Technology on our Trip

Ironically for a trip to natural lands, we rely quite heavily on modern technology.  It would be very difficult to plan and execute our trip without computers and other electronic gadgets and especially the Internet.  If we had taken this trip thirty years ago, we would’ve likely had to spend lots of time at the library and mail away for brochures from the dozens of parks we planned to visit long before we started our trip.  But today we can simply visit a park’s website immediately before our visit, download the latest brochures and maps, and make campground reservations. 

That is, when we have Internet access.  Even in this connected world, we’ve discovered there are still many areas in the United States and Canada that have limited or no Internet access.  This is especially true on our trip because the places we want to visit tend to be far away from civilization centers.  And when we are in Canada, Internet and mobile phone access is ridiculously expensive, so we have to seek out coffee shops and visitor centers that offer free wifi. 

Timm using his smartphone in Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

(In the photo above, I’m fetching email on my smartphone many miles from civilization and on the edge of the Internet in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota)

Following is a list of the electronic gadgets that we use on our trip, with a brief description of how we use each gadget, and the pros and cons of the specific product we use:

Sony Vaio Windows Laptops

Description:  Theresa and I both use Sony Vaio laptops running Microsoft Windows 7.  We each have our own laptop: hers is a 14” screen, mine is a 15”.  We use our laptops to write blog articles, manage and process our digital photos, browse the Web, and get our email.  We also use Theresa’s laptop to watch DVDs when we don’t have electricity to run the flat-screen TV and DVD player.

Pros:  Vaio is the Cadillac of Windows laptops, with very high quality and reliability. 

Cons:  My laptop battery is getting old and lasts only about an hour before it must be recharged.

Apple iPad

Description:  Theresa and I share the iPad digital tablet.  We use the iPad to browse the Web, run apps, play games, and Theresa uses it to read ebooks.

Pros:  The iPad is lightweight, a delight and easy to use, and has a long battery life (which is important on our trip because we are connected to electricity less than half the time).  The iPad is also backlit, which makes it possible to read in our dark RV when we are off the grid.

Cons:  The iPad does not support Flash, which many park and RV campground websites use.  We also cannot print from the iPad.

Apple iPhone 4

Description:  Theresa and I each have an iPhone 4.  In addition to making phone calls, we use the iPhone to run apps, get our email, waste time on Facebook, occasionally browse the Web, and navigate in the RV and car using the Maps app.

Pros:  The iPhone 4 is a delight and easy to use, has a long battery life, and an incredibly detailed high-resolution screen.  It also has many apps which are quite useful while travelling.

Cons:  The iPhone does not support Flash and we cannot print from it (same problems as the iPad), and it’s challenging to browse the Web on its small screen unless the website has a mobile version (this is a problem with any smartphone).

Panasonic DMC-ZS8 Digital Camera

Description:  This is my second digital camera of this trip.  I had to replace my Panasonic DMC-ZS7 when its lens became filled with dust and stopped working after a dust storm in Death Valley.  But I liked the camera so much that I upgraded to the ZS8.  I use it to take all our photos that you see on this blog and our photo blog.

Pros:  The ZS8 is very small and lightweight, so it can fit in a small case that I attach to my belt.  It has 20X optical zoom (amazing for such a small camera), many features including panorama and high-speed photos, and takes terrific photos.

Cons:  These Panasonic cameras are notorious for getting dust in the lens.  To help prevent that, after each use I store the camera in a clean zippered case (instead of my pocket), and I don’t take photos in high winds, dusty conditions, or out an open car window while we’re moving.

Garmin Nuvi 2555LMT Auto GPS

Description:  Given we plan to travel 25,000 miles on our trip, we thought an auto GPS would be essential.  Just type in our next destination, and the GPS would guide us there turn-by-turn.

Pros:  The GPS screen is large, bright, and responds to touch.  The female voice is loud and clear.  The GPS shows you which lane to get in (very handy), it handles complex intersections like roundabouts, and it even displays overhead exit signs on major highways.

Cons:  At least once every other trip, the GPS tries to send us down a dirt or twisty mountain road.  This happens so often that we’ve named our GPS, “The Crazy Lady.”  We can never trust her directions and have to verify the route each time with our iPhone Maps app.  The iPhone seems to have no problem avoiding dirt or other challenging roads.  Since we cannot back up our RV without unhooking our car, going down the wrong road can lead to a challenging or even dangerous situation.  We find we’re not using the GPS on every trip anymore because we cannot trust it.

DeLorme Earthmate PN-60w Hiking GPS

Description:  We use a GPS whenever we hike to locate trails, measure the miles we’ve hiked and elevation gained, and to find our way home.  The GPS is especially helpful when we venture off trail and need to find the shortest route back to the trailhead.

Pros:  This GPS finds its location in less than a minute, refreshes the screen quickly, and is intuitive to use.  Unlike a smartphone, this GPS is rugged, dustproof and waterproof.  It allows me to customize the data screens to show only the information that interests me, such as distance hiked, average speed, elevation gained, max and min elevation, and date/time.  I can also download and display high-resolution satellite images and trail maps, in addition to the standard topographic maps.  And it takes two standard AA batteries, so unlike a smartphone, I can easily swap in a new set of batteries, which is very important out in the wilderness.

Cons:  The GPS screen seems small and dim compared to the iPhone.  The GPS doesn’t have a touchscreen, so it seems somewhat klunky and antiquated to use.  The GPS maps don’t always line up exactly with our location, especially the farther north we travel, so the trail we’re hiking on sometimes appears 100 feet away.  And many trails don’t appear on the GPS maps, and the Canadian maps lack park and other public land boundaries.

