Technology way out in the wild

Warning: the following is not, under any circumstances, to be considered an in-depth review or technical article. I’ve got a rather major one of those in the works, but it’s still far too early in the testing stages to give me anything to write about this week. The fact that I was off all last week isn’t helping matters, either. While I get the Benchmarking Sweatshop back up to speed, you’re going to have to put up with something a little more self-indulgent: a picture slideshow of my vacation. Bear with me, because the vacation itself was a sort of wilderness field trip for technology. A notebook, tablet, and ruggedized digital camera all accompanied me way out into the middle of nowhere for a week.

The first hint that we were heading toward the edge of civilization occurred as we drove north, past Campbell River on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Four lanes of highway whittled down to a two-lane road, and cell service all but disappeared. Several hours later, much of which was spent on dirt logging roads more pitted than a teenager’s face, we set up camp at the mouth of Little Espinoza inlet, just west of Zeballos. The next morning, we traveled some 20 km by ocean kayak to 40, an island in the Nuchatlitz marine park too small to even have a name. This tiny speck of nowhere served as our home for eight days and seven nights.

Fortunately, it can be a very nice place to be. Although the land is hard, battered by an unrelenting tag team of wave and weather, the gnarled forest and ragged shoreline have an undeniable beauty. There is nothing but cold, northwestern Pacific Ocean out from these parts. If you strain, you can just see Putin rearing his head just over the horizon. Otherwise, you’re pretty much alone… except for the teeming wildlife, of course.

For some, it’s sacrilegious to bring a laptop or tablet to such a pristine setting. I’ve seen the looks of puzzled scorn among the few souls my girlfriend and I have encountered in these isolated locales. She even scoffed at the idea until I pointed to her bag of books and celebutrash magazines. A tablet loaded with e-books and digitized comics is really no worse. Besides, there’s no Internet access for miles—probably tens of them. It’s not like I was planning on tweeting my morning bowel movements, which involved digging a hole below the high-tide line. That’s entirely too much information in fewer than 140 characters.

The fact is that bringing various gadgets into the wild doesn’t somehow pollute the experience. As long as you don’t spend the entirety of your trip playing Infinity Blade, tablets, laptops, and e-readers can be just as innocuous as Gore-Tex jackets, titanium tent poles, water-tight map bags, and GPS devices. This year, I packed an Acer 1810TZ ultraportable notebook, an Asus Transformer tablet, and a waterproof Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot camera, the DMC-TS3.

I wanted to take a fair number of pictures on this trip, and my Rebel T2i DSLR definitely offers superior image quality to the Lumix. And more megapixels. And multiple lenses. The thing is, the Rebel is much more cumbersome to carry while clambering across a rocky coastline. It’s not the sort of camera you can have perched easily within reach while paddling an ocean kayak, and I’d be leery about taking the Rebel out in the deluge of precipitation that often blankets what is effectively a northern rainforest. With necessities like fresh water, wine, and bacon occupying all the free space inside the kayak’s hull, there wasn’t room to bring the T2i as a second snapper.

A wise man once told me that the best camera is the one you happen to have with you at the time. The waterproof, pocketable, and shock-resistant Lumix almost never left my side, ensuring that I didn’t miss close encounters with wildlife or particularly epic views. I’ve used waterproof camera bags in the past, but they’ve always fogged up or become smudged too easily. The Lumix’s lens is much easier to keep clean, although the rear LCD did pick up a rather large scratch at some point during the trip. Chicks dig scars, and I’m going to pretend that the wound was inflicted during a close encounter with a bear, which we actually had on the final day.

Overall, I’m glad to have brought a ruggedized point-and-shoot camera instead of a DSLR. What the Lumix lacks in image quality, it more than makes up by being truly comfortable in this sort of environment. The only real problem is the battery, which runs out after around 300 images or half an hour of HD video.

On less jam-packed trips, I’ve brought along a low-rent solar charger with an integrated lead-acid battery that’s ridiculously large and heavy for the amount of charge it actually holds. I’d looked at a smaller solution this time around, but good solar chargers are still relatively uncommon. Only one Canadian retailer carries the model I was eying: a SolarFocus SolarMio Pro that juices USB devices and select camera batteries. Alas, it was sold out in Vancouver and even out of stock at the retailer’s national warehouse. Demand has been high, I’m told, and it’s easy to see why. One of the biggest technological dilemmas I faced on the trip was when to use up the precious battery life of my notebook and tablet.

