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Upon Further Review: "But My GPS Unit Said Go Thataway..."

Zion National Park canyon scene

Zion National Park's canyons may all be beautiful--but they're not all the same. Photo by Phil Stoffer, USGS.

GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) units can be a useful aid if you're traveling in unfamiliar territory, but they're often better suited for the city than the boondocks. Three hikers at Zion National Park who depended upon their GPS for directions found themselves in Heaps of trouble.

Previous articles on the Traveler have pointed out that caution is needed if you're using a GPS unit in remote areas. Information may not be updated, the computer's suggested routes may not accurately distinguish between a good road and a goat track, and the level of detail shown on the GPS screen may not be adequate for the situation.

That "level of detail" issue came into play on a May morning several years ago in Utah's Zion National Park.

Three men set out on a one-day backcountry trip at Zion, intending to traverse a piece of fairly challenging terrain named Behunin Canyon. Their intended route would require eight rappels of up to 150 feet each.

If you’ve ever spent any time in the canyons of the west, you know that to anyone unfamiliar with the area, one rocky chasm can look very much like another. No problem for our trio--they had a GPS unit to help locate the head of Behunin Canyon.

In retrospect, this group may have been better served by a reliable standby, a detailed topographical map, to locate their starting point. I realize topographical maps are now considered by some to be old-fashioned, and they also require a bit of experience in translating all those squiggly lines into meaningful information—but they’re hard to beat for accuracy.

At a minimum, such a map or even a detailed written route description could have provided confirmation of the information on the group’s GPS unit. However, if they had used a map, I wouldn't have a story to tell.

Based on the hints already provided, it should come as no surprise that this expedition got off to a less-than-promising start. An inch may be as good as a mile in some circumstances, but not on a GPS screen (or a map) if you’re on a backcountry trip.

In this case the error on the ground was actually about a quarter of a mile. That’s the distance between their intended jumping-off point and Heaps Canyon, which the group located with the help of their trusty GPS unit, mistook for Behunin Canyon, and entered to launch their adventure.

Some of you who are in the “seen one rocky canyon, seen ’em all” school of thought may be wondering what difference that made. I’m glad you asked.

In contrast to their intended route, a trip through Heaps Canyon is described in very different terms by park reports: “a very difficult and technically challenging route. It should only be attempted by skilled and experienced canyoneers... a multi-day trip that includes swims through numerous potholes with water temperatures in the 40s and many rappels, including one of 300 feet."

That last bit of information is particularly important. If you start a trip equipped for only a 150-foot rappel and suddenly find yourself faced with one twice that distance, you are definitely in a Melancholy Situation, and you'll soon find yourself at the end of the literal rope.

When the men reached the first cliff, they failed to find the expected anchor points for their rappel. Here’s one more hint about mountaineering: If you plan to defy gravity, lean out into thin air to descend a steep cliff, and entrust your life to a rope (preferably two ropes, including your belay, or safety, line), it’s a really good idea to be sure the appropriate end of that rope is firmly attached to a very secure anchor point.

Our trio discussed discontinuing their trip at this point but instead created an anchor of their own and forged ahead. This decision is an excellent example of what I call macho mania, a close relative of the HOSS syndrome. Although it’s not limited to the male of the human species, this malady does occur more often in that group.

HOSS is closely related to that other underlying cause of numerous bad decisions: peer pressure. Put an average guy under the age of about sixty with at least one other person in a situation requiring even a hint of daring, and he will usually experience at least a brief desire to prove that he’s a “real hoss,” and therefore up to facing whatever challenge lies ahead.

There is a valid physiological explanation for this behavior that explains the derivation of the term HOSS—Hormones Override Sensible Solutions. The passing of years and/or successful escapes from enough close calls eventually diminishes this syndrome in most adults, but that was clearly not the case for our group down in the depths of Heaps Canyon.

