Most of us avoid technology in the backcountry, but here's how it can help your enjoyment and safety when out in the mountains.
There is no argument that mountaineering and backcountry travel is predominantly a mental and physical pursuit. And managing one's physical and mental well-being is paramount to an enjoyable time in the hills.
This being said, technology can be used to assist in our trips if used in a way that helps and does not hinder us. Here are a few things to consider from my experience working outdoors with simple ways to use technology readily available to aid our outdoor adventures.
Technology Vs Sharing Manual Equipment
I am very much about having a backup in case things that will make a difference to your safety get damaged or lost. Particularly my navigation, communication and first-aid/repair equipment. Sharing these manual items among the group is a good way to share the 'load', but we all would like access and a backup if we are in the field for an extended period. A large amount of this backup system can be created by substituting your compass, GPS unit, altimeter watch, map, notebook, route notes etc., into a watch & smartphone. Creating a compact backup as well as what we have to share with the others in our party.
The availability for most technology to be recharged is fantastic, allowing longer use and re-use of what we may have removed or replaced in the past. As with many of these things, it's based-on opinion, experience and intended outcomes, and I know there will be many with alternate thoughts. Again, having a thought process around why you're doing it, what you're doing, and the level of exposure is key in what you choose to take and should be the main outcome of what you pack.
A myriad of options are coming onto the market at the moment, all revolving around easier access to satellite communications. The simplest options allow one-way communications via pre-set messages (SPOTTM), and the more sophisticated options allow two-way communications via satellite TXT and/or email (Garmin In-Reach TM). The biggest issue, at the moment, is the subscriptions needed, but some of these units can 'shelve' the account until needed. Or one can carry the traditional PLB (personal locator beacon), which requires no subscriptions and are very compact with a one-off price tag. However, it is important to note that given New Zealand conditions and terrain, PLBs or Satellite communicators do not give you an instant reply for help. Also, remember that a SAR has many moving parts (Search and Rescue). So make sure you ALWAYS carry enough equipment to 'hurry up and wait' for some time in a way that does not worsen your situation.
Quick Points: Backcountry Technology Navigation/Information
I'm a fan of paper maps as they are compact, light and cheap. However, I have found that there are times when an electronic option is useful, particularly if your trip takes you over multiple maps or, worse, through the corner of a few maps but not the rest. Or if you're in terrain where you need to recheck positions regularly for hitting a specific waypoint. In complex terrain, I want quick access accurately. In addition to the paper maps, I have started to take either a compact GPS or GPS watch and/or my phone with an offline mapping application. If you can quickly pull up a grid reference and/or a point on a map, it goes a long way to clarifying your position, streamlining navigation, and limiting stress in unknown areas. Having a smartphone is super useful as you can also take pictures of routes when you travel into the hills or take a screenshot of the guidebook (climbnz.org.nz).
No matter what system or technology you choose, it is essential to have a system with a backup and durability. Just because you have a PLB should not stop you from sharing your intentions either in the hut book or, even better, before you leave home with people that care about you. Technology should not be a substitute for consequential awareness when living and operating in the big wide world. No part of your system should be without a backup when discussing emergency management.
Remember to Have a plan, share that plan and be able to 'Hurry up and wait' when you need help.
About the Author:
Gideon Geerling is a general outdoor and mountain bad-ass. He also loves to share his knowledge and passion for the outdoors.
He is an active member of the NZ Mountain Guides and Outdoor Instructors Associations respectively. Gideon is a NZMGA Alpine Trekking Guide and NZOIA Alpine 2, Bush 2 and Rock 1 Instructor.
NOLS Wilderness First responder – Hypothermia Management
Land SAR Training NZ – Outdoor First Aid / Risk Management
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