2014 is a 'back-to-basics year for me. That is, when it comes to GPS. I have considered it in the past, but it was time to finally commit myself to switching the Garmin off, and get back to the good 'ol days of sighting compass only. The journey so far, only 4 walks into my digital detox, have been quite interesting. It has made me think about the origins of letterboxing with a GPS too.
Throughout the 1990's, Dartmoor Letterboxing was booming. People from across the world were discovering the joys of the hobby. The Meets, and the Moor were crowded. The Letterbox catalogue, and supplementary updates were positively bursting with new boxes. This was a fine time to be searching for boxes, were it not for one thing. The searching. Compasses of suspect quality, accuracy and reliability were being sought from everywhere and anywhere. Mirrored, sighting compasses, map compasses. Hand-me downs, army surplus shops, Christmas crackers... There was a general understanding of how a clue was formed, though the skill and quality of the actual bearing was heavily reliant on the care and exactness of the compass bearer's hand and eye. The compass connoisseurs choice of compass was (and still remains) the Silva Expedition type 54. The Bugatti Veyron of the sighting compass world, with pinpoint accuracy, and hefty price tag to boot - an RRP of £65.
Dodgy bearings, especially in charity walks, were leading to frustration and anger. 6 figure grid references weren't cutting it. Something had to be done. There had to be a better way, and in 2000 the United States of America made things much easier. The Global Positioning System (GPS) - the space-based satellite navigation method designed for the US military was finally opened up to civilian use.
In the 1990s, I worked for a high street outdoor retailer. I was pretty savvy about the latest kit available. I was very aware of GPS, and as much as Dartmoor Letterboxing, and The Upland Trotters tried to resist, 10 figure grid references were really catching on. At the end of 2000, The Upland Trotters acquired a new Garmin eTrex.
Bearings became irrelevant. If the clue had a 10 figure grid reference, like the time on an atomic clock, it couldn't possibly fail us. As long as we had a view of the sky, and a set of AA batteries, we were gonna have a good day's searching. Letterboxing became like join-the-dots. Like follow-the-leader. Head down and pursue that little digital arrow to the next stamp. Box totals previously only considered achievable on big days out at Cut Hill became the norm.
It wasn't all good news though. If you weren't carrying the GPS, your day on Dartmoor was a predictable trek in someone else's footprints. This left some disillusioned. GPS led to the birth of Dartmoor Letterboxing's digital prodigal son: Geocaching. Letterboxing lost many great ambassadors to this new-found hobby. The letterbox thief likes GPS and the ease it brings. 10 figure grid references are no longer found in the official letterbox updates. Even some Word of Mouth box owners are finding this is a sensible approach.
In search of this lost enjoyment, I have given up the GPS. My findings so far: Bearings are vastly inadequate - typically long distance, or too close and useless unless you are already stood on the box. Generally though they are reasonably accurate. However many boxes I have on my list to find each walk, I should halve it. Low-tech letterboxing takes longer and far more effort. Planning and plotting is as important as ever, using bearings to strike for the next box on the list.
Its an interesting experiment, and maybe it is a glimpse back to the future.