By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
California, with its millions of acres of wilderness, has always offered rich respite to the hardy few determined to ”get away from it all“ and willing to put up with the countervailing inconveniences and discomforts of doing so. Thanks to technology (think feather-light rainwear and tents, palatable freeze-dried provisions and the like), the inconveniences and discomforts have dwindled to the point that outdoor adventure is no longer reserved for the hardy or the few -- with the unfortunate consequence that backpackers (never mind SUVers, motorbikers and snowmobilers) may soon pose as big a threat to the environment as loggers.
In just the last year or so, technology’s impact on trekking has leapfrogged the mere streamlining of the traditional camping kit. Nowhere is the trend hotter than in the craze for electronic location and navigation devices. For early adopters, May 2 was a red-letter day. That‘s when President Clinton instructed the Department of Defense to cease scrambling the signals broadcast by the Air Force’s network of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, allowing their use by civilians with suitable receivers to ascertain their own location anywhere on the face of the Earth to within an uncertainty of 5 to 10 feet. Since suitable receivers now run as low as $100 and take up little more room than a PalmPilot, small wonder that GPS devices are becoming standard gear in the well-equipped backpack.
So lively is the market for GPS gadgets that manufacturers are racing to beat the competition on the more-bells-and-whistles front. In addition to the backlit liquid-crystal screens showing your precise location (in any of half a dozen formats), many models also provide a satellite-configuration display, a more or less accurate electronic compass, a serviceable a altimeter and programmable route-planning-and-execution information. So complete are the services offered the outdoor navigator, in fact, that many people fail to regard the warnings and disclaimers that accompany them.
GPS devices work by comparing endless identical, meticulously self-synchronized streams of digits broadcast by the system‘s 24 satellites, at least four of which are always above the horizon anywhere on Earth as they circle in their overlapping pole-to-pole orbits. Since your receiver ”knows“ that the signals it is picking up left the originating satellites at exactly the same time, it also knows that when it picks up the signal from Satellite B x microseconds later than the one from Satellite A, Satellite B is x-microseconds-times-the-speed-of-light farther away. With signals from just three satellites, the receiver’s dedicated chip can calculate latitude and longitude position in a trice; with a fourth satellite in range, it can make a pretty good stab (within 100 feet or so) at your altitude as well.
”In range“: There‘s the catch. Like all low-intensity radio waves, GPS signals are easily obstructed, for example by tall trees beside a narrow trail or the steep rock walls of a gully. Bad weather is rarely a problem -- GPS is at its most useful in the middle of a blinding blizzard -- but buildings can be, and if you expect to use your receiver in your car, be sure to buy one with an external antenna.
There are other catches. Like batteries, for example. If you don’t have spares when you need them, your multitalented hiking companion is no help at all. In addition, GPS receivers are reasonably sturdy, but serious hiking can be a high-impact activity. Your receiver is safe enough wrapped in a spare pair of long johns in your pack, but it‘s also not much use to you there.
How useful is it even when it’s up and working? That depends on your terrain. If you‘re crossing the Gobi Desert or the Antarctic ice cap, where landmarks and obstructions are few and far between, navigation by GPS is the best option. At the other extreme -- and the best hiking generally is at the opposite extreme -- GPS information is of dubious assistance. Knowing to the yard exactly where on Earth you are isn’t much use when your immediate problem is figuring out a way across a devil‘s club--choked gully when you’re already waist-deep in slippery salal and slide alder.
But the real downside of owning a GPS system lies more in the operations realm. Read the brochure in the box your unit came in -- and be honest now, how many of us do? -- and you‘re sure to find a clear and plainly stated warning: Mere ownership of a GPS is not a substitute for possessing the basic skills of traditional outdoor survival. With a map and a compass and the ability to use them under real field conditions, a GPS receiver can be a great accessory; without them it’s an invitation to disaster.
Aha, you say, I‘ve already thought of that: When I go hiking, I’m taking not just a GPS unit but a cell phone, so that if I run into trouble, I can report my exact location to the search-and-rescue team. Well, okay, I reply, have it your way: But you could get the same information from a map. And just keep in mind, the more wilderness surrounding you, the more likely your cells will fail you.