Technology and 21st-Century Camping

Photo by Teemu R on Pexels.com

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.

Portable chargers, also known as power bricks or power banks, are essential when heading out into the wild without a way to charge your devices. The Anker PowerCore+ 10050 shown here is a great option that I used on a recent trip to Utah. Just make sure you charge your charger before leaving!

Take backup power. Regardless of how much or how little you use your devices, their batteries will drain. I carry at least two power banks when I travel, one dedicated to charging devices and another that can jump-start a car (because there’s nothing worse than a car that won’t start when you’re miles away from civilization). I recommend the Anker PowerCore+ 10050 portable charger for phones and tablets and the DBPOWER 2000A 19200mAh jump-starter for vehicles (which will also charge phones and other devices).

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:

  1. 100 Deadly Skills: Survival Edition by Clint Emerson
  2. Bushcraft 101 by Dave Canterbury
  3. Boy Scout Handbook (currently in its 13th edition, although you can also buy the highly-revered 1st edition from 1911)
Bushcraft 101 is comprehensive and inexpensive: only $1.99 for Kindle!

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:

  1. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (though anything by London is fair game)
  2. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  3. 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.

The Pelican 1060 Micro Case is excellent for storing phones, keys, wallets, and more when in wet or dusty environments. Clipping it to your person, a backpack, or kayak with the included carabiner ensures that it doesn’t get lost or end up in Davy Jones’ locker.

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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American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 1: Preparation

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

One month prior to spring break, Daniel and I sat down with our calendars and an atlas. We put our heads together and figured out where we could go for a week on the cheap.

The beach was an obvious choice. Unfortunately, the beach was an obvious choice. Everyone goes to the beach during spring break.

Going abroad wasn’t an option, because Daniel doesn’t have a passport (yet). Plus, the cost to get out of the United States is typically high, even though things might be cheaper once you do get out of the country.

We really didn’t want to take a “traditional” spring break trip, and we really wanted to go somewhere we’d never been before and do something we’d never done before. For both of us, that meant visiting a state we’d not yet crossed off the list.

I’m fond of the American West, so I started looking at places out that way that we could get to in two days or less on the road. Of course, they also needed to be interesting enough for me and entertaining enough for Daniel.

After a little research, I pointed at a spot in southwest Utah. “How about Zion National Park?”

We looked at pictures online and I looked at the trail reports on the National Park Service’s website. It didn’t take much convincing once Daniel saw the beauty of the area and how much there was to do there.

Little did we know how much there is to do out there.

With a location decided upon, we began to research transportation and lodging. Camping was an obvious choice due to how cheap it is to camp in a national park. Driving in my truck meant that we could go where we wanted and carry all the gear we needed, rather than try to stuff it into carry-ons and check bags on an airplane. (Plus, neither of us are old enough to affordably rent a car if we ever fly anywhere.)

One thing most people don’t know is that there are tons of places where it is free to camp across the United States. Much of the land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) is free to camp on with a fourteen-day maximum stay. For RVers, Wal-Marts and other large retailers tend to accommodate overnight “boondocking” in their parking lots. The website FreeCampsites.net has an interactive map with thousands of such free locations documented across the U.S.

With this in mind, our plan was to free-camp our way to Zion rather than stay in hotels. I picked out places for every night, including in Cibola National Forest outside Albuquerque and Goosenecks State Park near Mexican Hat, UT.

Our initial itinerary was to leave DFW early on Friday the 8th and drive to Albuquerque, and then drive to Zion on the 9th. We would stay in Zion until the 13th, when we would then drive to Monument Valley for a couple days before reversing our route and coming back home. We would be back on Saturday the 16th, which would give us one day to rest up before re-entering the “real world” (or a day of cushion in case something happened on the way back).

Then Mom and Dad stepped in and basically demanded that we get “real” lodging on our way.

And then one of Daniel’s professors moved an exam forward from after spring break to the day we were supposed to leave, which meant we wouldn’t get to leave until 11AM at the earliest.

At first, I felt like these two setbacks wrecked the plan, but strangely they helped solidify the itinerary. I decided to reverse the trip: we would drive to Monument Valley first since it was closer, then to Zion, and then back home. We could still travel a good distance on half of Friday and all of Saturday. And, blessedly, Daniel’s professor agreed to let him take the exam earlier that Friday the morning, meaning we could leave sooner than we otherwise could have.

Instead of staying in Albuquerque the first night, I booked a room at the Best Western in Santa Rosa, NM, and then a room at Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley for the next night. We then booked the South Campground for five nights in Zion (booking for the South Campground opens up only fourteen days in advance), and an AirBNB casita in Albuquerque for the trip back.

Whew! Everything did indeed fall into place.

