skiing by sat-nav – faster than you think?

The dangerous influence of sat-nav smartphone apps on skiers’ behaviour has made its way up the news agenda lately, from a discreet mention in this space (‘mobile phones make us ski faster ….’) to alarm calls from Médecins de Montagne and a report on the BBC News website.   

Being able to track our skiing has obvious nerd-appeal. How far do we ski in a day?  How much time do we actually spend skiing, as opposed to lunching, queuing, riding lifts and playing with our phones?  A well-organised survey of resorts in high season could produce interesting value for money comparisons.  Last autumn we were all getting steamed up about the way resorts lie about the length of their pistes.  A ski tracking app can help us to uncover the truth …..  if it’s accurate.   In theory the app could also be a useful navigational aid, although I have never seen one being used in this way.       

The app’s most dangerous feature, its critics argue, is its speedometer, which encourages us to race our friends or the clock.  I am not sure how new this phenomenon is.  The app does much the same as a cycling computer, or a watch for that matter, and we seem to have come to terms with these gadgets.   There was a time when I used to cycle daily to an office in central London, and on a good run it was not unknown for me to overtake on the inside and commit other infringements if there was a chance of setting a new personal best.  Commuters who don’t play these games probably drift off in a daydream, which would be at least as dangerous.   

I have been checking my phone app (My Tracks) against a cycling computer on short bike rides around home, and the results are disappointing.  The two systems seem to agree on distance, but their readings for maximum speed are quite different.  The phone app’s reading is always significantly lower than the cycle computer’s.

After yesterday’s ride, for example, the cycle computer gave me a maximum speed of 33kph, My Tracks on the phone said 24kph.  I am inclined to think the cycling computer, which clocks wheel revolutions, is more trustworthy than the sat-nav on this; and that the explanation may have something to do with short bursts of speed that the cycle computer can register and the sat nav can’t.  Or is it something to do with the slope? 

I haven’t tried comparing My Tracks with a speed camera at a ski resort yet, and unfortunately my Skidometer – a spinning wheel and computer that screwed on to the tail end of a ski at around the time of the Falklands War – is nowhere to be found when I need it.

More and more resorts are installing these help-yourself speed-tests, slalom courses and the like – and of course our every schuss finds its way to the bottomless databank via webcam, lift pass, facebook, the CIA, future employers and every market research company under the sun.

It is argued that these playground racetracks stoke the fire of risk culture and reckless skiing.  But speed is of the essence in skiing, the competitive urge is a given, and the greater the playground appeal of the slopes, the better for everyone.  The way forward is not to issue threats about speed limits but to tempt competitive, racy and thrill-seeking skiers to do it in contained areas, well away from the older generation as it potters sedately down the boring old piste.



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