Technology and Outdoor Pursuits: How Much is Too Much?

On a hike in Northeastern PA. This photo
was taken with a smartphone. (D. Herscovitch)
A good friend passed this article on yesterday and it seemed more than worth writing a bit about. Author Alex Lowther for the New York Times writes thoughtfully about the intersection of technology and historically solitary pursuits like big wall rock climbing.

With all of our smartphones, iPads, iPods, etc., many of us thirst for a few moments of peace.

We seek out wilderness in an effort to disconnect from the noise in favor of silence. 

But does it always make sense to shun that connection to our everyday lives when it can bring timely reports of pioneering experiences to people around the world?

Does the "turn your phone off on a hike" rule apply to everyday adventurers, but not to the pros? And haven't climbers been reporting ascents with satellite phones deep in the middle of nowhere for a while now?

I've been on a number of backpacking trips, including the Pinchot Trail in Pennsylvania and various trails in the Adirondacks, and had clear cell phone reception. I usually turn my phone completely off and keep it off for the duration of the trip, unless I'm using it as an alarm clock, or leave it in the car if someone else in the group has one with them. It's always seemed like such a nuisance to me; I love being out there and really disconnecting.

Even if I'm on a day hike close to home, hearing a fellow hiker's phone ring is the quickest way to get an eye roll out of me. I don't think connections through our phones, including texting and posting to social media outlets, have a place in outdoor adventures. Though, I did send a text message to our cat sitter on last weekend's trip. Guilty!

But of course, with the growing presence of cell towers across North America, and the world, phones can be extremely helpful in emergencies. Even when you're deep in the backcountry, having a working phone can be the difference between getting rescued and not. However, does that mean we should be using those cell towers to send photos to our friends on Facebook?

And then, there's Tommy Caldwell and the Dawn Wall project. With regular updates to Tommy's facebook page, anyone in the world could see their progress up the steepest part of El Capitan in Yosemite. It was an incredible opportunity to follow two of the world's best rock climbers up one of the world's most iconic walls in real time. We've also had years of opportunities to follow climbers' progress up and down mountains like Everest. Is it too much? Where should the line be drawn?

Share your thoughts in the comments!


Me said…
I think the line has to be drawn where the spectacle overtakes the sport, but in so many ways that technology has a lot to offer.  New, cheaper, and better technology is offering so many ways for pro's (or anyone with a love for a particular activity) to connect with current and new followers (which is important if you are to be pro).  With so many things demanding our attention, it really seems important to find new and innovative ways to share the adventures and great accomplishments, to tighten our communities and keep niche sports from fading away.

[That being said, whether having coffee or deep in the woods, I'd rather not be at the demand of technology or those on the other end, oblivious to the moment I'm caught up in]
Katie L. said…
I think we're on the same page...if reporting the ascent, climb, etc. takes precedence over actually completing it safely and in good style, then it's a problem. I'd agree it's nice not to be at the beck and call of whomever emails, texts or calls, too!
Opalkamann said…
i don't think the local pick-up game of bball is any less enjoyable for the participants because there are pros out there being broadcast live and making millions.  my sunday afternoon at the local crag will not be any less enjoyable because caldwell is tweeting.  all that being said, i do cringe a bit when i think of climbing being broadcast like an NBA game. i don't want my sport to turn into a circus and i selfsishly don't want the crags to get more crowded.  i guess you can only control your own actions. 
k8tlevy said…
that's an interesting analogy, though I do think overcrowding at crags is a bit different from overcrowding on a basketball court. leave no trace isn't an issue in the neighborhood park, necessarily. but yes, we're responsible for our own actions, and as long as we're not affecting the experience of those around us, I think we're okay. we've all got to decide what we're individually comfortable with.
Susan DeBruin said…
I fall into either camp depending on what my end goal is all about. There are times when I want to get out into the woods to get away from it all, and in those times I leave all technology behind (phone, iPod, etc). But there are other times when I'm really excited to engage in a community of folks with similar interests - which is made more possible by technology. Ex, I can be Tommy's friend on Facebook. That is insanely cool!

So, I'd say, the line is drawn when 1. you care more about your latest FB post than you do your latest experience, and 2. your use of technology interferes with the outdoor experience of others. It's really annoying to go for a climb to 'get away from it all' and be forced to listen to someone else's iPod blaring music on the next route over!!
Jayme said…
I'm not so much a purist that I'm bothered by the idea of social media and various tech toys out in the backcountry.  To each their own, and arguably, if you've got phone service, it's another link to safety.  I'm never against having that in your backpack.  My personal line is that one shouldn't inflict their tech toys on others who may wish to be outside, unshackled from the vibrating leash and desirous of some peace and quiet.  I've been lucky that it's been a non-issue in most of the Adirondacks because service is spotty at best, because one person's unobtrusive is another's extreme irritation.

The idea of 'Kodak courage,' brought up in the article, makes me a little uncomfortable though.  Not so much with a lot of the hiking that we do, but with climbing, absolutely, and to some extent, with some of the winter hiking that we've done.  In those cases, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, and the idea of forging onward so as not to disappoint followers is a concerning one. 

I think one of the toughest things about it is that you can talk all day about doing it (or anything) "for the right reasons," but everybody's got their own idea about which reasons are right.
k8tlevy said…
Susan, I absolutely agree with the entire second paragraph of your well put! As long as it doesn't interfere with the purity of your experience or those around you, technology can be a great thing!