Friday, September 25, 2009

Why the GPS Hate?

The GPS is on prohibited gear lists at virtually every adventure race around the world. Why? In the near future, race directors are going to have to reconsider their position on the tool. Just recently I participated in Race the Phantom in Dalhousie, NB and as usual, a cell phone was on the required gear list. There was a small problem with that... I have an iPhone, so does one of my teammates, and the other has a Blackberry. Both the Blackberry and the iPhone have GPS capabilities. Expecting us to beg, borrow or steal another cell phone for an adventure race is a bit much! Fortunately the race directors were reasonable and took our word on that we wouldn't use them.

My iPhone is a more powerful computer than the one I used at my first job... and I'm not that old! It's GPS functions are also significantly more capable than my Garmin eTrex Legend. Cell phone technology is advancing faster than Jodi Isenor and Mark Campbell and soon every cell phone will be a GPS and thus an illegal item on adventure races.

But even if there wasn't the minor inconvenience of finding a stone-age cell phone to race with, the GPS should still be allowed on adventure races. What are we afraid of? Triathletes with handhelds coming and winning all of our races? It's not likely to happen. Case and point: go to a GPS for beginners and see how the 'navigators' do. Or save yourself the trouble and take my word for it, they don't do well.

It's my theory that a truly skilled navigator won't have any significant advantage with a GPS, admittedly with the exception of pacing distances. With novice navigators, it's been my experience that the GPS is more of a nuisance than anything! Racers waste too much precious time trying to figure out how to use the things! With the intermediate navigator, for every advantage the GPS delivers, there are just as many disadvantages. I have hosted many races in Woolastook Park, NB and I have allowed GPS units for them. I thoroughly enjoy hearing about racers running through the park with map and compass in their pocket relying only on the GPS when all of a sudden their handheld unit starts asking them to find a satellite or three... which is a difficult feat on the side of some of those shear slopes! Then they pull out their maps to find a labyrinth of trails that will take them a while to solve.

I appreciate that on orienteering intensive courses the GPS may be somewhat of a deus ex machina. What I would suggest is to eliminate coordinates from the map so that hands on mapping skills will still be employed to determine a course of action, rather than punching numbers into a device.

So what do you say adventure racers? I say free the GPS!