Does technology make our outdoor experiences better?

The Point

The development of technology continually reshapes the way we interact with one another. The introduction of GPS technology and the smart phones that allow everyone to use GPS is having profound effects on how we experience the great outdoors. But what will the future look like?

When I was a kid…

Everyone has heard this from their father or grandfather. Some of us might already being using this phrase ourselves!

Growing up in central Pennsylvania, I spent a ton of time fishing the creeks, streams, and rivers. My dad would tell me all the time “When I was a kid, we didn’t have the fancy tackle and rods that you have. Our setups were basic and we caught just as many fish.”. I’m sure they did.

Hiking and backpacking today is no different. The development of new material, more durable tools, new gadgets, makes the experience different but not necessarily better. Frank Wall’s post “Lighter and better equipped? Hiking gear then and now” tackles this very point along with the dozen or so comments. The way we approach the great outdoors is in a constant state of change influenced by the new technologies and tools.

But does the “experience” change? Are we having more fun today than those that laid footprints on the same trail 50 years ago? Does our superior technology allow us to experience the trail in a deeper way? A more rewarding way?  Will we forget how to hike with a map and compass?

Staying connected

Today, we are certainly more connected. GPS enabled devices allow us to record every step we take and easily share that experience with the world. We can download another hiker’s track and follow in their footsteps. We are more connected than ever before. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and a plethora of sites for outdoor enthusiasts like EveryTrail.com allow us to instantly share our adventures with others that share an interest and passion for the outdoors.

We are certainly more capable of sharing our passions for exploration than those explorers that came before us. We have access to a much a larger audience.

But is it better?

Sharing trail stories

Technology enhances how we discover the outdoors. There are tons of blogs on the web just like TrailSherpa.com that documents the experiences of very gracious explorers willing to take the time to tell their stories. We all approach the story telling process in our own ways, some with photos, some with videos, some with very detailed background and useful information about the plants and animals along the way.

The new technologies powering GPS enabled smart phones allows explorers like us to share our stories with not just a bigger audience, but with everyone. We also have more tools to tell our story. Embedded Flickr albums, embedded YouTube videos, GPS tracks, elevation profiles. Adventurers like Dave Pidgeon at Compass Points Media are trying to push trail guides to a new level by providing a rich media experience with their new trail guides called Trail Blazes which are available for download to any iPhone, iPod, or MP3 player.

But the big take-away in my opinion is the downloadable GPS track or GPX file. The technological advances we have been witness to over the last five years are ushering in a new era for hikers and backpackers. The ability to download an adventure of another explorer and follow in their footprints is incredible. Smart phones allow ANYONE to take part. Our idea of a hike may no longer be simply a long walk through nature, but now even a stroll through the urban jungle with highlights of the neighborhood’s historical past. It might now include a track dotted with way points for the best cup of coffee, the most decadent desert, or the easiest way to beat rush hour traffic.

GPS tracks are becoming more prominent on the web. If you are visiting a new city, you can find adventures for anything outdoor activity from mountain biking to hiking and backpacking to kayaking. The offering of GPS tracks will continue to expand as we become more imaginative in our exploration. It will soon be commonplace for tourists to download tracks for a variety of activities specific to the city they will be visiting before they arrive. Their itinerary will be defined by these tracks and their experience in a new city will largely be shaped by the experiences of the visitors and locals that came before them.

It all hinges on our social graph

The GPS technologies will continue to advance in stride with the smart phone technology that will enable all of us to use the location-based services. We will continue to honor our sense of adventure and these technologies will allow us to do so with greater ease. We will look to our social graph, our friends, on Facebook, Twitter, and EveryTrail to determine which experiences we want to have. Just like we do every day in our offline lives, we will rely on the recommendations of our peers, our friends, to separate the signal from the noise. Our social graph will allow us to pinpoint the adventures that resonate with our sense of adventure, download the GPX file, and set off on the trail whether it is down a well worn trail into the wilderness or around the corner in an urban jungle that we are exploring for the first time.

Trail Sherpa’s Conclusion

Our relationship with the outdoors will forever be changed by the introduction of GPS technologies. The impact is just now starting to be realized. Adventurers must be diligent in their quest to capture the full experience of their travels. Everyone will be an explorer on some level thanks to their GPS-enabled smart phone. The experiences we share must be conveyed in a form that can be shared starting with the downloadable GPX file and should represent the experience well for those that can only make the journey online.

The world is large and it is up to all of us explorers to share the best experiences we can.

It’s your turn to weigh in. How do you think technologies like GPS will change the experience? Will it be better?

