When it comes to navigation, don’t rely exclusively on GPS. Rely on yourself.
A map hangs on the wall in our office. It’s five feet tall and equally as wide. It’s an overview of our city— black and white, no relief, just streets and names and geographic features. We start each surveillance job at the map.
Yes, I know you can key a subject’s address into your on-board GPS, and the dulcet tones of the Eternal Digital Feminine will guide you, turn by turn, to your destination. Newer systems can even inform her of traffic snarls. She is omniscient and aggressive, and she stands by her route at all cost.
How did we ever get along without these pushy, all-knowing traveling companions? And yet, we did. We relied on ourselves. In fact, my sailor buddy Rory McDougall circumnavigated the planet in a 21-foot catamaran using a sextant for navigation. A sextant.
We can do this. As an old Kiwi sailor I once met said (from beneath a comical yellow slicker hat), “A GPS is a navigational aid. It all comes ’round to you in the end.”
Full disclosure: I just cannot bring myself to rely solely on a GPS for locating myself in the world. It goes against everything I learned hiking the northern New Mexico mountains at Philmont Scout Ranch as a kid, everything I learned as a private pilot.
Admittedly, navigational failure aloft or in some wind-bitten western wilderness is a whole lot more likely to end badly than getting turned around on a surveillance run. But the same principles apply: GPS is one of the tools you can use to find yourself. But it doesn’t stand alone, for the following reasons:
1. Reliability – Signals fail.
2. Power – Electrical systems and batteries fail. Your friendly GPS requires constant feeding. She eats power, consumes it. Unplugged, she just can’t last a whole day.
3. Visibility – Difficult to see the screen in bright sunlight. If you’re traversing the wilds of Amarillo with a searing Texas sun low in your windshield, the map washes into a hazy blur. Polarized sunglasses and reading the screen on a tablet? Not gonna happen.
4. Bad Data – Map info might be outdated. Death Valley rangers report that every year, several visitors to the park lose themselves by following GPS directions in a sheeplike manner. There have been fatalities. See NPR’s “The GPS: A Fatally Misleading Travel Companion.”
5 Navigational Passivity – Relying on GPS trains your mind to be lazy about positional awareness.
6. Distractions – When you focus on the device, you’re not focusing outside. Plus, there’s The Voice—that insistent drone of a voice that will not shut up. It’s constantly barking orders, offering advice, and then (correcting route … ), “In fifty feet make a U-turn.” In a fit of confusion and rage, you look down and pinch the map to get an idea of the surrounding area and drive headlong into the bumper dead ahead.
Granted—for the most part, GPS is reliable. But DO NOT even get me started on the utter, abominable folly that is Apple’s new map app for iPhone. My recent escapades across Tempe and Mesa, Arizona with Apple’s map as my copilot left me crazed and fuming. If you’re using Apple Maps, I have four words for you: Download. Google. Maps. Now. And then go buy a paper map.
When it comes to GPS, I look at it this way: It’s my assistant. I’m in charge, and I don’t take orders from disembodied voices.
It’s easy to rely on technology, to give over some of the hard work to the great tools available to us. But using these tools to heighten your positional awareness keeps your mind engaged and encourages the kind of planning and route study that leads to a successful moving surveillance outing.
Here are five easy tips for orienteering that can help keep your head out of your GPS and in the real world.
Pick some landmarks that you can use as boundaries for your area of surveillance. Pass one of these, and you’ve gone too far. A regional mall, a tall building, a radio tower, an office park, your local Target, all great catching features to let you know (generally) where you are.
A handrail is a feature you can use to navigate to and through an area. Take I-65 in Brentwood, Tennessee. It’s a north/south eight-lane divided handrail. Highways, railways, rivers—all useful tools to help you get to (or back to) a place easily. Review a paper map before you leave the office. Note the location of your subject’s house in relation to a handrail. If you’re on foot, a fence line or game trail is a great handrail. Know and use the obvious long and linear features to navigate.
Say you’re tailing a target along Bovine Street, your chosen handrail in South Podunk. Target turns left several blocks ahead of you. Aim off your handrail and catch him on a parallel street. If you’ve studied the map and know the area, this is an easy move. Your handrail is still there as a point of reference, but you can now travel parallel or perpendicular to the handrail and always have a sense of where you are.
Attack Point (Rally Point)
Before you get in your car, select an attack point. Meet your team here just before setting up surveillance. It’s also a great place to return to when you (inevitably) lose your target. This can be a Taco Villa parking lot or your local coffee house. Just define it ahead of time and make sure every member of the team knows that when things go pear-shaped, they should return to the attack point and regroup.
Collecting features are places you identify as you travel, places you didn’t pick up on while studying your map. Maybe it’s the Jesus Christ Is Lord and Savior Truck Stop, all lit up with neon and garish paint. Maybe it’s the Purple Onion adult bookstore, with its XXX window signs. It could be the downtown skyline of Atlanta, just visible above the treetops to the east. Or it could be one of the Seven Sisters buildings that ring Moscow. As you drive, pay attention to your surroundings, and collect new features.
Each of these tips is predicated on knowing the area before you leave home base. There’s a map on the wall in our office. It’s five feet tall and equally as wide. It’s black and white. Simple, street names, rivers, airports. We start every surveillance at the map. Yes, we use GPS; but that know-it-all voice that barks orders is noticeably silent.
Thomas H. Humphreys’ pet peeves are maps and GPS screen modes that are not oriented north up.