Ok. I got your attention. I thought I might. Social media feeds are full of this question these days. That is understandable. GPS units or GPS enabled smartphone apps are incredible pieces of technology that have totally revolutionized the way we navigate. But is that entirely a good thing?

There is no doubt that having a high resolution map on your smartphone screen - your location marked with pinpoint accuracy by your phone’s GPS - is an incredible advancement in navigation technology. That geolocation is only the start. You can also pre load routes into these apps, track your own route, make up route plans, overlay satellite imagery or slope angle or any other number of layers etc. etc.

These days some of the most common questions I see on social media outdoor forums are “I’m planning on going to x or y destination, does anyone have a gps track for that route?”. This focus on the use of other peoples gps tracks concerns me, and not just a little. Here are some reasons why:

  1. As a guide and outdoor educator I increasingly see people on courses who use these gps enabled tools and follow other people’s tracks to find their way through the mountains. These same people may then ask me “how do I learn to route-find and make my way through mountain terrain”. The answer is that you need to put away your smartphone and start by simply visually understanding terrain. That means looking at it, making some guesses about what’s ahead and then going forth and simply moving through the terrain to see what happens. It also involves looking at an old school topographic map, identifying features on the ground and relating them to what you see on the map (and visa versa) and then moving through those features and observing how your chosen line of travel relates to the graphical representation on the map. Over time, learning from your successes and failures you’ll start to see patterns, learn lessons and understand terrain. Ultimately you’ll get good at reading and moving through all kinds of terrain both in the field and during trip-planning on the map. These skills cannot be learned any other way. If you simply blindly follow other people’s gps tracks you will never truly acquire these skills and you’ll probably find yourself in some pretty strange places after having made some pretty illogical choices.
  2. The shared GPS track you are following may not be the best route. Just because someone else has done a route does not mean it is a good one. Their level of skill and experience, risk assessment and management are likely unknown to you. Add to that the fact that because they also leant on a GPS it’s possible they themselves lacked the map and terrain-reading skills described above. This problem is exacerbated many fold when it comes to moving through terrain in winter when avalanche risk is at play. Terrain and route choices that may be the most effective risk management under conditions prevailing on one day could be completely different the next as avalanche conditions change. Relying on a GPS track in these circumstances is like wearing blinders as you travel into terrain where a complete assessment of the surroundings is required.
  3. Smartphones can fail. They can break, get wet or run out of battery power. I hear you saying “yeah and your map could blow away in the wind too” and that is true. The fact is that any of our navigation tools can be compromised so we’d better carry more than one option and know how to use all of them in case one fails.

I use my smartphone more than any other of my navigation tools these days. The reason is clear: it is an incredibly powerful tool that does way more in less time than the old map and compass did. But I implore everyone (especially those in the learning stages of mountain travel) to not use these great tools to the exclusion of learning to move through terrain, finding your own way, being able to read a map and to use a compass. Learn these skills first and then move on to GPS aided navigation. When you do, and to get back to the somewhat disingenuous title of this blog, some of my favourite apps at present are Caltopo, Gaia and Fatmap.

Happy Trails,

Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides

IAG Updated COVID-19 Practices

Posted on Mar 3, 2022
With the province easing restrictions we are able to simplify our Covid-19 practices.

All participants in IAG trips and courses must read and abide by the following as a condition of participation in our trips and courses:

  • Please do not attend a course or trip if you feel unwell or have had a COVID-19 exposure.
  • We ask that all participants bring along an ample supply of hand sanitizer and practice diligent hand hygiene when on our trips and courses.
  • Masks are optional, but encouraged, whether vaccinated or not, if you are indoors (including inside vehicles or aircraft) with others who are not in your cohabiting group.
  • If you display symptoms within a 14 days after an IAG course or trip, or have a positive COVID-19 test, it is essential that you email to notify us of this development immediately so that we can take appropriate actions.

All participants must understand that they may still contract the COVID-19 virus despite these precautions and that precautions are subject to change in accordance with public health advice.

