I really want to like technology in the outdoors. Most people pooh-pooh the idea, to them it’s sacrilege to desecrate the outdoors with buzzing phones, screeching radios, chirping doodads etc. We spend our days surrounded by LED screens flashing the latest updates at us, emails vibrating the phone in our pockets and blaring alarm-clocks cruelly wrenching us out of sleep every morning. To get into nature is to get away from stressful modern life with its constant chittering chattering data, to tune in to the bigger, slower movements of the universe, to be able to notice the more subtle marks of nature.
Those quiet moments are valuable and wonderful, but there is something powerful in having technology in the wild. It’s the comfort from being inside a snug cabin during a storm, hearing the wind tear at the roof, seeing the rain smash impotently at the windows. The same comfort in spending hours building up an igloo in the bitter cold, under dark, snow-heavy skies, and then finishing and retiring to the shelter, ensconced in layers of plastic and down, safe and warm.
To me, technology is that which allows us to thrive in the outdoors. The gear we buy today with our spare cash for our fun hobby, would shock the explorers that filled in the blanks of the maps of the most inhospitable regions of the world. Membranes that open and breath when warm and close to trap air when cold, nanosphere coatings on jackets that spill water and dirt off like magic. GPS receivers that pinpoint our location to the centimetre in seconds, satellite phones that allow us to call for help anywhere in the world and LED headlamps that can light up the night for weeks on end.
That kind of technology, which transforms a terrifying, lethally dangerous environment into a playground, delights me. So while I do enjoy a break from emails and webpages when I hike, I don’t try to hide away the technology that makes the outdoors easier. I cherish all of these high-tech gadgets. And in that vein I wanted to find some reason to bring my favourite home gadgets to the outdoors.
Ideally, all of these outdoor apps that I play with would be as functional and useful as any other gear I bring on trips. I would reach for Star Walk, or Svampguiden, or Theodolite, as often as I’d reach for my Mora knife, or my primus. More importantly, I would use them and get the results I wanted. However it’s just a dream. All too often the reality is a bitter disappointment filled with bugs, frozen screens and annoying glitches. How often do you take your knife to do something and it just crashes on you? How often do your shell pants randomly restart? Even the touchiest, most delicate stove I’ve ever used hasn’t required as much fucking babysitting as even the best of these outdoor apps.
The single, largest, most frustrating problem with phones/tablets these days is battery life. And that problem is just magnified a hundredfold when you’re a hundred km from the nearest power outlet. Solar packs might work nearer the equator, but up in the northern latitudes they’re limited by basic physics. Spring sunshine here will maximally only give a hiking-sized solarpanel around 1 Watt hour, and how often can you count on decent sunshine? Powerpacks are heavy, and modern smartphones or tablets scoff batteries up like a German eating sausage. Even worse, in cold weather it’s not uncommon for devices to just shutdown abruptly even though the battery still reads over 50% full. Once a heavy drain like GPS meets snowy weather, all bets on runtime are off. It’s not just the inevitability of power running out, it’s the nonstop niggling worry. That little battery icon becomes a chittering monkey on your back, a constant gnawing worry that is impossible to ignore.
What are the most useful benefits of this gear? The key advantage from a phone by a long way is communication, and its value has no limit. Having a phone in a waterproof bag is absolutely the most basic safety gear to pack. Having GPS on a phone is nice too, but being sure about your location is so fundamentally important that GPS can only aid, and never replace, a map, compass and the knowledge to use them. Everything else, on every one of the outdoors apps I’ve ever tried, has just been some fun triviality. A base distraction, sometimes infotainment like the wonderful Star walk, sometimes educational like Svampguiden (‘The mushroom guide’, pictured above, probably the most beneficial and useful app), sometimes just pointless drivel like Spyglass.
