I have this terrible fear of death. Not my death, but my loved ones’. Whenever they leave the house and go on adventures, vivid visions of car crashes and climbing accidents wiggle their way deep into my brain.
It wasn’t until I was 30 that I learned not everyone thinks like this. My partner at the time was a worry-free skier, climber, and biker who would often put his phone on airplane mode before heading into the mountains. As soon as the sun would set, I’d wait, my mind frantic, desperate to feel the vibration of a text message. Does he have a headlamp? Shouldn’t he be finished with his tour? I’d pull up the local avalanche-center reports and check for news of any accidents. I’d pace around my house, unable to focus on simple tasks and wondering how soon I could call search and rescue.
Backcountry recreators have used GPS devices for years to share their locations with loved ones. But it was rare that people could watch the comings and goings of their partners on screen at any given moment. That changed in the last couple of years with the iPhone—today, many of my friends seem perfectly happy to use it in their daily lives, for reasons beyond safety concerns. “I always thought I wouldn’t like it, but now my husband and I use it. It just cuts down on the ‘when will you be home’ texts and makes me feel better when he’s mountain biking,” says my friend Kasey.
However, others feel it is an overreach, an invasion of privacy. “My wife and I don’t use it. We had both been in relationships in the past where we shared locations, and we both felt it became toxic and unnecessary,” explains another of my friends, who asked to stay anonymous.
For me, it was a crutch to avoid working on underlying issues, both personal and relational.
My anxiety started off benign enough, confined to the realm of my partner’s risky outdoor excursions and long-distance drives. But it soon grew to occupy space in my daily thoughts. I’d constantly plead as he walked out the door to text me when he arrived at his destination. He was a good sport, but the incessant worrying and need for communication weighed on him. He went outside to get away from technology, not check in with his overly anxious girlfriend six times a day. And he knew he was bad at it. So one day, he turned on his iPhone tracking—indefinitely. A wave of relief washed over me. If my mind flashed to a tragic scene, I’d just take out my phone. Instant fix.
But in the weeks that followed, I found myself checking just because, even when I didn’t fear for his well-being. I found comfort as the map readjusted to his current location, visualizing him on the trail or at a red light, his little white and blue initials a sign that his physical body was intact. Though it felt unhealthy even at the time, I didn’t know how else to temper my obsessive thoughts. Logically, I knew my partner would be OK. As a former backpacking guide with wilderness medical training, I always felt confident in my ability to improvise in any outdoor situation, and I trusted my partner’s competency, too.
But location sharing was a Band-Aid for my overactive imagination; it gave me enough information to fill the gaps of the unknown—until it couldn’t. To me, Washington seemed like one of the states with the worst cell reception; when my partner would ride his bike under a thick canopy of ancient trees, I’d be left with my phone in hand, helpless and unable to pinpoint his exact location. These out-of-service adventures were a crucial part of our lifestyles—both together and separately—so I couldn’t ask him to reorganize his life to indulge my anxiety. He already felt he was sacrificing personal freedom by regularly updating me on his status before he even started sharing his location.
During that relationship, I learned about attachment styles, using internet surveys to self-diagnose my tilt toward anxious attachment. At first, I didn’t understand. Anxious attachment often coincides with jealousy or abandonment, even lingering childhood trauma. This was just my strange, deep-seated fear of loss. But the more I learned about the anxious tendencies, like struggling with impulse control, the more it resonated. Instead of embracing the unknown, I was becoming dependent on constant access to information. For me, part of the joy I feel in the backcountry is the uncertainty and potential in every outing. So why was I using a technology that made me uncomfortable with that?
“There aren’t studies yet about how location sharing affects relationships,” says Tess Rafferty, a marriage and family therapist based in New York. “There’s so much that remains to be seen.” But her stance never wavered when I talked to her: what looks healthy for one couple may not be for another. “We want to feel safe and secure in relationships. How each couple creates that safety differs.” For many of my friends, location sharing provides a sense of well-being because their partners know where they are when they go for a run or bike ride. And this boost of reassurance has allowed many people to embrace solo adventures. But while couples can use location sharing as a tool, it isn’t right for every relationship. “In my case,” I probed Rafferty, “do you think the location sharing was unhealthy?” She smiled and put her hands over her heart, “I think you know the answer for yourself.”
And she was right. I didn’t want to just cover up my anxiety, I wanted to manage it. Dozens of motivational quotes tell us that is discomfort is where growth happens—I’ve repeated this platitude to my backpacking clients and friends while scrambling a ridgeline or taking off our hiking boots to ford an ice-cold river.
Now it’s my turn to lean into the type-two fun. Even though my partner and I are no longer together, I haven’t asked any new partners or friends to share their locations, except for one-off instances, like long bike trips or when buying a car from a stranger. At times, my anxiety rages back and my mind wanders into dark thoughts about avalanches or rockfalls. Instead of refreshing the map, I lace up my shoes, hop in my car, and drive out of cell reception. The sun is high overhead and the sagebrush shimmers on the hills while I unload my bike. As my tires roll across the dirt, my breath eases into a rhythm and my thoughts start to clear. With each stroke of the pedal, I feel more like myself. Someday, I may choose to share my own location with a partner and enjoy the comfort of knowing they can find me. But for now, I have a bit of work to do to get there.