If you travel a lot – road trips, RV, whatever – you'll get the question a lot: “What GPS do you have?”
I have no GPS in my car. I want no GPS in my car.
Death Valley is called that for a reason, and this story is the reason. A woman followed her GPS into the desert, and her child died, and she almost did, too. The press is quick to blame the GPS, and peoples’ willingness to blindly follow it, but I don't think that's the whole story. I meet people whenever I'm at a National Park who think that “Park” means it's like Disney: someone made it, and it's designed to be inherently safe. This couldn't be further from the truth. “National Park” more often means that you're on your own, so you'd better be prepared for what you're going to find.
All of the parks provide information to those who want to venture into the wilderness. They're not just covering their asses to avoid a lawsuit. They're trying to keep you alive. You should read all of it, and do everything they tell you to do, unless you know why you're special. Your cell phone probably isn't going to work, and it would be a mistake to assume someone will come along to find you.
I drive a sports car. It's designed to work well on pavement; not so much elsewhere. When I'm at Badlands in South Dakota, sure, I'll go on the dirt roads: they're well-maintained, they don't go far, and the environment is one where I can walk back out if necessary. At Death Valley, though, my car doesn't leave the pavement, except for parking areas just off the road. It's a different world. If you want to venture into the desert, they rent Jeeps equipped for off-road travel with beefed-up suspensions and special tires.
The Parks are becoming more popular each year – this is good, but unfortunately, a lot of people seem to think they are just a cheaper alternative to Disney World for a family vacation. They're not. A National Park is not a controlled environment designed to be safe. People die every year ignoring safety warnings, and not just at Death Valley; assume you're on your own at Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon, if you venture off the pavement.
A few years ago, I hiked part of the way down the Grand Canyon, on the Bright Angel Trail, one summer morning. On the way back up, I met a man with his two young sons; he asked me about camping at the river. He intended to go all the way down just to check it out. He had one bottle of water for the three of them. I persuaded him that, no, he really wasn't going to the river that day. It was over 120° below the rim, according to the Park Service, and he thought he was hiking to the river and back with his kids and 16 ounces of water. No GPS led him into that.
The Park Service tells you that under no circumstances should you attempt to hike to the river and back in one day. It's on a sign at the trail head. Sure, people do it; if you're one of those people, you know why you can ignore the warnings.
“Death by GPS” is an angle a lot of reporters like to take – it's easy and straightforward to blame technology, and people like the story. But I don't think it's the whole story.
Blindly following your GPS instead of your eyes is stupid. Assuming a wilderness is safe because it's called a “park” is even more dangerous. That word may not mean what you think it means.