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January 2021 Issue
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You’re not always where you think you are

Avoid confirmation bias by discussing your route with the group and matching the features on the ground to those on the map. Photo: Xavi Costa Losa

Trampers often incorrectly confirm their position because it’s where they believe they are. It’s called confirmation bias and can cause a lot of problems.

Recently I witnessed two examples of confirmation bias which reminded me how easily this can happen and its potential consequences.

In the first case, a group mis-identified their location on the map. The features around them looked like the point on the map where they thought they were. Further up the hill, there were several points where the features looked similar. Because they had mis-identified their first point they mis-identified each subsequent point based on time travelled from the previous point. Even though they expected to reach the top in 10 minutes, they kept on climbing for a total of 25 minutes.

How did this happen?

The group had taken a longer route around the base of the hill before climbing up to the first mis-identified point. The time taken from the base was about what they expected to take to the map feature, but most of that time was detouring. They had not considered a key clue to their location – height gained from the base.

This error could have been avoided by considering all the clues available to them including elevation gained and time spent travelling along the route they took.

It is helpful to know what a climb of 100m feels like. Practise it on a hill of which you know the height. Knowing what it feels like will help you decide if you have climbed that far.

Remember to factor in the twists and turns of the trail and its ups and downs when considering time taken. Have a watch and note the time whenever you do a map check. Estimate how long it will take to the next point of interest.

In the second case, the group mis-identified a track junction where there was a track not marked on their map. This was compounded by a sign indicating a loop walk, only it wasn’t the loop walk they were intending to hike. They became confused by subsequent terrain that didn’t fit with the map for where they thought they were.

This error could have been avoided by considering all the clues available, including time spent walking and elevation gained. In addition, the new track was too small to be the track they wanted to take – which was the main track in a populated area.

To avoid confirmation bias, consider all the clues available to you including time taken, elevation gained, matching map to ground features. Include other clues like size of track, even vegetation and track surface. Look for features that don’t fit your expected location.

– Heather Grady is an instructor with Outdoor Training New Zealand