are tech toys spoiling the wilderness experience?

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Home Forums General Forums General Lightweight Backpacking Discussion are tech toys spoiling the wilderness experience?

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  • #3657831
    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    As a community I fear that we’re losing an essential component of the wilderness experience by bringing technological doo dads along on hikes, not because they’re needed, but, frankly, because we’re anxious about being in nature and addicted to our screens.

    This is an old discussion and needs to be nuanced since different situations call for different approaches.

    But for generations people went into the wilds for lengthy stays and safely emerged without having needed phones or Garmins or what have you: and that was the point.

    We used to revel in ‘leaving civilization behind’ and finding our self sufficiency. Now, we want to bring our tv’s and movies and blogs along with us. Fair enough. But I think that much of the fear that surrounds leaving our devices behind really has to do with addiction: to distraction; to fear of boredom (what will I do without being able to scroll through pages); to the need to grasp something reassuring in our hands, like a child grasps a binky. And so on.

    There are situations where tech gizmos are a good idea. Most often, today, people bring them in order to ward off the very feelings that wilderness is attempting to offer: quiet; solitude; being overwhelmed by the power of landscape; facing one’s own disquiet in order to eventually find an inner place of security and strength. And, yes, the sense of being (somewhat) cut off from the rest of the world: and so finding the world all over again in a new way. You leave something behind in order to find a wonderful reality that sets its own terms.

    “checking in” with civilization subverts all that. We check in all the time at home; surely we can go five or six days without?

    I’m convinced that this obsession with carrying the weight (literally and figuratively) of batteries and phones and Garmins on perfectly safe trails is both a symptom and a form of enabling our neuroses…the disruption of which was part of the appeal of spending days in nature in the old days (fifteen years ago). (And I’m with Freud in thinking that we’re all more or less neurotic, so take that into account.)

    How many here even know what it’s like to walk a trail without the security of a device?

    Philip Tschersich
    BPL Member


    Locale: Kodiak Alaska

    *Raises hand* Ooooh, me, me!

    The summer before last I totally spaced out that I had unregistered (with NOAA) and decommissioned (recycled the Li battery) my EPIRB after the battery expired before hiking almost 100 miles up the west side of Kodiak Island (no trails) solo. Trip video: Hiking from Alitak to Larsen Bay on Kodiak, AK

    After the trip I replaced the EPIRB with a Garmin InReach Mini that I use solely for WX forecasts and to text when I get to the end of a trip and would like a ride home (friend with a car, float plane, etc). I don’t enable tracking.

    Modern technology can be useful and not necessarily a detracting/distraction. Just exercise some discipline.



    I concur.  It’s interesting how the “electronics” are now part of the base weight.  What?  Not me.  Paper topo’s and a compass, ( I like to sleep with my head facing east-just my hangup ).  I carry a small wind up watch that attaches to the belt loop but mostly operate by the sun.  It tells me all I need or want to know.  If someone wants to see what I’ve seen, they should have come along.  Pretty soon I’ll have made sixty trips around the sun so maybe that has something to do with it vs my kids that have learned to do most things with one hand since a phone is glued to the other.  Just sayin’.  ^j^

    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member


    I started backpacking in the 1960s, well before smartphones, satellite communicators, or even halfway decent flashlights. Now I carry an inReach, and will probably start carrying my iPhone in the near future.

    Tech toys enable people to misuse them. But it’s always the people that misuse them. This has been true for centuries across multiple technologies. Portable compasses probably caused old-timers heart palpitations over youngsters not being able to navigate by the sun and stars.

    Tech toys also encourage and enable more people to appreciate the outdoors and promote conservation. Tech toys can reduce the risk of death or serious injury, and can make search and rescues a lot easier – if frustratingly more common for seemingly trivial reasons.

    Tech toys, like almost any technological development, have a dark side and a light side. Like all changes in life, they take some getting used to – even if you never use them.

    Doesn’t mean you have to like them or use them yourself, and 99% don’t impact other wilderness users significantly.

