From my phone I can follow Dave and Karen’s journey along the rugged Brooks Peninsula of British Columbia. I get Facebook feeds from Jay and Justine’s satellite uplink while in Antarctica, literally the farthest you can get from civilization without going to the Moon.
Is this a good thing? I’m not so sure.
I started camping as a kid, long before we had a newfangled piece of technology called an “answering machine.” In our daily lives, let alone in the wilderness, being out of touch was normal. If baseball practice was cancelled after school and my parents were working, I’d figure out how to let hem know and act accordingly if I couldn’t reach them. Wilderness journeys, which I started young, meant being entirely out of touch. If you had an emergency, you had to hike out.
In a few short decades we’ve gone from hiking out to cell phones, satellite uplinks, and locator beacons that notify mountain rescue at the push of a button and that can also send emails and update social media. This connectedness does strange things to both our safety and our ability to escape from the modern world—which is why we explore the wilderness in the first place, isn’t it?
There’s no doubt that being able to communicate when you need a rescue can be critical. I remember an evacuation in the Olympic Mountains before cell phones—getting word to mountain rescue took a day and a half of hiking instead of a minute and a half of a phone call. And connectedness has a second safety benefit: access to extended weather info that can help wilderness travelers stay out of trouble to begin with.
But there may be a double-edge to that sword. Just like SatNav in cars has atrophied our ability to navigate s without a computerized voice telling us where to turn, we may not be able to use a map and compass if our GPS batteries die. And on wilderness trips, things happen. Cell phone signals are sketchy.
And technology creates a strange set of expectations. On many of my remote trips, some friend or another pulls out a satellite messenger every night and presses the “OK” button. It tells his family that he’s ok, and where he is. The nervousness beings when we pick a steep-walled canyon for a campsite where a signal can’t get out. Will his friends assume that he’s in trouble and activate a rescue? When we rely on connectedness, we need a plan for when it doesn’t work—just like we need to be able to fix leaky tent fly or start a fire if it’s colder than we expected.
Why We Go
The second challenge is a sense of security. Knowing we can dial for help can become a crutch. It can make us lackadaisical about noticing that a storm is moving in, or we might leave the serious first aid kit at home. Those are big mistakes that a rescue in the wilderness may not be able to fix. Even if you can call them at the push of a button, it will take rescuers a long time to get to you, often at risk to themselves. Emergency communications are like the airbag on your car: it may save your bacon if things get really hairy, but you still need to know how to drive.
The second reason to be skeptical about wilderness connectivity is why we go in the first place—to get away. When I’m camping, I turn my phone off and bury it deep in my pack. I don’t even use it as a camera, because I have a Pavlovian association of my phone with work and meetings and checking email. And if I wanted to do that, I would have stayed home.