BC's Restart Plan - Step 3

Posted on Jul 2, 2021
As of July 1st, BC has entered Step 3 of the Restart Plan. This phase allows us to dramatically reduce the precautionary steps we take reagarding COVID-19, but there are still a few things that we require of participants on our courses and trips:

  • Please do not attend a course or trip if you†feel unwell or have had a COVID-19 exposure. IAG will offer a full credit to make this easy for you to do.
  • We ask that all participants bring along an ample supply of hand sanitizer and practice diligent hand hygiene when on our trips and courses.
  • We will require that participants who are not double vaccinated wear a mask if they are indoors with other participants who are not in their cohabiting group or IAG staff. This includes flying in helicopters or driving in vehicles.
  • If you display symptoms within a 14 days after an IAG course or trip, or have a positive COVID-19 test, it is essential that you email to notify us of this development immediately so that we can take appropriate actions.

Effective July 1st we will not require any pre-trip COVID-19 documentation, but we do ask for strict adherence to the above. Moving forward, we ar transitionaing from a covid restrictions to a communicable disease plan to continue our efforts to protect our staff and guests.

All participants must understand that they may still contract the COVID-19 virus despite these precautions and that precautions are subject to change in accordance with public health advice.

IAG COVID-19 Best Practices

Posted on May 30, 2020
Island Alpine Guides Covid-19 Risk Management Practices (Updated May 26, 2021) 

The following outlines a series of risk management practices which Island Alpine Guides (IAG) and its clients must follow when participating in trips and courses while the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is present. The contents of this document are derived predominantly from the advice of the BC Provincial Health Officer and industry best practices as outlined in the following two documents:

  • Association of Canadian Mountain Guides - Suggested COVID-19-related Best Practices for Phased Return to Work for ACMG Members - May 13, 2020.
  • BC Adventure Programs - COVID-19 Best Practices - Created by members of the Adventure Articulation Committee British Columbia Council of Articulation and Transfer (BCCAT) - April 2020 These practices are subject to change as public health advice and industry best practices evolve. All participants will be required to complete a screening, as well as read and sign an updated agreement document prior to their trip/course.
Co-Management of COVID-19 Risk

The responsibility for managing the spread of COVID-19 will be shared with all course/trip participants and IAG staff. Participants and staff alike must understand their personal roles and responsibilities in reducing the potential spread of the virus. Continued delivery of IAG courses and trips is contingent on following all protocols underlined herein. Participants will be excluded from activities if protocols go unfollowed. All directives in this document are designed to manage the risk of COVID-19 but will not eliminate that risk.

Classroom Settings

At time of the latest update of these practices (26 May 2021), all courses that normally require indoor classroom time has been moved to a virtual format. This format will be in place until Public Health Orders (PHO) allow groups to gather indoors.

Group Hygiene

  • Everyone on the trip/course must endeavour to stay 2 metres apart at all times
  • If there is a chance of coming within 2 metres, participants must wear a mask
  • All participants are required to bring an ample personal supply of alcohol-based hand sanitizer with 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol, to have it on hand at all times, and to use it after any contact with any surface touched by another participant or IAG staff
  • Participants must not pass food or beverages to one another unless they are members of a cohabiting group
  • If entering an indoor/enclosed space, higher traffic areas, masks must be worn at all times (i.e helicopters)
  • In the event of increased restrictions, IAG maintains the right to request that participants wear masks from the start of the day until the finish

  • At time of writing (26 May 2021), we will accept any participants travelling from within the Vancouver Island Health Authority region
Pre-trip Communication with Participants

  • Specific precautions will be determined and described based on the state of pandemic at the time of participation, as well as the attendant public health and industry advice
  • Participants must agree to sign, understand and acknowledge the changes made to our waiver which reflect COVID-19 risk
  • Participants must read and agree to these COVID-19 protocols by signing an agreement. They must also sign a declaration of health and exposiure which includes acknowledging that they have completed an approved [COVID-19 screening] https://bc.thrive.health/covid19/en.
  • Participation will be limited to those who can attest to being well, to not having been exposed to anyone who is sick, and to not having travelled outside the country within 14 days of the commencement of the trip
  • Participants in higher risk demographics (age >64 years, pre-disposing conditions) are asked not to participate at this time unless they have been vaccinated.
  • IAG cancellation policy has been adjusted to allow for unforeseen changes - if IAG is forced to reschedule or cancel trips or courses because of more restrictive measures coming into place, everyone booked will be given the choice of rescheduling or receiving a full credit for anytime in the future
  • If booked participants feel unwell leading up to a trip or have had a COVID-19 exposure, IAG will insist that they do not participate and will offer a full credit
  • If participants are booking front-country accommodation, they must vet the viral mitigation procedures of the accommodation provider before booking
Food and Accommodation