    But I still hate boom boxes in the wilderness.

    — Rex

    BPL Member


    HYOH. Hike more philosophize less….too much navel gazing…..


    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    “Portable compasses probably caused old-timers heart palpitations over youngsters not being able to navigate by the sun and stars.”

    No. this isn’t an apt comparison. Out on the seas in a ship one needed a way to navigate. I’m speaking of the most common use of electronic devices on perfectly obvious trails that can be navigated easily with a paper map.

    This is Backpacking LIGHT. I’ve noticed a scoffing rejection of the notion of leaving a pound of electronics home when trying to lighten the load. As if, that’s an impossibility. How would one manage without an iphone?

    compasses aren’t a form of distraction and entertainment.

    BPL Member


    “Modern technology can be useful and not necessarily a detracting/distraction. Just exercise some discipline.”

    ^ this seems like the most reasonable take  to me. I think addiction to the devices ( addiction in general?) is something that interferes with being out there, in the moment, seeing and smelling and feeling where we are. Addiction to alcohol would also interfere if all one can think about for miles is that drink but having a drink at camp without that mental burden is different.



    Locale: The Cascades

    Ah, another ‘get off my lawn’ thread… :-)

    I agree with Rex, it’s not an either/or proposition. I carry an inReach and a phone, and I haven’t found either getting in the way of the things wilderness has to offer.

    Ken Thompson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Right there

    +1 Kat & Doug

    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    So, Doug…beyond your knee jerk ageist response, can you answer even one of the points that I mentioned?

    To wit: I detailed what a tech-less experience of the wild used to look like. Have you gone on trips where you left the phone and inreach behind? How did it feel? how did you feel? be honest now…

    I began by suggesting that younger hikers have never experienced a tech-less wilderness and so didn’t know what they were missing. That sort of experience was evaporating before our eyes because of the habit of holding devices close by. Of course, for younger hikers, a tech-filled wilderness is all they’ve ever known. It’s their notion of wilderness. A wilderness with iphones.

    so I’m lamenting a lost world of experience.

    and yes, there are good reasons for taking devices on more technical trips. I’m emphasizing easy on trail trips, which account for the vast majority of trips made by hikers in general.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    p.s. and beyond lamenting the lost world, I’m suggesting that the experience that’s come to take it’s place is impoverished.

    John Vance
    BPL Member


    Locale: Intermountain West

    I only take one, sometimes two Electronic “gizmos”.  A battery powered Inflator (thermarest), and sometimes a Steripen Opti.   Oh, three, as I typically bring a small waterproof point and shoot Panasonic camera.   I get why people what all their stuff to stay connected, safe, comforted, etc.  The camera on my new iPhone is better than my old dedicated camera but then I have to worry about charging and cables and batteries.  If I do another thru hike I’d bring a phone for certain.  In 1983 and 1984 on the PCT and CDT respectively, gizmos didn’t exist and post cards and pay phones weren’t very convenient or timely but I survived, as did many others.  Maps on the phone with GPS to confirm would have saved days and weeks.

    Now I go backpacking to get away and prefer to be completely disconnected.  My son bought me an Inreach mini a year ago but I haven’t set it up or even really played with it.  I see both sides to the argument and don’t care what folks carry in.  My only complaint are those that want to share their music or pod-cast from a speaker dangling from their pack, and drones buzzing overhead.  I have only had a few drone encounters so hopefully that stays that way or declines over time.  I’d hate to carry the weight and bulk of a wrist rocket…😉


    …loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump the back fence.  – J.M.

    Hard these days to not keep that spirit burning but I’m trying.  Less is more.  That’s all I have to say about that.  I know, I know.  Who let this guy in?  Color me gone.

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    Manfred is very high tech (and a more extreme ULer than me).  I found using an InReach to text each other does add utility, but for me, they take too much of the wilderness experience away.  I hate having to respond to some electronic ping.

