For inexperienced hikers, smartphones are a versatile tool: a flashlight, an emergency beacon, and a GPS, all in one device. But it may be inadvisable, and possibly life-threatening, for hikers to rely solely on their phones while venturing into nature, experts say.
Online maps and apps have disoriented hikers on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Scotland, mountaineers warn visitors that Google Maps can direct them onto “potentially fatal” trails that would force them to hike over steep, rocky terrain and cliffs.
Recently, several visitors have relied on Google Maps to reach the top of Ben Nevis, a 4,500-foot mountain, according to a joint report. statement Thursday from Mountaineering Scotland, a climbing organization, and the John Muir Trust, a charity that maintains wilderness areas in Britain.
Ben Nevis, a popular but dangerous climbing spot in the Scottish Highlands about 70 miles northwest of Glasgow, is Britain’s highest peak.
If hikers follow Google’s directions to the closest parking lot to the summit, the map tells them a route directly up the mountain. Even seasoned climbers would struggle that way, Heather Morning, a mountain safety adviser for Mountaineering Scotland, said in the statement.
“With good visibility, it would be a challenge,” Ms. Morning said. “Add in low cloud and rain and Google’s suggested line is potentially fatal.”
The problem is that while smartphones have made many activities easier, from calling a car to ordering takeout, the devices have complicated things for some hikers who don’t realize they will need much more than their phones.
Mountaineering Scotland reported that several people in the country were injured recently after following hiking trails they found online. Ben Nevis has been the scene of several deaths in recent years, including one 24-year-old woman last month other three men in 2019.
The mountaineer warning comes as hikers have flocked to the outdoors and on trails during the coronavirus pandemic. While hiking itself is a safe and socially distanced endeavor, injuries have become a problem as more people hit the trails.
Ben Nevis isn’t the only mountain where hikers have gotten into trouble. In New Hampshire, mountain rescuers said they have saved many people who were ill equipped for their hikes.
Hikers who have gotten lost in the White Mountains call the New Hampshire Game and Fish Department at least once a week during the summer, said Sgt. Alex Lopashanski, the department’s conservation officer.
“They try to follow a trail on their phone, which leads them into the forest, and they get so lost,” he said.
These hikers can’t tell where they are because their screens are so much smaller than paper maps, Sgt. Lopashanski said. If officers cannot direct them back to a trail over the phone, it can take several hours for rescuers to find them.
Other complicating factors include wandering through remote areas without cellular service or having devices run out of power, rendering them useless to call for help.
Rescue agencies join the operation if hikers are in danger. 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 compass.
“People think a magic cell phone is all they need and they say, ‘Let me check Google,'” Wilcox said, “and that’s where they go wrong.”
Wesley Trimble, a spokesman for the American Hiking Society, said he was concerned that people would use apps to follow trails that are not approved by experts.
“A lot of information on the Internet is collected collaboratively, so there is no need for land managers or parks or trail organizations to provide information,” he said.
In Scotland, The authorities Recommend that visitors bring a paper map and compass to Ben Nevis, even on the beginner trails.
For those willing to brave the icy mountain terrain, steep climbs, and poor visibility, it’s an eight-hour round-trip ride to the top from the visitor center. But if hikers follow Google Maps to their recommended starting point, their journey will be much more dangerous.
The John Muir Trust posted signs in the area to direct inexperienced climbers to the visitor center, but people often ignore these posts, a spokeswoman for the charity said.
In a statement, a Google spokeswoman said the map’s dotted line from the parking lot to the summit is intended to indicate the distance to the top, not a passable trail.
“Our driving instructions currently direct people to the Nevis Gorge trailhead parking lot, the closest parking lot 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 visitor center instead of the parking lot. The Google spokeswoman said the company was reviewing its other routes near Ben Nevis.