Before the internet came along, I once had a vague interest in orienteering – a sport requiring a map, compass, running gear and a whistle – in case you got lost in the woods.

The advent of the web and GPS devices has made all that seem out of date. In 2000, the US removed selective availability from its GPS system, allowing locations to be nailed down to within three metres and leading to the growth of geocaching as a sport and worldwide treasure hunt.

The latest handheld gear available to enthusiasts and walkers turns it all into a social networking tool.

Magellan’s top-of-the-range GPS mapping device, the Triton 2000, combines a colour touch-screen, a compass, barometer, flashlight, microphone, MP3 player and digital camera.

A related website and VantagePoint PC software allow users to draw routes on detailed maps and upload them to the device. Magellan has partnered with National Geographic in the US but is struggling to get access to Ordnance Survey maps in the UK.

The software also allows the sharing of data – users can play back a walk to friends including photos and audio files embedded in the map.

User-created maps are part of a democratisation of cartography, from Google Earth’s tools to free map-drawing software from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Users are also being given access to the latest satellite imagery in a way that could change the nature of search and rescue operations. Google Earth was used this month to comb Nevada for signs of the plane of missing aviator Steve Fossett and users were each assigned images of small parts of the search area through Amazon’s mechanical turk.

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