Once they realized their mistake, the men were past the point of no return and were unable to backtrack to the canyon rim. I mentioned above that further travel through Heaps Canyon requires swimming through numerous potholes filled with very cold water, another situation for which the group was not equipped.

This would have been a really good time to call it a day, find a safe perch, and wait for rescue. The group had at least obtained the required permit from the park for this trip, so their failure to return as scheduled would have been noted. HOSS reigned supreme, however, so instead of cutting their losses, they pushed on.

Fast forward to the next day. The inevitable park report states that by then one of the men decided he’d had all he wanted of swimming through frigid pools; he climbed to a nearby knoll to await rescue. At last! A good decision...better late than never.

Violating yet another basic rule for any outdoor trip, the group split up, and the remaining two members forged on into the narrowest section of the canyon.

This little adventure was originally intended to be a single-day trip, so on the previous evening, the group had been reported overdue. Rangers began a search of their intended route in Behunin Canyon the next morning, but by afternoon concluded that the missing trio was not in that area. A helicopter was then brought in to search a wider area, an expensive step that should gladden the hearts of taxpayers everywhere.

The aircraft did prove to be the key, and all three men were located. A landing was definitely not possible in the narrow canyon, so necessary supplies and radios were lowered to the strandees to allow them to get through another night in relative safety and comfort. Since specialized gear such as thick wetsuits or drysuits is normally required to safely make this trip through frigid waters, rangers were surprised that the two were not victims of hypothermia.

On the following morning, additional equipment was lowered to the pair of “hosses,” which enabled them to complete the trip through Heaps Canyon on their own. The one man who had wisely known "when to say when" and stopped earlier on higher ground, was flown out safely by helicopter.

Although this saga in Heaps Canyon had a happy ending, there is a definite moral—or two—to this story, ironically provided by the name of the canyon where it took place. Don’t believe everything you read, including directions on a GPS unit. Most important, if any outdoor trip just isn’t going as planned, be willing to admit that fact and call it a day, before you find yourself in Heaps of trouble.

This story is adapted from the book Hey Ranger 2: More True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from the Great Outdoors © Jim Burnett and Taylor Trade Publishing, used by permission.


Maybe I missed something but I don't know why you blamed this on the GPS. If the group had plotted an accurate waypoint on their unit before they left, the would have been led to within feet of the exact spot they were seeking.

Like many of the other problems of this trip, the fault lies with bad judgment. Misusing a GPS unit is no more the GPS's fault than is misreading a map is the map's.

But I do agree to you belt and suspenders approach. When using a GPS its always wise to carry a map and compass as a back-up. And most important, know how to use all three.

My GPS has saved me on many trips in the woods. I started using a GPS before they even have mapping GPSs for road use. Just a screen with the trail I've come from, waypoints that I've added, and lat/lon coordinates. I don't see how this is in any way the fault of the GPS unit. You should learn to use any tools you rely on. I would bet they were not better at reading a map. Of course when traveling anywhere dangerous, I take 2 GPSs and a map.

Great story ----- I have had 2 GPS one from Garmin and one from DeLorme ----- both are much less than accurate in the back country. From my narrow point of view DeLorme has no plauseable excuse because they put out nearly accurate maps in thier gazeteer book maps. I complained and they say "it is two different formats" maybe so but it is the same world. How ever they did give me a full refund . I now have a Garmin nuvi and a garmin map 76csx - both are great units but their maps still stink in the back country -- it is difficult to tell the roads from the elevation lines , in some places they just perpetuate errors from US Geological surveys done in the 1930's and 40's.
Even the city maps that are a lot more accurate are about 2years behind on road changes and resturaunts that have moved or gone out of business. I guess that is somewhat undrstandable.
To sum it up ---- GPS is a great step forward with many steps left to go --- Hope they get with it soon

I think the key phrase here is,

"That "level of detail" issue came into play on a May morning several years ago in Utah's Zion National Park."

