For inexperienced hikers, a smartphone is a multi-tool: a flashlight, emergency beacon and GPS, all in one. However, experts say that pedestrians relying solely on their phones when going into the wilderness could be misleading advice and could be life-threatening.
Online maps and apps have disoriented hikers on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Scotland, climbers are warning visitors that Google Maps could direct them towards “potentially fatal” trails that force them to overcome cliffs and steep, rocky terrain.
Some visitors have recently relied on Google Maps to reach the summit of Ben Nevis, the 4,500-foot mountain, according to a joint statement Thursday from Mountaineering Scotland, a climbing organization, and the John Muir Trust, a charity. Nature conservation areas in England.
Ben Nevis, a popular but dangerous climbing spot in the Scottish Highlands about 70 miles northwest of Glasgow, is the highest peak in Britain.
If hikers follow Google’s directions to the parking lot closest to the summit, the map will show them a direct route up the mountain. Heather Morning, climbing safety advisor to the Scottish Climbing Foundation, says even experienced climbers will struggle with that path.
“In good sight, it will be a challenge,” Ms. Morning said. “Add in some clouds and rain and the line Google suggests is potentially fatal.”
The trouble is, while smartphones have made many activities easier, from hailing a ride to ordering takeout, the devices have complicated things for some hikers, people don’t realize that they will need more than the phone.
The Scottish Climbing Foundation reports that a number of Scottish residents have been injured recently after following hiking routes they found online. Ben Nevis has been the site of several deaths in recent years, including a 24-year-old woman last month and three men in 2019.
The hikers’ warning comes as hikers flock to the outdoors and on trails during the coronavirus pandemic. While hiking in itself is a safe, non-social endeavor, injury has become an issue as more and more people hit the trails.
Ben Nevis isn’t the only mountain hikers have trouble with. In New Hampshire, the mountain rescue says they have saved many people who were ill-equipped for their outing.
Sgt says hikers who get lost in the White Mountains will call the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department at least once a week in the summer. Alex Lopashanski, a conservation officer for the department.
“They try to follow a trail on their phone that will take them into the woods, and they are so lost,” he said.
These hikers can’t tell where they are because their screens are much smaller than paper maps, said Sergeant Lopashanski. If officers are unable to guide them back to the trail by phone, it could take several hours for rescuers to find them.
Further complicating factors include wandering into remote areas with no cellular service or devices that run out of power, rendering them useless to summon help.
Rescue agencies are involved if pedestrians are in danger. Rick Wilcox, a member of the Mountain Rescue Service in New Hampshire, said many of the people he saves don’t have maps or compasses.
“People think a magic cell phone is all they need and they go, ‘Let me check Google,’” Mr. Wilcox said, “and that is where they are wrong. “
Wesley Trimble, a spokesman for the American Hiking Association, said he was concerned about people using the app to follow routes not approved by experts.
“A lot of the information on the internet is sourced from the community, so there isn’t necessarily any input from land managers, parks or trail organizations,” he said.
In Scotland, authorities recommend bringing a paper map and compass to Ben Nevis, even if you’re on beginner trails.
For those willing to tackle the mountain’s icy terrain, steep climbs, and poor visibility, it’s an eight-hour round trip from the visitor center. But if hikers follow Google Maps to the suggested starting point, their journey will be much more difficult.
The John Muir Trust has posted signs in the area to guide inexperienced climbers to the visitor center, but people often ignore these posts, a spokesman for the charity said.
In a statement, a Google spokeswoman said the dotted line on the map from the parking lot to the top of the mountain is to indicate the distance to the top, not a walkable trail.
“Our driving directions now direct people to the Nevis Gorge trailhead parking lot – the parking closest to the summit – where prominent signs indicate the trail is dangerous.” the statement said.
Despite that, the company says users will now be directed to the mountain’s visitor center instead of the parking lot. A Google spokesperson said the company is looking at other routes near Ben Nevis.
The company says organizations can update mapping information using Google’s Geodata Upload tool. Users can report issues directly to Google.