    My iPhone?  Usually with me, but rarely being used much.  For Podcasts if I’m walking the dog over the same 5 miles of forest.  While backpacking, it’s only being used in the background to log steps and vertical feet or occasionally as a GPS – not for route-finding but just to assess progress vertically or horizontally to the peak or back to the car.  I don’t take nature pictures.  Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell have already done a better job of it than I ever will.  I’ll snap a few shots of our kids on trips.

    I don’t carry any beacon – I’ve done a lifetime of more hazardous trips, survived them all, and besides, the next person along would have one.

    I’ll point out that someone like Philip bringing his gear with him adds value for all of us who enjoying his trips remotely.

    For thru-hikers, I understand bringing a smart phone (if not the blogging, music, etc).  A few water source reports from Guthooks and you’ve saved many, many pound-miles of water carrying knowing there is a confirmed source that’s close enough.  Then there’s checking hostels for rooms, USPS and Walmart for hours for resupplying, calling an Uber to get to town, etc.  If it avoids you taking a camera, second flashlight, compass, GPS, mp3 player, book, star map, and weather radio, then that’s a lot of weight saved.

    For me, most of downsides of having a smart phone along are eliminated if I, my family and my office understand that I’m backpacking.  In Alaska, that gets a lot of respect and consideration.  And besides, I’m out of range and/or in Airplane mode.

    Roger Caffin
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe

    At 74 years of age, I grew up with a topo map and a compass. It is second nature for both my wife and I. Since I am writing this from home, it might be safely inferred that they have sufficed to get me home every time.

    That said, I do have an antique and simple GPS unit. I bought it to resolve a mapping problem deep in Wollemi NP. The WW II topo maps of the area have a bit of a rep for missing data – especially cliff lines. They were done in a hurry and the tall trees confused the cartographers. I used it once to sort out that topo problem. I have taken taken it and used it on one other occasion on a long XC ski trip where thick fog and storm were expected (and experienced). It was a case of ‘oh, that is where we are?’. Mind you, without it we would have proceeded exactly the same.

    Do I object to others carrying electronic stuff with them? Not at all, as long as they do not let their gear intrude on me. NO AUDIO! I may worry that someone trying to navigate in our mountains with only a GPS may become an exercise for the SaR later, but that is for another day.

    I do carry a modern watch/altimeter. The altimeter part is invaluable, as long as you remember that a change in the weather can send you up or down by several hundred meters – overnight. The watch part is also useful: it tells us when it is time to stop for morning coffee.


    Nick Gatel
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southern California

    Always a contentious subject.

    I also started backpacking in the ‘60s — without a map, compass, sleeping pad, stove, or flashlight. Now I take all of them. These are all technology items.

    For myself and what I want to get out of a trip in the wilderness, I am in agreement with Jeffery. But what is good for me isn’t necessarily good for someone else. At the crux of this is the question of why someone goes backpacking in the first place. Each of us has a different reason and the answer to the “why” question influences what we carry.

    Back in civilization I do see screens becoming a national addiction that inhibits social interactions. Not for everyone, but for way too many people. We have become simple consumers of technology.

    A screen can be a barrier to totally immersing oneself in nature. But if immersion isn’t the primary goal, then a screen might not be a barrier.

    Just last month I wrote about this very subject on my blog, Why I Don’t Take a Cell Phone Backpackingconcluding with this observation:

    Whether sitting drinking my morning coffee, relaxing after dinner, or walking with my pack: taking out that little screen thingy — the phone — becomes a barrier between me and Mother Nature. It is a separation screen.

    This is why I don’t take a cell phone backpacking because it is the right way — for me. It may not be for you. But it might be something to think about.

    Kevin Babione
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pennsylvania

    The great things about tech devices is that they all have an on/off switch.  One of the pieces that hasn’t been mentioned above is that, at least for many of us, when we head into the wilderness we’re leaving someone at home.  For me, it would not be worth the stress I’d cause at home if I didn’t have my phone with me.

