The encroachment of cellphones, the Internet and Wi-Fi into the backcountry was the impetus of my last Adirondack Almanack article. Before long, this encroachment shall transform into the inevitability of an all-out invasion, barring any lethal worldwide epidemic, nuclear winter, asteroid collision or zombie apocalypse. Since it would be imprudent to rely on such unlikely occurrences happening in the near future, guidelines governing the use of these digital gadgets appear sorely needed.
Rules and regulations abound for electronic gadgets in the frontcountry, so why not in the backcountry? Driving while texting or talking on a cellphone is illegal on our roads, despite the flagrant disregard for this law surpassed only by that of the stated speed limits, so why not institute similar policies for the Adirondack trails?
Movie theaters do it. So do grocery store checkout lines. As do doctor’s offices, schools, gyms, airplanes, banks and even places of worship, at least those not worshiping a digital deity. Places excluding the use of cellphones grow daily; at this rate, chatting and texting will be as unwelcome as smoking soon. Why not add popular backcountry campsites to this burgeoning list of places.
The following are my suggestions for guidelines regulating the use of communication devices and other electronic gizmos in the backcountry. The focus remains mostly on cellphones, smartphones and their ilk, since they have the most potential to distract from the wilderness experience, though an occasional digression into iPods, MP3 players and their allies is inevitable due to their current pervasiveness.
Since driving while tethered to a cellphone or texting is illegal on New York State roadways, the same should hold true for its backcountry trails. This is not just an esthetic issue, but a safety one as well. These devices distract people from observing common obstacles in the trail, such as a cunning root waiting to trip up an inattentive hiker or a downed log strategically placed as a booby trap, which could easily lead to more injuries, and potentially expensive rescues. Not to mention the inevitable hiker collisions, when two hikers transfixed with their gadgetry fail to even notice other hikers around them.
Instead, all hikers should be required to stop and step off the trail before answering a call, texting or surfing on the Internet. Better yet, they should be a minimum of 50 feet from the trail before using these devices. This would not only reduce the chance of collisions, but also reduce the amount of disturbance caused from someone chatting away incessantly as others try to enjoy the natural sounds around them. Then again, this could easily result in a deluge of calls to the Department of Environmental Conservation dispatch from people finding they are unable to regain the trail again.
Cellphone chatters are well known for their loudness. Has anyone not been annoyed by some loud person chatting on the phone in the supermarket, on public transportation, while working out at the gym, or concentrating on the toilet? In the backcountry, this vociferousness not only ruins other’s appreciation of nature, but could have adverse effects on wildlife as well. Therefore, some very low decibel level needs to be set for speaking on a cellphone, or for that matter, speaking to other people without aid of any digital device.
Phone calls on top of mountains should be outright banned. After a decade of living with these instantaneous communication devices, are we still not passed the “guess where I am” calls by now?
All cellphone should be placed on vibrate at all times in the backcountry, or preferably packed away in your backpack and turned off, only to be used in an emergency. Some may argue that they must have it on their person because they are expecting an important call, but I contend that if you are expecting an important call on the trail, then perhaps the backcountry is not the place for you to be.
Lean-tos are places to rest, relax and reflect at the end of a long day on the trail. It is the last place where one wants to hear irritating ringtones, people chatting loudly on their phone or music overflowing from someone’s earbuds. Keeping these places quiet is essential for preserving a true outdoor experience for all to enjoy. Therefore, chatting on a cellphone, or listening to loud music should be forbidden anywhere within 50 feet of any lean-to, privy or surrounding campsites.
In addition to cellphones, the use of digital musical devices is proliferating quicker than bored rabbits at a reality television convention. Although using such a device with headphones at a campsite or lean-to to prevent disturbing others is completely admirable, using one on the trail should be prohibited. Luckily, I have never seen anyone wearing an iPod or other headphones while hiking within the backcountry , which is a good thing as I would probably be tempted to bitch-slap them.
Will a set of guidelines be enough, or do they need to be codified as a list of rules and regulations governing backcountry use? And, how can these rules and regulations be enforced, especially in these days of restricted budgets and dwindling resources?
Perhaps there is a high-tech solution to this high-tech induced situation. By combining two sexy technologies, nano-technology and drones, to produce autonomous dragonfly-like robots, complete with high resolution cameras. These reporting sentinels would perch on vegetation at trailheads, following groups of hikers during their trips, ensuring the rules are followed. Although there might be a privacy issue to contend with, plus there might be a heavy loss of these expensive enforcers due to predation by birds too.
Are these general guidelines governing digital devices, primarily communication devices, in the backcountry reasonable or am I making a mountain out of a molehill again? Do they go too far, or not far enough? Are any additional guidelines necessary? These devices just might be making their way into the backcountry soon, and we will need all these guidelines to prevent them from taking over our backcountry lives as they have our frontcountry ones.
Better yet we could just leave the damn things in the car, and none of us will have to worry about it.
Photo: Wolf Pond lean-to site in the Five Ponds Wilderness, where cellphones and most other digital devices are unwelcome, by Dan Crane.