Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Dan Crane’s Backcountry Digital Device Guidelines

Wolf Pond lean-to siteThe 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.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

16 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    They are reasonable. But I also like to go to the woods to get away from all the darn rules!

    Too bad common sense and decency also gets left at home by many folks heading into the woods.

  2. Dave says:

    These ideas need some catchy phrase like ‘leave no trace’. It has to catch on as an ethos, instead of a rule set. Personally, I leave this stuff in the car.

    The other, unpreventable, thing that is happening is gps tagging of every cool little remote spot there is in the back woods. The shift from knowing where places are because your grandfather, or someone else, led you there the first time will bring new people in. Everything will be gps tagged, photoed, posted. No more secret spots. Nothing to do about this except acknowledge it. Maybe the result is the public lands will be more completely cataloged for the public, and the private lands become more private? Not sure.

  3. Bill Ott says:

    Hi Dan,

    Good article again, but I have to agree with Paul on “too many rules”. Also, though I actually like surveillance in public places, I would probably be tempted to “bitch slap” any devices I came across in the woods. I do like the camera at the Stillwater store which one can can control (pan and zoom) from anywhere in the world.

    As for cell phone rules, people don’t need cell phones or other gear to be noisy. Generally, two or more people together in the woods make enough noise that they rarely encounter wildlife. Seldom do I encounter people canoeing or hiking quietly. So therefore I don’t see much need for such rules in the northwest ADKs where I go. But the high peaks area probably could use special rules protecting the mountaintop experience that can be marred, as you said, by the chatter of “Hey Ma, guess where I’m calling from?” as one approaches that long sought after summit. This not only ruins that moment but all the anticipation of that moment, and even the desire to return.

    As far as tagging goes, let them tag. There is so much information out there that our special places tend to be hidden in plain sight. Tags on Google Earth do not seem to persist, but I suppose Dave is commenting on the hundreds of other sites with gps tagging. Besides, nothing can be done about it anyway.

    Bill Ott
    Lakewood, Ohio

  4. Charlie says:

    I hear you Dan! In the 1950’s Rollo May called this society the “Fit-in society.” What he meant by that is everyone wanted to be like everyone else.That fits more today than it did then.I couldn’t imagine being in the woods back at a lean-to and all of a sudden a voice sounds off from a distance,gets louder and louder until at last,there’s old Forrest Gump talking into a cellphone showing up at camp. You’re right,there oughta be a law,because it is going to come to this soon or late.It boggles the mind how many people cannot let go of these devices.Mom walking her young children while yakking into a cellphone instead of communing with the little ones; kids walking to school talking into cellphones instead of talking to each other; John or Jane Doe standing on a street corner waiting for a bus with a cellphone glued to their ears….. WTF is so important?
    I’ll never forget the time i walked into a restaurant and seated at a table were three men and two women,all of them yakking into a cellphone. As technology advances we’re getting further and further away from,not only nature,but each other too. And televisions! Everywhere you go (i mean EVERYWHERE) there’s a darned tv blaring away dumming up the race.As of last July they now have tv’s at gas pumps down in Orange County. Geez.Televisions should be banned from public spaces. If i live to be 100 I will never get used to the mindlessness that seems to be taking hold of this society.

  5. Paul says:

    I agree with you all. But I suppose that the kids that will eventually will be running the show think we are nuts. And in my case they are probably right? I am probably starting to sound to my kids like the old guy who says “Back in my day they didn’t have cell phones in the back country and everything cost a nickel”!
    Hopefully we can show them the value of the way the woods used to be before it is too late. That is the only way to do it, you can’t legislate a world you want just because we want it. Good luck with that.

  6. a says:

    The reality is if your running into user conflicts like this, then you need to find some real wilderness, where there aren’t other people around.

    For example, consider taking trails that aren’t widely used. There are many trails, lakes, and campsites that get minimal use. Also, consider camping off-season, or during the week.

    The Adirondack Park overwhelmingly is underused, except for a few places like the High Peaks or a few select ponds that are very popular.

  7. Stewart Kelly says:

    Seems like consideration for others is a lost art. I’m not even sure why somebody feels so alone, or so self-important, that they need to have a cellphone glued to their ear all the time; especially in wilderness areas.

    I see a problem with people leaving the trail to talk. If they are that inconsiderate, then I am sure they will cause environmental damage to the trails and surrounding vegetation and I don’t see them following rules prohibiting electronic device use anyway because how would the rules be meaningfully enforced?

    I guess we need to heed Robert Frost’s advice to take the trails less travelled…and hit the popular areas in the off season.

