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Perspectives on Outings: Modern Gear
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by Dan Soeder, Chapter Outings Chair | 2012

I was going to do this essay on my June trip to Alaska, but another issue came up instead. I was asked by a writer for a university magazine for my thoughts on how technology affects the way we enjoy nature. I thought Sierran readers might find this interesting.

The biggest technological impact on the outdoor experience has to be modern mate-rials. Heavy canvas tents, cotton rucksacks, enameled cookware and gasoline-powered steel stoves and lanterns have been re-placed with a host of lightweight, high-performance gear made of strong, wa-terproof and flame-resistant materials.
My wife hiked the Appalachian Trail years ago with a surplus British Army poncho she used for weather protection. It consisted basically of rubberized canvas, and while it kept rain out, it was also bulky and heavy. My modern rain jacket weighs about two ounces, folds up to the size of a pair of socks, and consists of a Gore-Tex® /Teflon® /nylon laminate that keeps liquid water out, but al-lows water vapor to pass through. I stay dry and the wet weather stays outside. Gore-Tex lining in hiking boots makes them waterproof, eliminating the need to coat the outside with wax or “bear grease” around the campfire.
The modern shock-corded nylon dome tents are much quicker and easier to set up than the old Boy Scout-style A-frame canvas tents, and the dome structure eliminates the center poles, which were always a hazard when stumbling around in the dark.|
Modern LED or compact fluorescent lights run for days on a set of batteries, and have replaced the old gasoline lanterns that used incandescent mantles. The LED lights can be safely used inside a tent, which could not be done with a hot lantern.
Even food and water have changed: the modern microfiltration water pumps remove pathogens from raw water without adding the bad taste that came from treating with iodine or chlorine. And freeze-dried trail food has gotten so good that adding a cup of boil-ing water to a bag makes a gourmet meal that simply cannot be achieved any other way on the trail without a lot of work and a lot of weight.
So has all this technology inspired more people to embark on camping trips and other nature outings? I think it has helped in some ways and hurt in others. Some people who are just getting into nature outings go a bit gear-crazy and load up on the technology. Others are intimidated by all the products out there, and think they have to spend a ton of money just to get started. There are a lot of high-tech necessities and accessories for sale at the outfitter stores, but sometimes what is critical and what is just handy are hard to tell apart. The stores are probably not the best place to get advice on things you don’t need to buy.
Advertisers feature lots of high tech gear in commercials that inspire the outdoors. Interestingly, most of these ads are not for the outdoor gear itself, but use it to sell other products. People kayaking in whitewater sell granola bars, a group of hikers who go the extra mile to see a sunset represent an in-vestment firm, and an attractive young woman climbs a pinnacle in Monument Val-ley to sell a credit card. The upshot of this kind of commercial exposure is that many people see outdoor activities as something that requires a lot of expensive gear. In reality, all that is really necessary for hiking a trail is a good pair of boots, but it is hard to learn this among all the hype.
One of the downsides to the tech revolution is that electronic devices like cell phones, laptops, MP3 sound systems, bat-tery powered televisions and so forth are showing up on outdoor activities, and de-tracting from the experience. Camping is for nature. I’m fine with something mellow like the Pink Floyd “Animals” CD playing quietly in the background around the campfire, but if you want to talk on the phone, work on financial spreadsheets, watch the ballgame, or post your life on Facebook, stay home. The 4G network coverage is probably better there anyway.
Modern technology also encourages people to take more risks. Sure, being able to call for help on a cell phone may make a trail seem safer, but it also encourages people to go out in risky weather conditions or someplace they are not competent to traverse because if they run into trouble, they can always call for rescue. I’ve seen this happen more times than I care to remem-ber, and the rescuers can’t always get there in time.
There were some hikers in Oregon a few years ago who elected to climb Mount Hood one early spring weekend. There was a big storm coming into the Pacific North-west that was all over the news, but they went anyway. They got trapped on Mount Hood in an enormous blizzard, and even though they could talk to their families and the authorities on their cell phones, no one could get to them in the snow. They were stranded and all of them died, which could have been avoided if they had simply post-poned it to another weekend. High tech should never replace common sense.
I’ll tell you about my trip to Alaska next time. Just one word for now: awesome!
See you outside!

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