Next, we had to get our gear together. We had most of the camping gear already: tent, Therm-A-Rests, mummy-style sleeping bags. We opted for a newer but smaller Coleman tent that Daniel used on a recent trip to Big Bend National Park, because the older Walrus tent that we had used in Missouri during the Great American Eclipse leaked in a great deluge even though I waterproofed it. Otherwise, we took the obvious camping and survival items: hiking boots, knives, many ways to start a fire, mylar blankets, rain ponchos, and the like.

I’ll pause the narrative a minute and note that I will occasionally hyperlink to Amazon pages for products that we used on this trip. These are affiliate links, meaning that if you buy the product through the link on this page, I get a small kickback from your purchase. Don’t feel obligated to buy anything at all, but if there’s something I write about that you would like to buy, I’d appreciate it if you did so through my link.

And with that PSA out of the way, back to the story.

Our camping in Zion would be primitive in the sense that there was no electric hookup or shower. A camp restroom and a spigot were thirty or so yards from our reserved campsite in the South Campground. We would be cooking our own meals, something we’d never really done before. And, we’d be doing it in what was likely to be cold, potentially wet weather.

Two weeks before we left, we drove to the closest Wal-Mart Supercenter and loaded up on canned goods: Campbell’s soups, green beans, spinach, tuna, you name it. We bought some of the cured “mystery meat” sausage, as well as crackers, trail mix, and cups of mandarin oranges and peaches.

For breakfast, we decided on grits, since neither of us like oatmeal. To prepare it all, I bought a Stanley cooking kit to complement a one-person cooking kit I already had.

We were going to eat and we were going to eat well.

For water, I purchased two Aqua-Tainers in anticipation of free-camping. It turns out that I didn’t need two (and probably not even one), but I went with the old rule of thumb that every person needs a gallon of water per day. With two people and at least seven days of travel, that would be fourteen gallons, exactly two Aqua-Tainers.

Due to concerns about the weather, I also bought us each a base layer and crampons for our hiking boots. For cleanliness, I bought some body wipes and dry shampoo (since manly men with flowing manes need to keep oil at bay, too), since we wouldn’t have access to a shower unless we paid $5 for four minutes in the nearby town of Springdale.

The day before we left, I got Vader the truck washed and waxed (so he would cut through the air better on the open road), then came home and loaded up what I could. I stored all the food in the two Plano containers that I carry around in Vader’s bed, and loaded the sleeping bags, cookware, and other miscellaneous things into the extended cab.

For campfire-building, Dad helped me pack some old wood that had been covered up in the backyard into a Rubbermaid container. All the camping gear was already stored in an old Action Packer container. I simply loaded these into the bed and pulled the tonneau cover shut. I also took the old Coleman camp stove and three cans of propane just in case.

And with that, we were pretty much ready. All that remained was for Daniel to take his exam, load up the last few things, and then hit the road the next day.

The big day: Loaded for bear and ready to roll!

Three Principles of Preparedness

grayscale photo of man standing on ground
This guy looks pretty prepared for whatever might come his way. Photo by abhishek gaurav on Pexels.com

I’ll admit it: I’m not a hunter or prepper. I’m not much of an outdoorsman or a survivalist, either. I spend most of my time in urban or suburban areas (though outdoors, when possible). However, I find the study of preparedness, regardless of location or circumstance, very interesting. When most people think of prepping, they think of guys carrying around bug-out bags in the middle of nowhere up in Idaho or Montana. However, prepping is not exclusive to the worst-case scenario of an EMP attack or nuclear fallout from World War III. While those are things to consider, we should all first consider our preparedness for everyday events.

Are you prepared to fix or change a flat tire if you have one on the highway? What if someone breaks in to your home in the middle of the night? What will you do if a snowstorm knocks your power out for three days straight? (It’s happened to me and my family in Texas, believe it or not.)

In the spirit of thinking ahead, here are what I believe to be the three crucial principles of preparedness.

1. “Be prepared.”

This is the Boy Scouts’ motto. It’s simple and easy to remember. In any situation you can imagine yourself in, this is the starting point: just be prepared.

If you run the risk of being assaulted on the city streets or in a parking garage, be prepared. Carry some mace, a kubaton, or even a roll of quarters in your fist with you. Know how to use whatever you carry. (That means practice!) Mentally run yourself through the situation of assault so you can visualize how you will respond defensively.

If you’re going on a road trip and there’s a possibility you might break down in a remote area, be prepared. Have AAA or roadside assistance through your insurance provider. Consider a satellite phone if you find yourself outside of cell service. Bring some food and water along so you can survive while waiting for help if it takes a while.

2. “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”

Many proponents of gun ownership and concealed carry argue their case with this phrase, and I think they’re right, regardless of what liberals think. This doesn’t just apply to firearms, though. Going back to the street assault example, the chance of being mugged might be very low, maybe even negligible. But, in the event that it happens to you, because it does happen, you want to have a defensive weapon of choice on-hand. The last thing you want in an adversarial situation is to pull out your keychain and realize that your kubaton isn’t attached to it because you left it at home.

