The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Camping

Solar Chargers for the Backcountry

There’s no better charger than the sun—at least if you’re trekking in the middle of Montana and the next wall outlet is 30 miles away. The following solar chargers are portable, durable, and should provide enough juice to keep your gadgets going all day long. But keep in mind you’ll need bluebird skies and some extra time on your hands—solar charging can take up to 10 hours or more, even on a good day.

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Why Google Glass Sucks for the Outdoors

A few weekends ago, I was about to go fishing on a beautiful canyon stream. My rod was packed, I had snacks and fruit for the hike down the canyon and back, plus plenty of water. There was just one more thing on my packing list: Google Glass.

I’d had Glass for three weeks. I’d used it to travel from New Mexico to Argentina, I’d worn it in a raft and around the house, and I’d regularly commuted with it. I thought of the ways I could use it on this trip—to shoot videos of fish or photos of the canyon—then I grabbed my pack and left Glass behind.

When I first got my Google Glass Explorer invitation in early March, I had dreams of it completely streamlining my life. It could replace my phone, so I didn’t have to pull it out at every notification. It could take photos with a wink. I could send texts or make calls while I was in the yard or cooking dinner.  

The future was upon me, and it was glorious. So I decided to run it through the Outside life. Plenty of tech writers have taken Glass for a spin, but I wanted to see how it held up while traveling, rafting, fishing, riding, and running. Here’s what I found.

How it Works

First, a quick primer. Glass displays an image through a little square piece of glass above your right eye. When you stare at it, you look like you’re about to do an exaggerated eye roll. People stare. You get used to it.

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There’s a touch pad that runs between your right eye and your right ear. You swipe forward or backward to see different screens, downward to dismiss a notification or turn Glass off, and tap to select. You wink to take a picture (a feature my wife found incredibly creepy), and start a whole host of actions by saying “Okay, Glass.” As in “Okay, Glass, take a video.” Or “Okay Glass, call Mom." 

To do this, Glass has to be tethered to your phone (and your phone has to have an app called MyGlass). Consider the phone the base station for Glass. It’s where you activate a limited list of apps—from games to Twitter, Facebook, and Strava—that function on Glass. The app selection isn’t nearly as robust as with an Android phone, but then Glass is still in beta.

Travel

You’re less conspicuous using Glass in an airport than, say, running a river, and I found the tech to be most useful in this scenario. I checked and dismissed a few emails, sent my mom a text saying we were about to leave, accidentally took a photo of the gate area when my eyes were dry and I winked them together, and checked that my gate hadn’t changed while I was walking around buying magazines, food, and water. Never once did I have to pull my phone out to do any of that. 

Then I flew out of the country—meaning no more 4G for me. (I don’t have an international data plan.)  Instead, I used WiFi at airports. But I could only use Glass when I actually knew the WiFi password, so it was useless (for me) at the airports in Buenos Aires.

I was able to use it at our hotel. One app, called World Lens, actually translated a menu from Spanish into English. I just said “Okay, Glass, translate this,” held the menu out, and it appeared in English above my eye. Pretty cool. It could have been useful as I walked around Buenos Aires, but I was on vacation—I didn’t want to wear Glass everywhere.

I did wear it on one afternoon as my wife and I walked around Palermo Viejo in Buenos Aires. We found a cool corner with a couple great restaurants, so I winked to take a photo. But here’s the kicker. Because Glass is almost impossible to see in the sun, I couldn’t tell whether I got the shot or not. So I took a shotgun approach—I winked several times, hoping I got the picture I wanted. You can judge the results for yourself:  

Rafting

While in Argentina, my wife and I spent a few days in Los Alerces National Park in Argentina, a beautiful place where massive alpine lakes connect via gin-clear rivers filled with mammoth trout.

On our first day, we floated the Rivadavia. I stripped out fishing line, put Glass on, and looked down to make sure the line wasn’t tangled at my feet. Glass fell off. Thankfully, there was no water in the raft (and I wasn’t leaning over the side), but I tucked the non-waterproof gadget back in my pack and never put it on again. I wasn’t ready to lose $1,500 just for a photo.

