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Electronic Technology in National Park Backcountry: Good or Bad?


Does Spot have a role in the backcountry of the National Park System?

Where do you draw the line when it comes to electronics in the backcountry of the National Park System? Does use of it reflect self-doubt about your abilities, or a savviness in putting the latest technology to work for you?

It's an intriguing question, one that I'm putting to test this week during a five-day float trip down the Yampa River through Dinosaur National Park.

A paddler for more than three decades, I've long relied on maps and compass to get by when it comes to navigating. About the only electronic gadgetry I've carried, if you could call it that, were flashlights and stoves with self-igniters. Although, I did carry a GPS unit into Yellowstone National Park's watery backcountry during last fall's paddle on Yellowstone Lake, but that was a trial voyage to see exactly what the device could, and couldn't, do, not for reliance.

Which brings me to this week's trip. I'll be armed not only with Garmin's 60CSx GPS unit, but also, Spot, the self-proclaimed "world's first satellite messenger."

The 60CSx is pretty cool in that you can load topo maps onto it for use in navigating the outback. It also tracks your movements; allows you to mark waypoints, either for later mapping reference or to mark something you find cool in the backcountry so you can return to the same spot at a later date; can tell you the times of sunrise and sunset, and; offers an electronic compass. Heck, you can even use it to find your destination as you drive cross-state or cross-country.

Now, I'll confess that Spot has been resigned to a shelf in my storage room just about from the time I received it as a demo late in 2007. I questioned the need for the gizmo, frankly. But with my wife's growing interest in my well-being (thank you, darling), I dusted off the box this past week and fired it up.

It's really quite a simple unit, but remarkable as well. Slightly larger than a deck of cards and bright orange in color, Spot comes with four buttons, one of which is the on/off button. Another allows you to send an "all-OK" email to friends and family, another allows you to let them know you're OK, but running a bit late or are in need of some help, but nothing as organized as a search-and-rescue team. The last button is the equivalent of calling in the Marines to save your butt -- 9-1-1. Push that and your GPS coordinates are relayed ASAP to the closest SAR team.

Since Spot works with satellites hovering high overhead, it offers communications where your cellphone might not. However, the messages it sends have to be written and stored in software at home before you leave civilization. In other words, once you're off the grid you can use Spot to let folks know you're OK or crippled, but without any details. Still, this is better than shoving off for a week in the wilderness with no ability to get word out.

Or is it?

Judging from last week's discussion over cellphones in Yellowstone, there are at least two camps when it comes to electronic tools/gadgets/gizmos in the backcountry, regardless of whether it's officially designated wilderness, lands managed as wilderness, or just a nice inviting forest or lake setting.

So this week I plan to give Spot a workout. Every evening after we've pulled off the river and set up camp I'll send the "all-OK" signal to wife, family, and friends and, if it works as advertised, Bob Janiskee will put up a post the next morning to not just let folks know how the testing is going, but to include a link to Google Maps that will pinpoint where along the Yampa we camped. That's another cool aspect of Spot -- it works with Google Maps so the folks you're signaling not only know where you are by GPS coordinates (something that's very handy in case of emergency extraction), but they can dial-up Google Maps on the Internet and zoom in to your exact location.

One more programming feature tells Spot to send out regular signals so your friends can follow your movements over the course of the day.

So, good deal or no? Tell us what you think. Let's take the discussion over electronic technology in the backcountry up a notch. Today we put-in from Deer Lodge. Over the next five days, let's see if Spot can keep track of me.


I think the use of electronics is a great idea if it will cut down on the SAR responses. With more and more people getting out in the backcountry it's inevietable many will become lost if required to rely on a map and comapss. Most younger folks are tech savy and can easily learn the use of GPS units. I doubt many of them will take the time to become competent with a map and compass. When I studied math in school I used a slide rule, I think we would all prefer a calculator. The times thay are a changin.........

I recently got a Spot and love it. I took a trip to the canyons of Utah and used a combination of both OK messages and the tracking feature to plot my journeys through the different areas. My friends and family enjoyed being able to see where we were at any given time and I was able to look at it later and see exactly where I camped and stopped. I also like knowing the 911 feature is there, although luckily I haven't had a chance to test it out yet :-)

Ah, for the good ole days of just topo maps and a compass. It requires you to be more alert to your surroundings. There is always a sense of uncertainty that adds spice to the trip. I once bought a GPS that mounted to the handlebar of my bike. It showed a realtime display of my position, route, speed, time in route, vertical profile, elevation, etc. I used it for about a year, including a cycling trip in Utah. Then I took it off. It told me more than I really wanted to know. It made it too easy to become mentally lazy and a bit complacent. Becoming overly dependent on high tech electronics comes with a price, and it isn't always money.

Just as Kurt, I grew up learning to get around outdoors with map and compass, so, I view SPOT as a very interesting and useful accessory (I do not own one, as of yet) for keeping others up to date. I know that this has been a long and ongoing question in the climbing community. I don't think it is a bad thing to rely on electronics for navigation, but, people should have a sufficient understanding of map and compass in the event their electronic do-dads fail.

Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
Robert Mutch Photography,

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