It’s two and a half years ago since I last wrote about using smartphones in the hills in one of my most popular posts. Then my aim was to counter the arguments against using smartphones and tablets as GPS units. The same arguments still surface today and I think my piece is still valid. I’m not returning to that here however but to the question of how appropriate such technology is in the hills and whether it can be a distraction. I’ve been thinking about this since reading a fascinating blog piece by author Alex Roddie entitled Ditching the infinity machine– five months later in which he describes swapping his smartphone for a basic phone after becoming concerned that the former was spoiling his enjoyment of the wilds. After this experiment Alex has returned to his smartphone but he now uses it in a different way so it’s far less intrusive.
Most of my walking having been done before smartphones existed (and much of it before mobile phones) the options for distraction from the wilds came down to just one – a book. And I carried plenty, often several at a time. Mostly I read in camp in the evening, especially when the weather meant staying in my tent was wise, (and I sometimes left rather late in the morning because I spent too long reading over breakfast). But sometimes a book gripped me enough that reading it became more important than where I was and I read while walking, my mind far away from my surroundings. Often though I was reading because where I was walking wasn’t that wild or interesting. I was still cut off from the world around me though and probably missed much. Alex Roddie in his earlier piece on smartphones describes the problem of battery failure with smartphones. Books don’t run out of power. Instead they run out of words. I can remember hoarding the last pages of a book, only reading a few at a time, because I was so concerned about finishing it before I reached somewhere I could buy another. Occasionally I’ve arrived in a town with finding books my main concern above food, showers, resupply or somewhere to stay. I couldn’t imagine doing a long walk or even an overnight trip without something to read. I still can’t but now I take a Kindle loaded with dozens of books for the same weight as one small paperback. Of course the Kindle can run out of power too but it’s not happened yet, even when I’ve been out for a week at a time. In fact I’ve not yet needed to recharge it from my back-up battery. And with the Kindle in a waterproof case I can read in the rain, as I did on a crossing of the Coirrieyairick Pass on a TGO Challenge walk. That’s the roughest terrain I’ve read myself across. Some people go further. Hamish Brown describes reading a paperback along the South Glen Shiel Ridge in Hamish’s Mountain Walk.
|Reading my way along a Mohave Desert road on the Pacific Crest Trail|
Alex Roddie mentions using his smartphone as an e-reader, saving the weight of a Kindle. I did this on the Pacific Northwest Trail, before I had a Kindle, but found that it drained the battery too quickly. Given the weights of back-up batteries I reckon it’s lighter to carry the Kindle. Reading on a Kindle is a much more pleasant experience too as the screen is larger and there’s no glare.
My main use of my smartphone – currently a mid-range Sony Xperia SP, which does everything I need, is quite light (174 grams with protective rear case) and is still small enough to be used comfortably for actual phone calls – is for navigation with ViewRanger. Usually this just means locating my position and maybe walking a short distance to check I’m going the right way so the phone doesn’t need to be on all the time. A secondary use is for photos that I can send to social media before I get home and can download the images from my cameras onto the PC (I don’t have one of the latest cameras that links easily to a smartphone). I also send texts to my partner sometimes during a trip and always as soon as I’ve finished for the day. As I’m usually in places where a phone signal is a rarity (still the case in much of the Scottish Highlands) I’ll upload a photo or send a text and then put the phone back in the pack still switched on, as long as I have enough power. Generally at some point over the next few hours it’ll pick up enough of a signal to send the text and, less often, the photo. I don’t have any notifications or sound switched on so I don’t hear any bings or beeps and can forget about the phone.
In camp I rarely look at the phone except to locate exactly where I am if I’ve camped after dark and am uncertain. The Kindle books and writing in my journal are enough distractions if needed. If I've enough power and there's a connection I might check the weather forecast. Occasionally I'll listen to the radio. However on long walks the phone always comes into use anytime I reach a town as then I can update my blog, answer emails, check social media and even submit reports to The Great Outdoors, something I did on both my Pacific Northwest Trail and Scottish Watershed walks.
How communication technology is used in the hills is up to the individual of course. There are no rights or wrongs. I see no reason not to check emails and social media or even make phone calls if you find it satisfying any more than I can see a reason not to read in the hills (and I have been told at times that it’s ‘wrong’ to carry a book). The key is for you to control it and not the other way round. If it becomes intrusive and you think it’s spoiling your enjoyment the answer is simple. Switch the damn thing off!