It was reported last month that mountain rescue teams in The Lake District have been receiving increasing numbers of call-outs for walkers who are ill-equipped to be out on the mountains, through lack of appropriate gear, map-reading ability, or plain common sense. Dubbed ‘the shorts and flip-flops brigade’ there have been instances of people attempting to navigate in poor weather or fading light using nothing more than Google Maps and their iPhone.
When I was a child I was a Cub Scout. My mum was an assistant leader (The leaders’ names were all based on characters from The Jungle Book: she declined to be Baloo the sleepy brown bear, instead choosing Bagheera, the sleek and smart Indian leopard!). Apart from the usual knot-tying (left over right and pull it through), games and generally being prepared, we made reasonably frequent forays out into the countryside, learning to read maps and indeed read the terrain around us, relating that back to the contours and features on the map.
I’ve been kind of fascinated by topography ever since, and love poring over maps, plotting routes and the like. While I recognise the benefits of being connected to a GPS tracker that can tell others your location, the idea of setting off for a hike or even a drive without any more understanding of where I’m going than what Google Maps or a SatNav device tells me is the next direction to take leaves me completely cold.
It’s about the journey, not just the destination. Relying on battery-powered tools that simply say ‘follow the path for 700m, then turn right’, without any connection to the actual terrain and features of a landscape just seems insane to me. It makes me question why you’re there in the first place, without having either ‘the right tools for the job’ or indeed given much thought to what you’re about to do. It’s like turning up to the gym wearing a suit, having just eaten a massive Sunday Lunch and drunk a couple of pints.
Navigating primarily by machine – either walking or driving – means you’re not fully present in the journey. You might as well stay in the living room and plug yourself into a game on the Wii or XBox – perhaps “High Fells Walker“. Part of the pleasure I get from ‘real’ navigation is using all my senses to assess the situation and make decisions, using my intuition alongside the information provided by the map or the compass. I can make detours, extend or cut the route short, change my mind in full awareness of the alternatives. I feel more connected with my surroundings and the environment.
It won’t surprise you that I’m not a big fan of car satnavs either (although I recognise their huge value in unfamiliar urban situations or to avoid traffic jams). In 2008 we took an extended Grand Tour around France for a month, and drove over 2,400 miles. We travelled from Calais down through Burgundy, across the Massif Central, into the Pyrenées and back up via the Périgeux and Loire Valley. The whole trip was planned at home using Google maps, which was invaluable to judge overall daily driving distances, alternative routes and places to stay, possible detours to specific sites. Streetview is amazingly useful, as it helps give you real visual clues and prompts, so places you’ve never been seem almost familiar. I even made town centre maps to help navigate in cities.
But we drove with a big ol’atlas in the car. We watched out for landmarks and interesting buildings. My daughters learnt to recognise vines as we drove past (they didn’t quite get the differences between, say, Chardonnay and Syrah. That’ll come…).
I’ve written before about air conditioning and the like ‘isolating’ us from the reality of our environment. Navigating by satnav or iPhone is another aspect of this. It can cause untold dangers if you’re not properly prepared (you can take me out of the cub scouts, but my training is always with me!). Perhaps just as importantly, it diminishes the experience, and seems to me to disrespect the beauty, grandeur, history and complexities (both man-made and natural) of our surroundings.