Computers are an indispensable part of modern life, and efforts at living simpler without phones, computers, and electronic maps are meritorious, but perhaps neglect the necessary progress of the day. That is, where would one be without the ability to receive text messages?…probably missing a lot of social engagements. Without the ability to access a computer and the skills to use it?…not getting a lot of jobs I can think of. An obvious analogue– what if we were still stuck upon those whimsical dandy horses, those mechanical steeds of yesteryear? Yes, the bicycle. Wouldn’t our world be small and uncomfortable?
So I may not be the most passionate proponent of progress, but to choose from a sampling of old and new technologies should afford us more choices than ever before, thus better solutions. Ignoring the craze of smartphones in the past several years, I was surprised to learn last fall that the newest generation of the iPod Touch would replace my netbook in nearly every way, which I had assumed two years before was the greatest thing that could come of micro-computing technology. I was quite wrong. Large computer screens and keyboards are the two most voluminous features of a computer, in addition to some of the weight. Dispense with those, and you can manage a tidy package, especially in the absence of other features such as disk drives, and input/output connections. Thus, the tablet and the smartphone are born. In the case of the iPod touch, it is just a little computer, not a phone– the benefit is that no phone plan or data plan is required, especially useful when traveling out of the country. I loaded nearly 30GB of music onto the iPod, used it to communicate via e-mail and Skype, secured warmshowers hosts during LA’s near-Biblical flooding this past Christmas, applied for a job (successfully); also, to plan routes via Google Maps, check weather, find stores, and browse the internet. WiFi is your leash, but it is most often free, and free is always the right price.
Presently, I am considering handheld GPS units, not so much for the ability to locate myself (I have always managed this in the past), but to have access to preloaded maps with road and topographic detail for an entire continent. For someone who travels the distance of many states, but also requires high-detail maps in some areas (BLM or USFS lands, cities, lazily winding country roads, everywhere), preloaded maps can be a huge savings in paper, cost, and time.
Another option is to navigate via one’s computer or smartphone. Computers and the iPod touch can load sections of maps from mapping programs such as Google maps or MotionX-GPS which can be referenced while en route. The same can be done on smartphones via 3G or 4G networks as well as with true GPS on some phones. Alec Burney (of VO fame; also recently completing the Shenandoah 1200k) has wired his iPhone to his VO switchable dynamo hub and navigates via maps downloaded from MotionX-GPS. The device locates him in most instances, but even in the event of poor connectivity to satellites or cell towers, the maps are preloaded for the desired area and can thus be used in the traditional manner. I supposed I am obliged to recommend that paper maps be carried in case of equipment failure, but in many situations, the next gas station will provide an opportunity to purchase a map and locate oneself. If in the backcountry, paper maps are more highly recommended, and the ability to locate yourself via GPS is much more valuable, as road signage often becomes sparse.
For now, my solution is something like my duct tape fix to my tent, which has also received a dose of Nikwax Tx-Direct wash-in waterproofing. My sister is offering her used Droid X phone, which will offer similar functionality to the iPod Touch with the option of making it my primary phone device in the future. For now, I will likely avoid the mandatory $30/month data plan–in addition to the basic phone service- and use the Droid like a little computer for offline computing and when WiFi is available, and continue using my basic four-year old phone.
Technology is not really changing our lives, it simply changes how we do our lives– how we connect with others and information. Asking locals about remote roads or paper maps from a local USFS office can still be the best way to plan ahead, but in some instances, connecting to crazyguyonabike has allowed me to research routes ahead from a cyclist’s perspective (never to be underestimated). Google maps now includes rail-trails and bike lanes into their software; Motion-X GPS is $2.99 from the app store; the iPod Touch can handle basic word processing, internet browsing and lots of music; and DeLorme offers the handheld Earthmate PN-60W with preloaded maps (N. America) and the ability to communicate custom text messages to a SPOT (via Bluetooth), which then connects via satellite. I await the unit that manages to integrate all of these utilities: phone, WiFi/3G, GPS mapping, and satellite text communication. I once feared that electronics would take the thrill out of the adventure– that micro-managing navigation would never allow me to get “lost”. Short of purchasing DeLorme state gazetteers –which are great, just bulky and $20 apiece– I have nearly exhausted the possibility of paper-only navigation. Then again, if you know from whence you came, you are never lost. Maybe next time ’round I’ll use the map as toilet paper and have a real adventure.
Thanks to Alec Burney for electronic expertise and the USB charger now growing off my right fork blade, powered by the dynamo.