And that’s what’s really driven me away from bringing the iPad on trips, or from taking the phone out of its ziploc bag and turning it on. The jarring dissidence between wide open blue skies and shimmering sea, or scudding clouds lashing rain down on a misty forest, or a crystal clear, snow covered landscape under dancing northern lights, the dissidence between that kind of epic, beautiful scenery and a jabbing finger pricking at a glowing screen, mumbling that ‘it’ll work any minute now’. It’s like having a monkey in the Louvre sticking its finger up its arse and smelling it, intent in its own squalor while ignoring the surrounding magnificence. Having a phone with a full battery, turned off and wrapped up safe in your hip belt pocket, is a lovely ace-in-the-hole. Taking it out and turning it on to play with it never seems to add much to the party.
There was one piece of modern, digital entertainment technology that did actually click with me in the outdoors. One touchscreen that not only worked well, but felt as integrated with me on my trips as my gloves. The ebook reader. Here was everything wrong with the iPad righted. Battery life that is measured in months, not hours. A tough, tolerant body that takes up virtually no space, and onboard it are countless hours of entertainment (depending on how slowly you read). A screen that is easy to read by the dimmest headlamp, and yet only becomes better in strong sunlight (the iPhone in the picture below is actually on, and has its display set to maximum brightness).
The strangest thing to me is how I normally find playing around with apps pretty entertaining, but find it is a total misfit when lying outside your tent enjoying the setting sun. Reading though, feels right. Even years ago I would bring books on hiking trips (real, old-fashioned, dead tree books) and would have brought dozens if it wasn’t for the weight issue. Now here is a machine that can hold ten thousand books, and yet weights only 220 grams.
I gave it a bloody long go with the Kindle touch, and really enjoyed every minute of it. The placement and sensitivity of the power button was a major pain in the arse though, the slightest touch would turn the Kindle off, and it is placed in a the middle of the bottom, sticking out of the case so even a passing breeze seems enough to activate the button and interrupt your reading. The lack of hardware page turning buttons mean constantly having to move your fingers and touch the screen. And as a final gripe, I wanted to place it into a ziploc bag, as I usually do with electronics, and use it through the plastic, however this made the Kindles sensitive touchscreen go mental. So it had to be outside the bag during use.
My wife (who works for Adlibris) turned me on to the Letto, which was only released a few weeks ago. It’s a Swedish version of the French Odyssey e-reader. She thought the hardware buttons might make it easier to use in a waterproof container. I ordered one, and migrated my library over to try it out. At 195 grams, it’s 25 grams lighter than the Kindle. It has two page turning buttons, one on each side. The screen is much less touchy than the Kindle, and Hey Presto! it works perfectly inside a ziploc. And finally, thank the Gods, the fucking power button is not a super sensitive hypochondriac, and only turns the reader off when actually pressed on purpose. Tech-wise, it does all the usual stuff, browser, headphone jack, wifi and so on. And finally, it has a handy SDHC slot so you can expand your storage from 2 to 34 Gb.
So as happy as I was with the Kindle, the Letto is just a featherweight more perfect, and now my Touch is for sale, make me an offer in the comments. Not that I want to say the Letto is perfect, by the way. The touchscreen keyboard is nicer to use on the Kindle (probably due to the crazy high sensitivity), and the Letto software is a little more buggy, so there are flaws. It’s pretty damn close to book reading Nirvana though. And I suppose an enterprising mind might find things other than books to read on it.
The iPhone stays in my pocket, turned off, and the iPad stays at home, but the e-book reader is the best thing to happen to outdoor electronics since GPS, in my humble opinion. Although I think it’s just the best thing to happen in technology since the invention of the battery, so I might be biased. Together with the amazingly functional, and amazingly ugly Calibre (a Swiss army-like book library and convertor), you can have enough reading in your pocket to last you for years, and the battery life to match. And they’re not even expensive!
P.S. Sorry for the unbelievable tragic picture quality here. In the never-ending battle against bulk and weight, I’ve made the greatest of sacrifices and sold my DSLR. Goodbye Nikon, you will be fondly remembered. Hopefully a future post will describe in detail the move away from a multi-kilo DSLR system to something much much smaller, but with even better picture quality. Right now though, I’m stuck in camera-phone purgatory.