Spring is here and summer is just around the corner. The weather is getting great for camping, and there’s nothing like the great outdoors. Forests, mountains, and lakes have the same ability to awe and calm today that they have always had, but in this Digital Age of constant connection, it’s even more imperative (and often necessary) to seek temporary solace and solitaire in nature.
For better or worse, modern technology has changed camping quite a bit. The tents, knives, and equipment we carry are lighter, sharper, and more durable than ever before. On the digital side of things, cell phones, GPS, and the Internet provide a wealth of information even out in the boonies, information that you could never pack out in years past.
Some campers and outdoorsmen shun technology altogether and stick to old-fashioned maps, compasses, and backcountry knowledge. Others willingly embrace technology on their trips because they can carry a small library of outdoors guides on a tablet, for example.
I fall somewhere in the middle. When I go camping or do anything outdoors, I carry my phone and maybe a tablet or e-reader with me, but use them minimally.
Regardless, we live in the 21st century, and if you’re planning a camping trip or outdoor excursion, you should consider taking advantage of technology to improve your trip. Below are some things you can do to make sure you and your devices make it into and out of the backcountry safely. If you click on a product link in this article and purchase something, I get a small tip at no cost to you. Much appreciated!
Turn devices off when not in use. Enjoy nature and leave the ‘Gram behind. Besides, if you’re lucky, you’ll be out of cell range anyway. If you want to take pictures, consider taking a camera specifically for the purpose, and share the pictures to social media when your trip is done. This will also help you re-enjoy the trip as you sift through your shots.
Solar chargers are also an option but you should be aware that solar power charges devices considerably slower than a battery bank will. Solar is also dependent on whether the sun is out, so if it’s a cloudy day, you won’t be able to charge your gear.
Consider buying a satellite phone. While I personally have no experience with this, if you know you’re going to be really out there (good for you!), you should consider acquiring a sat phone for your trip, as you will likely have no cell service. This would have been great on my recent trip through the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona, as my brother and I had no cell service for over twenty-four hours as we more or less traversed the entire upper-right quarter of the state. Get one in case of emergency.
At the very minimum, carry an old phone if you have one. Even if it no longer has a SIM card (meaning it’s not on a phone plan), you can still use it to dial 911 in case of an emergency. The caveat is that you still have to have service in order to call 911. That aside, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Use GPS, but take a map or atlas anyway. A couple years ago, my family took a trip to Fredericksburg, TX. We got as far as Cleburne (not very far) before the route went down to one lane under construction and traffic was backed up for miles. Both Google Maps and Apple Maps provided no alternate routes. Fortunately, I whipped out my trusty Texas map and cobbled together a new route that got us out of traffic and safely to Fredericksburg, where beer and brats awaited. It just goes to show that technology is not infallible.
You can buy a Rand McNally road atlas at Wal-Mart for under $10 that covers all states in the U.S. and all provinces in Canada, with an overview map of Mexico to boot. Also helpful are the Wal-Mart locations indexed in the front of the atlas. If you’re a AAA member, stop by your local office and pick up maps for the states you’ll be traveling through. And, when you get to wherever you’re going to stay, acquire local maps so you know your way around the surrounding area and trail or park maps so you don’t get lost while hiking.
If you have a tablet, load it up with outdoors books and guides. How do you know whether that berry is poisonous? How do you treat that kind of insect bite? What are you supposed to do, again, if you encounter a bear or mountain lion? With the right books at hand, the answers are just a few page swipes away.
If you have a tablet, such as an iPad, Samsung Galaxy, or Kindle Fire, you can easily and cheaply load your digital library up with great outdoor reference works. Yes, I agree that there is still no substitute for a real, tangible book, but when weight is an issue and you can’t feasibly pack out your entire library of outdoors guides, digital editions on your device of choice are a great alternative.
I suggest you download the free Amazon Kindle app and check out the following titles:
Also consider stocking up on some good, adventurous reads in case your hiking plans get washed out by a day of heavy rain. Again, nothing beats a hard copy, but a tablet loaded with e-books lightens your load considerably. Here are some of my favorites to get you started:
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (part of the five-book series called Brian’s Saga, aimed at young men but entertaining for adults as well)
Finally, keep your gadgets clean and dry! Dust, dirt, sand, water, and bugs are just a few things you might encounter out there, and while you are washable, your tech probably isn’t. Keep phones and tablets in water-resistant or waterproof pockets or containers, as these will also protect against dirt. I bought my brother and I each a Pelican 1060 Micro Case for keeping our phones dry while kayaking the Colorado River in Austin. It’s not a bad idea to use these whether you’re on the water or not.
With these tips in mind, you’ll be able to enjoy your trip and stay connected as need be. Just remember to take nothing but pictures and leaving nothing but footprints—and enjoy being outdoors, away from the Internet and social media!
