Pack Up, Head Out, Zoom In

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1996

Pack Up, Head Out, Zoom In

Camcorders, CD players, even boom boxes built for the wilds
By Andrew Tilin

Forgive me, o Thoreau, Abbey, fellow hikers and campers, for I have navigated the wilderness with Walkman and camcorder in tow. Once I shared your disdain for this kind of thing, but I have learned to use these gadgets selectively and unobtrusively and thus without heaps of guilt: when rain pelts the tent for the umpteenth day, when I've had a meditative afternoon and desire to bust loose with a Chieftains-inspired jig beneath a full moon, when a black bear wanders close by and I want to capture her odd grace. Sure, an audio or video machine remains an outdoor accessory, even as devices like flashlights and avalanche transceivers have become backcountry necessities. But nobody can tell me such playful equipment might not make the experience more satisfactory.

If it's taken us a while to warm to the idea of toting electronics into the outdoors, it's taken at least as long for manufacturers to produce qualified equipment. Only in recent years have machines been built sturdy enough for the task, with rubber seals that resist water, tough casings, and advanced circuitry that prevents you from hearing your CD skip. However, though all of the following personal stereos, portable stereos (i.e., boom boxes), shortwave radios, and camcorders are designed for travel and abuse, none is built like a vault. They aren't waterproof, and they do have to be handled with some care.

Before you plug in, consider the all-important points of money and power. Prices listed herein are suggested retail, but most shops undercut them by at least 25 percent. Spend a few of those saved pennies on the right batteries (see "Battery of Choices" ) There's no point in packing the tunes if you don't bring enough juice.

Personal Stereos
Sound quality joins size and weight as your biggest concerns in a personal stereo that will constantly be moving with you. The latest CD players manage the problem of skips and such by employing chips that store several seconds' worth of music: The memory overlaps the lag in the event a jostled laser misreads those tiny bits of data. In tape players, look for models with a dual-capstan drive, which uses two tiny rollers to keep the tape taut across the playback heads, preventing it from gathering and warping the sound. Low-end players have one capstan.

The Sony D-777 Discman (6.2 ounces; $450) is my favorite disc player because it's tiny-the carbon-fiber-and-plastic Discman isn't much bigger, thicker, or heavier than a CD in its jewel box-and can be easily protected from the elements in a pocket or fanny pack. What's more, volume, play, and stop functions can be controlled with a remote that clips to your shirt. The ten-second music-memory circuitry works fine when you're walking but gets overwhelmed if you break into a trot. On-the-go performance is similar in the Aiwa XP-C707 (11 ounces; $225). You get the same buffer capabilities, an adapter kit that lets you run off your car's tape deck and lighter socket, and up to 18 hours of battery-powered playback. But because the Aiwa is significantly larger and a tad heavier than the Discman, I used it more for hanging out than hiking.

Tape players don't distort as easily as CD players and therefore are better for fast-motion use. Aiwa's HS-JX849 (seven ounces; $420) has enough features to put a home stereo to shame: a digital AM-FM tuner, 18 station presets, music search, auto-reverse, Dolby noise reduction...and a fat instruction manual. What I liked best is its simple, clip-on remote that controls many of the mother ship's features; if you don't like a song on the tape or radio, you don't have to break stride to punch up the next track or station. Like the Aiwa, the Panasonic RQ-SW6 has a dual-capstan drive and a tight-shutting cassette door. For the bargain price of $80 you don't get fancy features, but you do get rubber gaskets around the openings and controls, rendering this tanklike, 11-ounce, AM-FM-cassette water-resistant. Its handy carrying loop makes it a good partner on a long trail run.

Portable Stereos
Many an expeditioner takes a boom box to base camp as a tool to while away stormy, tentbound hours. Yet portable stereos are social, not personal. For backcountry uses many are too heavy, too big, and too likely to offend others. But wherever it's appropriate to play your tunes loud and proud, consider a portable: a festive picnic, a lonely beach, an isolated cabin...Denali base camp.

