Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Modern Campground

Last week's wonderful weather had my children and me thinking about getting outdoors. Part of the benefit of the outdoors is getting away from technology. But I also believe that technology can enhance the outdoor experience.

While living outdoors runs the gamut from car camping to carrying everything on your back for long distances, a few things go a long way to making camping attractive to most.

My experience is that campers are happy when they stay warm and dry, sleep comfortably, eat decent food and have decent hygiene.

Technology addresses many of these items quite nicely.

Staying warm and dry

While there's nothing quite as good as old-fashioned goose down to keep one warm, there are many synthetic products that do an admirable job of keeping you warm on a cold morning.

Sleeping comfortably

Although staying warm on a summer's night here in New England isn't typically a problem, the technologies for comfortable sleeping bags and even inflatable air mattresses make sleeping on hard ground a whole lot softer.

Eating decent food

I recall from my days as a young boy using a traditional Coleman stove with "white gas" to make meals. The burners were finicky and had to be pumped by hand, but managed to cook a decent meal for a group. Today's stoves with propane or other fuels can provide a great amount of heat to serve up remarkably good meals. Many prepared foods are also available that transport easily and clean up well. Even if you're carrying all of your belongings on a long trip, there's little reason why everyone can't enjoy a good meal.

Keeping decent hygiene

This hasn't changed much over the years, other than finding that more and more campgrounds offer showers and toilets. I am finding portable showers that are affordable and very usable for when you want to get away from it all, but still have a hot shower every few days.

Powering up

Where I do find technology has developed is in the abundance of electrical devices at campgrounds. It used to be that you'd have flashlights and maybe a transistor radio. A tent we purchased recently has a "power port" in it. In essence, it was a hole in the tent for an extension cord to go through. Clearly people are bringing power products when they camp.

Powering these devices occurs by either power at the campsite or some portable source. If you're car camping, it's easy to purchase a "power inverter" that will turn your cigarette lighter into a 110-volt electrical outlet. This will power small devices, such as laptop computers and cell phones. Larger devices require more robust power sources, such as a generator, which can be annoying to other campers who relish the silence.

But the items I like are the solar powered chargers. You sit them in the sun for a few hours and they charge up batteries in cell phones or even laptop computers. I've even seen solar cells on backpacks and hats.

One of the items that I regularly take with me is a walkie talkie. When you're out in the woods, the mobile phone coverage can be sparse at best. Walkie talkies, because they don't require stationery mobile phone antennas, work well in a defined geographic area. Typically walkie talkies can have a range of 20-25 miles. Note that this is under the best of circumstances -- walkie talkies of that range typically work well for about one half to one mile.

Another tool that's good to have is a GPS device. It can help you navigate and track your position to prevent you from getting lost. Some of the current GPS devices include walkie talkies as well as emergency locator services that will broadcast a distress signal and your GPS coordinates to people who can come find you.

But remember, all of these devices require power, whether it be by replaceable or rechargeable batteries. Without those power sources, they do no good at all, so keep your old fashioned outdoor navigation skills intact.

No matter what technology there is, my favorite time is sitting around the campfire helping my kids make s'mores. There will never be a technology replacement for that.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 5 May 2010.
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