So, who’s going where and what are you taking?
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We rose at 5:30 A.M. Page time since we finally learned which time zone we were in: Mountain Standard, which meant we would lose two hours driving east over the next two days (one hour entering Mountain Daylight, and another entering Central). We both slept unbelievably well that night after four nights on the ground in the cold inside sleeping bags—but those four nights on the ground made sleep in a bed that much sweeter. You learn to appreciate the things you take for granted in life when you go camping, and that’s one reason I like doing it.
We loaded up Vader and, since the motel office wasn’t open yet, left the keys on the table as our hosts instructed us. We drove around the block to grab a Southwestern breakfast at Ranch House Grille. I enjoyed an omelet while Daniel had huevos rancheros. We talked about what we wanted to do that day on the way back, and decided that we would have to forego a tour of Antelope Canyon for time constraints. Instead, we would stop at Horseshoe Bend on our way out of town, and then play the rest of the day by ear with the goal of reaching Albuquerque before sundown.
We paid for breakfast and then drove to Horseshoe Bend, just outside of Page. Our hostess had told us something about having to park in town and take a shuttle to the trail, but we simply drove to the trail, parked, and hiked about a mile round-trip to see the bend and back. At our visit, the trail was under construction and the parking lot was small, so I understood why there would be a need for shuttle busses, but I didn’t see any running while we were there.
Horseshoe Bend is simply a bend in the Colorado River that’s shaped like a horseshoe. It’s become a favorite site of photographers and Instagrammers (Daniel made sure to “get one for the ‘Gram”). It’s neat to look at, and it’s a short but moderate hike to the bend, but there’s not much else to do. It’s free, though—can’t beat that.
We got back on the road and drove U.S. 89 to Flagstaff. This route took us around the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation, areas we didn’t really want to drive through a second time if we could help it. There is an incredible pull-off near Bitter Springs that looks out over the desert and towards the Grand Canyon that made the whole route worth it.
As we approached Flagstaff, I frequently took advantage of passing lanes to get by slower cars and trucks. I got pretty good at it, too—and then the check engine light on Vader’s dash started flashing.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Daniel, open the glove box and grab the owner’s manual. See what it says about a flashing check engine light.”
Daniel is not the best when it comes to using an index, but to his credit he found exactly what I was looking for, just as the light went away. “Misfire occurred,” he reported. “Could be due to spark plugs, over-revving the engine, or a bad fuel-air ratio. It says to take it easy on the engine and get it inspected by a dealer immediately.”
Not what I wanted to hear. Thoughts of what could be wrong rushed through my head. We had gained considerable altitude as we approached Flagstaff; could differences in air pressure or temperature, combined with accelerating, have caused the misfire?
I decided, since the light went away, to keep driving at a steady clip. We passed through Flagstaff and briefly got turned around as we tried to find Interstate 40. We also got cell service back and Daniel texted Mom to let her know where we were at.
“You know there’s a meteor crater near Flagstaff,” she said via text. “Y’all might want to check that out.”
“Hey, Matthew, did you know there’s a meteor crater near here?” Daniel asked.
“Yeah, I read something about it. It’s twenty dollars per person.” I was trying to keep Pard’s finances in mind. “You want to check it out?”
That decided it.
The meteor crater is about thirty miles east of Flagstaff and four miles south of I-40. It doesn’t have a name; it’s just called “Meteor Crater Natural Landmark”. It’s not maintained by the National Park Service or any other governmental agency (which could be a good thing); in fact, the land is owned by a long-time rancher and the proceeds from the visitor’s center go to help maintain the crater.
The crater was completely worth it. For eighteen bucks apiece (we each paid twenty and got a two-dollar bill in change!), we got access to the small but impressive museum and a free, guided tour along the crater rim. You can’t descend into the crater because doing so would start to erode it, but you can get some spectacular views from the rim anyway. Our tour guide told us quite a bit about both the natural history and the human history of the crater, and we learned that it is, in fact, the largest, best-preserved impact crater in the whole world. On top of that, the blast created at impact was equivalent to twenty-million tons of TNT.
After spending a bit longer at the crater than we intended, we drove a short distance further to Winslow, where we did indeed stand on the corner (yeah, we’re tourists!) and then stopped for gas. Things move slower in small towns off old Route 66, and that includes fuel.
“I could urinate faster than this!” a fellow traveler complained to me at the pump. “I mean, this is crazy!”
The good thing about our delay was that we got acquainted with a couple from Florida who had just retired and were taking a road trip across the country. “We just saved all we could and started investing in real estate, and now we’re basically being paid from our investments,” he explained. “We were both able to retire with all the benefits and we’re still making money on the side. You two guys are pretty young and you’ll get good jobs if you don’t already have them; just start socking away everything you can and learn about real estate. It pays for itself.”
