Dear Black Bag Confidential Reader,
In late September, a Texas couple visiting southern Utah decided to take a daytrip to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. Helena Byler, 78, and her husband Gerald Byler, 76, set out from Kanab, Utah, in their rental car using the GPS app on their smartphone to navigate.
Eventually, the GPS took them through a canyon down a rough dirt road with large rocks and 18-inch drops. After getting a flat tire, the couple realized their GPS was leading them to a place called Lake Powell trail — not the actual lake.
After becoming stranded, the couple decided to abandon their disabled vehicle and began walking back the way they came.
The couple did not get very far and spent the first night out in the rain.
The second day, Gerald was unable to continue walking due to leg pain, so Helena told him to stay put and she would keep walking and bring back help.
Five days later, Helena was found lying on a dirt road by a local rancher who was out checking on his cattle.
Later the same day, a search helicopter located Gerald, who had taken shelter in a camping trailer he had stumbled across. Gerald had made an SOS sign out of rocks and flowers near the trailer, which undoubtedly helped rescuers find him.
After the Bylers were rescued, Kane County Chief Deputy Alan Alldredge was quoted as saying, “GPS apps are great. But out here in rural Utah, they sometimes get you in trouble.”
Don’t Fall off the Map
The fact is we have become overly dependent on GPS mapping, which can clearly lead to dangerous outcomes. Some GPS apps don’t update frequently enough and even when they do, they can still lead you the wrong way down a rough road.
For example, when a small portion of the new I-11 freeway recently opened in Nevada, GPS apps were still sending commuters on alternate routes because their maps were not up to date with the new highway configuration.
While GPS apps can certainly be useful in helping you get where you’re going, you should be prepared to find your way without using technology. Which is why I recommend keeping in mind these three best practices when you venture into unfamiliar territory:
- Plan before you go. When you go on a trip, you should have a detailed itinerary of your plans and the routes you expect to travel. Leave a copy of your plan with a friend or family member with whom you regularly speak. If you don’t make it to your destination or they don’t hear from you by a predetermined time, at least they will know where to start looking. Obviously, your plans can change when traveling, but be sure to take the extra few minutes to let your contact know. Simply send them a text or an email saying, “Hey, we are taking this route instead and we will arrive at this time”
- Invest in paper maps. I realize most of us haven’t used a paper map in years, but the truth is every vehicle you own should have a paper map of your town and the surrounding area with the rest of your survival gear. This will also help you adjust your route if you need to bug out and your usual way is blocked. If you are traveling to a completely new place like the couple above, make sure to stop at a local gas station and pick up a county map so you know exactly where you are going. (Or go the extra mile like me: I keep a paper map of the entire United States in my laptop bag since I always carry it with me when traveling the country.) Just be sure to buy new maps if there are any major changes to local roads in your area since you can’t simply download an update to a paper map. One more thing: Having a compass is also beneficial if you know how to use it
- Ask locals. The couple above was incredibly lucky to have been found by a local rancher. According to law enforcement, the road they were on is very seldom traveled — sometimes a whole week goes by without anyone using it. My point is locals know the area (including the back roads) much better than visitors with their GPS systems. If you stop for gas, there’s nothing wrong with asking the cashier if the road you are on is a good route to take to get where you want to go. I’ve found that locals are often helpful and will tell you if the way is dangerous or impassable, so don’t be afraid to get out of your car and talk to people.
Most of society has become incredibly dependent on mapping technology, but now you know better: You should always have a backup plan in case of an emergency.
Next time you plan a road trip or travel outside your usual circles, consider these suggestions so you will be prepared to find your way home even if your smartphone is acting dumb.