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Are you safer with technology?

Britain’s fells, moors and mountains may not be the highest or most remote in the world, but they can still catch you unawares. With all the technology available today, it’s easy to be less wary than when equipment was more basic. If there is the possibility of getting really truly wet and cold in a blizzard or really truly lost in a white-out, you tend to take the weather forecast more seriously and to plan your exit routes more assiduously. But when you can sheath yourself in the same brightly coloured, high performance gear that mountaineers use to tackle Everest, and have your mobile, electronic compass and GPS in hand, it is easy to lulled into thinking that nothing can go wrong.

Well, of course, it can. Indeed many traditionalists would argue that the technology engenders a laziness that is, in itself, highly dangerous. Rather like the phenomenon of ‘radar-assisted collision’ at sea – where two ships that would otherwise have sailed quietly past are driven together by operators misinterpreting their radar screens – the ‘safety devices’ now available to walkers can actually render them less safe. There are plenty of stories of people venturing out into hostile areas with utterly inadequate experience, simply because they have a mobile phone. And now GPS can tell you exactly where you are, whenever you want to know, there’s no prospect of getting stuck on a mountainside - right?

Actually it’s easy to come over all Luddite about technology and hanker after the good old days, when you had to figure your way out of sticky situations while icy cold water trickled down the back of your neck. It may have been character-forming and it may have helped to hone your navigation skills but it wasn’t actually safer. Better outdoor clothing has made going out onto the fells a much pleasanter and less risky exercise, and no-one in their right mind would want to turn the clock back. It is not the technology itself that is the problem but the risk of not exercising due caution. If you have a mobile phone it’s daft not to take it up the mountain with you – just don’t expect there to be a signal.

GPS units were a fantastic boon to recreational sailors when they arrived in the 90s. Earlier positioning aids, like Decca, were difficult to use and even more difficult to trust. The advent of GPS, which could consistently tell you where you were within a few hundred metres, made navigating in open sea a much easier task. GPS stands for Global Positioning System. A GPS unit basically uses electronics and trigonometry to calculate your position co-ordinates by receiving signals from orbiting satellites. The great thing is that unlike mobile phones once you’ve bought your GPS there’s no monthly subscription or usage charges – you can use it wherever you want, for as long as you want, for free. Out at sea, with no object in sight apart from, well, sea, it is genuinely comforting to have an accurate position. Even so, arguments still rage over whether all sailors should learn to navigate by the stars. Quite rightly in many ways, as batteries have a habit of running out and electrical equipment isn’t 100% reliable, especially when mixed with salt water.

Now that GPS units can give you a fix down to a just few metres, and have shrunk in size and weight, they are increasingly attractive as safety devices on land. The cost is plummeting and it is, perhaps, getting to the point where it simply makes sense to pop one in your sack when going into remote terrain. The more sophisticated units will do all sorts of clever things, from storing routes and showing tracks to displaying your position on an onscreen map, but the primary purpose must always be to tell you where you are. That ability, combined with your mobile phone, might just prove a life-saver if you break your leg on some remote Scottish peak (always assuming you can get some mobile reception, of course). Elsewhere GPS can be maddeningly unhelpful; one of the hardest places to navigate by any means is in dense wood or forest –the terrestrial version of open sea. With the satellites blocked by trees, GPS units often go blank there. The moral, as with mobile phones, is that GPS is fine to have, but not to be relied upon.

This brings us to all that software you can run on your PC before you venture out. Many mapping applications, like GPS, have their roots in marine charting. Memory-Map software, for instance, grew up as a charting system and has branched out into terrestrial use using ground mapping sourced from the Ordnance Survey and others. What this software brings is more precise planning of your routes, with easy calculation of distances and height gained. You can also have a ready export of your route to a suitably equipped GPS. Does this enhance safety? Yes, in many ways it can, if only because it takes away the guesswork involved in planning a route. Many a hill walker will have had the experience of utterly underestimating the time needed for a route, setting out in a fit of heady enthusiasm and struggling to get back safely in daylight. A quick map of the route in a piece of software and your delusions can be dispelled! 

Digital mapping software offers other advantages, especially to those who find interpreting the contours of a map difficult. By combining the map with height data from Ordnance Survey, the software will show the shape of the land, graphically illustrating the ‘ups and downs’ that must be negotiated. More importantly, a 3-dimensional view can give a much clearer picture of possible exit routes; ways off the hill that can be taken if time runs short or the weather deteriorates.

At the lower-tech end of mapping technology, one of the great innovations of the past few years has been waterproof encapsulation of Ordnance Survey maps. Earlier versions tended to be bulky and heavy. Our favourites now are those produced by Aqua3, which are lightweight, completely waterproof and almost impossible to destroy. OK, it’s not electronic and it won’t beep at you if you stray off course, but having a paper map that won’t fall apart is a definite safety bonus.

So there’s plenty of technology, high and low, to help you on your way. Now all that’s needed is an infallible human mind….

David Stewart