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Is Technology Compatible With The National Park Wilderness Experience?


Do you consider devices such as cell phones, GPS units, and personal locater beacons appropriate in officially designated wilderness areas, and even areas that are managed, but not designated, as wilderness? NPS photo of the Mummy Range in Rocky Mountain National Park.

How do you measure your comfort level in national park wilderness areas, whether officially designated or simply managed as such? I can remember trips where we took the prohibition against mechanized items so far that we left our watches behind.

The recent posts about GPS Rangers and SPOT beg the question of whether technology really is compatible with wilderness values in the National Park System. Are these truly useful tools, or do they diminish the wilderness experience? Where do you draw the line between what is, and isn't, appropriate in a wilderness setting?

Is it elitist to believe that if you don't feel comfortable without your cell phone or a personal locater beacon (PLB) or even the latest GPS tool in a wilderness setting that you shouldn't be there? Is a wilderness trek simply about viewing gorgeous settings, some as they've always appeared, or is the adventure itself enough? And what happens if you're in an officially designated wilderness and feel the need to summon the troops? Can they (should they?) respond with a helicopter or power boat before obtaining the necessary written approval?

If you agree to go into the wilds without a cell phone (of course, odds are there won't be a signal anyway), and without a GPS unit or a PLB, I think it's safe to say that you're going to spend more preparation time being sure you will be comfortable with your surroundings. You'll have all the requisite topo maps, possibly bone-up on your map and compass skills, be sure your First-Aid kit is properly stocked, and, in short, be able to pretty much ensure you'll avoid trouble and, if not, be able to self-rescue yourself.

Of course, accidents happen. Just ask Aron Ralston. But in this evolving world that seems to be increasingly driven by technology, are we losing sight of what it means to not just be self-sufficient, but also to be able to enjoy and relish in nature on nature's terms without training wheels? Will our increasing reliance on technological devices breed younger generations that don't know how to function in a wilderness setting without three or more satellites tracking their every move, with rescuers just a button punch away?

And then, of course, there's a whole 'nother question of whether we really want this technology to, in essence, be merely another tracking tool for industries curious about our every step in national parks. What do I mean? Remember George Orwell's prophetic 1984? Check out the following regarding SPOT:

Globalstar Inc.(Nasdaq:GSAT) company SPOT LLC., the pioneer behind the award-winning SPOT Satellite Messenger(tm), today announced its integration with Yahoo! Fire Eagle further enhancing the mainstream consumer appeal for the SPOT Satellite Messenger. Fire Eagle is an open platform that helps users take their location to the web by sharing their location information with other sites and services online while keeping full control over their data and privacy. The Fire Eagle integration specifically enables SPOT Satellite Messenger users the ability to publish their adventure geotags or location coordinates to the web, sharing their location with their favorite services and increasingly popular social networking sites to get a whole new range of location-based features.

Yahoo! Inc. of Sunnyvale, CA is the world's largest global online network of integrated services and is one of the most trafficked Internet destinations worldwide. As a leading Internet brand the company has pioneered the way people use the web to communicate with each other and share their information.

SPOT, the world's first satellite messenger, sends the users' GPS location coordinates and custom messages to co-workers, family and friends or emergency responders over a satellite communications network from virtually anywhere around the globe -- even the most remote places -- independent of cell phone coverage.

"SPOT's global coverage makes it an ideal Fire Eagle updater, giving users the ability to easily share their location from almost anywhere on the planet," said Tom Coates, Head of Product at Yahoo Brickhouse.

While SPOT users can already save their GPS location data in CSV, GPX and KML easily, and share their locations in real time over the SPOT Shared pages, the integration with Fire Eagle enables SPOT Satellite Messenger users for the first time to be in control of how to share and publish their adventure location geotags to their favorite services on the web.

