Technology and the outdoors go together like carbon fibre and paddles, but the role of electricity in wild places is increasing daily.
I love techno gear, especially the kind that comes in sexy boxes and costs more per ounce than anything not illegal or made of yellow metal. Even though it was 35 years ago, I still vividly remember ripping the cling-film off my first Walkman. Today, I still have the same lust for shiny plastic as I do for being outside—but as I travel the outdoors I’m seeing new and complicated interactions between technology, humans and nature that range from life-saving to savagely annoying.
When I first started going into the mountains, we brought nothing electrical beyond a headlamp. We guarded that small flicker of technology carefully as the useful light output was measured in minutes. Anything electrical required huge amounts of juice to run, so it was usually left at home. The Walkman added significantly to the technology load, and with five or six tapes it was possible to carry as many as 60 songs into the mountains! But on longer trips, the Walkman stayed at home; music wasn’t worth the weight.
Today, instead of electronics requiring disposable batteries—or a generator, as we had on some big expeditions—I can charge most of my gear using solar power and USB cables. Or I can bring a USB power bank that weighs less than my first headlamp and runs everything for a couple of days. Heck, I can even buy a small woodstove with a USB charging port and an electric fire-starter that recharges off the USB. Life is great!
My phone is mostly useless for calls in the backcountry, but it has replaced my paper maps, bulky and annoying compass, music player, GPS unit, guidebook, small medical book, camera and so on. Invariably, some of what I had in paper format was wrong, got wet or was used to start a fire (not necessary now, due to the aforementioned USB fire-starter). My father, author of many outdoor guidebooks, refuses to join the digital revolution because he worries about running out of power. I worry more about having the map disintegrate after a few hours of use in a rainstorm (as it often did), or getting the declination wrong (as I often have) or any of the other related issues. I love digital navigation for its accuracy, level of map resolution, ability to load waypoints and routes and 100 other reasons. (Now if we could only get the older generation to stop using UTM coordinates, which do not play nice with a digital world.)
Three other electronic tools have also had massive effects on the backcountry experience—for the better. The best avalanche recovery system we once had was a ball of string tucked into the side of our gaiters. If you got hit with a slide, you would reach down and throw the ball of string, which would then unravel and lead rescuers to you. (In theory.) Avalanche beacons have saved thousands of lives since then, and they are one of the few pieces of electronics that don’t charge off a USB connection—but the batteries last for months, so it’s not a big deal. Both Arc’teryx and Black Diamond now make battery-powered airbags that can save your life by keeping you on the surface of a slide and potentially safe from the trauma that kills 40 per cent of avalanche victims.
Satellite phones and two-way satellite messaging systems beat radios for most users, and they’re USB-rechargeable, unlike radios. (Radios also require repeaters and someone to talk to.) Sat-comms work well to call in a rescue and also to prevent needless rescues by allowing for calls letting everyone know we are OK—just late. An InReach offers two-way messaging and holds maps for a third layer of location backup. Plus, there are solar rechargeable lanterns, headlamps, bear fences (a game changer in many places) and an amazing array of other safety features. But there is one huge downside to all this progress: portable speakers.
I may be getting old, but I would almost trade all of the above progress to get rid of people wandering around the trails while playing music through Bluetooth speakers, or more commonly, backpacks with built-in speakers. I hate these people.
Many of the areas I climb at also have tourist trails nearby. While the questions and commentaries are mildly annoying (usually directed at my girlfriend: “Wow, look, it’s a real girl up there!”), the hikers who indiscriminately extrude audio crap into the environment drive me nuts. These moving pustules of noise are usually playing some crooning vacuous bullshit popular in urban elevators or juice bars. It’s not good for the psyche and it’s rude—yet the people doing it likely don’t even realize how their soundtrack impinges on everyone else’s. Most of the people playing this music don’t really fit the outdoor stereotypes at all, they’re over-groomed urbanites wearing city shoes, and that’s a good thing—getting more people involved in the outdoors is a net positive—but what’s appropriate in the city should be punished by a falling boulder in the mountains. I’ve done a little loose research by asking some of these people what they are thinking and they just look blank—they don’t seem to realize it’s an issue. It’s as if being alone with nature causes some sort of atavistic twitching response to fill the mental audio void.
People generally realize talking loudly on a cellphone in a restaurant is rude, so how do we get the same etiquette applied to the outdoors? Any ideas? I’d trade all the advancements made with outdoor electricity for silence. Hell, I’d even use paper maps again…