There is no doubt that electronic aids to navigation, such as GPS and altimeters are very useful and can help in events. Of course a degree of skill is required to use these devices. Some electronic devices used to measure altitude have to be calibrated often, due to changes in barometric pressure. There are various types of GPS device, both in form factor and function.
In terms of form factor, there are dedicated hand-held GPS devices priced from as little as £50. These devices often have a small screen, often show a grid reference, or a longitude/latitude, and sometimes posses the ability to load a preconfigured route in the form of a GPX file, that can be followed. These devices are battery-powered, typically with AA batteries, and so if they run out they can be replaced immediately. This can be advantageous versus devices that require recharge as there are few recharging points in the wilderness!
More sophisticated devices have a colour screen, and can show either topographical maps, or even Ordnance Survey maps (UK). Typically a GPS route is loaded onto the device and followed. Sometimes an arrow indicates the direction of travel, but more often a simple target or cross-hair shows the current GPS location on the map, which still requires the user to have a good sense of direction and be able to “read” the map.
Historically, PDAs could perform this function but smartphones have taken their place in the modern market, and now there are numerous map applications with as the OS Map app, Memory Map, Viewranger and numerous others that are deployed on phones to aid with navigation. Smartphones are now one of the most common used navigational aids seen on mountains. While this sounds like a fantastic innovation, the danger of going into remote areas armed only with a smartphone should ring alarm bells for most. Smartphones are not always waterproof, and heavy use of the screen and GPS causes the batteries to run out in a matter of hours in some cases.
A typical day out in the hills might be 8-10 hours or more, and so only infrequent use of GPS devices, to check on location can be tolerated by the limited battery capacity of phones. Very few mobiles have a battery that can be replaced, as was common a few years ago. That luxury has now been replaced for phones that offer a high degree of waterproof technology .
It should go without saying that no one should venture onto the mountains without sounds skills and the ability to use a paper map and compass. Maps and compasses do not require recharging, and will still function in the rain, providing you have a map cover, or use a waterproof map. The ability to use the map and compass are the first essential skills. Dressing correctly is the second skill. Use the layers system; base, mid-layers and outer shell to ensure you can remain warm (or cool) and dry at all times. Your backpack should contain food and water, and emergency items such as an emergency bivvy-bag, first-aid kit, whistle etc. The list of carried-kit will very much depend on the type of route or event that you are tackling.
If you do not possess the ability to navigate then you should attend a navigation course. You can find operators who specialise in mountain navigation, and even mountain running navigation. These skills would be key when using in an event such as The Dragon’s Back Race, The Original Mountain Marathon or The Dead Sheep Marathon. Courses are usually given in small ratios, perhaps one instructor to four students. There are usually courses for beginners, intermediates and advanced navigators.
The key learning message is ‘do not rely on your phone or a GPS device when navigating in remote locations. Use a map and compass, and ensure you know how to use them’.