    With that said, I often hike in places where cell coverage is spotty and I give my wife the caveat that I may or may not be able to text her once a day to let her know that I’m okay.  It’s a happy balance, but it’s taken her a while to accept that “no news is NOT bad news.”

    Mike M
    BPL Member


    Locale: Montana

    the inReach isn’t a toy, it’s something that could very well save your own bacon AND it might even save YOUR bacon if you were to have a serious accident and lucky enough to have someone came along that was carrying one

    my phone is my camera and my gps; I don’t use it to talk in the backcountry- even if I wanted to, there simply is no signal whatsoever

    I always carry a compass and map and am very well versed in it’s use (thanks to four years in the military, two years as a wilderness ranger and 24 years as a Montana game warden), but having a gps when roaming off trail, at night, in the fog, etc is indispensable.

    If all you’re hiking is well traveled and marked trails, leave the stuff at home if you like.  If you’re truly venturing into backcountry areas, I’d think twice about leaving emergency equipment behind.

    Personally I think it would be fool hardy to dispense with equipment that could save a life.



    BPL Member


    In bear country it is recommended practice to carry an artificial noise making device that continuously makes noise while you hike.

    What is the difference between a bell and a bluetooth speaker?

    In cases like that, I don’t think it is that other person’s music that is disturbing your experience. I think it is the other person.

    I don’t know for how long people have been encouraged to enjoy the wilderness, but I think the wilderness might be popular enough now. As a millennial new to backpacking, my entire wilderness experience has revolved around the question, “how crowded is it?”

    If there were less people in the back country I think gizmos would have less impact. How can you ‘check in’ on civilization when you never left?



    Locale: The Cascades

    You sure do hit a high hover pretty quickly there Jeff. Ageism? It was a joke, of course, and since I’m about your age you can stuff the ageism accusation.

    “How did it feel? how did you feel? be honest now…”

    No different than when I take the electronics, since I don’t mess with the electronics (except to occasionally check weather or gps for position) until after I’ve gone to bed, and sometimes not even then. I’m as immersed in the wilderness with them in my pack as I am without.

    Didn’t you say you bring a book (or, worse, a Kindle, an electronic book!) on some of your backpacking trips? How is having your face immersed in a book any different than a kid immersed in a screen, they’re both a block to a wholly immersed wilderness experience.

    “so I’m lamenting a lost world of experience.”

    Lament away. It is a lost way of experiencing the world it seems, but lamenting isn’t going to change anything. That type of lamenting has been going on forever since the world changes constantly.

    Matt Dirksen
    BPL Member


    Locale: Mid Atlantic

    “As a community I fear that we’re losing an essential component of the wilderness experience by bringing technological doo dads along on hikes, not because they’re needed, but, frankly, because we’re anxious about being in nature and addicted to our screens.”

    Perhaps it’s a good time as any to remember all the people who are alive today BECAUSE of the “gizmos” they brought with them:

    Either way, for those of us who actually KNOW how to properly use a map & compass, KNOW how to navigate by moonlight, KNOW how to tie knots, KNOW how to start a fire with limited fuel resources, etc.. making the choice to bring along an iPhone or an inReach, may not be about about necessity, its simply about bringing the best tool/multi-tool for the job.

    The lightest thing that can be brought that doesn’t weigh anything is knowledge. For folks that don’t know how to read a map or use a compass, and choose not to learn this essential skill become dependent on an electronic device, create a risk that can be avoided.

    But accidents do happen in the field. For a solo-hiker, an inReach may be an invaluable piece of assurance which can be a matter of life or death depending on the circumstances. I believe many in our BPL community feel the same way, and it’s not about reinforcing a dependency on electronic gizmo-try.


    Matt Dirksen
    BPL Member


    Locale: Mid Atlantic

    545 people have been rescued since 2019.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    Doug, I was simply responding in kind. of course you were joking; I was too.

