Is GPS & Facebook dumbing down hill walkers?

I’ve sat on this blog for sometime now, it’s been in my drafts for a good few weeks and when I’ve come close to publishing, I’ve changed my mind. If you’re reading this then I’ve obviously finally decided to go ahead and publish it.

I decided to write this blog from what I’ve witnessed in recent times on social media, mainly Facebook and I don’t know if folk are getting more lazy or dumbing down or we’re just more exposed to them thanks to social media.

I’ve set out this article from my own experience when I first started out and how I perceive GPS and Social Media now with newcomers to hillwalking. I feel a general laziness is setting in and Mountain Rescue Teams (MRT) across the UK experiencing high volumes of call outs. Is it connected?

GPS

I began my hillwalking career in the summer of 2008,  where I bagged my first Munro; Ben Nevis. Naturally I caught the Munro-bagging bug and it wasn’t before long more Munros followed up. As a newbie to hillwalking, I was lured by the ease of GPS and bought myself a basic Garmin Etrex H and downloaded GPX routes from the popular walking website, Walkhighlands. My first few Munros were done without carrying a map or compass. I then became a bit of a slave to following a line on a screen, I wouldn’t deviate off the route and my hillwalking skills were not developing. Thankfully after some very minor mishaps, coupled with walking with more experienced hillwalkers,  I soon realised the importance of carrying a map and compass and being competent in how to use them.

Back in 2008 GPS enabled mobile phones were still in their infancy, but fast forward to current times and you could argue that GPS is as good on a smartphone as it is on a standalone GPS device. Not to mention excellent navigation apps that are now available like Viewranger. So the temptation of going out on the hills without map reading skills are much higher now, certainly more when I first started out.

Facebook

Returning to 2008, Facebook existed and was beginning to evolve but dedicated outdoors pages hadn’t yet taken off.  The popular pastime was to join a message board forum. At the time Walkhighlands and Munromagic were the two main sites to join for Scottish Mountains. I found myself joining the smaller lesser known; ScottishHills.com but found everybody friendly and willing to answer my novice questions. The quality of advice was excellent.

As I progressed into the early stages of my Munro round, I probably got a bit over enthusiastic and became an expert over night trying to help like minded newbies. I never meant any harm, but the more experienced members were always on hand.

By 2013 ScottishHills.com had peaked, and Facebook pages for hillwalking and wildcamping began to appear en masse garnishing more likes, comments and photos. By 2016, the ScottishHills forum like many others, struggled to attract new members. The instant access to posting photos with a captive audience of thousands of like minded folk meant that the antiquated message board forum was becoming obsolete.

With the ever growing popularity of these pages, newbies would ask questions, which isn’t a problem per se as, we all have to start somewhere. The issue for me is the lack of willingness from some to research information for example; where to park, what’s the weather like, what is the path like, where can I wild camp… The list is endless. But this is all information that is easily obtainable by a quick Google search or to read a guidebook.

The other issue is the questionable quality of answers given in reply from perhaps the over enthusiastic types like I once was. But some of the replies are down right irresponsible, for example; you don’t need a map and compass, you’ll need your crampons but not an ice axe and it’s a walk in the park (when referring to a particular hill walk, not known the person’s capabilities).

I made the decision that I would only reply to snow condition questions to those I knew had good winter experience. But in reality the experienced wouldn’t normally ask that type of question anyway.

Conclusion

When I first started out I would research a walk beforehand by reading trip reports, route descriptions and I found Ralph Storer’s ‘Ultimate Guide to the Munros’ guide books excellent. Then add weather forecast sites like MWIS, Met Office and SAIS and I’d have all the information I needed. Not to mention the all important map.

So, do most new/inexperienced walkers do the same preparation these days or is it a simple case of following a route on GPS and asking any questions on social media? Would this explain the rise in MRT call outs and will this trend continue as the popularity of hillwalking grows?

Thoughts?

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16 thoughts on “Is GPS & Facebook dumbing down hill walkers?

  1. I think there’s always been folk who go out equipped with a guide book and not much else. Most of the time they get away with it, so they do it again.. and again. Having left MR some 8 years back, I no longer have access to their stats like I did, so can’t really answer if it’s getting worse. But I suspect it may be. We certainly noticed a difference in the Peak District back when all the flagged paths were built along the Pennine Way etc. Paths which led ill equipped people out onto the moors. And when the path stopped in the middle of nowhere and the weather changed, guess what happened…

    1. Perhaps I could try obtain some hard facts to back up my theory, my thoughts are based on articles I see on the likes of Grough and comments on Facebook, screenshots of Google maps etc. But the questions being asked too, not just on outdoor hobbies either. Could be a general dumbing down.

      1. I used to report all the stats for our team and at that time, by far the majority of call-outs were genuine accidents. Stupid stuff was relatively unusual for us. (As I said before, most people do get away with it!) Because of this, I take some comments with a pinch of salt and think things may be exaggerated. However, I am perfectly willing to believe that there is a shift in the types of call-outs. It just may not be quite as bad as some people like to make it seem. What I personally think is most likely, is that there are possibly greater numbers going out unprepared, but as before, the majority of them are lucky enough to get home unscathed most of the time. When they don’t, it makes the headlines.

