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Directions for smartphones can put beginners at risk, experts say



For inexperienced hikers, smartphones are a multifunction tool: a flashlight, an emergency light and a GPS, all in one device. But it can be poorly recommended, and possibly life-threatening, for hikers to rely solely on their phones when heading out into the wilderness, experts say.

Apps and online maps have disoriented hikers on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Scotland, mountain climbers warn visitors that Google Maps could lead them to “potentially deadly” trails that will force them to hike over cliffs and rocky, steep terrain.

A number of visitors have recently relied on Google Maps to reach the summit of Ben Nevis, a 4,500-foot mountain, according to a joint statement Thursday from Mountaineering Scotland, a climbing organization, and the John Muir Trust, a charity that maintains natural areas in the UK.

Ben Nevis, a popular but dangerous climbing spot in the Scottish Highlands about 70 miles northwest of Glasgow, is the highest peak in Britain.

If hikers follow Google’s directions to the parking lot closest to the top, the map shows them to a route straight up the mountain. Even experienced climbers would struggle up that trail, said Heather Morning, a safety adviser for rock climbing in Scotland, in the statement.

“In the long run, it would be challenging,” Morning said. “Add in low cloud and rain, and the proposed Google bar is potentially deadly.”

The problem is that while smartphones have made many activities easier, from greeting a car to ordering takeaway, the devices have complicated things for some hikers who do not realize they need much more than their phones.

Mountaineering Scotland reported that a number of people in the country have been injured recently after following hiking trails they found online. Ben Nevis has been the scene of a number of deaths in recent years, including a 24-year-old woman last month and three men in 2019.

The mountain climbers’ warning comes when hikers have flocked to the outdoors and trails during the coronavirus pandemic. While hiking in itself is a safe, socially distant effort, injuries have become a problem as more people hit the trails.

Ben Nevis is not the only mountain where hikers have gotten into trouble. In New Hampshire, mountain rescuers said they had rescued many people who were ill-equipped for excursions.

Hikers who have lost their way in the White Mountains call the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department at least once a week in the summer, Sgt. Alex Lopashanski, a conservation officer for the department.

“They try to follow a path on their phone, which takes them into the woods, and they get lost,” he said.

These hikers can not tell where they are because their screens are much smaller than paper maps, said Sergeant Lopashanski. If officers can not lead them back to a path over the phone, it may take several hours for rescuers to find them.

Additional complicating factors include wandering into remote areas without cell service or devices running out of power, rendering them unusable to call for help.

Rescue agencies will join the operation if the 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 maps or compasses.

“People think a magic cell phone is all they need, and they go, ‘Let me check Google,'” Mr. Wilcox said, “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 not approved by experts.

“A lot of information on the internet is crowdsourced, so there is not necessarily any input from land managers or parks or trail organizations,” he said.

In Scotland, authorities recommend that visitors bring a paper map and a compass to Ben Nevis, even on the beginner trails.

For those who are willing to brave the mountain’s icy terrain, steep climbs and poor visibility, it is an eight-hour round trip to the top from the visitor center. But if hikers follow Google Maps to the recommended starting point, the journey will be far more treacherous.

The John Muir Trust put up signs in the area to lead 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 dashed line from the parking lot to the top is meant to indicate the distance to the top, not a walkable path.

“Our directions are currently directing people to the Nevis Gorge trailhead car park – much closer to the top – which has prominent signs indicating that the trail is very dangerous,” the statement said.

In any case, the company said that users will now be directed to the mountain’s visitor center instead of the parking lot. The Google spokeswoman said the company was reviewing its other routes near Ben Nevis.

Organizations can update map information using Google’s Geo Data Upload tool, the company said. Users can report issues directly to Google.


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