AMC Outdoors, December 2003
By Michael Lanza
We who love the outdoors have a fickle relationship with technology in the backcountry. We tend to look down our noses at the latest gadgets. Remember when some climbers considered camming devices “cheating” (as only climbers, it seems, can perceive an ethical and aesthetic compromise in being safer) — and then slowly came to accept the new and see its usefulness? And who goes into avalanche terrain today without wearing a beacon? Today it’s GPS and modern communications devices, tomorrow — what?
Whether you’re a Luddite wondering what to fret over next, or a high-tech gadget geek eager to try the latest toys, you might peruse the holiday list that follows. Some items marry two technologies (like a GPS receiver and two-way radio or binoculars and camera), others simply improve vastly upon a traditional piece of equipment (and thus cause less angst among traditionalists). No matter where you stand on the question of technology in the backcountry, you might find something you like here. And if you end up buying it for yourself, don’t worry, we won’t tell.
We’ve seen the next generation of GPS: The Magellan SporTrak Topo ($349) is the only handheld GPS preloaded with 108 MB of nationwide topographic maps. You can get another 16 MB of memory for downloading detailed street maps, marine charts, and other navigation data. The nine-button keypad accesses nine screens and menu options that include vertical profiles of routes and background maps of major roads and waterways. The 12-channel receiver is accurate to three meters even in mountains, canyons, and dense forest. It’s just 6 ounces and 1.3 inches long, and runs up to 14 hours on two AA batteries.
For years we’ve gazed through binoculars and thought, “What a great photo this would be.” Stop wishing, start shooting. The Brookstone 10×25 Digital Camera Binoculars ($150) marry 10-power binoculars to a 1.3-megapixel digital camera with 16 MB of memory, so you can download up to 100 photo-quality images to your hard drive to conveniently email your vacation slide show to family and friends. Runs on four AAA batteries.
You’ll be careful about getting cheese all over the Swiss Army-Victorinox Altimeter Plus knife ($105, or $140 in the Expedition Set complete with a compass, ruler, and leather case that attaches to a belt) — possibly the world’s most sophisticated cutting instrument. Its liquid-crystal display shows altitude to 18,000 feet (meters or feet), temperature (Fahrenheit or Celsius), and it boasts a typical complement of backcountry tools: two blades and screwdrivers, can and bottle openers, corkscrew, toothpick, tweezers, and, of course, wood saw.
Why should a pedometer be only a pedometer? The High Gear WalkBuddy Pulse Reader Pedometer ($39) not only keeps track of your steps and travel distance, this walking computer reads pulse, counts calories, provides the time, date, and step target, and has a chronograph and alarm. A walk/run switch ensures accurate measurements in this compact unit with easy-to-use buttons and a belt clip.
Talk to your hiking or climbing partner and know his location without asking — the waterproof, 8-ounce Garmin Rino 110 GPS receiver and two-way radio ($179) communicates to a range of five miles, transmits your position to a companion every time you press “talk” or “call,” and locates a companion unit’s position when you hit “send,” within a range of two miles. The 110 has 1 MB of memory for downloadable points-of-interest data. For 8 MB of memory, get the Rino 120 ($249, 8.5 oz.).
Stop debating whether your binoculars are too bulky and heavy to carry into the backcountry: The 2-ounce, palm-sized Audubon 6×16 Monocular ($35) boasts good optics and light transmission for everything from bird watching in dim light to sitting in the back of a theater.
The Jetboil Personal Cooking System ($79) just made the backcountry kitchen smaller and lighter. The 12-ounce unit includes an auto-lighting canister stove and a one-liter pot/mug with lid. A heat exchanger in the stove speeds up boiling times — meaning far less fuel consumed than with typical canister stoves, thus you carry a smaller canister. (The company sells recyclable 110-gram canisters, for $4, that employ the common, screw-mounted Lindahl valve and will boil up to 15 liters of water.) A pot cozy lets you hold and eat from the mug hot off the stove.
Headlamps are hardly a new technology, true. But Petzl’s Tikka Plus LED headlamp ($35) throws an old piece of equipment into a new light. At just 2.6 oz. with three AAA batteries and fitting into your palm, this Lilliputian lamp not only cuts the darkness — it’s bright enough to let you hike at night, though fog diminishes its beam — but you’ll forget it’s on your head after turning it off. It has three brightness settings plus a blinking setting for emergencies, and the efficient LED bulbs burn 180 hours on fresh batteries.
Yeah, it’s pricey, but the Suunto X6HR wrist-top computer ($429) is the most advanced on the market, with a highly accurate altimeter, thermometer, alarms, stopwatch, compass, barometer, heart rate monitor, and data link to the Internet to obsess over your times — not to mention a bright nightlight.
More affordably, the High Gear Axis digital watch ($150) has an altimeter, barometer, compass, split-times chronograph, thermometer, and two alarms, and clever details like icons that indicate the weather trend (sun, clouds, precipitation) and the ability to track total elevation. Its big face is easy to read and has an excellent back light, and the five operation buttons are easily manipulated (though I’ve depressed them accidentally, too).
Whether you’re at base camp on Everest or car-camping in the White Mountains, the Brunton SolarRoll 14 flexible solar panel ($399) juices up your high-tech toys. Unroll the waterproof, 12-by-57-inch panel in sunshine and it immediately begins harvesting up to 14 watts of solar energy, enough to charge a satellite phone, digital camera, and other electronics. Multiple SolarRolls can be linked to charge larger electronics like a laptop or car battery. Afterward, the 17-ounce unit rolls up to a three-inch diameter.
Few digital cameras balance function and compactness as well as the Canon PowerShot A70 ($350). This 11-ounce unit is small enough to operate one-handed, yet boasts 3.2 megapixels for high-resolution photos, a tough aluminum alloy body, and features including a focus assist light, contract and color enhancer, soft focus, and sepia tones. It uses four AAAs, which bumps the weight up slightly but gives you twice the time per battery change as other models do. And it will shoot movies with sound up to three minutes long.
Hiking footwear keeps getting lighter, but Nike has reduced weight while providing outstanding support with the Air Zoom Tallac boots ($140). A hummingbirdish 2 lbs., 3 oz. for a pair of men’s size 9, they are mid-cut, have a Gore XCR liner, and, uniquely, sport an exoskeleton that wraps like a rib cage around the foot, giving the lateral and underfoot support of heavier boots, yet the agility of speedy day hikers.
Hopefully, one of these will please your high-tech friend who seems to have everything, or make your own holiday brighter.
—Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.