"The integration of Yahoo! Fire Eagle and the SPOT Satellite Messenger turns web potential into reality, allowing SPOT users for the first time to make the web literally respond to their location," said Thomas Colby, Chief Operating Officer of SPOT LLC.'s parent company, Globalstar Inc. Mr. Colby added, "This integration helps broaden SPOT's utility by making it even easier for our users to share information and their adventures over the web. As SPOT has delivered more than 2.5 million satellite message transmissions, information sharing is core to our subscribers. We are committed to the Yahoo! Fire Eagle platform and look forward to providing our users instant integration with their favorite web services."

SPOT users with a free Yahoo! Fire Eagle account can immediately start sharing their adventure geotags. SPOT users can sign up for a free account by visiting

SPOT Satellite Messenger, weighing just over seven ounces and sold at U.S. $169.95 SRP, enables users to send their location and message to friends, family, or emergency responders, and to visually track the location of the SPOT Satellite Messenger through four simple functions:

1. Alert 9-1-1 notifies the emergency response center of your GPS location 2. Ask for Help sends a request for help to friends and family 3. Check In lets contacts know where you are and that you are OK 4. Track Progress sends and saves your location and allows contacts to track your progress using Google(tm) maps

The SPOT Satellite Messenger uses 100% satellite technology and has virtually complete worldwide coverage including all of the continental United States coverage throughout Alaska plus the surrounding Pacific and Arctic maritime regions, Canada, Mexico, Europe and Australia, portions of South America, Northern Africa and Northeastern Asia, and thousands of square miles of offshore waters. SPOT Satellite Messenger is available at more than 5,000 points-of-sale including retailers and dealers in the U.S., Canada, UK, Ireland, Continental Europe and Mexico.


About Globalstar, Inc.

With over 300,000 subscribers, Globalstar is the world's largest provider of mobile satellite voice and data services. Globalstar offers these services to commercial and recreational users in more than 120 countries around the world. The Company's products include mobile and fixed satellite telephones, simplex and duplex satellite data modems and flexible service packages. Many land based and maritime industries benefit from Globalstar with increased productivity from remote areas beyond cellular and landline service. Global customer segments include: oil and gas, government, mining, forestry, commercial fishing, utilities, military, transportation, heavy construction, emergency preparedness, and business continuity as well as individual recreational users. Globalstar data solutions are ideal for various asset and personal tracking, data monitoring and SCADA applications.

Personally, I haven't quite come to a definitive conclusion about these questions. There are pros and cons to most, if not all, of the possible answers. But I fear we'll be worse off in the backcountry if we become a population of device-toting travelers, fearful of what might be instead of prepared for what might happen.

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Aron Ralston; (n) 1) a foolish child; 2) an accident waiting to happen. An egotistical, ill-prepared adventurer, who over-estimated his ability and, without thorough and proper preparation or simple notification to friends or authorities, embarked on a wilderness trek alone, without adequate supply or sufficient local knowledge, miscalculated a relatively simple and common descending technique and became a human wedgie in a narrow crevasse, pinned literally between a rock and a hard place due to the loose and shifting nature of the local rock formations. Due to the above set of absolutely avoidable circumstances, was forced to choose between partial amputation of an appendage or hanging around indefinitely in hopes that the circling condors and vultures would sufficiently service as a distress signal to parties unknown. Choosing the former, a portion of the lower arm would be left as a marker to the exact point of foolishness, later to be retrieved for medical personnel who would later make a failed attempt to reattach the missing section of arm.

The above mentioned character has to his credit, or resume, a long list of similar silliness in various NPS units, in a thinly veiled attempt to prove his machismo to anyone dumb enough to give a damn. People of this nature wouldn't avail themselves of the technological advances that might prove "handy", as it would be less than "manly" to call for aid and admit defeat. He is a poor example to all and I believe, not quite the reference for this article.