  2. I still research all new paths I tread, and take a lot of what I find on the web with a pinch of salt, preferring to rely on trusted sources, ie folk I know well enough to give a realistic report.
    All my research is still done initially studying the appropriate map, and then I will look on Google Earth.
    As for navigation, I’m still a map and compass man, it keeps me in tune with my environment and my map often shows features that I might miss, if I’d relied on a GPS, even the large screened GPS’.
    I do carry a dedicated GPS, purely for logging my route to download on to Memorymap
    With respect to the advancement of smartphone GPS technology, it’s only ever as good as the user, but then so is a map and compass.
    The more apps you run in conjunction wit the GPS, the shorter the battery life will become, and those who like to keep taking photos, and posting them, will soon find heir battery expires.
    If however, the smart phone was used solely as a GPS, then the battery life will extend somewhat.
    One big shortfall with smartphones, there aren’t many which are waterproof and shockproof!
    Something else that many hillwalkers often overlook.
    My very early walking days were fraught with unseen dangers, I boldly went out and enjoyed what I was doing, totally ignorant of many of the dangers I could have faced.
    However, I did listen to my elders, a learnt, and in later years completed navigation and ML courses, though I never took an ML assessment, for health reasons at the time.
    But, it lead me in good stead to sensibly push the boundaries and also warn me when things might be getting beyond reasonable.
    I think modern technology has a lot to answer for, though it can be a big help, if used correctly and with the right respect. Social Media is even worse, it encourages a lot of folk to show of and brag!
    Scary!
    I enjoyed reading the write-up Robin, for the right reasons, you aired a lot of concerns I share.

    1. Cheers for the reply Mike. Sounds like we all make mistakes to begin with. I think a lot must get quite lucky.
      Must admit my GPS unit doesn’t get used anymore, I just get my phone out if I want to check the map or get a GR. Putting the phone on flight mode means my battery will last a weekend if I’m careful.

  3. Kevin Russell

    I have been lazy in the past following a GPS usually when walking on my own. Most are probably guilty of it. Still take the map & compass with me & make more of an effort these days to get a wee bit of practice done. Cannae beat looking at a map. However a lot of newbies like you say are lazy. Like that certain Facebook page that has thousands of hits. I wonder if these folk that ask the questions then get pointed to various resources still keep asking. Or once they get put in the right direction they think “Hey there is a lot of information out here. I shall try google & books from now on.” Maybe they just tell their pals who are starting out to ask that page for advice. Or send them a link to walk highlands so they can print off one of their maps and away they go.

  4. Nothing wrong with using GPS, if you you’re already competent with a map and compass and still occasionally use them to keep your skills sharp. It’s a strange one, social media has a lot to answer for.

  5. Really good post mate. I’ve got one in my drafts which touches on the GPS issue, I ought to get round to posting it!

    It does wind me up on FB when I see questions that could easily be solved by google, looking at a guide book or looking at the bloody map but I’m too polite to say so! Isn’t part of the fun the planning anyway?

    1. I have said in the past, to Google yourself. But I’ve been shot down in flames for even suggesting people should research themselves. I was told that asking on social media is research. Oh well. I’ve took a back seat now and used the unfollow option so my newsfeed isn’t littered with these questions.

  6. I enjoy the research part of doing hills and literally spent hours poring over maps, trip reports etc. before doing them. I still did ask some questions though. If I’m answering questions for inexperienced folk, I’m super-cautious in my answer and really tone it down.

    I suppose there is a lot of truth that asking on social media or forums is research!

    1. It is to a degree, but a lot of answers to these questions could easily be found with a quick search. If it’s obvious that they’ve actually put in a bit of research beforehand and they still have some queries then that’s fine.

  7. I, like you started my first couple of camps without a map but I did research the route a lot online. The only time I didn’t take a map and compass in the last 3 years is when I forgot the map, though I was familiar with the route. I don’t navigate using GPS apps but I do have a Grid Reference finder as a last resort.
    I’m not sure if people don’t bother looking at forecasts or just don’t appreciate the power of mother nature. As a rule, any winds forecast over 40mph and I’m not going to risk camping.

  8. John McNab ( alchemist)

    Hi Robin . Excellent article which highlights some of my thinking in recent years regards the upsurge in popularity of hillwalking and its link to social media . I joined SHills in 2010 and found poring over trip reports of an upcoming walk to be invaluable in giving me a feel for my chosen walk . Always gave me a good visual sense of where I was when I actually got on the hill . That and storers books which I personally found to be the best on the market over the variety of routes up any given hill to suit walkers differing abilities , really helped and still help me to this day on any new hill . I think that’s the essence of hillwalking to gain as much info before you go . Something social media sites really can’t provide in my opinion . Building up a knowledge of the hills and the area your walking in are part of the attraction of the whole experience . Great article . Cheers

  9. svensl

    I started hill walking about 5 years ago (tend to go every other week). I usually just download the GPS coordinates from the Walking Highlands website. I also tend to read the trip reports of a few members online and check the weather forecast. Often I camp on the hill top and knowing the wind speed forecast is essential as I often use beefier tent poles when winds are forecast > 40mph. Ta.

  10. It’s a reflection of the phenomenal utility of the web, GPS and electronic mapping that it seems to carry the serious risk that current users fail to develop more traditional skills of navigation and independent route planning.

    Personally I don’t do much more research than plotting routes out in my spare time to follow these days, excepting forestry and parking where I may well look at trip reports and Google Earth/Street View.

    As I’ve said to you in previous conversations Robin, I do worry that if I’d taken up hill-walking now I’d have ended up in thrall to the execrable Websters and their ilk rather than ploughing my own furrow. Hopefully not, but I have sympathy with the current crop of hillwalking newbies. 😉

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