Tread Lightly and Carry a Big Bag of Batteries

Rethinking technology in the wilderness

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In 1845 explorer John Franklin and crew went off to find the Northwest Passage, braving the Arctic cold outfitted with Delftware teacups, silver dessert spoons, calf-lined bedroom slippers, clothes brushes, pocket combs, Bibles, and copies of The Vicar of Wakefield and Christian Melodies.

Some things haven't changed.

Twenty-first-century trekkers, climbers, and campers head to the bush with a bewildering array of gear. Seeking personal Northwest Passages, acting in accordance with the 'leave no trace' ethos that has been drilled into them, they stuff their packs with propane stoves, freeze-dried food, filtration devices, air mattresses, 'go light' tents and sleeping bags, and electronic contraptions that allow them to find landmarks and signal for help when they get lost.

'The modern backpacker is an astronaut of sorts,' says Montana wilderness survival teacher David Cronenwett. Many agree. Los Angeles-based 'primitive skills' teacher Christopher Nyerges says outdoor gear stores are crammed with nonessentials. When he heads for the hills, Nyerges takes knives, cord, and a pruning tool, but not much else.

'Think of it this way,' Nyerges says. 'If I bring a plate, I do not have to think about all the flat objects in nature that can serve as a plate, such as a rock or bark. If I bring a lantern, I do not think about how to make my light in camp, or how to let my eyes adjust to dark. If I bring a compass, I do not pay as much attention to direction. If I bring a tent, I do not pay as much attention to locations. If I bring matches and a gas stove, I do not pay attention to woods and how to make a fire primitively. If I bring all my food, I do not look to see how nature can feed me.'

Cronenwett and Nyerges are part of a quiet but thriving subculture -- people who not only practice 'bushcraft' but also teach shelter construction, friction fire making, tracking, trapping, and other old skills. An event called Rabbitstick held in Idaho each fall brings together their spiritual kin, teachers of tanning, gourdcraft, 'flintknapping,' atlatl making, edible plant use, and other techniques that allow people to live intimately on the land.

Is there a middle way to use modern technology outdoors without relying on it too much? New technologies like Global Positioning Systems are extensions of the human brain, adding untold capability, but if the machine in the palm of your hand only reinforces the old Western perception of nature as a machine in itself, then you could do as well to stay home and watch nature programs on television.

We're part of nature wherever we are, and even when we're prepared for contingencies, the unexpected occurs. Hurrah for this. What we really need is the ability to sense clearly, deal with changing reality, and adapt.

A few years ago Amy Racina was out for a two-week solo hike in a remote area of King's Canyon National Park in California when she fell from a cliff, shattered a knee and hip, then spent four painful days and nights alone. In her book Angels in the Wilderness (Elite Books, 2005), Racina describes how she determined to 'scooch' her way to safety, and how she arduously made her way a hundred yards or so along a stream, putting her in a position to be found and rescued.

Today, mended and hiking alone again, Racina travels light, as she's done since long before the idea of lightweight backpacking became today's industry of 'ultralight' gear. Now, though, she goes equipped with a personal locator beacon, a device that sends a signal via satellite in case of emergency. Still, she's wary of high tech gear. 'It seems to me that many of the electronic gadgets may prove helpful occasionally, but provide only the illusion of continual security,' she says. 'Electronics are not a substitute for common sense, wilderness savvy, basic knowledge about the human body, and using your brain in an unexpected situation.

'Electronic devices cannot think or solve problems, and they are subject to many kinds of failure. Anything with batteries might run out. Any electronic device that is not 100 percent waterproof could fail if it is soaked in a stream crossing, a flash flood, or a sudden downpour. They can be lost or dropped. Most communication devices have spotty coverage, at best, and can fail for a wide variety of reasons.'

Sometimes, though, they work. In February, three climbers on Oregon's Mount Hood were rescued, thanks largely to an emergency beacon, after they fell and were stranded in a snowstorm. One of the climbers said he'd felt well-equipped for winter climbing -- and he wasn't referring to rope, axes, and crampons, but to cell phones, global positioning gear, and locator beacons.

Are people today 'the tools of their tools,' as Thoreau wrote more than 150 years ago? To the degree that technology aids human awareness, that it augments and extends abilities without concomitant loss of native knowledge, the answer is no. Technology may be appropriate. But if we give up our innate sensibility and rely on machines to do our thinking and sensing for us, we're lost.