There is NO substitution for proper preparation prior to a wilderness expedition. Technology, if it gets to the point where it becomes required in a life-or-death circumstance, probably won't be utilized until the damage is done, by which time the beacon serves as little more that a set of coordinates from which to extract the body, either in a state of dire medical need such as heat stroke, hypothermia, or dehydration, or in the other extreme, a place to deposit the body bag. How about if we make life easier for ALL parties concerned and take proper precautions instead of microelectronics on our next adventure?

Anti-technology sentiment is a game-token that will prove to be 'off the board'. It isn't in play, never was, and those who devise a plan that relies upon using it will lose points.

Technology & humanity are two sides of the same coin. They are one entity. There is no daylight.

Our body, our brain & mind - our most fundamental form & function is the expression & consequence of technology.

We are what we are, because technology made us that way. Technology that we made. The two made each other.

Already, families in deep-remote Alaska live fully plug-in to the cutting edge of society ... the Matrix.

Isolation in the woods is strictly an optional exercise ... like doing curls with barbells, or running a few miles every couple days. It's good for you. But like calisthenics & aerobics, some will make the investment, and some won't.

To ask whether 'tis right or wrong, good or bad, to have technology in the wilderness, is ask whether we should be male & female. It's just the way we are.

I like the experience of isolation, myself. In a fantasy world, I would pay money to be dropped buck naked onto a primal, wild planet. But I also know the difference between fantasy & reality.

[Off to bury an old friend. See ya'll later.]

Yesterday, my friend, who worked as a back country ranger with me, and I hiked to Devil's Rest via Wahkeena in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. He's preparing for a 4 to 5 day hike through Olympic National Park, and he mentioned that some of his buddies were bringing iPods, and suggested that he buy one to bring along.

"Why would you want to do that to your wilderness experience?" he asked me. "Why would you want to take yourself out of the wilderness experience? You wouldn't be able to hear the breeze through the trees or hear those birds we heard along the trail. I don't understand why people would want to listen to music in the wilderness."

He wasn't opposed to his friends taking and using them, though. "I won't be able to hear it, so it doesn't bother me."

Today, I took him to the store to get his battery replaced on his watch, and I asked why he needed a watch in the wilderness. "It makes it easier to split up and meet again at a certain place at a certain time. That way, you can say, 'If I'm not at the pass by 5 pm, come looking for me.'"

Ted is right: where do you draw the line on technology? Hiking boots, ski poles, altimeters, maps, GPS, polypropylene clothes, tents, ultra light burners, dehydrated food. It's all technology. It's an individual choice as to how much of it you want to haul into the wilderness, and thusly, the "wilderness experience" is highly individualized.

The thing that CAN impact wilderness experience of others the most is not electronic technology; it's human speech, reproduced in ear-shattering, high-decibel shouting, shrieking, screaming, and blabbering.

Oh, and coming across a campsite--complete with abandoned, unscathed chicken egg and Deschutes brewery bottle caps--after hiking 2500 up to Devil's Rest and discovering a Forest-Service-only access road only 100 yards from the trail. Kinda ruined our feeling of isolation more than GPS, iPods, or other tech devices would.

I think it falls on each of us to determine what experience we want in the backcountry. I just don't want some do-gooder, thinking they know better than anyone else, pushing for a rule to prohibit us from taking along things I think will make the experience more enjoyable for me. Two weeks ago, while backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (up by Da Yoopers!), my wife took along her Creative Zen to listen to some music. She never turned it on all week. There is just too much to do, see, and hear. Besides, she probably couldn't hear it anyway above her breathing as we went uphill, downhill, etc.

I do, however, draw a line where safety is concerned. We took along the PLB, a weather radio, GPS, compass, water filter, etc. We did take along a cell phone to use as an alarm clock and, if possible, make a call to the daughter to say "Guess where we are and you aren't?" But as expected, no signal.

If I wanted to really rough it like they did in the old days, I would have joined my mom and dad when they attened their buckskinner encampments. In pre-tech days, there were fewer people and fewer rules. I would have taken a horse where horses are no longer allowed. I would have hunted along the trail for food where hunting is not allowed. I would have been able to drink from streams where I now need to filter the water.

