Commentary: Why are we rejecting GPS technology?

Thursday, 14 December 2006
Navigation Lesson
Navigation Lesson
For several years now, people have been arguing back and forth about the roll of GPS units during introduction to navigation lessons. There are two major schools of thought around the whole thing. The first group says that GPS's shouldn't take a roll and we should be focusing only teaching traditional map and compass skills. The other side of the table sits the group that says that we should be embracing this technology to help augment our map and compass skills.

Where do we go with this? It seems to me that anti-GPS crowd is entrenched in their belief but are we putting our own personal prejudices and biases ahead of the needs of our students?

I'll be honest, I don't own a GPS unit and for that reason, I don't spend a lot of time talking about them. I teach my lesson not mentioning them, hoping that nobody asks any questions. This past fall I was taking a trip and decided to bring it along. I realized quickly that I there was a whole lot more to this then just turning it on and going. I had to read how to set it up, how to add waypoints, how to figure out what the numbers meant. I then had to figure out how to put the UTM coordinates on the chart as the little map in the GPS was hopelessly pointless with little to no detail.

The worlds largest maker of GPS units, Garmin expects to sell 4.6-4.7 million units units by the end of 2006. Those numbers are huge. This shows that the general public is embracing GPS technology as their primary source of navigation much quicker then the maps and compasses that we all hold true to.

As paddling instructors, why are we so reluctant towards GPS's? I had one instructor tell me recently; "If somebody came on my course with a GPS, I would tell them to put it away as it has no place here." Is that the right attitude?

GPS UnitI am not advocating that you discontinue teaching the use of maps, charts or compasses. Please don't get me wrong. It is a very important and necessary skill that must be taught. Your students need a solid foundation of skills to make sure they get where they want to go and back home safely.

My trip this past fall taught me that using a GPS is just as much as learned skill as using a map. It takes practice and it's time that we provide the opportunity to develop those skills in a safe environment where there are little consequences.

Over the years I have heard many arguments against GPS use with the biggest one being your unit will fail when you need it most. You are right, it probably will fail, but GPS units are getting better each year and with submersible units now, they are a whole lot more reliable then older units.

I find the "fragile unit" argument difficult to understand as the primary reason not to talk about GPS units because these same people turn around and take out lots of other electronic devices including digital cameras, headlamps, VHF radios without a second thought. You are right that some of them might not put you in a life or death situation when they fail, but they are just as fragile to the elements but we don't worry about them. So why GPS units?

I am going to go out on a limb and say that the biggest reason we aren't using new technology is that we don't understand it so we are scared of it. We are also scared that by teaching people how to use GPS units, our students will lose the skill of how to use a map and compass. I don't believe that is true. You still need a map or chart and know how to read it as the little maps in the GPS aren't that great.

For that student who brought the GPS on your course and you told him to put it away, what is he or she going to do when they are out on the water in their canoe and kayak and want to use it. Are they going to use it correctly and to get home safely? You missed a great opportunity to help clear the air about some myths and technology hurdles that make the difference between a good day and a long stressful day.

For me, I still don't own a GPS but I have been reading up on them and learning how they work. I'm not an expert but I am confident that I will be able to help my students and answer their questions on the practical applications and limitations of some really cool technology.

For instructors who are currently teaching GPS use, I am interested in tips, games, and ideas of how you incorporated them into your lessons.

Like what you read? Hate it? Got an idea? Post a comment below.
David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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