✘ Tech toys wreck the outdoors.
Who wants the wilderness to feel more like a Best Buy? Once upon a time, not all that long ago, you had to know how to read a topographical map to navigate the outdoors. Stepping off a well-worn trail was the stuff of Into the Wild and 127 Hours.
Now GPS devices and expanded cell service have made far-off places seem accessible, even safe. But the cavalry can’t swing in at the push of a button—rescues have to factor in weather, resources, and the margin of error that still exists with fancy devices. Hello, false sense of security.
Gadgets are pernicious for more than the yahoos they send into the wild. They distract and complicate. Do you really need to know exactly how many feet you’ve climbed or exactly what time it’ll rain? Really? Keep going up to the top and pack a jacket just in case. Bam, done. Unless you’re through-hiking the Appalachian Trail, a slightly lighter tent or a slightly brighter lamp isn’t going to make a difference, and nature shouldn’t be a consumer experience.
The wild demands quiet, sustained attention; you’ll never spot wildlife while tweeting. A 2015 Microsoft study showed that since 2000 the average adult attention span had dropped from 12 to 8 seconds—shorter than that of the famously flighty goldfish.
What’s more, technology has made documenting the outdoors easier, bringing crowds to favorite spots and turning them into tourist traps. Hence the term Facebook hero, meant to denote a person or activity that exists only to be cropped, filtered, and bragged about online. Suddenly outdoor adventure is just another profile pic.
Technology is clutter. Naturalist and national outdoors cheerleader John Muir implored us to “break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” Your spirit is dirty, and it’s gadgets that are doing it. Leave ’em behind.
✔︎ Gadgets are progress.
Do you like dying? Well, technology keeps people from dying, plus it invites more people to the get-outdoors party in the first place.
Emergency locators save people. You like people, right? Plus searchers spend less energy looking and more time inside drinking hot chocolate. The decade-old SPOT device is basically Find My iPhone for people, using satellites to relay information to authorities. It recently prompted its 4,000th rescue.
Just ask backcountry skiers, who’ve seen the spread of two key gizmos, the avalanche beacon to find someone buried in snow and the airbag to lift them up above it. One Swiss study found mortality dropped from 70.6 percent to 55.2 percent with the former. How can you not love less death?
Campers used to bring propane-fueled lanterns into the woods and fill fuel tanks out of gas cans themselves, because when you have kids running around with flaming s’mores on sticks, why not add highly flammable liquids? Now battery-powered LED lights and prepackaged fuel tanks are environmentally friendly and singed-eyebrow preventers. That’s progress.
Yes, Theodore Roosevelt’s closet was probably indistinguishable from the spring line from Seattle-based Filson. But solar panel chargers make for a cleaner campsite than Teddy ever had, and GoPro cameras encourage campers to take home trophies of sick first-person footage, not the mounted head of a wild boar.
Old age and bad knees come for us all. Aren’t you glad that carbon-fiber hiking sticks exist? From the miracle that is Gore-Tex to cell phone cameras that make us all Ansel Adams, technology means that wild vistas aren’t merely for the few, the rich, and the extraordinarily skilled. Consider this: Before headlamps were miniaturized and popularized, people shined flashlights in one another’s eyes constantly.
Some argue that all this technology makes people too cocky, that dingbats get in over their head because they have a “rescue me” button in hand. But after four years with Seattle Mountain Rescue, vice chair Drew Fletcher says that’s not what he sees. “The people who carry GPS devices and end up needing to be rescued are typically the ones who are carrying the 10 essentials; are fairly well prepared. Something bad just happened.”