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Wilderness survival: Do hikers rely too much on technology?

Geraldine Largay, the hiker whose remains were found two years after she disappeared hiking the Appalachian Trail, didn't know how to read a compass, new documents released Wednesday show.

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    A hiker looks out from the summit of Stony Man while hiking at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
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The case of Geraldine Largay, the hiker whose remains were found last fall more than two years after she disappeared while hiking the Appalachian Trail, has drawn national headlines for the moving journal she kept of her experiences.

Ms. Largay, who survived nearly a month on her own after wandering off the trail, was described as an “experienced hiker.” But despite the rigors of the trail she had embarked on, she lacked a skill that would have once seemed unthinkable for people hoping to navigate the difficult terrain – she did not know how to use a compass.

“Has compass but does not or won’t use it,” read a missing persons report that was included as part of a 1,500-page report released Wednesday by the Maine Warden Service focusing on her disappearance.

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The revelation surprised one veteran wildlife officer. “That would be a recipe for disaster,” retired Maine Game Warden Roger Guay, who wasn’t involved in the search for Largay, told Maine Today.  “You can get caught in heavy fog and you can get off the trail,” he added. “You don’t venture into the wilderness without a compass. You’ve got to have that knowledge.”

Many hikers’ reliance on GPS technology embedded in their cellphones had led officials in New Hampshire to omit a cellphone from a list of 10 essential items to bring on a hike purposely, because cellphone reception in the state’s White Mountains is often spotty.

That policy has changed in recent years, the Boston Globe reported in 2012, but New Hampshire's 10 essentials list remains staunchly traditional, with a map, a compass, warm clothing, and a flashlight featuring prominently. Extra batteries are at the bottom.

“To find people with a map and compass is just incredibly rare. It boggles my mind,” Major Kevin Jordan of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department told the Globe. “But when we rescue someone, I hear a lot of regret, a lot of people saying, ‘I should have brought more than my phone, but everywhere I go at home I have cellphone coverage.’ ”

Largay’s friend Jane Lee, who was with her on part of the hike, told investigators that Largay did not know how to use a compass. A compass was found with Largay’s belongings, while she had left a GPS device in her hotel room, Maine Today reports.

Another concern, the Globe reports, is that the use of phones has led hikers to climb to higher altitudes in search of a better signal. That goes against the traditional advice, which is stay still if people are looking for you, or head down the mountain where temperatures can be warmer, you’re less exposed to the elements, and there’s more of a chance of finding a road.

While many people treat their cellphones as a virtual Swiss Army knife to keep in contact with friends and family, officials say hiking should involve a more traditional approach. The National Park Service advises travelers to always let friends and family know where they are hiking. Signing trail registers along the way also helps rescuers and family members locate people in an emergency, The New York Times reported.

That was a concern for Largay, a retired nurse from Tennessee who had come more than 950 miles. She attempted to send text messages to her husband, but they didn’t go through because of poor cellphone reception, The Guardian reports.

The presence of technology also makes hikers more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior, including delaying a decision to turn back in the event of a tough situation, Outside Magazine reports.

Beyond knowing to use a map and a compass to navigate, having hiking experience – or hiking with someone else who does – is key, Tim Smith, a registered Master Maine Guide who instructs hikers in survival skills, tells Outside magazine.

“If you’re waiting for something bad to happen to then come up with a way to get yourself out of that situation, you’re relying on rational problem-solving, which probably isn’t available to you under extreme stress,” says Mr. Smith.

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