Film photography seems so quaint in this age of rapidly evolving technology, though the nostalgic charm is somewhat diminished as I flip through photo after photo. There we are, my friends and I, with eyes closed on the summits of mountains or with big fat thumbs obscuring an otherwise stunning sunset. And to think I paid for these crummy pictures, even more if I got them developed in an hour! If I got seven or eight good shots out of a roll of 24, I was usually pretty happy.
It was 2003 when I retired my fancy-pants film camera (complete with a high tech remote!) for my first digital, a clumsy but lightweight device featuring a robust 2.2 megapixel resolution and a shutter speed that took a good three seconds to actually take a picture. Likewise, it was about that same time I acquired my first GPS, the Garmin GPS12, which did little more than draw a line on a black and white screen and offer up geographical coordinates. Despite the unwieldy interface and quick-draining battery system, the fact that I could (for free) know my position on planet earth from satellites in outer space blew my mind. Actually, it still does today.
Rather quietly, technology has gotten easier on the wallet, more intuitive and generally accepted in the outdoors community. With all apologies to nature purists, the fact that you can take a photograph and have it online in mere seconds or chart your tracks across the globe using free software like Google Earth adds an exciting new element to archiving outdoor adventures. There’s no doubt the technology of 2011 will seem as antiquated as whale blubber lamps in five years, but until then, here’s some of the coolest advances in outdoors tech available right now in the Year of the Golden Rabbit.
When commercial GPS units first appeared around 15 years ago, they were intimidating, expensive and far from user-friendly. Even if you had the money and patience to understand them, they didn’t do much more than offer up coordinates and crude temporary maps, making them more of a novel accessory for your map and compass. Oh, how far we’ve come in so little time!
GPS technology has become incredibly affordable and accurate.
Car-compatible units helped ease the cultural transition of GPS beyond a fringe gadget to a genuinely useful tool for navigation.
Hand-held units have evolved from their Atari-like beginnings to robust mini-computers with features such as highly detailed, full-color 3-D topographic maps; barometric and triangulated altimeters; vast memory banks; easy-to-use touch-screen menus; and even built-in cameras that automatically geotag each photo. Add to that, nearly all modern GPS units are compatible with Google Maps and Google Earth, free software that lets you literally view the ground you walked upon.
And even handheld GPS units are becoming somewhat obsolete, as more and more smartphones offer optional GPS add-ons. Admittedly, most of them lack the accuracy and power of dedicated GPS units, but the potential for creative integration into your smartphone is right around the corner.
But smartphones offer much more than just a way to track your way through the woods. Apps (short for application software, for those of you still stuck in 2006) are affordable — and sometimes free — plug-ins that expand the information you can take in your pocket into the wilderness. Detailed guides for birds can use your GPS coordinates to narrow down what avian pal you’re looking at, and one ambitious app lets you record a live bird song and tries to identify it from its database of calls. Likewise, guides for animal tracks, botany, geology and history are all at the tip of your fingers. And one especially useful Colorado app attempts to identify the names of far-off mountains in real 3D by taking your coordinates and showing you a picture of what you are likely looking at.
Yet another somewhat unnoticed revolution is happening in the world of batteries, where the race to keep all your cool toys fully powered has brought about some huge leaps in energy technology. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are getting more efficient, but even more impressive is the power behind non-rechargable lithium batteries that are slowly taking over the old alkaline battery market. The high-end non-rechargable lithiums are only a dollar or two more expensive than regular batteries, and the advantages are well worth the investment. They are noticeably lighter and offer incredible resistance to cold, meaning the days of your instantly dead camera on chilly ski days is a thing of the past. Besides being longer-lasting, they are also more environmentally friendly to dispose.
The final stop on our technology tour are LED lights, those wonderful little glowing diodes that have made our headlamps a lighter weight than ever. If you invested in an LED headlamp four or five years ago, you may now be experiencing the shortcoming of early LEDs: a tendency to fade out and lose luminosity over time. Modern LEDs start off much brighter and last longer (and in most cases, can now be easily replaced when they do fade). This same LED technology is coming full circle and bringing down the price of screens for smartphones, GPS and digital cameras.
Nothing beats the beauty of the natural world, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with a little modern ingenuity to help enhance the memories and experience of being connected to mother earth.
Magellan eXplorist 710 GPS
At the cutting edge of GPS technology is the newly released eXplorist 710 by Magellan. Full-color, highly detailed topo maps (with 3-D viewing options) and touchscreen navigation make it easy to record your adventures.
A built-in camera geotags your pictures so you’ll know exactly where they were taken. For more info on the eXplorist 710, check out www.magellangps.com.