GPS in the Desert

May Get You Killed

Rock in the road

Rock blocking road not on GPS map.

In this information age, many of us rely on GPS navigation systems in our cars or phones. GPS can help us by providing “turn by turn” directions to our destinations. These systems are a great help, but they can also get us into situations that get us lost, or even killed.

How can these digital maps that look so good, lead us to make such foolish mistakes? Almost every week someone pulls into the dirt road that leads to my house thinking they’re on the road to some location a mile away. (The road has been closed for 20 years.) The road is marked "Private" and "No Exit," but they don’t believe the signs. Sometimes they'll try driving past the end of the road and straight into the brush, just because their GPS says the road is there.

Stop no road - Your GPS is Wrong


Take a place like Death Valley, which got its name when a wagon train from the east tried to find a shorter route to California and got lost in 1849. Each summer in Death Valley, a quarter-million tourists in air-conditioned cars venture into 120-degree heat to take pictures and enjoy the desert. They come from all over the world, but many have the same traveling companion – a GPS navigation system to help them find the shortest and fastest routes.

In Death Valley, and many other areas, dozens of abandoned or closed dirt roads may lie between you and your destination, so things can get tricky. When you’ve finished exploring an area and then proceed to ask the GPS for the shortest route back home, the GPS will respond, “please proceed to the highlighted route”. In an area like Death Valley, GPS systems may be relying on old topographical maps and roads that have long been closed.

Your GPS may say something like, “You are in a area where no turn by turn information is available. Follow the route on a map.”  This is where it gets interesting. The GPS knows where you are, and you tell it where you want to go. So it gives you the shortest route.

Remember, in the desert, the standard GPS may not know where the open roads are, or even if there are any roads. If you follow its route, you may be taken off the road that you’re on, and be directed to follow a road that you can't see. If you're in a 4-wheel drive vehicle, you may even be able to do that for a while. Death Valley Ranger Charlie Callagan says some visitors who've relied on GPS have gotten seriously lost. It happens a couple times a year now, and more and more visitors have GPS devices.  If they're found, they say, “I was just doing what the GPS told me.”

When you come to a big drop off, would you continue, if the GPS told you to go right over it?

route through the desert from above

The picture below shows how our GPS depicted our route (also shown in the aerial view above):

GPS screen

The second road shown is so bad that Joshua Tree NP closed it several years ago. It still shows up on the GPS map though, and you can drive it, by going off the dirt road and over some rocks. This is illegal in the park -- even if there is no sign.

When we got to the wash, the road went right over a small cliff. The GPS didn't indicate any problem, but we stopped. Remember, believe what you see, not what a computer is telling you.

Road drop off

There is a way that you can cross it (see photo below). Cell phones don't work out here though, and it would be far better to have another SUV traveling with you when off-road even if you are experienced. Remember it's always easier going down a bad road, than getting back up. It's not a bad idea to get out of your vehicle and walk the route so that you're aware of the amount of traction you can expect, and any other possible issues that might affect your return trip, before you have committed to the route.

Wash Road

GPS Tips:

Use common sense -- don't go where there is no road even if your GPS shows you one. In many cases you will be breaking the law and endangering yourself, and anyone traveling with you.

A GPS when used in the desert may be plotting the shortest distance, not the best route for a car or even for hiking.

Driving a Jeep or any other 4-wheel drive vehicle doesn't make you an expert off-road driver. In low 4-wheel drive, your SUV can take you places that don't seem possible, if you just keep your foot on the gas. Getting back is not always possible.

There is no cell phone service in most remote desert areas. That means that Google maps will not load on your cell phone when you're out there. Get a printed map for the area you're going to visit, and download a map that works with your smartphone's GPS. I use the Avenza Maps app; it's a geospatial PDF, GeoPDF® and GeoTIFF reader for your Apple iOS, Android, and Windows smartphones and tablets. Interact with spatially referenced maps to view your location, record GPS tracks, add placemarks, and find places.

Some of their maps are free -- others cost money. National Geo Maps and some Tom Harrison maps have been digitized and are great to use when you have no cell connection; and you have them already downloaded to your smartphone.

It’s always a good idea to have two cars when exploring off-road. If you get stuck, it can be a life and death situation. You'll be glad for that second vehicle.

Summer is not the best time to be exploring in the desert.

Plan your trip on a topographical map and a local area map before you go. Try to find a write-up on the web about the area you’re visiting. See what others have experienced before you finish planning your own trip.

Carry lots of water and some food. It takes only one mistake on a desert road to change or end your life, or that of someone traveling with you. Here's what happened on Black Eagle Mine Road in 2011.

Read more about Joshua Tree NP 4X4 Roads

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