Fortunately, I suppose, the weather conspired to make those two devices largely useless during the day. We had a lot of sunshine, and the screens on my notebook and tablet are virtually unusable when the sun’s rays are beating down from above. Even with the backlights cranked to full brightness, on-screen images take a back seat to glossy reflections of your surrounding environment. The last thing I want to see is a mirror image of myself after bathing in the ocean for a week—not pretty.

Transreflective screens that offer better performance in bright outdoor environments are available on some smartphones and notebooks (particularly ruggedized models), but they seem to be largely absent from the tablet space. One exception is the Notion Ink Adam, which uses screen technology from Pixel Qi but is limited to a resolution of 1024×600. I’d definitely pay a premium for a sunlight-viewable screen, but I’m not willing to give up any pixels. Here’s hoping at least one tablet maker picks up Pixel Qi’s new 10.1" panel, which has a 1280×800 resolution.

Although my Aspire and Transformer worked out much better when I retreated to the shade or when the sun slipped below the horizon, I still managed to use both while under the blazing ball of fire in the sky. Black text on a white background is reasonably visible in sunlight, making it possible to spew streams of consciousness into a text editor or to read the occasional e-book. Forget about anything with color or fine detail, though.

For just reading outdoors, the Kindle’s e-ink display is obviously a much better option. Indeed, the device’s prodigious battery life and ability to store a virtual library’s worth of books in such an easily portable package are ideal for trips into the wilderness. I’m tempted to pick one up but will probably wait to see how quickly Mirasol display technology can bring full color to the e-reader world.

A notebook has accompanied me on numerous trips to the middle of nowhere, usually in much less hospitable weather. I’ve never felt the need to get a ruggedized model, though. Electronics are easy to seal away from the elements when they’re not in use, and I’m not going to want to do any reading or writing out in a downpour—at least not while on vacation. If the weather’s that bad, I’m tucked away in a tent or under a tarp, anyway.

On next year’s adventure into the wild, I’ll probably ditch the laptop and bring the Transformer’s keyboard dock instead. The only problem will be tearing the tablet out of my girlfriend’s hands. She quickly developed a habit of browsing the day’s bounty of pictures each night by the campfire, when the screen was at its best.

I have to admit I’m in agreement with her on some fronts, though. Having an Internet connection on our little island would have felt like having one foot at home. That’s not what I want when communing with nature, even if it meant having to wait an excruciating week to learn the results of the critical time trial on the Tour de France’s penultimate day.

With that cycling reference, this post has officially gone beyond the realm of self indulgence. Before I too deeply offend those who have humored this off-beat tangent thus far, I’m going to have to wrap things up. If the blowback isn’t too severe, perhaps I’ll have a solar charger to tell you about next year. Until then, check out the image gallery below for a selection of pictures from the trip. I told you the slideshow was coming.

Comments closed
    • Squeazle
    • 8 years ago

    Fantastic. I just got back from backpacking myself, and I can definitely see your angle on tech in the wild. I don’t know if I will ever bring it myself, but after being attached to my computer 350 days out of the year, I prefer complete isolation from all digital media. I even scoffed at my girlfriend bringing her digital camera. It was great to have along though, and I’m sure that a little more tech, replacing a couple pounds of books, wouldn’t detract too much from the trip.

    • obarthelemy
    • 8 years ago

    looks like a magnificent spot, and the photos kinda prove that the subject matter and the photographer’s skill are more important than gear. wider angles would have looked even better though.

    nice not-a-tweet about bowel movements too ^^

    • thermistor
    • 8 years ago

    This is incredible timing. I took a canoe trip to BWCA with my school age son, and am reading this my first night back.

    I took my work phone a W385 Motorola on Verizon (very old phone, but it actually does text), HP 927 point & shoot, and a couple of disposable film cameras for my son. He has an ancient digital cam that weighs close to half a pound, so elected to not carry.

    I was able to get a daily text on weather from the spousal unit, but could not call from most camp sites.

    The HP camera is older, but takes adequate pics and low quality (but totally Facebook appropriate) video. I don’t think I’d want to risk expensive/new camera gear. I’ve seen family member chuck piles of CE stuff after a couple of canoe dumps. Of course that family member takes chances that he really shouldn’t.

    In the family truckster, a laptop hooked to a power inverter kept son occupied most of the trip playing movies. But when we got to the wilderness, he happily left tech behind, which is kind of the point.

    • Jambe
    • 8 years ago

    You mean you…

    You get in a relatively small boat, and take it out on the ocean?