In the roadside breakdown example, a can of Fix-A-Flat might be enough to get a flat tire inflated long enough to get to the nearest garage. A portable jump starter might keep you from having to wait on a kind motorist to pull over and give your dead battery a jump. A flashlight and a jacket are two great things to have after sundown, with the flashlight in the glovebox and the jacket in the backseat or the trunk.

3. “Two is one, and one is none.”

This comes from the Navy SEALs, and I’ve already written a little about this in one of my first posts, On Redundancy, but it’s worth mentioning again. (I’m actually applying this principle in writing this post!)

I look at this phrase in two ways. First, have two of the same item on-hand in the event that one doesn’t work, or is misplaced, or gets borrowed—you get the idea. Keep extra batteries near battery-powered lanterns. Have two flashlights readily available. Carry two water bottles.

The second way I look at this phrase is this: take two different items that accomplish the same thing. For example, when camping, carry two or three different means with which to start a fire: flint and steel, matches, magnesium, maybe even a magnifying glass or eyeglasses, if you have them. Carry two different ways to purify water, such as purifying tablets and a LifeStraw.

A more everyday example would be having a GPS and a map or atlas in the car. On a family vacation to Fredericksburg last year, I ditched Google Maps in favor of a trusty Texas state map because Google routed us along US-67, which was closed for construction outside Cleburne.

It could even be as simple as having both an electric can opener and a manual one at home, or carrying cash as a backup to a card. (Another tip: some hole-in-the-wall restaurants and small businesses might not accept plastic, so always have cash available just in case. Don’t be the guy who has to leave his date at the restaurant and walk to an ATM, as someone I know once had to do.)

car road snow winter
I’d make sure I could dig this SUV out of the snow before getting out in it. A collapsible shovel and traction mats would be great to have. That guy probably needs a license plate, too. Photo by Chris Peeters on Pexels.com

In summary: have it, have it even if you don’t think you’ll need it, and have two.

Apply these three principles of preparedness to your life and you will feel more confident should the stuff hit the fan, regardless of what that stuff is. As you prepare, you may find yourself, as I did, envisioning “What if?” situations that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought of. If you believe Murphy’s Law holds true, and I tend to think it does, you can’t prepare for every possible contingency, but you can take steps to prepare for a worst-case scenario, whether that’s at home, on the job, on the road, in the air—anywhere.

On Redundancy

I woke up this Monday morning and powered on my Mac to check my emails, only to find that it wouldn’t fully boot up. Apparently, an update didn’t install the way it was supposed to, so macOS just gave me an error. After restarting my machine a couple times, I clicked around in an effort to find a solution, and rebooted again. This time around, I logged in and the OS loaded like normal. I don’t know what I did (or didn’t do) to solve the problem, but this was a perfect reminder of a principle that the Navy Seals live by.

Two is one and one is none.

Think about it. You have one computer, which works ninety-nine percent of the time. Ninety-nine percent of one year means that it doesn’t work three or four days out of the year! Speaking from experience, a computer isn’t usually down for just a few days; if it ain’t an easy fix, you may find yourself schlepping it to the local repair shop or calling in your friendly neighborhood nerd—but in the meantime, you still don’t have a computer to use. (Mac users, you aren’t immune to this.)

My suggestion is to acquire a cheap, refurbished computer to keep as a backup in the event that your main machine gets sick or, sad to say, dies suddenly by the Blue Screen of Death. Have a “beater” that gets mission-critical tasks done, at least until your primary one recovers or is replaced. If you upgrade to a newer computer, don’t put your old one out to pasture just yet—it can serve as your secondary.

Oh, and back up all your data in some way, shape, or form. I recommend an external hard drive, but USB sticks or DVDs will also work. It’s also a good idea to back up sensitive information on a USB stick or DVD and place it in a safe deposit box for, well, safekeeping. If your computer’s hard drive kicks the bucket, you’ll still have your data on hand (though I wouldn’t load it all onto your backup machine and potentially slow it down; copy over only what you need), and should some unfortunate circumstance destroy your backup, you’ll at least have your critical data safe at the bank. If something happens to your safe deposit box, you’ve probably got more pressing problems to deal with.

I wrote this with computers and data in mind, but the principle of “two is one and one is none” applies to pretty much anything. Flashlights, house keys, knives, home-defense firearms (unless it’s a revolver or a Glock, both of which should fire on every trigger pull), eyeglasses, good books, and the Bible (the best book), are a few things that come to my mind. Figure out what you own that you can’t live without, and consider acquiring a second of each item.

Be redundant!