Don’t Rely on Your GPS

The other day, a friend was coming to my house so we could go hiking. I gave her the address, but warned her that some GPS units and phones like to take people on a dirt access road behind my house and told her to follow my directions. She ended up on the dirt road behind my house with her GPS unit chiming, “You have arrived.”

I’m morbidly fascinated with dumb GPS mistakes. Lately there have been an influx of deaths (many in Death Valley, of course) of people blindly following their GPS units or Siri's voice onto dangerous dirt roads, into lakes and mud holes and nearly off the sides of cliffs. GPS is a wonderful tool, but just like any tool (that can break) don’t rely solely on it if you are traveling in unfamiliar locations.

If you have a medical question, you usually don’t go with one source or one piece of advice. You ask several medical experts, do some of your own research and maybe read some books or articles. Do the same when you are traveling. If you have to get to a specific location, use several sources and compare how the information is given to you.

1. Google Maps and Google Earth:

Before you leave on your trip, use Google Maps to see the various routes that you can take to your destination. Another problem with relying on a GPS is that you blindly follow one route (usually the shortest, but not always the best) without knowing what else is around. 

I’ve met people who have become so reliant on their GPS that they don’t even know how to read a map anymore. They don’t know which way is north, south, east and west and they don’t recognize the difference between a secondary road and topographic line.

Google Maps at least allows you get a feeling for directions, time, surrounding terrain and various obstacles. It shows you nearby towns, services and other attractions. The 3D options of Google Earth shows road types, canyons, mountains and tall buildings that don’t translate well to paper or GPS.

2. Paper Maps: 

Since some remote areas are not always mapped by GPS, always take a paper map of your desired location. Some of the best maps are the Rand McNally Road Atlas, Benchmarks Maps & Atlases and specific trail and park maps offered by REI. I’m a paper map junkie and love to pore over them before, during and after a trip. I love to see where we are going and what we will see and experience on the way to and from our destination. A GPS can’t give you that holistic satisfaction.

The best thing about paper? You can write all over it. Mark your location, any special notes or issues you have noticed on Google Maps.

3. Ask the locals: 

No matter if you are going to New York City or Oatmeal, Texas, there will be a local who knows more about the area than you do. Ask for directions and about attractions from cops, coffee shop owners, grocery clerks, librarians, RV hosts and adventurous teens. You might make a new friend and won’t have to contend with Siri’s annoying voice for miles of unending dirt roads.


  1. Another service to use is MapQuest. They generally give you a choice of routes (frequently they are: quickest, shortest, or simplest). And if you aren't satisfied with any of those, you can generally pick a point in the middle of the route and move it over and MapQuest will snap to an alternate route. And once you have settled on a route, you can print out directions, including both route map and optional turn-by-turn maps, or you can send yourself a text.

    But you know what I really like to do when I am traveling a route to a destination that I frequent (and I'm not in any hurry)? Turn my GPS off and deliberately make a wrong turn and then see if I can find my way back to my route, without making a U turn. (If at some point I decide I'm truly lost, I turn my GPS back on.) I see a lot of interesting things that way.

  2. Thanks John. Yes! MapQuest is another excellent resource. I'm always thinking of being in the middle of nowhere and MapQuest has not been the best indicator of locations "out there."

    Another fun GPS test I've seen is to take a cab, Uber or Lyft and see what route they take since they tend to rely heavily on GPS.

  3. Read an article some years back in a computer magazine (when they were still being printed) of a GPS SNAFU when the tech was still in its infancy. One could surmise it still is.

    An American couple rented a Mercedes Benz that was equipped with the then new GPS tech when visiting Germany. They set their course, and off they went. It was night time, the route taking them over a river. Come to find out, it wasn't a bridge, but a ferry crossing that was closed for the night. They went right over the landing and into the river. Fortunately, they were OK.

    I also have gone on wild goose chases with my Garmin. I've learned to rely on maps first to learn the lay of the land, and then to plot my coordinates.