GPS-based navigation has become a common, valued tool used by millions of motorists, bicyclists, and hikers. And as any user will confess, they are not foolproof and success on road trips often depends on some local knowledge and an old fashioned, paper map.
NPR ran a story today on a family caught in Death Valley due to an over-reliance on their GPS navigator. Fortunately, they were found by helicopter after three days. If there is any place not to take risks, the aptly named stretch of California and Nevada Mojave Desert is it. But, each year thousands of tourists pour through the beautiful, barren region with nav devices affixed to their windshields and some run into avoidable trouble.
In the summer, Death Valley temperatures can edge into the 120-degree range. In fact, the heat is so extreme that the desert is routinely used by automakers are part of their hot-weather development testing. While it may be a dry heat, it poses a true threat to man and machine. What makes summer trips there even more dangerous is that there are so many roads and trails to explore; the valley can tempt many travelers into taking adventures beyond their driving talents and machine's off-roading ability. When trouble occurs, it is serious. Stranded travelers may find themselves in a dire situations, there may be no passersby for days and cell service is spotty at best.
I've been to Death Valley more than a dozen times, including several summer visits when the climate is at its least forgiving. It is absolutely beautiful and serene. But, you must be prepared.
One time, I towed a stuck vehicle to safety that had been stranded for three days. The desperate travelers had literally gutted the interior, using seat upholstery and carpet to gain much-needed traction. They had no means to get help. Traveling with another vehicle, carrying a short wave or CB radio, or having a better off-roader would have changed their experience.
An extreme environment, Death Valley does serve as a reminder of some good road tripping practices.
In the end, a responsible driver will not blindly follow a GPS navigator on a road trip. The devices are imperfect. And while they are getting better every year, it is the driver the carries the ultimate responsibility for a safe journey.
Before taking a long trip, especially into less-civilized areas, take the time to prepare.