There is a crucial add-on needed for every GPS device used in vehicles or on phones. It’s being learned that without this add-on, GPS systems are potentially leading to serious emergencies and even death. The add-on is free. State departments of transportation are recommending that before leaving home with a trip programmed into GPS, the add-on be installed and driver and passengers learn to use it. It’s very simple, and it could save lives.

A topographic map from central Arizona to Monument Point, Grand Canyon North Rim.

The free add-on to GPS devices and phones is designed to save lives. Map generated by author

This winter, emergency service crews have rescued dozens of stranded families whose dangerous brush with disaster was caused by using digital GPS mapping without a crucial add-on. It costs nothing to add it to a GPS system on a phone or in a vehicle.

In Arizona, a mother walked 26 miles to get help after the family vehicle was stranded in deep snow after using GPS mapping to circumvent a road closed for the winter to get to the seasonally-closed North Rim of the Grand Canyon. They were rescued, but she suffered from frostbite.

Death Valley National Park once has hundreds of roads leading to mining claims, now long abandoned. Following a GPS, a mother and son ended up stranded on a road to nowhere. The son died.

Park rangers call it “death by GPS.” They all proclaim the importance of using the free GPS add-on.

It’s called “common sense.”

Don’t look for it in the App Store, it’s inherent in all brains, even those of people who label themselves “directionally impaired.”

The dependence on digital mapping and direction-generating applications has caused thousands to completely rely on remotely-prepared maps with no local knowledge or data verification. This haphazard mapping means the common-sense add-on should be mandatory with all mapping usage.

Plug these programming aids into common sense. In all cases, the gut feeling is right, the GPS is wrong.

  • The road just doesn’t “look right.”
  • The road is poorly maintained, unpaved, exceptionally rough.
  • It doesn’t feel safe to drive on the road.
  • It’s not possible to maintain a normal driving speed.
  • Vegetation and underbrush are thick and close to the edge of the road.
  • The road is extremely narrow so that two vehicles could not pass while moving a driving speed.

Arizona Department of Transportation distributed a news release pleading with winter-bound motorists to add common sense to the GPS. Deep snow and cold weather closes the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park every November until warmer weather in May.

It’s publicized on the park’s website, tourist guides and notes on the AAA map of Arizona. ADOT, the state’s transportation department, closes the access road with a locked gate at the end of the hunting season in November. Yet, digital GPS maps fail to include the notation, and worse, show “alternate” routes, even though these are unpaved—and unplowed—Forest Service roads.

Always carry paper maps, which provide a broader view of the area and tend not to show “ghost” roads that show up on GPS.

Winter weather, even in the deserts of the Southwest, can change rapidly, becoming deadline. A recent storm closed Arizona Highway 64, connecting the east and south entrances of the Grand Canyon. Using GPS a bus and several cars tried to get through on “alternate routes.” These unpaved roads are impassable to passenger vehicles even when dry, let alone when covered with snow.

“Sticking to the main highways is a driver’s best bet, especially during snowstorms,” said Audra Merrick, district engineer for ADOT’s North Central District. “Our snowplow crews are out clearing these roads around the clock along with patrols from the Department of Public Safety and ADOT’s motor-assist vehicles. Don’t follow an alternate route that’s not regularly plowed during winter storms.”

A safeguard, but not a cure, is to set all GPS devices to “shortest time” rather than “shortest distance” or “shortest route.” This tends to force programming onto main road, which are better-patrolled and better-maintained in inclement weather.

Sgt. Aaron Dick, search-and-rescue coordinator for the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, said if a suggested road becomes rough or difficult to navigate the best thing to do is turn around.

“The shortest-distance setting will connect roads in the GPS unit’s inventory to create the shortest route without knowing the status or condition of the roads,” he said. “The shortest-time setting will generally keep the driver on paved or well-maintained roads.

Also, know conditions. Stop and ask. Check transportation department websites, like Arizona’s Most states have 5-1-1 phone service with up-to-date road and weather information.

Having lived in rural mountains for many years and once being a search and rescue specialist for the local Sheriff, I put a winter travel kit in the back of the car or trunk every November. This consists simply of  a couple of space blankets, packets of water, energy bars, bullion cubes and a flashlight with extra batteries. It fits in a small, watertight tin box.

When traveling in the winter, in addition to luggage, add an emergency kit to the vehicle. At a minimum, it should contain for each person, space blankets—and preferably sleeping bags—energy bars, bullion cubes, flashlight and batteries, at least one towel, toilet paper, ice scraper, small shovel, and a liter of cat litter or sand for traction.

Keep filling the gas tank, not letting it drop below half-full. Keep cell phones charged. Carry drinking water and a couple of days’ worth of medication.

Mobile-phone use is not reliable in rural or mountainous areas between small cities.