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Tam McTavish | 05.30.2019

Every time I hop in the car with my sister, we seem to have the same argument as she reaches for the navigation system.

"You can't keep complaining about your bad sense of direction if you only ever use GPS!" I remind her while she rolls her eyes.

Sense of direction is not innate. It's a skill. And it's at risk.

Recent studies show a worrying trend that should be known in the outdoor community: Relying too much on technology for navigation is actually harmful to our abilities.

A part of our brain called the hippocampus is responsible for our spatial reasoning, and it helps us build mental maps in our heads as we interact with places. These maps allows us to understand where we are in relation to other objects. In the outdoors, we use the peaks and valleys to build a concept of distance, so we actually have an answer to the age-old question: How much farther to the top?


Don't let this be you. Research shows that those who navigate by GPS risk early senility. Tam McTavish.

Research shows that you use it or lose it. The hippocampus size and activity of London taxi drivers are far above average, and researchers link this to jobs that regularly require them to navigate by memory. In fact, as they advance in their careers, the hippocampus "grows" and demonstrates more activity. On the other hand, research on the Inuit in northern Canada has shown that the same networks in the brain decline without use. Where elders can still navigate through whiteouts without assistance, their offspring show less aptitude when their electronics fail. The GPS "turns off" the hippocampus when we use it to navigate.

So what does this all mean?

We all use GPS devices at some point. They are considered by most to be an essential part of any well-prepared outdoor adventure kit. But they present a serious risk.

While exploring the Trotternish Ridge on the Isle of Skye, I found myself in a total whiteout. There was no path out, so I took out my trusty Garmin eTrex and began to follow the trail I had downloaded. The moment I did, the mental image of the peak I had was pushed quietly out of my mind. I was focused on following the arrow. Finding myself on a very steep section of wet slippery grass, I started to wonder where I was going. Suddenly, the clouds lifted, and not 20 meters below me was a huge sheer cliff.

The clouds appeared to interfere with the GPS, but that wasn't the real problem: I used the GPS to tell me where to go, not to inform me on where I was.

GPS is most useful when paired with a map and compass. Physical paper maps don't interrupt the mental map building, they give it the fuel it needs. But if you use them to guide each step, you risk losing your mental map.

GPS can be incredibly useful to help improve your sense of where you are. But as a backcountry navigation instructor from Glenmore Lodge once told me, "GPS only ever counts for three of the five reasons you should have to confirm your location." I like to use a "GPS-Lite" option, like Inreach or GPS watches, that just give me the coordinates, which I verify on a map.

This way I get the accuracy without the risk of death.

What do you use in the backcountry? Drop us a note in the comments section.


Didn’t your GPS have contour lines or were you just not paying attention to them?
Great article! I notice this phenomenon all the time, even with myself when I use GPS only occasionally to navigate while driving, it's like running with blinders on. Personally, I don't use any type of GPS device to navigate outdoors. The few times I ever have, it's been with friends who have a device/program that we've decided to use for one particular reason or another, but we've always had a printed map to use along with it. I know that digital maps and devices are getting better all the time, so maybe I should consider using them, but to be honest I just don't see the need in most situations, when learned sense of direction is usually sufficient.
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