Note, several years ago. The GPS of today is a far cry from the GPS of even a few years ago.
Kurt and I both found the even todays GPS may not be 100% accurate. We camped on an island in Muscungus Bay, Maine, that the GPS said didn't exist. We also paddled across dry land on Yellowstone Lake, according to our GPS that is.
The moral of the story is, never depend on just a GPS, map or compass. Use all three and make sure you know how to use them. 'Nuff said...

Some good comments!

Bob Mishak is right on target with his comment for GPS use "off the road" or even on roads in remote areas.

The moral of the story is, never depend on just a GPS, map or compass. Use all three and make sure you know how to use them.

There's no question GPS can be a great tool. Earlier this summer I was on a couple of all-day boat trips in Alaska. The captain had a laptop computer running GPS superimposed on a detailed nautical chart, which made a great combination, and the screen on the computer was large enough to give quite a bit of detail. However... he also had radar, a depth finder, a compass, and a paper copy of that same chart.

The small, hand-held devices many people carry can also be a useful tool, even in the backcountry, as long as we don't follow the advice blindly, or rely on it as the sole source of information for navigation – especially in remote areas that are unfamiliar terrain.

Several earlier stories and comments in the Traveler are linked in the story above, and point out the reason for caution with GPS in such areas:

A comment by Bogator on the recent Death Valley incident was an excellent one:

One of the ways this can be fixed is for the GPS manufacturers and programmers to stop letting their programs use primitive roads as a viable option. As an example, in order to go from Escalante to Big Water, both my GPS and Microsoft's Streets and Trips wanted to send us down the Missing Canyon Road (Smoky Mountain Rd), BLM road 300.

On the BLM map, this road is marked as a ATV road. I did research the road, as well as look at it on Google Maps, and saw that it was not a road we wanted to go down. And this was just one of serveral examples.

The routing programmers need to classify these kinds of roads as primitive/4wd roads and not use them in routing unless the user has specifically requested primitve roads as an option.

I did contact Garmin, my GPS company, about the problem, but so far, nothing has happened. GPS's are wonderful devices; My wife and I have traveled all over the US with one, but I never follow it blindly, especially in rugged areas.

One other example: the website for Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico includes the following caution:

Warning: Numerous visitors have reported that GPS devices are not accurate in the Chaco area. Please use our written directions below to avoid getting lost.

So... no intention to dismiss the use of GPS away from the big city, but good judgment by the user is necessary. Sometimes, you need to take the information given with a block--not a grain--of salt.

I'd like to know which base map they were using: 24K or 100K. I have a Garmin with Topo USA maps but they're 100K so not too useful in canyon country. In fact friendsand I were lost for a couple of hours (missed a side canyon) in the Maze district of Canyonlands and we were using 24K topo maps (pre-GPS). Even that map scale is lacking in canyon country and Zion is definitely a challenging place for navigation.

Thanks for the very interesting and well-written piece, Jim. I'm enough of a Luddite that I probably wouldn't use a GPS, even if I could afford one. I'm guessing spare batteries might be worth carrying. I'm also ancient enough to have made topographic maps the old-fashioned way with a surveyor's plane-table. The suggestions to also carry map & compass are very sensible, but one must be on guard with these as well. Metal objects and occasionally local geology can deflect compass needles. The generally excellent USGS topos produced from air photos can have errors ranging from misnamed and mislocated cultural features to incorrect drainage patterns due to floods, glacial advance/retreat, and very deep snowpacks present when the photos were taken. I've also seen pranks & vandalism regarding signs, even a few incorrectly placed by the Park Service.

I think it was Mark Twain who wrote that ignorance is not as dangerous as what you think you know that just
ain't so.

I've experienced first-hand the shortcomings of GPS at Chaco Canyon. My Garmin Unit pointed me to a site that was one hour and half away from the real place. If it was not for a road sign, I would not have found it. As a result, I arrived too late and missed the light.


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