Earlier this week, Mountain Club of South Africa Search and Rescue posted a report on a rescue mission carried out on Nursery Buttress (above Kirstenbosch Gardens) on their Facebook page.
The post reads:
“Late on Saturday afternoon, foreign hikers requested Wilderness Search And Rescue WSAR Western Cape's help after following a route which appeared to be a "normal hiking route" on a popular phone app. Unbeknown to the hikers, and very worryingly, the app did not provide sufficient indication that the route is indistinct and not recommended since it requires exposed scrambling, challenging route finding and difficult terrain.”
It must be said that we do not assume the app used in that instance was Forge, and in fact, doubt that it was given its relative limited popularity amongst foreign visitors to South Africa (according to our own stats). However, as a major South African-made mobile hiking maps application, with over 4 800 active users (and 21 800 downloads) across the country, we are disappointed by the distinctly antagonistic attitude shown towards mobile apps in this statement.
We share the sentiment that many mapping apps provide limited information, and maps are often created using open-source data and user-generated information. While open-source data certainly has its benefits, it can - as in this instance - mislead users. This is where the Forge App is different from its competitors, by offering significant information that is accurate, verified and up-to-date.
Above: Forge team verifying the Nursery Buttress route.
At Forge, we make every effort to ensure that our maps and trails are reliable and accurate, giving users the piece of mind and reassurance that they can trust the data. As far as possible and on a continual basis, we seek to verify our trail data - either by physically walking the trails ourselves or through contributions from trusted peers (which are still verified and corrected where necessary, in-house). Once a trail is collected, it is then hand-digitised to further ensure that it is indeed as accurate as possible. This process also ensures trails are significantly more accurate than paper maps. The digitising process entails attributing every trail segment using GPS data and reference maps and guide books, to provide the following attributes:
Dog Friendly (Yes/No)
Mountain Biking (Yes/No)
By way of illustration, this is how Nursery Buttress is attributed on Forge:
Safety lies at the heart of Forge, hence we have included emergency call functionality, which is directly accessible on every map, and links through to the relevant EMS contacts in that region. Furthermore, links are accessible in the menu to our ‘Mountain Safety’ guide and ‘Useful Links’ page, as well as our blog which has a dedicated page for ‘Trail Safety’. Select maps can also be downloaded to use offline when users do not have an active cell phone network. Additionally, the app is free to download, which eliminates a barrier of entry for hikers to access mountain trail maps and have access to a vital safety tool, i.e. a hiking map.
The rescue report in the final paragraph says:
“We warn hikers to be wary of trails shown on apps and other online sources and do their homework on the difficulty and safety aspects of hikes.”
We largely agree with this. However, there needs to be recognition that as hiking and trail running grow in popularity, most people will rely on technology rather than traditional information sources. We specialise in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and hiking maps, and through dedication ensure that our data is accurate and whilst we share the sentiment expressed above in some regard to our much larger competitors, to dismiss information shown on mobile apps wholesale is not useful. The same warning can be given towards any medium displaying trails and user responsibility is always implicit, regardless of what device they choose to use to navigate with. This is amplified in the first part of the disclaimer which appears when users first open the Forge App:
“At Forge, we encourage people to Find Their Path and Explore More. Remember that conditions outdoors can change rapidly. Always head out prepared, stay safe and know your limits!”
Mobile applications and smartphone devices should be embraced, as they offer the ability to rapidly supply up-to-date information on hazards such as extreme weather, or route closures. For instance, Forge marks trails as closed when declared by authorities within hours - most recently in the case of the fire in Helderberg Nature Reserve and the UCT fires on Devil’s Peak. We have made this argument before in response to a New York Times article, which highlighted concerns about mapping apps in Scotland.
We have previously responded to mountain-related issues around the Cape Peninsula, making the same argument as above. When Forge launched in 2019, we made a concerted effort to approach various outdoor role players - including SANParks and the Mountain Club of SA to no avail - to discern how we could be a useful player in the mountain safety network. The most notable feedback we received was voluntarily provided by Tim Lundy - who also invited us to talk about the app and the value it adds to the outdoor community. Those who know us, know that we are trusted by CapeNature as a partner to supply them with digital trail maps.
We view Forge and our mobile app as being part of a greater network, together with qualified and accredited hiking guides, and mountain rescue services (including Wilderness Search and Rescue and Mountain Club of South Africa EMS) that aim to keep mountain users safe. We have immense respect for search and rescue services which is reflected in the accessibility we give to our users to contact them. We have even hosted a fundraising event, with Wilderness Search and Rescue as the beneficiary in recognition and acknowledgment of the work they do.
As opposed to throwing the mobile hiking app baby out with the bathwater, we humbly request and welcome the mountain safety community to engage and work with Forge and leverage the power of digital trail maps and apps for the benefit of the outdoor community. Our door is always open.
Sustainable working relations can help save on limited emergency services resources and most importantly, reduce the number of dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations ordinary people may find themselves in on our mountains.
Let’s do this together and embrace the power technology has to be a valuable tool.