Are We Too Reliant On Our Phones’ Map Apps?

Hikers face a serious conundrum

Google Maps
Google map application displaying COVID-19 restrictions along your route on a smartphone in Arlington, Virginia on June 9, 2020.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, having a GPS built in to your car or truck seemed like the height of luxury. Now, the same feat can be accomplished via putting your smartphone in a holder, plugging it in and inputting your destination. Something similar is true for navigating walking trails — relying on your phone for maps can seem easier than, say, carrying a selection of maps and trying to figure out where exactly you are on a particular hill or mountain.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. But a growing number of voices are raising an alarm over map apps, and suggesting that some of the routes they may point travelers on can be hazardous — or worse.

Earlier this month, a number of outdoors groups in and around Scotland pointed out issues with some of the directions Google Maps provided hikers going up Ben Nevis, the country’s tallest mountain. And it turns out that this isn’t the only instance where mapping apps have literally led people astray. Writing at The New York Times, Alyssa Lukpat explored issues hikers have experienced on treacherous trails in both Scotland and New Hampshire — and spoke with the organizations working to prevent such catastrophes from happening in the future.

Wesley Trimble of the American Hiking Society neatly summarized the issue at hand. “A lot of information on the internet is crowdsourced, so there isn’t necessarily any input from land managers or parks or trail organizations,” he told the Times.

That crowdsourcing can also work to rectify some of these issues — organizations can utilize Google’s Geo Data Upload tool, for instance. But the issues covered in these recent articles might serve as a reminder of having an analog backup — and having a sense of the terrain you’re going to try to cross before you get there.

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