Riding

I was probably most excited to ride my bike with Glass. I just commute a mile or so between work and home, but I wanted to get directions and track how much I actually rode.

Using the tech was simple enough. I just said “Okay, Glass, start a ride.” And boom, it started the Strava app and tracking commenced. (Except for the one time when it didn’t. It might have just been because of a brief disconnect, because other than that, it was easy to use.)

The directions were less accurate. The first time I used them, I made sure I was on 4G and asked for directions home (“Okay, Glass, navigate to home”). I saw the map pop up, started riding, and then heard nothing. (Possibly due to a stiff New Mexican spring wind.) I looked up at the screen to see the directions, but it had shut off. I had to tap the screen at (shady) stoplights to see the map.

I was willing to live without directions—I know where I’m going in Santa Fe—especially because I could track my rides on Strava. But then one day I was at a major-ish intersection in town, leaning forward on my bike, and Glass prevented me from seeing whether the Subaru was coming straight toward me or turning. I had to tilt my head up and to the right to see the car with both eyes. After that, I kept Glass in my messenger bag on the ride home. I’d rather use the Strava app on my phone and be able to see than get hit by car, no matter how good the voice-activated controls are.  

Running

I don’t run. But I asked Meaghen Brown, an ultrarunner and my colleague here at Outside, to take Glass around the block. Here’s what she had to say:  

“The first thing I had trouble with (apart from another co-worker walking by before I left the building and remarking, ‘Wow, those are unflattering,’) was getting the map of my route to load correctly. I was able to load it the same way you’d load Google Maps on your iPhone, but I never managed to figure out where the voice in my ear was telling me to go. She just kept saying “Turn right,” when I knew any right turn would have taken me right back to the office.

"I stopped listening about a minute into the run. Because the map is impossible to see in sunlight, she was supposedly all the direction I had. By the end, I’d concluded that for most runners, using Google Glass is a waste time. Most of the functions already exist on a smartphone, which you have to carry anyway because the Glass doesn’t work without Bluetooth. I spent so much time trying to make sense of what was going on in my ear that the run mostly ended up being a bust. Unless you’re incapable of functioning without 1,440-minute connectivity to the digital world, don’t bother with Glass. Plus, I never could get Strava to load." 

Around the Office

Like many people, I work at a desk in front of my computer for about nine hours a day. I already see emails in my inbox and hear the notification on my phone and tablet if I happen to be away from the computer for a moment. So instead of having a fourth place to get a notification, I left Glass on my desk. It gave it a chance to charge. 

At Home

The first Saturday I had Glass, I really enjoyed it. I got an email from my brother and responded. I took a picture of my sleeping dog and sent it to my wife. I checked the weather. I couldn’t use it outside (remember the full-sun issue), but indoors it worked well.  

But after one long day at work, I walked in the door and Glass notified me of what must have been my 500th email of the day. And that was it. I’d spent all day responding to email and I didn’t want it in my face at home. I put Glass on the table, and walked away.

Bottom Line

I’m sure there are plenty of reasons to have Glass. I just didn’t find many of them. If I were a very important person dashing from meeting to meeting, I could see the advantage of being able to dismiss alerts immediately without having to open a computer or pull out a phone.

But that’s not me. I don’t want to be constantly notified of every email, game score, text, or call. I’d rather make dinner with my wife, go have beers with a friend, or take my dog on a walk.

In other words, my ideal evenings and weekends are ones where I disconnect. And Glass is another step closer to constant connectivity. The people who will find it most useful are those who think that sounds like a great idea. But it’s not for me.

There were things I enjoyed—like taking an impromptu photo or video (of mediocre quality) without pulling out my phone. And it’s possible that if I had spent months working with it, I could have figured out how to make it work for me (or just work better). But mostly I found it annoying—and totally impractical in the sun. If there was one overall positive of using Glass, it was that I realized I was too connected. In that spirit, I’ve stopped getting work email on my phone and tablet. Sorry, boss.

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