Smartphone directions may put novice hikers in danger, say experts

Apps and online maps have disoriented hikers on both sides of the Atlantic. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON (NYTIMES) - For inexperienced hikers, smartphones are a multipurpose tool: a torchlight, an emergency beacon and a GPS, all in one device. But it can be ill-advised, and possibly life-threatening, for hikers to rely solely on their phones as they head into the wilderness, experts say.

Apps and online maps have disoriented hikers on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Scotland, mountaineers are warning visitors that Google Maps may direct them towards "potentially fatal" trails that would force them to trek over cliffs and rocky, steep terrain.

A number of visitors recently have relied on Google Maps to reach the summit of Ben Nevis, a 4,500-foot (1,372m) mountain, according to a joint statement last Thursday (July 15) from Mountaineering Scotland, a climbing organisation, and the John Muir Trust, a charity that maintains natural areas in Britain.

Ben Nevis, a popular but dangerous climbing spot in the Scottish Highlands about 70 miles (113km) northwest of Glasgow, is the highest peak in Britain.

If hikers follow Google's directions to the parking lot nearest the summit, the map points them to a route straight up the mountain. Even experienced climbers would struggle up that path, Ms Heather Morning, a mountain safety adviser for Mountaineering Scotland, said in the statement.

"In good visibility it would be challenging. Add in low cloud and rain and the suggested Google line is potentially fatal," Ms Morning said.

The trouble is that, while smartphones have made a lot of activities easier, from hailing a car to ordering takeout, the devices have complicated things for some hikers who fail to realise they will need much more than their phones.

Mountaineering Scotland reported that a number of people in the country have been injured recently after following hiking routes they found online. Ben Nevis has been the site of a number of deaths in recent years, including a 24-year-old woman last month and three men in 2019.

The mountaineers' warning comes as hikers have flocked to the outdoors and trails during the coronavirus pandemic. While hiking itself is a safe, socially distanced endeavour, injuries have become an issue as more people hit the trails.

Ben Nevis is not the only mountain where hikers have run into trouble. In New Hampshire, mountain rescuers said they have saved many people who were ill-equipped for their outings.

At least once a week in the summer, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department gets a call from hikers who have lost their way in the White Mountains, said Mr Alex Lopashanski, a conservation officer for the department.

"They try to follow a trail on their phone, which takes them into the woods, and they get themselves so lost," he said.

These hikers cannot tell where they are because their screens are much smaller than paper maps, Mr Lopashanski said. If officers are unable to direct them back to a trail over the phone, it may take several hours for rescuers to find them.

Further complicating factors include wandering into remote areas without mobile phone service or the devices running out of power, rendering them useless to summon help.

Rescue agencies join the operation if the hikers are in danger.

Mr Rick Wilcox, a member of the Mountain Rescue Service in New Hampshire, said many of the people he saves do not have a map or a compass.

"People think a magic cellphone is all they need and they go, 'Let me check Google', and that's where they go wrong," " Mr Wilcox said.

Mr Wesley Trimble, a spokesman for the American Hiking Society, said he was concerned about people using apps to follow routes that are not approved by experts.

"A lot of information on the internet is crowdsourced, so there isn't necessarily any input from land managers or parks or trail organisations," he said.

In Scotland, authorities recommend that visitors bring a paper map and a compass to Ben Nevis, even on the novice trails.

For those willing to brave the mountain's icy terrain, steep climbs and poor visibility, it is an eight-hour round trip to the summit from the visitor centre. But if hikers follow Google Maps to its recommended starting point, their journey will be far more treacherous.

The John Muir Trust posted signs in the area to direct inexperienced climbers to the visitor centre, but people often ignore these postings, a spokesman for the charity said.

In a statement, a Google spokesman said the map's dotted line from the parking lot to the summit is meant to indicate the distance to the top, not a walkable trail.

"Our driving directions currently route people to the Nevis Gorge trailhead parking lot - the lot closest to the summit - which has prominent signs indicating that the trail is highly dangerous," the statement said.

Regardless, the company said users will now be directed to the mountain's visitor centre instead of the parking lot. The Google spokesman said the company was reviewing its other routes near Ben Nevis.

Organisations can update mapping information using Google's Geo Data Upload tool, the company said, and users can report issues directly to Google.

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