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Smartphones are a versatile tool for inexperienced hikers: flashlight, emergency beacon and GPS in one device. However, it can be ill-advised and potentially life-threatening for hikers to rely solely on their phones on their way into the wilderness, experts say.
Apps and online maps have disoriented hikers on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Scotland, mountaineers warn visitors that Google Maps could direct them on “potentially deadly” paths that would force them to hike over cliffs and rocky, steep terrain.
According to a joint statement from Mountaineering Scotland, a climbing organization, and the John Muir Trust, a charity that promotes the outdoors, a number of visitors have recently relied on Google Maps to see the summit of Ben Nevis, a 4,500 foot tall Mountain to reach areas in the UK.
A popular but dangerous climbing site in the Scottish Highlands, about 70 miles northwest of Glasgow, Ben Nevis is the UK’s highest peak.
When hikers follow Google’s directions to the nearest parking lot, the map will point them on a route straight up the mountain. Even seasoned climbers would have a hard time doing the trail, Heather Morning, a mountaineering safety advisor in Scotland, said in the statement.
“With good visibility it would be a challenge,” said Ms. Morning. “Add in low clouds and rain, and the proposed Google line is potentially fatal.”
The problem is that while smartphones have made many activities easier, from stopping a car to ordering takeout, the devices have complicated things for some hikers who don’t know they will need much more than their phone.
Mountaineering Scotland reported that several people were recently injured in the country after following hiking routes found on the internet. 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 climbers’ warning comes as hikers flocked to nature and hiking trails during the coronavirus pandemic. While hiking is a safe, socially distant endeavor in itself, injury has become a problem as more people hit the trails.
Ben Nevis isn’t the only mountain that hikers have gotten into trouble on. In New Hampshire, mountain rescuers said they rescued many people who were ill-equipped for their trips.
Hikers lost in the White Mountains call the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department at least once a week during the summer, said Sgt. Alex Lopashanski, a conservation officer for the department.
“They are trying to follow a lead on their cell phone that leads them into the woods and they get so lost,” he said.
These hikers cannot tell where they are because their screens are much smaller than paper maps, Sergeant Lopashanski said. If officers cannot direct them back to a lead over the phone, it may take several hours for rescuers to find them.
Other aggravating factors include wandering into remote areas with no cellular network or the devices that have run out of power, making them unusable for calling for help.
Rescue workers join the mission when the hikers are in danger. Rick Wilcox, a member of the Mountain Rescue Service in New Hampshire, said many of the people he rescues did not have a map or compass.
“People think a magic phone is all they need and they say, ‘Let me look at Google,'” said Wilcox, “and that’s where they go wrong.”
Wesley Trimble, a spokesman for the American Hiking Society, said he was concerned about people using apps to follow routes that weren’t approved by experts.
“Much of the information on the Internet is crowdsourced, so it doesn’t necessarily have input from land managers, parks, or trail organizations,” he said.
In Scotland, authorities recommend that visitors bring a paper map and compass to Ben Nevis even on the beginner trails.
For those ready to brave the mountain’s icy terrain, steep climbs, and poor visibility, it’s an eight-hour round trip to the summit from the visitor center. But when hikers follow Google Maps to the recommended starting point, their journey becomes far more treacherous.
The John Muir Trust has posted signs in the area directing inexperienced climbers to the visitor center, but people often ignore these postings, a charity spokeswoman said.
In a statement, a Google spokeswoman said the dashed line on the map from the parking lot to the summit is intended to show the distance to the summit and not a walkable path.
“Our directions currently take people to the Nevis Gorge Trailhead parking lot – the parking lot closest to the summit – which has clear signs indicating the trail is very dangerous,” the statement said.
Regardless, the company said, users will now be directed to the mountain’s visitor center instead of the parking lot. The Google spokeswoman said the company is reviewing its other routes near Ben Nevis.
Businesses can update map information using Google’s geospatial upload tool, the company said. Users can report problems directly to Google.