To GPS or Not GPS

For the first time in my life, I am seriously considering getting a GPS device of some kind.

Let me explain why, in 2013, I had never considering getting GPS before.

I have a thing for maps. As a kid, I liked browsing through atlases. When I first lived away from my parents, one of the things I got to be more ‘independent’ was a whole slew of maps so that, in my car, I could stop anywhere and whip out a map of wherever I was. Indeed, my peers noticed how many maps I kept in my car and my fondness for them.

One time, when I was giving some people a ride home, we got a bit lost (I had never been to their neighborhoods before), so I got to the side of the road and pulled out a map, In 15 seconds I found our location on the map. One of my passengers found this really surprising.

The first time I observed GPS being used, I was the passenger getting a ride home. We were driving through a part of San Francisco which I know really, really well, and I knew exactly which route was the best way to get to my home. The GPS system, however, suggested a different route. I told the driver to ignore the GPS, which she did.

The route suggested by the GPS was *slightly* shorter than my route – but it was going up a very steep hill, which meant that it would be more difficult to drive that my much flatter route. I suppose that, if I were alone in light-weight car with a peppy engine and felt like driving recklessly, the GPS route would have been faster. However, I was in an SUV with five people plus our stuff. SUV + five people + steep hill in San Francisco = bad idea. Even if we didn’t have an accident, it would have been signficantly slower.

So I got the impression that GPS devices give bad suggestions.

Even though I often go hiking in rural Taiwan, I have never used any kind of GPS device.

One time in one of Taiwan’s national parks, I encountered some European tourists. We all wanted to get back to our accomodation. That morning, I had talked to a local police officer, and he claimed that the only passable route was the route that I used to get up there – all of the other routes on the map had been wrecked by a typhoon. When we got to a crossroads, the Europeans wanted to take another route. They claimed they didn’t like the route we used to go up (neither did I), so they wanted to try this other route. I told them what the police officer told me. They said ‘but it’s okay because it appears on our GPS’. I asked if the GPS can tell them about recent typhoon damage, and they … didn’t respond.

At this point, daylight was running out, and I certainly did not want to risk getting on an impassable route and having to backtrack in the dark. I chose to take the route which, though not pleasant, I was 100% certain was passable. I don’t know if the Europeans got through that other route.

I can think of two times police officers gave me inaccurate information. That said, if I don’t have information from someone who had completed a route very recently (ideally within the last 48 hours), then I will assume that a police officer’s information is correct.

I still consider the local police officers to be more reliable than GPS devices.

And the very fact that I travel around rural Taiwan without GPS, or even a compass, means I cultivate various skills, such as the ability to read signs in Chinese, maps in Chinese, talk to local people, navigating not-so-obvious trails, examine my surroundings for clues, getting the right ‘feel’ in my feet, etc.

I read this article in the Atlantic. I highly recommend it.

All of that said, I’m starting to think that, in an emergency (i.e. I get lost and there’s nobody to ask for directions and the clues around me are not enough for me to find my way again) having a GPS is better than not having a GPS.

If I do get one, I will ONLY use it for emergencies, since I want to keep my other route-finding skills sharp.


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