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!


  1. Interesting. I think that allowing GPS devices would compress the difference between skilled and intermediate navigators in adventure racing. The main advantage of a GPS is that you always know where you are. You can lose a lot of time in an adventure race if you don't keep a close eye on your location. With a GPS, intermediate navigators would more easily keep track of position and correct such errors much more quickly. (Skilled navigators already do that without the GPS; that's one thing that makes them skilled navigators.) So navigation would become relatively less important, and elements such as fitness and route selection more important. Adventure racing would be different, but since my fitness is superior to my navigational ability, I wouldn't necessarily view it as worse.

  2. Your point is the only scenario that makes me hesitate with my somewhat radical position. You're quite right that the intermediate navigator will likely see the most advantage.

    Even still, they will see no advantage if they don't know how to use the GPS. And arguably the GPS is harder to learn than a compass! (Perhaps, harder to learn but easier to master.)

    I see the GPS as a tool, and the tool's usefulness is proportional to the operator's skill / experience.

    And I also believe that the use of a GPS is very time consuming, and still unreliable in many circumstances.

  3. I say leave it behind - one more thing with batteries that you'd feel obligated to carry around with you on a race.

    PS - can a gps unit display your position in UTMs? I'm pretty sure my etrex can't, but it's quite old.

  4. A GPS can display your current position in UTMs or DD.DDDD, DD MM.MMM, DD MM SS or many other formats. UTMs are actually less than ideal since you need to know your map's location number in order to use them. any eTrex I've used can display UTMs.

    Another reason why the GPS isn't reliable... batteries!

  5. The only things I would use a GPS for is to get my current UTM so that I could plot it on the map to determine my whereabouts and measuring distance travelled. I think if you take the UTM grid off the printed map then there is very little advantage if any of having a GPS...I think it is worth a try...

  6. I guess I'll have to play around with the old etrex.

    The reason I asked about UTMs is reflected in Nat's comment: If you're lost, you can locate your position on a map (with a UTM grid) in a hurry with a gps, instead of wandering around trying to find points of reference. I think that would greatly equalize the field in an adventure race. I recall a certain team taking close to 12hours searching for a checkpoint at untamed - imagine if a gps had been available to check location on the map - I suspect very little time would have been lost.

  7. Interesting you bring up that control Nick, because it's one place where having a GPS would have likely saved us 10 hours! Though again, it would have saved everyone time.

    But I wouldn't have worried about UTMs at that point, if I had any kind of basemap on my GPS or if I used one of the several dozen GPS features on my iPhone then I would have seen that we were on the wrong hill.

    Having coordinate info on your map isn't necessary to use a GPS effectively though. All you need is a known point where you can take a way point. Then on your map you can take a bearing and a distance to your destination and project a waypoint on your GPS from the waypoint you took at that known location.

    That strategy only works if you know where you are though!

  8. nice burn nick...I also think that allowing a GPS doesn't necessarily mean all the navigation problems are removed. Remember the windmill farm in RTP09? Pretend that we gave teams a map with none of the new roads/trails but instead gave you a GPS and the stock map. Based on experience, it is still quite a challenge to navigate that area with a GPS as we discovered when we scoped out the area during our planning.

  9. That's an interesting concept Nat! We've certainly got outdated maps in these here parts.

    Though at the time of the 12 hr goof I'm pretty sure we'd have tried to call for pizza with the GPS as opposed to use it to figure out where we were!