All technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent.
—David Brower, prominent environmentalist and
founder of the Sierra Club Foundation
When I was a boy we learned what the land looked like, and we knew the rock cairns that the people had built on the land to find their way in storms and whiteouts, because we were a part of the land and we knew it because if we didn’t we would not live. Now these computers [GPSs] that the young people use to find their way—it makes them afraid of the land. . . . They make you afraid of what you should know.
—Inuit elder living in northern Canada, quoted from
Kevin Patterson, The Water In Between, p. 205
Central Questions Addressed in This Article
What about taking and using high-tech gear in the wilderness? How should we define “high-tech” gear relative to wilderness travel? What high-tech gear will enhance and what will detract from my wilderness experiences? What about emergency communication devices like personal locator beacons and navigation devices like GPS units? What is my general philosophy regarding the use of modern technology in the wilderness?
Some Starting Assumptions
It is necessary to make several assumptions to deal effectively with the above questions.
1. Assume that high quality wilderness experiences are desirable when backpacking.
2. Consider that there is no such thing as a “pure” wilderness experience untainted by human technology. Airplanes and satellites fly over. Trail signs and maps involve some technology. Modern packs, tents, boots and clothing all involve lots of technology. Essential survival gear (e.g., LED light and topography map) usually involve some technology.
3. Assume that technology can intrude on our wilderness experiences. Consider an extreme example of the person who takes a digital camera, a smart phone, a GPS and an iPod, all on the same trip. With all of these devices, it is unlikely he or she will have much time to sit quietly and absorb the sights and sounds and smells of nature. While most hikers do not fit this extreme example, many might to lesser degrees.
4. Assume we are not practicing survivalist techniques or attempting to recreate a primitive wilderness style where we make most of our clothes and gear.
5. Even though some have a problem with almost any item of modern technology applied to backpacking, assume that the primary issue here is with taking high- or higher-tech gear into the wilderness. Lower-tech products of modern technology (e.g., basic gear made from plastic or aluminum or nylon) are not generally at issue. Even though these lower-tech items may have been high-tech at one time, they are no longer.
Defining “High-Tech” Gear by Example
Assuming that high- or higher-tech gear is at the heart of this issue of technology and wilderness experiences, what is the best way to define this concept? It could be defined by making explicit many of the characteristics of high-tech gear: electronic, miniaturized, computerized, computer aided design, solar charged, complex in design, innovative, making use of the latest available technology. But defining “high-tech” in this way (i.e., by its qualities and characteristics) only goes so far. In this context, a better way to define “high tech” is by giving examples. Most will recognize the following high-tech items even if they can’t say exactly what they all have in common (if anything). Following this advice, here is a comprehensive list of the latest, greatest and highest tech gear often seen in the wilderness.
GPS (Global Positioning System)
PLB (Personal Locator Beacon)
PDA (Personal Digital Assistant)
FRS (Family Radio Service)
GMRS (General Mobile Service Radio)
MP3 player (miniature digital audio and video device)
LED (Light Emitting Diode) hand light or head lamp
Chlorine dioxide based water treatment
Ultraviolet light based water purifier
prescription medications and wonder drugs
meal replacement powders and bars
vitamin and mineral supplements
performance fabrics (e.g., Goretex, eVent, silnylon, Cuben fiber, Spectra)
electronics embedded in clothing (e.g. heart rate monitor, heating panels)
solar chargers and photovoltaic fabrics
digital tape recorder
digital AM, FM radio
digital altimeter, barometer, thermometer, chronometer, compass, etc.
alkaline and lithium batteries
carbon fiber gear
night vision goggles
footwear with gel pockets in the soles
The above comprehensive list focuses on high-tech gear often taken into the wilderness. Whether or not some items have been missed, I guarantee more will arrive on the scene in the near future relegating at least some of these devices to lower tech status or making them totally outdated.
To extend this “definition by example” a bit further with contrasting examples, check out the next section.
Examples of Low- and Mid-Tech Gear
Below is a comprehensive list of examples of low and mid-tech gear commonly taken into the backcountry. It is interesting to note that many of the items were considered high-tech when first available.
Oldest and lowest-tech
primitive fishing gear
printed journals and guide books
printed paper maps
oil stoves and lamps
feathered sleeping quilt
pistol or rifle
caulked logger boots
triconi nailed climbing boots
aluminum and stainless steel gear
iodine and chlorine water treatment
chemical fuel stoves
chemical bug repellents
bush plane flight into remote wilderness
The above paragraphs and information provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 14 pages) available as a free download. Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.
Taking Technology into the Wilderness – Word Format
Taking Technology into the Wilderness – PDF Format
The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:
Some Starting Assumptions
Defining “High-Tech” Gear by Example
Examples of Low and Mid-Tech Gear
Reader Participation: Use of High-Tech in the Wilderness
Defining “High-Tech” By Specific Actions
Competing Philosophies of Technology Use in the Wilderness
Reader Participation: Acknowledging Philosophies about Technology and Wilderness Experiences
Special Case: Emergency Communication Devices
Author’s Philosophy of Technology Related to Wilderness Experiences
Author’s Philosophy of Technology Related to Backpacking
Additional Issues for Reflection