    I stated in the original post that some circumstances/hikes call for an inreach etc. what got me going was noticing how many times people who were doing on trail trips with a fair number of other hikers around–think JMT–and were asking on BPL how to pare down their weight simply couldn’t imagine going without electronics. They’d spend $600.00 on a new tent to save a half pound but the weight right in front of them is off limits. Why?

    and then the ‘packing your fears’ mentality that always comes up bothers me too–some bad things could happen out there ya know! You may need to call an ambulance at any moment! This is part of the loss of experience that I mentioned: the ability to feel at home in the wilderness, safe and comfortable. I don’t wear a locator beacon in my home, even tho thousands of people do indeed need to be rescued in their houses every day–far more than are rescued in the wild.

    Doug claims there’s nothing to be done since tech has won. Well, no, I can choose not to go along. I can be gizmo free–ish! Because as Doug rightly points out, I do bring a Kindle instead of a book–I have to have something to read–at a 3 or 4 ounce penalty; and I love my Steripen. I don’t however stand gazing at my Steripen when I hit a pass with views.

    Nick Gatel
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southern California


    How is a Kindle different than a phone to read a book? Doesn’t any kind of pleasure reading separate us from wilderness?

    I propose that sleeping under or in a shelter separates one from the natural world more than a smart phone.

    We can go on and on.

    I probably take less tech than you, but have hiked many times with Doug and don’t feel his experience is any less or greater than mine. Although I rarely hike with others, some of my best trips in recent years have been with Doug, not withstanding whatever it is in his pack. Then there was the evening when Vacco pulled out a cheesecake from the depths or his pack and Doug pulled out some expensive liquor — what an intrusion of civilization in the backcountry — at the expense of a delightful celebration.

    BPL Member



    Does it really have to be ‘either or’? Doesn’t it rather depend on the usage of the ‘gizmo’? When going on the following trips with my children

    – with my daughter across Iceland
    – with my daughter across Corsica
    – with my sons across the Brooks Range in Alaska

    I  brought those gizmos along and I would argue that my children’s wilderness experience was one of solitude, self-sufficiency and personal growth. Bringing an inReach doesn’t mean we were afraid of being disconnected. It just meant

    a) we cared about our loved-ones at home, who could ‘virtually’ participate  in our adventures by following our tracking points online and know we were safe when we sent the nightly ‘OK’ message
    b) we were prepared to communicate with the outside world in a potential emergency

    Every morning we would pull out our topo maps and discuss our plan for the day. We would refer back to our maps several times during the day – often out of curiosity for the name of a peak in sight. When we carried our iPhones they were basically cameras and also doubled as guidebook when reading up on a specific approach over a pass. Never did I feel that my children’s wilderness experience was hampered by these gizmos. I rather felt the gizmos made it much easier to convince the other parent to allow for such an experience.

    My kids are now adults and most of the times don’t see a reason to carry those gizmos. It’s me who is asking them to bring an inReach. Mostly they don’t – and I get it – they don’t want to feel ‘parented’. The older they get the more understanding they become that the inReach is not a ‘long leash’. It’s a valuable tool that can help avoid situations like the disappearance of Matthew Kraft on the Sierra High Route. That’s something to think about: Do we have a responsibility to the countless S&R volunteers who risk their health to find such a missing person?  Personally, I feel not at all fearful/neurotic/obsessed/etc. when carrying an inReach – instead I feel a sense of responsibility to my family and the wider community, like S&R volunteers.

    Jeff, you seem to agree that ‘there are situations where tech gizmos are a good idea’ . Now the real question seems to be what those situations are. Over the years my definition of that has moved from ‘in the wilderness’ to ‘on any hike’. When earlier this year this local Bay Area couple went on a sunset walk at Point Reyes and went missing for 7 days. I decided to throw my inReach into my day pack and always bring it. It’s not that I feel unsafe without an inReach, but I want to simply avoid potentially being the cause for such search parties. As stated before, my children don’t see it that way and that is fine, but I think over time they will arrive at a similar conclusion.

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