Thoughts on Technology in the Backcountry

As millennials continue to embark on outdoor adventures, we bring our idiosyncrasies with us. Sometimes, our preoccupation with sharing every detail of our life pervades even our “escape from real life,” though there are certainly benefits to toting around an eight-ounce device keeping us in constant contact with everyone we know and love. Being a proud member of the generation that barely remembers a time that we did not carry pocket sized computers, I have the natural aversion to cutting all ties with technology. However, for years, my outdoor experience was defined by the paper map.  The lines that cut across the page formed my path and the sweeping, undulating circles creating topography captured my eye. I am torn between the modern, seamless interface of technology and the artistry of the old school.


While many turn to the outdoors to find solitude, droves of people are flocking to our country’s scenic trails to connect with people with whom they would otherwise never cross paths.  On a 2,000-mile journey, there is ample opportunity to split from your companions and never see or hear from them again. Having a phone combats this “missed connection” problem by allowing for constant contact—allowing for plans to meet in town or even at shelters along the trail. At the beginning of my hike, I did not realize the ease with which I would be able to contact other hikers.  A friend I ended up hiking with for part of the trail and I never exchanged contact info until Pinkham Notch, and, after that, I think we went no more than five days without conversing. I cannot tell you how many people I met in my first three weeks on the Appalachian Trail that I neglected to collect contact information from and was never able to see or speak to again.

Being an ultralight nerd, I have a tendency to make decisions based off of weight.  Maps and guidebooks can be heavy—scratch that, are heavy.  One can continue to be the ultra-lightest ultralight hiker by shaving those valuable ounces and ditching hard copies.  Proper planning avoids piss poor performance, is a quote that echoes in my mind when getting ready for any trip.  I make it a point to understand that I am taking a chance by relying upon battery powered items to guide my way.  However, I do not bushwhack, and most of my hiking is done in the heavily populated and well-marked Smoky Mountains.

In an emergency situation, it always helps to have a way to reach out for help. What can help even more is the ability to locate a human that is lost, in danger, and panicking in the thick woods of the Pacific Northwest or the sprawling, open deserts of the Southwest.  As much as hikers don’t like to address the subject, we are putting ourselves at risk by shirking the resources that society offers, like basic emergency services. GPS services on cell phones can be draining on a phone’s battery, but it can also be an invaluable resource for search and rescue crews.

Social media has brought landscapes to more eyes, and it seems that these landscapes have been thrust into the spotlight.  The fight for public lands has been building and has reached a boiling point. “The president has stolen your land.” It has been a rallying cry in the outdoor industry.  Brands like Patagonia have displayed it on their website’s homepage. By venturing into our National Parks and Monuments and Forests and Seashores , people are bringing attention and, better yet, money into these areas.  This point has a very defined double edge to its sword. By using technology and sharing these places with others on social media, we are able to display the beauty this country has to offer. We are also able to show why people want to save these spaces for future generations.  The more eyes that are able to see these places, the more pressure we can put on legislators to push for regulation and protections. With that being said, we all need to remember that the more feet that trample trails and plant life, the more erosion will be able to work its evil magic.


Imagine attending a concert, speakers are blaring the cool, hip tune of the indie-folk-hop-jazz band you have been waiting months to see.  You look around at all of the smiling faces that are lit, not by the light emanating from the stage but from cell phones. You are pissed. You knew about this band before they were cool, because of course you did.  Well, that is basically how grey hairs feel about kids these days in the wilderness. We use our phones too much. We don’t absorb the viewpoints. We simply stop to take our picture or our selfie to prove we were there without appreciating what is laid out before us. It’s not an unfair argument.  Too many times, I have been swiping through my photos on my phone to think, “Where was this taken?”

Before I mentioned my understanding of reliance upon battery-driven devices.  I am comfortable with my operating without paper maps and without phones in my own backyard of the Smokies.  I do not have the same comfort level hiking in an area with which I lack familiarity.  While Guthook and Halfmile have truly revolutionized the way people thru hike, it’s not the greatest idea to hope your phone will always work or will always have 100% battery.  That paper map that you sent back home is a foolproof way of knowing where you are, where to go, and what makes up your surroundings.

While sharing on social media is an amazing way to reach out to people and show people things they may never get to see, social media can also draw crowds to places that were never meant to carry such a burden.  As users of this land, we must be careful to not love our trail systems too much.  Erosion is a real concern and hikers have to realize that we are part of the problem just as much as being part of the solution.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, don’t be a dick. That’s the best advice any hiker can give a person who wants to start hiking.  If a person asks you to not talk on the phone at a shelter, don’t talk on the phone at a shelter.  Remember, we are sharing this space with others. While it is a vast space, it is getting smaller all the time.  If your Netflix consumption at a campsite interferes with someone else’s enjoyment, compromise. Put your phone up until they go to bed, at the very least.  People seek many things in nature. And some of these people even seek to disconnect themselves from the very technology you may rely on (gasp!).

Cell phones have reimagined the way people interact in cities and wilderness across the world.  It allows our generation to be more connected than ever before. We can share our adventures to those less fortunate.  We can see what our friends are doing right now, given they have added it to their Instagram story. Maps and guidebooks are now being made into apps, so that you never have to carry that super heavy book that basically tells you how to live your life for six months.  There are many benefits to cutting oneself off from the world. While there are many benefits to utilizing technology on the trail, seeking that disconnect and using more traditional methods can sometimes be the safer solution.

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