Don't let a GPS navigate you into the valley of death

    Consumer Reports News: July 26, 2011 01:53 PM

    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 remote areas, there is far less data available to update navigation maps, and likewise there are far fewer roads for the navigator to select from when routing. The "fastest" or "shortest" route may also be the bumpiest, muddiest option available. The GPS is not going to know about recent road changes or seasonal challenges, especially in the relative wilderness where data may have been collected years ago. The Death Valley National Park flat-out warns visitors not to count on a navigation system. Never travel in such an area without a printed map and compass. (Download a Death Valley map, pdf.) Further, study the map in advance to have a rough familiarity with the region.

    • In Death Valley, there are only two places to refuel, either of which locals will tell you aren't always in service. Trips need to be planned carefully to ensure you don't run out of gas.

    • Have cash on hand. While it may be a credit-card world, there may be occasions when cash it necessary to get the fuel, supplies, or other help you need.

    • Prepare for emergencies. The more remote the area, the more independent you need to be. For Death Valley, that means not just an extra soda, but a couple gallons of water per passenger, non-perishable food, first aid kit with a snake-bite kit, and clothing to handle the wide temperature range. (Believe it or not, but DV can get chilly at night!) Tools, tow cable, boards for using a jack on sand, flashlights, foam tire sealant, and glow sticks are all useful equipment in the wilderness. (See our emergency kit advice.)

    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.

    Guide to summer road trips
    Video: Don't let a GPS navigator steer you wrong
    Best GPS navigators for summer road trips
    Road trip prep: 10 things to check before you hit the road

    Jeff Bartlett

    E-mail Newsletters

    FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
    Already signed-up?
    Manage your newsletters here too.

    Cars News


    Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
    Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

    See your savings


    Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
    while you shop

    Learn more