We thanked him for the advice and said we would look into real estate. I stopped gassing up my truck before the tank was full because Daniel and I were both tired of waiting. We said good-bye to the kind man, and when we left the gas pump had evidently not shut off as it filled his Ford Edge. Gas spilled down the side of the car. I was glad I shut the pump off early and made a mental note never to stop at the Phillips 66 in Winslow ever again. (Word to the wise…)
Daniel took the wheel and drove us on the long-haul from Winslow to Albuquerque with one brief bathroom pit-stop. As we rolled through I-40 construction outside of Albuquerque, he said the words I didn’t want to hear: “Matthew, the check engine light’s back on again.”
The truck drove fine and the engine wasn’t shaking or making any sounds as far as we could tell, so since we were out in the middle of nowhere anyway, I told him to drive it steady into Albuquerque, where we would take it to an AutoZone and have the code scanned. I prayed it wasn’t anything serious, and that pressing on wouldn’t make anything worse.
We arrived in Albuquerque right at sundown, just as planned. We had a little trouble finding our AirBNB casita for the night, due in part to confusing roads and addresses, and in part to the lack of streetlights to illuminate the addresses. We stopped in briefly to examine the casita (quaint, quiet, and comfortable), then hopped back in Vader to grab dinner at a place called Monroe’s. We each had Southwestern-style sandwiches, but I don’t remember much of the meal because I was thinking about the truck. All I wanted to do was get it to AutoZone and, hopefully, be able to breathe a sigh of relief that the code was nothing.
We drove up to AutoZone and a guy about our age, from Fort Worth in fact, read the codes and then pulled them up on the computer. “Man, it doesn’t look good,” he said. “One’s a misfire, the other’s an issue with turbo underboost. Could be an issue with the turbocharger. I think you should get that checked out immediately. Don’t want you two breaking down on the way back to Texas; there’s nothing between here and there.”
I sighed. “Where can we take it?”
He consulted with one of the local guys, not an employee, who hung around the store to chat cars. “You need to take it to Brothers. I think they’ve worked on F-150s before. They open at nine tomorrow because it’s Saturday.” He wrote down the address and phone number on the printout of the error codes and handed it to me. “Good luck, guys. Hope you can get it figured out.”
We went back to the casita and made plans for the next day. I had hoped to leave early, as had been our precedent, but having to wait until nine o’clock to visit the mechanic would scrap those plans. I gave Dad a call and asked if he had any advice.
“Do your research,” he said. He and Mom were watching a James Bond movie. “Pray about it and sleep on it. Let me know tomorrow morning.”
Everything I was reading online was making me worry even more: Owners who reported the same codes were having their turbochargers overhauled and replaced. That would be expensive, time-consuming, and unsafe to drive without. I pulled myself away from my phone and prayed fervently that God would provide us a way to get it fixed quickly so we could get back home, and a backup plan if not.
Daniel, true to form, took a leisurely, hot shower, then plopped down on the mattress to listen to reggae music while checking in on social media. My shower was cold because he used all the hot water, but I didn’t get onto him about it. Instead, I told him we’d sleep in, take our time getting ready to go in the morning, and then be at the garage called Brothers well before they opened. He agreed, and we turned out the lights.
We both slept pretty well that night considering we shared a bed. It always winds up being a battle for the blanket whenever we sleep in the same bed, but I think we were both so tired that it didn’t matter.
The next morning, I washed my face and checked my phone. A text from Dad lit up the screen: “Good morning travelers! Call me when you get up and we will talk truck stuff.”
I did. Dad had spent some time researching the same error code and came across different results. He said it was likely spark plugs, from what he read. “Take it to your guy,” he said, referring to Brothers. “He’s the one they recommended, so go to him, and go with God.”
After I got off the phone with Dad, Daniel and I packed up and ensured the casita looked spick and span before walking out for the last time. I looked up and saw a dozen hot-air balloons dotting the clear, blue Albuquerque sky. Maybe the day wouldn’t be so bad, after all. (Sadly, all our camera batteries had died, so I didn’t get any good photos of the balloons. And that’s why, sadly, the rest of this post has no pictures.)
I looked at the map on my phone and saw that there was a Chick-fil-A close to the garage, just on the other side of I-25 (the CanAm highway). We drove through and grabbed breakfast, then parked ourselves outside Brothers Complete Autocare at half-past eight, eating our chicken biscuits and drinking milk while we waited for nine.
I saw the garage bay door go up at a quarter to nine, so I got out of the truck and walked in to investigate. I looked around and didn’t see anyone, but then a middle-aged Hispanic gentleman peeked around the corner at me. “Buenos días,” I said. I don’t know why I automatically went to Spanish, but I trusted my instincts. “¿Hablas inglés?”