  • On overnight trips, participants and guides/instructors must stay in their own tent (or roofed accommodation of their own booking when applicable), unless they have been cohabiting prior to the trip
  • All participants and guides/instructors must supply and cook their own meals
  • Only those who have been cohabiting may share meals and cooking supplies
Rental Equipment Sanitation Procedures

  • All company owned soft goods (ropes, harnesses, slings, etc.) will either be isolated for a minimum of three days or be washed in warm, soapy water before each trip
  • All company owned hard goods (i.e. carabiners, ice axes, crampons, rock protection, avalanche safety gear, skis, ski poles, hiking poles etc.) will be either isolated for a minimum of three days or be washed in warm, soapy water prior to each trip
  • All hard goods without soft material or plastic may also be sprayed with a dilute solution of bleach and water or a hospital grade bactericide/anti-virus followed by adequate drying prior to each trip as an acceptable alternative
Post-trip Communication

  • Participants must agree to contact IAG immediately if they experience any COVID-19 symptoms within 14 days of their trip/course. Should you have any questions about the contents of this document, please do not hesitate to reach out to IAG at (250) 400-2870 or [email protected].

Things are Looking Up!

Posted on May 8, 2020

Finally it seems we have some light peaking over the horizon. Thanks to our collective efforts, we have reason to be cautiously optimistic that we have averted the worst case scenario and can slowly, and carefully emerge from our isolation.

Recently our Premier announced a phased plan for easing restrictions which includes our provincial parks reopening.

So is this a time to start thinking about trips into the wilderness? We think so! Indeed we think outdoor activities, in small groups and close to home here on the Island will be just the right thing to be doing. We know that time in nature is incredibly health giving and that the experiences we offer are just the thing that islanders need now for our mental and physical well-being.

Our priority is to make sure our trips operate in a way that is safe for you, our staff and our communities vis a vis the covid risk. To this end we have consulted with health authorities, our professional association and with BC College and University Outdoor Programs to establish the standards to which we will operate. With these standards in mind we've taken a detailed look at all of the trips and courses which we offer and we're pleased to say that there are plenty of trips that we can do.

With some modifications, our 3 Day Alpine Skills, Mountain Skills Fly-in, Women's Mountain Skills Fly-in, Mountain Improv, Wilderness Survival and Wilderness Navigation courses are all trips that we'll be comfortable offering from June 1st on. Whether we choose to get into helicopters on the dates planned for fly-in courses will depend on conditions at the time, but we can easily modify these trips to a walk-in location where roads take us to high enough altitude to allow for easy access to excellent mountain training locations. In addition we're happy to operate any of our hiking trips and are excited to be adding a new Mountain Travel course to our offerings. This course will have participants learning a whole range of skills on a beautiful alpine hiking traverse that will allow them to do these kinds of trips independently after the course.

We’ve put dates up on our web site for the trips mentioned above and a few others. If you do not see dates posted for a trip that you want to do, get in touch with us to discuss. If the trip or course you are proposing fits with current or forecast recommendations from public health authorities, we’ll work with you to choose dates and to post a trip for you and others to join. If you prefer to do things with just your cohabiting family or friends we can also organize custom trips.

We will not open up our rock climbing courses to mixed groups as yet because of the intensive touching of ropes and rock by everyone involved but we'd be happy to organize rock climbing for families or cohabiting groups. Just get in touch to discuss these options. We will closely monitor the situation and resume rock climbing programs for mixed groups as soon as public health advice suggests it's appropriate.

These are uncertain times. So despite our growing optimism regarding getting into the great outdoors with you again, we are going to adjust our cancellation policy to allow for unforeseen changes. If we are forced to reschedule or cancel trips or courses because of restrictive measures coming back into place due to a resurgence in the virus, everyone booked will be given the choice of rescheduling or receiving a credit. Additionally if you are not feeling well in the lead up to a trip, we'll insist that you do not participate and will make that easy for you by offering a full credit. These changes to our cancellation policy will allow everyone to dream and plan, but without financial risk.

We'll be sharing the details of our covid risk management plan with all participants pre-trip. If you'd like to receive this previous to booking a trip contact us and we'll send it out to you.

Things are indeed looking up, and so are we, toward our beautiful mountains here at home on Vancouver Island and to getting back out there with all of you!