Even in places with roads, software is often not updated, and maps change all the time.

Before plunging into the backcountry, Borrie recommended, the best thing people can do is to build wilderness experience and solidify navigation skills.

"Never trust your GPS," he said. "Always question it."

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