    And you [i<]bathe[/i<] in the ocean? But... but... there are large fishes with big pointy teeth in there, and they are better adapted for swimming and biting flesh than we are. You crazy. You two are CRAZY! I realize that waterborne disease and large mammals and (perhaps) small stinging/biting critters are far more dangerous than sharks. But there's just something about the unfamiliar territory of water that makes sharks terrifying to me... and of course there's "oh, that thing weighs ten times as much as I do and most of that weight is lean muscle... and teeth... and it even has teeth on its skin!" ... By the way, I hate what Shark Week has become. I remember when it was a reverent programming block where way more than half of the shows were intriguing studies and such by the likes of... Mike DeGruy (had to Google a bit). He does awesome stuff [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Prq2HK8cT3A<]like this[/url<]. But now it's all shakycam footage of shark bites and analysis of surfer attacks and AIIIIIIIIIR JAAAAAAAAAWS (which, while neat, doesn't need to take up half the block). Anyway! Those are some lovely photos. I'd like it if you reviewed a solar charging unit, actually.

      • sweatshopking
      • 8 years ago

      the ocean is for playing in. don’t be crazy.
      there are no sharks in the bc coast. there aren’t any water borne diseases, it’s the ocean. It’s not fresh water.

      you needn’t fear the water. come and play. i’ll be waiting…

      *removes bathing suit….*

      • obarthelemy
      • 8 years ago

      I do a bit of scuba-diving, and here IS something about sharks that’s very primal. On seeing my first one, I went into cardiac arrest, then teleported back 10m, then hid behind my dive instructor.
      Turned out the thing was sleeping, and about 80cm (3 feet) long, and of the “I eat only crustaceans” snobish variety. It did have the required grey skin, sharkish looks, and white eyes though.

      moray eels (and snakes) are actually more common and dangerous. thankfully they are usually smaller… “les petites bêtes n’ont jamais mangé les grosses”

    • glynor
    • 8 years ago

    Great story, Geoff. Thanks!

    Looks like you had an amazing trip.

    • dashbarron
    • 8 years ago

    I loved the picture of yourself–all I could see was “matte” finish on the bezel of your laptop.

    Also, in picture…5, what are those rubber/tube looking things in the water?

      • Dissonance
      • 8 years ago

      Whale sperm. Well, that’s what I call it, anyway. Apparently, the proper term is kelp.

        • dashbarron
        • 8 years ago

        Wow, cool. I’ve never seen kelp like that and at first glance it looked like some sort of water-snake. I just couldn’t fathom there being so many like that, unless of course you had killed a caribou with nothing but your tablet (after the battery died) and your bare hands, and threw the remaining bloody carcass in the water.

          • sweatshopking
          • 8 years ago

          it’s all over the place on the island.

    • trackerben
    • 8 years ago

    Grandly simple adventure! Now to slowly wind back into civilization, you guys can take the ferry to Butchart and bring home lots of flowery pics which ought to look great on that screen.

    The wildest place I’ve shlepped my old ipad around was Coyote Pt in the bay area.

    • Voldenuit
    • 8 years ago

    I took my Panasonic Lumix GF1 camera with me on a trek through a rainforest, and it was perfectly sized to allow me to carry it an a decent assortment of (tiny) lenses with me.

    I would not have deigned to carry my 40D + L lenses on the same trek, as they would have been significantly heavier.

      • Corrado
      • 8 years ago

      I have an E-PL1 and its fantastic. I can leave the 45-150 on the camera around my neck and keep the 14-54 in my pocket or bag. The 17mm is small enough that I often forget its even in my bag.

    • Bensam123
    • 8 years ago

    Not to be mean, but I think the whole outdoors thing is lost on you guys if you’re taking tech along.

      • My Johnson
      • 8 years ago

      Yeah, I have to wonder about books and magazines too. Drinking is an entirely different matter.

      • khands
      • 8 years ago

      Outside of a camera, gps and maybe a 2-way radio I agree.

    • NeelyCam
    • 8 years ago

    If this was in Finland, you would’ve had 6Mb/s down on your 4G phone with 4/5 bars. (For $10/mo)

      • Cyril
      • 8 years ago

      …though to be fair, BC has nearly triple the surface area of Finland, not to mention a smaller population. 😉

        • irvinenomore
        • 8 years ago

        Remember a quote from another immigrant comparing Scotland to BC, “You could fit Scotland into the top right corner of BC and there would be one road running through it.”

        Another part of Europe I know but it gives you a sense of scale.

      • d0g_p00p
      • 8 years ago

      You know that it’s ok to not be connected to the Internet 24×7 right? Strange idea I know but some people like to go backpacking/camping/hiking and get away from city life and all things tech. I myself would have left the laptop & slate and brought a Glock 17 and Ruger 10/22 as it’s replacements. But again that is just me.

        • sweatshopking
        • 8 years ago

        that doesn’t surprise me. you seem like a nutjob, and the gun fetish fits right in with the rest of your insanity.