DeLorme inReach 2-Way Satellite Communicator

Description:  The inReach is our backcountry insurance policy.  It’s a 2-way satellite communicator with SOS capability.  If we should ever become injured, hopelessly lost, or encounter some other extreme danger on the trail, we can summon help with a touch of a button.  Since most of our hikes are outside of cell phone range, the only way we could communicate is via satellite.  There are other satellite SOS devices, but the inReach is the most advanced, allowing us to send and receive both emergency and casual messages.  So we can send an email to our family and tell them how awesome our hike is.  The inReach requires a $11.95/month plan, which allows us unlimited SOS messages and 10 non-emergency messages per month.  There are more expensive plans that track your hiking path and upload it to a website, and allow more messages per month.  Thankfully we’ve never had to use the inReach in an emergency situation, but we’re glad to have it along on our hikes.  Like my mom says, the best insurance policy is the one you never have to use.

Pros:  The inReach can summon help from any remote location, even outside of cell phone range.  We can send email messages while hiking.

Cons:  The interface to type messages using the PN-60w GPS is slow and klunky.  If you send the same message to multiple people, each recipient counts as a separate message against our monthly plan.  There is no battery strength indicator.

Verizon MIFI2200 3G Wireless Internet Card

Description:  We take advantage of free wifi whenever possible in RV campgrounds, coffee shops and visitor centers.  But these opportunities are too few and far between, so we use a Verizon 3G wireless card to provide us with Internet access.  This card uses the Verizon mobile phone network, which we’ve found on our trip to have much greater coverage than AT&T outside of cities.  We pay $45 per month for 4 gigabytes of data and get about 700Kbps download speed, which isn’t too bad for wireless access.

Pros:  The Verizon Internet card works wherever Verizon cell phones work, which is across much of the country.  The card is wireless (no connections needed) and can service multiple devices simultaneously (e.g., both our laptops and the iPad).  The price is competitive compared to other wireless providers.

Cons:  We spend much of our trip far from civilization and out of cell phone range, which also means we don’t have Internet access a lot of the time.  The price is much more expensive and the speed is much slower than our DSL Internet at home.  The price is crazy expensive in Canada (25 cents per megabyte, or 20+ times more expensive than in the USA).  And oddly, the card likes to turn itself back on after you turn it off or after it’s disconnected from power.

Wilson MobilePro 271220 Wireless Signal Booster

Description:  Since we spend much of our trip far from civilization, we rarely have strong cell phone reception, which also means we rarely have good Internet.  This device boosts any existing cell phone signal so that we can make phone calls and access the Internet more often than we otherwise could.

Pros:  This device actually works!  If we have only “one bar” of signal strength on our cell phone, using this booster will give us at least 3 bars.  A few times our phone has shown no signal at all, and with this booster we’ll get 2 bars.

Cons:  You have to place your phone or Internet modem within 2 feet of this device, and even closer is better–we set the Internet modem right on top of the booster for the best effect.  This device only boosts the signal for cell phones; we would have to purchase a separate device to boost a wifi signal, which is frequently needed in RV campgrounds that have weak wifi.  And of course there must be at least some cell phone signal to boost.  There have been many campgrounds where we are simply too far from civilization to get any signal.

CyberPower CPS150BU Inverter

Description:  When our RV is not connected to electricity and our generator is not running, our only source of power is the RV’s 12-volt battery bank, which has two 12-volt deep cycle batteries.  The battery bank powers the RV’s lights and  bathroom and kitchen fans.  But it won’t power any of the electronic gadgets mentioned in this article.  They all require normal 110V AC.  An inverter converts 12V DC into 110V AC to run all our electronic gadgets.

Pros:  It works, sorta.

Cons:  The inverter has a fan to keep it cool, and it’s typically the loudest thing we can hear in our RV even when we hide the inverter under a table.  Also, even though the inverter is rated to power our laptops, it doesn’t work when the laptop is running, so we can only use the inverter to recharge our laptops when they are off.  We may end up buying another brand inverter.

Brother HL-5370DW Laser Printer

Description:  We weren’t sure we’d bring a printer on our trip, given how much space printers consume, but we are sure glad we did.  We’ve printed hundreds of essential pages so far, including receipts, maps, trail guides, brochures, insurance documents, real estate contracts, etc. (Note that the image above shows the dual tray printer, however we own the smaller single tray version.)

Pros:  This printer is relatively small, quite fast (over 20 pages/minute), prints on both sides of the paper automatically, and has a large feeder bin (500 pages).

Cons:  It doesn’t print color, though there is a more expensive model that does.  But there hasn’t been enough times that we really wished we had color to justify the extra expense.  This printer also doesn’t work with the iPhone and iPad, though we blame Apple for its very limited support of printer models.

NetGear RND2210-100NAS Network Accessible Storage

Description:  Network Accessible Storage (NAS) is essentially a high-capacity hard drive connected directly to the network.  So unlike a PC server, a NAS doesn’t require all the maintenance and space required by a separate computer.  We use the NAS to store all of our photos, music, shared files, and backups of our laptop computers.

Pros:  This NAS is high-capacity (1 TB or 1000 GB).  It’s mirrored, i.e., it automatically backs up our data to a second 1 GB hard drive.  And the unit itself is quite small, about the size of a half loaf of bread.

Cons:  Setting up drive shares and security is a little complicated and doesn’t always work as expected.

TP-Link TL-R860 8-Port Router

Description:  Without going into a technical discussion, we need a wired network so we can use the printer and NAS.  Basically our wireless 3G Internet card can’t service these devices, so instead of trying to set up a second wireless network, it’s easier just to plug in a cable when we need to print or work with files on the NAS.

Pros:  Works great, was relatively inexpensive.

Cons:  None.

So as you can see, for a trip to nature we use a lot of modern technology.  In a future article, I will discuss the software and apps that make travel much easier.

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