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I'm the founder of Vestor Logic, the digital strategy and web design firm that created Trail Sherpa, ParksFolio, and Modern Steader. I'm a day hiker, top chef in camp, doting husband, and father to two headlamp wearing boys. My work in digital media brings those experiences to life.

  • frank_in_oz

    Tim,
    Delete that previous one

  • frank_in_oz

    Very intersting post Tim,
    Just a quote from Lady on a Rock – http://ladyonarock.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/jun… who is posting directly from the PCT, and has been complaining her charge wasn't working:
    Apparently, I still had the protective film on the outside of my Surge Solar Charger!!! So guess what????? it is working like a charm now. Go figure.

    Sometimes technology can give people a challenge…

  • You are so right! At least Lady on a Rock discovered the issue. Thanks for sharing the link to her blog. From what I have read, it's a very good read and looks like she is having a blast on her current adventure.

  • Branch Whitney

    According to my website only 20% of hikers use a GPS all the time when hiking. More than 60% didn't even own a GPS. Let's not forget Muir and Clyde didn't own a GPS and they found plenty of routes in their day.

  • Thanks for the stats Branch. I would say that the adoption rate for GPS devices is even higher than I thought according to the stats from your site. Thanks for sharing. I think we will see more GPS data consumption though as smartphones like the iPhone and Droid add more capabilities for the outdoor enthusiast via third party apps like the one from EveryTrail.com and others. Do you use one personally?

  • Branch Whitney

    No, I don't use a GPS to find peaks and new routes. I use them to create waypoints to include in my write ups that members of my website can download and use if they want.

  • I definitely think GPS has improved the experience. On a recent hike, I missed a trail marker and was definitely at a loss because I hadn’t brought a GPS with me. I wonder what other technologies are typically riding along with folks into the backcountry these days. I gotta believe there are a few Kindles in peoples’ backpacks (a lot lighter than a hardback novel for sure).

  • I definitely think GPS has improved the experience. On a recent hike, I missed a trail marker and was definitely at a loss because I hadn’t brought a GPS with me. I wonder what other technologies are typically riding along with folks into the backcountry these days. I gotta believe there are a few Kindles in peoples’ backpacks (a lot lighter than a hardback novel for sure).

  • I agree Matt. I heard a surprising stat today on the Kindle subject: Amazon is now selling 1.8 ebooks for every printed copy. Crazy stat and certainly suggests that we may see some of the ebooks in the wild! Thanks for the input.

  • I agree Matt. I heard a surprising stat today on the Kindle subject: Amazon is now selling 1.8 ebooks for every printed copy. Crazy stat and certainly suggests that we may see some of the ebooks in the wild! Thanks for the input.

  • I definitely think GPS has improved the experience. On a recent hike, I missed a trail marker and was definitely at a loss because I hadn't brought a GPS with me. I wonder what other technologies are typically riding along with folks into the backcountry these days. I gotta believe there are a few Kindles in peoples' backpacks (a lot lighter than a hardback novel for sure).

  • I agree Matt. I heard a surprising stat today on the Kindle subject: Amazon is now selling 1.8 ebooks for every printed copy. Crazy stat and certainly suggests that we may see some of the ebooks in the wild! Thanks for the input.

  • Great article and a very interesting view point. While I haven’t started really hiking seriously yet, but would like to start. In general, I think technology can help expand the amount of people doing outdoors activities – hiking, camping, fishing, etc, but I’m not a huge fan of actually involving it in the actual activity itself, unless it is required which is in the case of geocaching. For example, campers who bring a laptop to family campground should just leave it at home.nn

  • I agree Eric. For me camping, hiking, fly fishing are all great reasons to unplugged for awhile. I posed this topic really with GPS units in mind. I started using a Garmin Oregon 450t this year to track my hikes an add them to the site for others to use. In general, I don’t use the unit to navigate, just record. Thanks for the input and welcome to Trail Sherpa!

  • I agree Eric. For me camping, hiking, fly fishing are all great reasons to unplugged for awhile. I posed this topic really with GPS units in mind. I started using a Garmin Oregon 450t this year to track my hikes an add them to the site for others to use. In general, I don’t use the unit to navigate, just record. Thanks for the input and welcome to Trail Sherpa!

  • I agree Eric. For me camping, hiking, fly fishing are all great reasons to unplugged for awhile. I posed this topic really with GPS units in mind. I started using a Garmin Oregon 450t this year to track my hikes an add them to the site for others to use. In general, I don’t use the unit to navigate, just record. Thanks for the input and welcome to Trail Sherpa!