        • not@home
        • 8 years ago

        I will second the switch for guns, but for me it is not a Glock but a 1911.

    • SomeOtherGeek
    • 8 years ago

    Wow! Awesome article and write up!

    Love the pictures. Thanks for sharing.

    2 questions regarding the pix: 1) was that a shipwreck? 2) What was that ball on the rocks? Can’t figure them out.

    Man, me jealous! That was one beautiful place and the fact that you techo-rugged it is even better. Curious tho, will you try a satellite connection on the next trip? Not the big old dish thingy, but more of something that gets access that is not dependent on an antenna?

      • Dissonance
      • 8 years ago

      Yeah, it’s a shipwreck. And the little ball is kelp too young to have grown a tail yet.

      Even if I could have a satellite connection, I probably wouldn’t want it way out there. Part of the point is getting away from everything, and having a ‘net connection would, I think, taint the experience–or at least what I’m trying to get out of it.

    • DrCR
    • 8 years ago

    How were the venison steaks?

    • eitje
    • 8 years ago

    Am I the only one that saw the picture of Geoff’s girlfriend and thought “well, that girl’s not Asian…”

      • NeelyCam
      • 8 years ago

      That’s the 2nd girlfriend.

        • HisDivineOrder
        • 8 years ago

        Actually, isn’t it the third?

          • PainIs4ThaWeak1
          • 8 years ago

          Who cares. Moar pics uv the g/f or gtfo. lol

          – kidding.

      • killadark
      • 8 years ago

      i don think its polite to be discussing how many gf’s he has had considering u barely kno him in person

        • NeelyCam
        • 8 years ago

        You may be right.

    • duke_sandman
    • 8 years ago

    Geoff — Rather loved the article. With a limited amount of time to surf due to changing roles & jobs, this was a welcome respite. Indulge away. Next time, perhaps you could tell about how your camera performed (i.e., did you wish you had a full SLR, or was the Lumix sufficient?; were you able to edit/check photos while there or was it a surprise when you got home?; Did you do anything innovative/techy to cook like a solar powered furnace?)

    Cool photos. Jealous. Thanks for the vicarious summer vacation. Sandman

      • Dissonance
      • 8 years ago

      I wished I had my SLR a few times, but I’d do the trip again with the Lumix. The picture quality is good enough, and it’s great not having to worry about carrying the thing, getting it wet, dropping it, and so on. I’d probably pack both cameras if space weren’t an issue.

      Checking photos on the tablet or notebook was easy, and we even retook a few shots as a result. Nothing particularly innovative on the technology front elsewhere, though.

    • sweatshopking
    • 8 years ago

    hahhahahaha wife is from Campbell river. I’m a cumberland boy, and if you went on the NIH, you know it. now you know my deepest secrets, Geoff. we’re soul mates. If that girl in the photo is your GF, i think you know what to do. send her packing! it’s Josh and Geoff time!

    I’d also like to say, that even though I’m a BC boy, I still honestly think PEI is nicer. I know. i’m nuts, but it’s true. they’re very different, but PEI is, IMO a nicer place. Just got to figure out some way to move there….

      • irvinenomore
      • 8 years ago

      My wife is also from CR and it really is beautiful on the Island. Can’t say I will be wilderness camping there any time soon though the only way I could get her in a tent for a week using shovel made bathrooms is at gunpoint! My vacations for the next few years are likely to be somewhere there is a kids club/activities, oh the price of procreation…

      Never been to PEI so can’t say anything for or against.

      • Dissonance
      • 8 years ago

      Oh dear. 😉

    • Glix
    • 8 years ago

    Who else tried to read the article through just the pictures and thought “whoa Geoff has spent quite a while out in the wild”? :p

    • rhysl
    • 8 years ago

    Was this the island ?

    Trying to spot it on Google maps

    49.813176,-126.993885

      • Dissonance
      • 8 years ago

      Yep, that’s it. Some of the pictures are from that island, others from the surrounding area.

    • tone21705
    • 8 years ago

    Really enjoyed that article! Keep it up.

    • yokem55
    • 8 years ago

    I recently got back from a lengthy road/camping trip (8 National parks in 2 weeks) and we brought our transformer with us. To make it work on the road though away from A/C I had to jerririg a charger with 12v DC lighter plug (I have a rather paranoid level of distrust of dc-ac inverters) . As the transformer requires 15V to charge in any reasonable amount of time, I wired a usb female plug to a universal laptop adapter with the requisite lighter plug and was able to get it to work without frying the tablet. Just had to put a big red warning label on the usb female plug warning people not to plug their 5V usb devices into it…..

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