Noise from other campers is usually not a problem in the back country. Trees, hills, etc., really limit noise. But I expect to never hear music from another campsite and if I do, I may have to get my axe out of my pack and put on a hockey mask!

"Personal technology" -- cell phone, GPS unit, iPod, etc. -- in national parks doesn't disturb me nearly as much as loaded firearms would.

Claire @

So lets leave our cameras behind while we are at it, down with flash lights and plastic cookware! and thermarest mattresses
One thing that bugs me about the 'wilderness experience' is us ultralight hikers who are forced to shave weight and carry devices to aid us in our travels such as PLB's and GPS units are frowned upon by those who can afford to bring in big groups of horses with dutch ovens massive coolers chairs, thick heavy canvas tens, cots, lanterns, ect ect. What kind of 'wilderness' experience is that!?

Frankly if I want to sit on a rock and use my ipod in the middle of the wilderness area I should be left alone! after all how much of a wilderness experience is it for me anyways to have to wade through all the horse sh** on my hike up there from all the horses trampling up the trail and making it a fly infested highway in the middle of a wilderness area.

We each experience nature in our own way. My way is to try to capture in photographs what I see; to put into words the thoughts and feelings it elicits. So I will travel with cameras and a laptop. Someone else may find their experience enhanced and more relaxing if they listen to music. It's just not relevant that "I' prefer the sounds of the forest.

At 61, I'm currently planning a year-long 'live in my van' road trip and plan to visit a number of National Parks. My 'sons' insist that if I'm traveling alone, I 'must' have a cell phone and GPS. That's for 'their' sense of security that Mom's okay. My feeling is that while I don't want them to worry, a cell phone and GPS aren't going to keep me safe. They see a need for it where I see none. The point being: what's important to one isn't important to another - who's to say one is right, the other wrong? I say if you want to take something with you, take it. It's your trip.

A song from the forties comes to mind as I plan my journey: "Gonna take a sentimental journey; Gonna set my heart at ease. Gonna make a sentimental journey to renew old memories." Who knows? The kid with the IPod may, forty years from now, be encouraged to take a sentimental journey when songs he hears today whisper "go for it, do it one more time".

Hikers Evacuated After Three SPOT Activations In Three Days

On the evening of September 23rd, rangers began a search for hikers who repeatedly activated their rented SPOT satellite tracking device. The GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston reported that someone in the group of four hikers – two men and their two teenaged sons – had pressed the “help” button on their SPOT unit. The coordinates for the signal placed the group in a remote section of the park, most likely on the challenging Royal Arch loop. Due to darkness and the remoteness of the location, rangers were unable to reach them via helicopter until the following morning. When found, they’d moved about a mile and a half to a water source. They declined rescue, as they’d activated the device due to their lack of water. Later that same evening, the same SPOT device was again activated, this time using the “911” button. Coordinates placed them less than a quarter mile from the spot where searchers had found them that morning. Once again, nightfall prevented a response by park helicopter, so an Arizona DPS helicopter whose crew utilized night vision goggles was brought in. They found that the members of the group were concerned about possible dehydration because the water they’d found tasted salty, but no actual emergency existed. The helicopter crew declined their request for a night evacuation, but provided them with water before departing. On the following morning, another SPOT “help” activation came in from the group. This time they were flown out by park helicopter. All four refused medical assessment or treatment. The group’s leader had reportedly hiked once at the Grand Canyon; the other adult had no Grand Canyon and very little backpacking experience. When asked what they would have done without the SPOT device, the leader stated, “We would have never attempted this hike.” The group leader was issued a citation for creating a hazardous condition (36 CFR 2.34(a)(4)).

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"...adventure without regard to prudence, profit, self-improvement,
learning or any other serious thing" -Aldo Leopold-

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