He smiled. “Eh, little bit.” He gapped his thumb and forefinger for emphasis.
I tried to explain what the problem was across the language barrier. I told him I was from Texas, trying to drive home, and was having engine trouble. I thought it was the spark plugs. He listened attentively and I could tell he wanted to help. “Is outside?” he asked, pointing.
“Sí,” I said, and led him to it. We popped the hood and he set to work on it immediately. I stood outside and watched him, while Daniel sat inside and slowly enjoyed breakfast, listening to Tears for Fears.
As the minutes ticked by, some local guys, the kind who like to hang around garages, showed up and stood around as the mechanic worked away at the engine. He explained to them what the problem was, in Spanish, and they would ask questions or offer suggestions. My Spanish being rudimentary at best, I could catch a few key words and phrases, but much of it was lost on me.
“Look here,” he said finally, pointing to the number-one coil pack. “See? Is new.” He pointed at the others. “Original.” The coil pack for the first cylinder was not nearly as dirty as the others were. “Might be some problem before, I don’t know?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I knew I had never changed it, nor had my mechanic back home. “Do you have a replacement?”
“Un momento.” He put on his headset and made a phone call. “Hola, Carlos.” He told Carlos, who worked at the local O’Reilly Auto Parts, what he needed. He shook his head and took the headset off. “They no have it. You want me to try spark plugs?”
I told him yes, and he asked Carlos about them. “They no have spark plugs,” he said regretfully, shaking his head.
“What else can we do?” I asked him.
“I will call someone else.” He dialed another nearby store and told them what he needed. “They have them,” he said to me. “Fifty dollars.”
“Do it,” I said. He nodded and placed the order.
“Gracias,” I told him when he got off the phone. “I appreciate your help.”
He smiled. “De nada. Is my job. Is what I do.” He plunged back under the hood and started unscrewing the old spark plugs.
Pretty soon, a young lady drove up in an auto parts truck and dropped off the new plugs. The mechanic quickly gapped them and set to work installing them. In the meantime, I kept Mom and Dad posted on the progress. “Trust your mechanic,” Dad encouraged. “He is the answered prayer.”
The mechanic’s son, who spoke fluent English, showed up about this time and started working on someone else’s car but then came by to talk to us when the work was finished. He cleared the codes on the truck and we fired the engine up. It turned over fine and sounded healthy. The check engine light stayed off. He advised I get some octane booster from AutoZone and then fill up with premium gas to ensure the fuel-air mixture wouldn’t be too lean.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked him after he lowered the hood.
“Eh, one-twenty?” he reckoned on the spot.
“Do you have change for one-fifty?”
“Sure.” We both pulled out our wallets and exchanged the money. I shook his hand. “Muchas gracias, señor.”
“You’re welcome. Good luck.”
And with that, we hit the road just after 10:00 A.M. Mountain. I drove us from Albuquerque to Tucumcari, and Vader ran great. We filled up in Tucumcari, and Daniel drove us from there to Wichita Falls, where I took the reins one final time and drove us the last two hours into DFW. We arrived at 8:30 P.M. Central, for a total of nine hours of nearly non-stop driving. We made good time and the miles rolled by as we listened to everything from Willie Nelson to Pearl Jam.
And so ended our bro-trip to the American Southwest, packed with adventure, thrills and chills, and many more memories than what I’ve shared here. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
There are a few things we learned for the next trip. First, it’s good to know what cell coverage is like where you’re going, especially if you’re driving through places like the Navajo Nation. A backup satellite phone would be good to have. Second, it wouldn’t hurt to carry some basic auto parts, such as spark plugs and coil packs, just in case. Third, make sure your tent sleeping arrangement is comfortable; we suffered from no support until we bought new Therm-a-Rests and struggled with a lack of space the whole time.
Finally, when camping, stay clean! Our campground didn’t have showers, so we made do with body wipes and dry shampoo (or at least I did) for four days. One reason a lot of people don’t like to camp is because they can’t get clean, and it’s completely understandable. No one wants to go to bed feeling sticky from the day’s sweat. Some good body wipes go a long way (such as these from Surviveware, which were awesome—affiliate link alert). And dry shampoo (I used this one from Hair Dance), even for those with short hair, makes a big difference. Just ask Daniel; he didn’t use any and his hair was hideous!!
I hope you’ve enjoyed these tales of our epic adventure. If you get a chance to “go west, young man (or woman)”, go! Every state we passed through had its own unique natural beauty and charm, but Utah was simply beautiful to me. There is so much more to do there, including Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Canyonlands National Park, and Arches National Park—not to mention a myriad of state parks and other natural areas. And, of course, there’s the Grand Canyon, too.