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Originally published Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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Maps or GPS? If you're smart, use both

GPS technology can be convenient, but backing it up with detailed maps can help travelers detour around unexpected problems.

San Francisco Chronicle

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You can get the surprise of your life when you use an online-mapping service such as Google Maps or MapQuest.

When I punched start and end points into Google Maps for a trip near California's Yosemite National Park, the suggested route included a Jeep trail that was built in 1916-17 to 1913 wagon-trail standards, has been closed to traffic since 1938, and now sits in designated wilderness open only to hikers and horses.

Good thing I knew better. Still, it's hard to believe a service that millions rely on could be so far off.

In advance of a trip, I often use Google Maps to calculate driving distances and time, then pick whatever route I feel like.

This misrouting in Yosemite provided a few grins for the group I was driving with.

Others led astray have not been so lucky.

Who could forget the heart-wrenching story of the death of San Francisco's James Kim? On a trip in 2006, the family, which included his wife and two small children, took an impassable road in a snowbound Oregon forest in an attempt to drive from Interstate 5 to the coast. They got stuck. He died of hypothermia trying to get help; his wife and children survived.

The idea of depending on electronics as a safety net can leave you in a free fall. I always vet everything with detailed maps and love looking at maps and books.

In time, you can learn to read the land, and in turn, how to find water, the best routes and the best locations for campsites while scarcely looking at a map.

On one recent hiking trip in California's eastern Sierra, I was about 150 yards above gorgeous Charlotte Lake when a guy stopped and asked for help.

He showed me his electronic GPS map display, which showed the trail we were on, the lake and another trail (that didn't exist) that was supposed to go to the lake.

"I can't find the trail to the lake," he said. "Here it is on my GPS. But I can't find it. What do I do?"

I pointed at the lake, practically right in front of us. "Walk to it."

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