Is there a place for cell phones and iPods in the wilderness?

I getting back into backpacking and hiking after a 12-year hiatus, and I'm appalled at some people's apparent need for technology like cell phones and two-way radios out in the backcountry. Is this stuff necessary and desirable in the wilderness? Gary Denver, Colorado

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A 12-year hiatus! That makes you something of a Rip Van Winkle. You must walk into an REI and have your eyes glaze over.

But you raise an excellent question, and one that I myself am immensely conflicted about. There is indeed a whole panoply of electronic products now available and often taken into the woods that were unheard of in 1993—GPS units, two-way radios, super-compact wireless phones, not to mention iPods and the like.

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Here’s my quick take on the place of technology in the wilderness:

  • GPS units: Fun, but essentially superfluous. I can think of only one or two times in the past 20 years when one would have been remotely useful. A map and compass still work just as well for basic navigation—and don’t have batteries that conk out. Exceptions: Useful if on a very long trip and caching supplies.

  • Two-way radios: Also fun, but here again, do they really offer much? I can see some utility for climbers trying to communicate, maybe to keep tabs on a group. But that’s about it. In most cases hills and mountains reduce the range of these things to well below their advertised two-mile capabilities.

  • Wireless phones: What can I say? I carry one all the time now. These really have been shown to be extremely useful devices in case of an emergency, and most search-and-rescue groups applaud them. They can be abused, of course—rangers on Mount Rainier, for instance, report novice climbers who phone out for directions. But if you or someone you come across has a broken leg, you’ll be darned glad you have one. Caveat: These too are line-of-sight devices, and won’t work in all terrain. So don’t count on them. Stash ’em in a pack for use in a genuine emergency, but keep it off. Aren’t you out there to escape that kind of non-stop daily connectivity, anyway?

  • iPods and other music players: Why not? I suppose I could wax philosophical and suggest that the sounds of the wilderness are music enough. And there’s a whole helping of truth to that—I know I’ve been on a few backcountry trips after I’ve been in the city too long and I sit outside my tent and wonder, What’s that sound? Then I realize—it’s the sound of silence. And there’s something to be said for that; a chance to listen to voices other than those piped into your ears. Then again, when slogging up the snowfield at Mount Rainer en route to Camp Muir, I’m more than happy to strap my little Sony radio to my arm and listen to a baseball game…

    So there you go. Comments welcome.

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