  8. catharus says:

    Good one, Dan!

  9. Pete Nelson says:

    Dan, Dan, Dan:

    I keep a log of planned Dispatches, one way to try to keep my sanity with all of this writing. Here is a copy of a small portion of it:

    Date Entered Topic
    10/13/12 Adam bushwhack
    1/8/13 Repairing the lean-to
    2/26/12 Electronics in the back country

    So if you keep posting so fast you’re going to make it hard for me to keep stealing from you.

    You know, I’m going to write my version anyhow because I didn’t like your grammar.

    The big difference between my position and yours is that you are more reasonable. I’d advocate for some sort of law that allows any personal electronic device seen in a Wilderness area to be crushed with a large rock – followed by issuing a ticket to the owner for littering.


  10. Ken Tucker, G2G, BeerHere2010 says:

    half-tongue in cheek, I’m guessing, Dan.

    More rules = more rule ‘cops’ and we can’t properly fund DEC and trail maintenance now.

    I’ll ‘trust’ in most outdoor types ‘grounding’ in common sense’ and/or ‘gently’ (bitch-slap’?, seriously?) remind /admonish any ‘offenders’ of the ‘house rules’.

    Bottom line, more bandwidth, and less ‘dark territory’ isn’t a ‘bad’ thing for the ADKs, it’ll put more people in touch with nature and this very special place, America’s Most Accessible Wilderness.

    ps The ‘digital natives’ (eg your/our kids/grandkids) ‘are the future’ and unless the Adirondacks gets ‘lit’, the ‘black hole’ (white n most coverage maps) is NOT a pretty picture for local business OR attracting visitors so we can ‘import’ cash and ‘export’ the ADK experience.


  11. Ken Tucker, G2G, BeerHere2010 says:

    Dan, Dan, Dan… Just read your last AA piece for + perspective. NOW I get it.

    “Now before accusations of hypocrisy start to fill up the comment section, let me admit I do use an occasional modern electronic gadget in the back country.” 20FEB ADK Information Supertrailway

    If you wanted to be intellectually ‘honest’ and, most people w/ an ‘agenda’/ideology don’t, you’d BEGIN your piece w/this admission so we could more appropriately ‘value’ the balance of your article.

    $0.00 for ‘do as I day, not as I do’ jibber-jabber.

    ‘No sale’, even at that low, low price.

  12. Brad says:

    You last sentence said it best – just leave the damn things at home or in the car. But.

    When I solo camp (especially off season), I always have a cellphone w me (turned off) and my MP3 player, sometimes w headphones, sometimes w a little speaker.

    I would never let my music intrude on someone else’s quiet. I feel the same about gas lanterns, though I am known to have very bright flashlights – I only play w them a bit.

    I like the dark and the quiet.

  13. Bill Quinlivan says:

    For me, I have always entered the woods or wilds with the same level of reverence that I enter a house of worship. There are no rules that will overcome the ignorance that seems to prevail among many “hikers” of late regarding the awareness of the rights of other creatures sharing the woods, or even the planet with them. I wish I had a solution other than gently calling those who are the most obnoxious to task, for being lost in themselves. I believe that it will be quite some time before it becomes too pervasive, because those who are so inclined and not necessarily the type that enjoy (or discover) the peaceful introspection and connection that comes with a hike in the woods. True, sooner or later it will catch up to us, but that is one of the things that makes me better accept being 66. For now, my simple cell phone will probably go with me into the woods. It will remain off unless there is a life-threatening emergency. That will be my rule and anyone who wants it can have it. Enjoy!

  14. Steve says:

    First of all, I am no English major and will just state this as simply as I can. I use about 60 minutes of cell phone time a month. I use my Ipod for music and I use my gps for not getting lost and know where I am going. I use my nikon camera for those memorable moments. Been backpacking and canoeing for 30 plus years. I’m 56. Now I understand and agree about having respect for fellow nature lovers, hikers and agree with what you say about people that talk to much and loudly on there phones and I sure as hell don’t want to listen to somebody elses music. But I have very rarely come across any of these kinds problems. I like my electronic devices. But for some one to say they would bitch slap me for listening to my Ipod while hiking……I would be the last thing they would see in their life time. I’m sorry dude, but you sound like you have a problem with people in general. Now I will be canoeing the full 750 mile NFCT in the next couple months with my Golden Retriever and I will have these electronic devices with me and then some. I will even bring my acoustic guitar and play it at whatever camp sites I end up at. I am really tired of rules, regulations, policys, and stupid laws we have now a days and especially anybody telling me what’s best for them.

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