When big is beautiful, nothing is so gorgeous as Sharp's WQ-CH900 (13 pounds; $250). It's a jukebox: Load five compact discs into the server, pop in two tapes, and along with the AM-FM tuner you can groove at the beach all day without swapping out a disc or tape, all the better to keep out grit. The Aiwa CS-P1 (18 ounces; $50) is the CH900's foil and a good backcountry option: a tiny AM-FM-cassette that fits into a fanny pack and provides decent, if somewhat scratchy, sound. Splitting the size and feature spectrum are Panasonic's RX-DS10 (eight pounds; $110) and JVC's RC-QS10 (eight pounds, four ounces; $160) which give you tape, CD, and tuner in slightly bulky packages for reasonable prices. Honorable mention goes to the Sony SRS-T50G Active Speaker System (one pound, four ounces; $50)-self-amplified speakers that plug into any personal stereo. Its elephant-ear sound deflectors will fill your tent with music. Caution: Remove the batteries before packing, lest the power switch on accidentally.

Shortwave Radios
No novella-size shortwave can match the signal-capturing strength of its four-figure, tabletop brethren, but the gap is closing: Broadcasts of Voice of America and Deutsche Welle from halfway around the globe needn't echo, fade, or be filled with annoying static just because you're on a portable. Features like digital tuning, phase-lock-loop (PLL) circuitry, multiple-station memory, and bandwidth selection help you zero in on your target.

Grundig's Yacht Boy 400 (one pound, four ounces; $249) may be a tad heavy, relatively speaking, but its reception was the best I encountered. Other radios would skip past stations that the Yacht Boy 400 would lock onto and deliver with quality sound. Almost as good is the Grundig Yacht Boy 305: It doesn't have quite the selectivity of the 400 but is somewhat lighter (one pound, one ounce) and considerably less expensive ($149). The other trade-off is in the area of amenities-the 305, for example, has no alarm and less memory. In Sangean's ATS 606P (11 ounces; $229) you get all the goodies-two alarm clocks, 45-station memory, PLL receiver-in a hand-size package. With the ATS 606P I could clearly tune in news from the Netherlands even during the daytime, when shortwave reception is notoriously bad. It would be my choice for a round-the-world travel partner.

Camcorders are now simpler and no more obtrusive than a well-dressed single-lens reflex camera. Most approach point-and-shoot ease, and all feature autofocus, rechargeable batteries, and data imprinting. But tape format wars and multiple fine points still can make shopping a slog. The abridged guidelines: For camping, stay with an eight-millimeter format (used in all the camcorders here) since the tapes run longer, and unless you're into videography, don't sweat the editing features. An upscale alternative is Hi8, a higher resolution format, but it only matters if your TV is of like quality.

The stereo-recording Canon's ES2000 (one pound, 12 ounces; $1,600) is the sophisticate of the camcorder crowd. Unlike most camcorders, which focus on whatever is in the middle of the viewfinder, the Hi8 ES2000 lets you focus on any part of the frame. You can set up a shot with a moose to the side of the picture and a pine in the center-and still get the moose in focus. Dramatically different is Sharp's VL-E47U (two pounds; $1,299), which employs a swiveling, four-inch, color LCD view screen instead of a teensy viewfinder. You can hold it at odd angles to shoot over or around objects and never lose sight of the screen (though bright, direct sunlight can wash out its image). For use in foul weather and around water, Hitachi's VM-H81A (two pounds; $2,099) has rubber gaskets framing its doors, and even with the rubber layer sealing the buttons, the controls are easy to operate. Despite its heft, the watertight Hi8 camcorder also floats.

Last, the optional SPK-TRV1 case (one pound, 13 ounces; $249) from Sony houses any of the company's diminutive camcorders for use in up to six feet of water. We liked the CCD-TR94 (one pound, nine ounces; $999), which with the case is perfect for filming wildlife along your favorite reef. That kind of footage ought to make believers out of the backcountry purists back home.

Andrew Tilin, a former senior editor of Outside, owned a first-generation Sony Walkman and has been upgrading his electronics cache ever since.

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