• If your GPS device died in an unfamiliar place, could you navigate your way out? (Photo: Paul Downey/Wikimedia Commons)

Has your GPS device ever died, leaving you with no clue how to get home? You’re not alone.

Despite the fact that 80 per cent of the world’s adult population will own a smartphone by 2020, satellite navigation is fallible and our ubiquitous reliance on it is eroding our natural wayfinding abilities.

So argues Roger McKinlay, a satellite communication consultant and former president of the Royal Institute of Navigation. In an article published March 30 in the science journal Nature, he writes that schools should be teaching navigation and map reading as life skills.

“Human spatial memory is outstanding… But navigation is a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ skill,” writes McKinlay. “Mountain-rescue teams are tired of searching for people with drained smartphone batteries, no sense of direction and no paper map.”

Under ideal conditions–outdoors in a moderately rural area–satellites are pretty good at pinpointing location. But navigation is about more than knowing where you are; it’s also about where you’re going. And once you put a roof over your head, or venture into a city where signals can get bounced around, or have special transportation needs (say you’re trucking a wide payload or need to avoid construction), GPS can become frustratingly unhelpful. Even the US Navy has started teaching celestial navigation as a backup.

A decade ago, a national survey revealed that a third of adult Canadians could be considered “geographically illiterate.” Today, Canadian Geographic Education is working to advance geography education in the country through programs like the Canadian Geographic Challenge, a national geography competition open to students in grades 4 to 10.

“Students need to learn spatial awareness – at both a local and global scale – in order to understand the complex connectivity between people and places, and to effectively navigate their world,” says Ellen Curtis, director of education at The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

Of course, satellite technology is improving, but McKinlay writes that people need to realize that the infrastructure is expensive and fitting it into a wider system is complicated. To get the best out of technology, it needs to be used by people who understand the basics.

“The introduction of computers and calculators has not removed the need to understand numbers,” writes McKinlay. “If we do not cherish them, our natural navigation abilities will deteriorate as we rely ever more on smart devices.”

Related: Explore Canadian Geographic Education's many free teacher resources, including tiled maps and curriculum-linked lesson plans.