WiFi in the Woods


When it comes to portaging and (more so) backpacking, you want to travel as light as possible, but often there are a few luxuries we are all unwilling to live without. I believe very strongly that if you carry it in without complaint but not at the expense of your fair share of the load, and it doesn’t detract from others’ experience, do what you like.  That last part is probably the most important, and recently there’s been more and more talk about something that’s supposedly ready to ruin everyone’s experience in the back country: The Internet! (Please feel free to hum some evil music – “Dum-dum-duuum!”)

WiFi in the parkOntario Parks is expanding its services to include more accessibility – connection – by providing wireless services throughout the many parks throughout the province. The Pinery, for example, is now offering WiFi to its campers with plans to roll out similar accessibility to more and more parks in the future. The horror! The humanity! This is truly the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse! (Too much?)

Relax. What’s the big deal? How is this truly going to ruin your life outdoors?

In a recent article at cbc.ca, wireless at provincial parks is discussed. Not surprisingly, this issue has become polarizing with rabid opinions on both sides (check out some of the comments!). Featured in this article is the author of a great blog that Portageur follows, Jen Johnson from Backcountry with the Kids. Described (only) as an avid camper (what’s with the lack of shout-out for her blog, CBC?), Jen states she doesn’t partake in electronic gadgetry while in the backcountry, and doesn’t allow it for the kids. The day after, Jen was surprised by all the controversy, feeling she needed to clarify her opinion on her blog, the meaning having been lost slightly in the article. She’s neither “for NOR against” the issue, but chooses to keep away from all the devices herself. Finally, a rational opinion on the matter. It certainly doesn’t bother her, because she doesn’t let it.

Safety? 

The article mentions the idea of safety, as do many advocates of adding more coverage to the outdoors. This may be true, but realistically, you should never rely solely on cell phone coverage for your survival. We’re not there yet, so please don’t climb up a mountain in search for a little bar instead of doing something a little more productive. Get a SPOT locating device for electronic help, and think of any would-be cell phone coverage as a bonus. So for these reasons, I’m not going to focus on safety being a good enough reason to expand wireless coverage, but I suppose it may be a factor.

An Unimportant Distinction

Grace Lake venue on FoursquareFirst off, let’s understand the difference between WiFi and cell phone coverage. Sure, both will give you access to the internet, but each is set up differently. Presently, you’d need a much more infrastructure to implement a WiFi network – admittedly a huge eye-sore – and so would make it too prohibitive to implement in the interior. Cell coverage requires a big tower, which would be much more practical in the interior, but again, who wants to see that big tower ruining the scenery, the technological reminder that snaps you out of a truly natural experience. I get that. I understand. I have the same feeling when I’m in the middle of what is supposed to be nowhere, only to find a bunch of cottages – usually complete with racing motorboats, garbage and radios. Realistically however, it will be some time before the cost of installing all that hardware becomes worth the return companies would receive considering the number of cell phone users out in the interior.

At a central location like at campgrounds, this is a different matter. It would be very easy to install cell towers, WiFi networks and all that evil networking stuff at a campground, and it might even spill out over to all the surrounding campsites, trails and beaches. Soon there will be people surfing the web around the campfire, checking e-mail on the beach and texting on the trail. I hate to be the one to say it, but it’s already happening. Does it bother me to see it? Sure, but does it send me into a rage having my experience outdoors ruined? No. I’m only bothered to know that those people don’ t know what they’re missing, and if anything, it makes me a little sad.

Bad News

WiFi isn’t the issue here. The real issue is being bothered by technology, having taken the time and effort to get out somewhere to commune with nature, only to have the real world come back and slap you in the face. Radios, motorboats, parents screaming after misbehaving kids, garbage, vandalism – it’s all been out there a lot longer than some kid looking up piano playing cats when he should be skipping rocks. (How come we’re not all worked up about those problems?) It’s really all about how the technology is used, how it detracts from your experience. Phones don’t bother campers, obnoxious people bother campers. A bunch of drunken hooters can ruin the outdoor experience a lot quicker than some hipster clacking away on his Mac. The trick is ignore it, enjoy the scenery instead of complaining about how others ruin the outdoors. At the risk of being “that guy”, might I suggest heading further in – perhaps over a portage, which tends to filter out the laptop-toting campers.

Different Angle
Tweet from the woods (click to view)Nevermind all that. Let’s look at this from another view for a moment. What about the people for whom technology brings them into the outdoors when they wouldn’t have been otherwise? Portageur.ca was created to encourage and help people get out there, get out more often and make it easier for them when they do. I’d be a huge hypocrite to have any opinion that would keep anyone at home. In fact, I really should be writing this on a beach, sitting on a mountainside or anywhere in the outdoors. If you happened by would you tsk-tsk me and tell me to go back to Starbucks? Would you try and school me in “real” camping? What about a parent who wouldn’t be able to get away from the office, keeping the family at home as well. If only there was some way they can stay connected just a little – without bothering anyone – so they can take the kids to the lake. Imagine for a moment that you could work from “home” at a campground, taking your breaks swimming, maybe having a “fishing lunch”. If you could get away with that, I would envy rather than criticize you.

I take people camping who are too connected all the time. I don’t break laptops over my knee or toss cell phones into the lake (I’ve heard the stories). I show them the view, take them canoeing, get them some of that fresh air running through their lungs. I make a campfire and a good meal, and we all sit around chatting about how great it is out there. If they’re too afraid to cut the technological cord right away, I don’t mind the devices – as long as they’re not truly detracting from the others. They’ll enjoy the experience and make it more likely they’ll come back in a simpler, natural way, or they won’t like it at all, and won’t come back. Either way there’s less technology to bother people.

The Good Side

Playing with my phoneIn fact, I too take a cell phone – one of them there smart phones – with me on my adventures in the interior. I rarely get cell phone coverage, but if I do (like anywhere along the highway 60 corridor of Algonquin Park), I will shamelessly tweet, upload a photo or update my status when I can. Who does it hurt? Well, there might be some people I stress out having to judge me, sure, but I’m sure they’ll survive. On the other hand, it brings a little bit of the woods to everyone who can’t be there themselves. I’d argue that it serves more to make people want to get out there and experience it for themselves – and I’ve been told as much. I’m I walking the trails with a headset obnoxiously yakking away loudly along the trail? No. First, I wouldn’t want to ruin the experience for others – the same reason I don’t motorboat past canoes, drunkenly hoot and holler, carve my initials into the trees or anything else like that. More importantly, I have better things to do, to see, to discover and to experience.

Let’s All Just Get Along

So here’s what it all boils down to: If there’s one thing Nature should be teaching us, what we’re out there to truly experience, is the centering, grounding, relaxing, healing and over-all perspective prioritizing effects of being out there. Why not then put those lessons into practice and take a more zen approach to it all. If someone brings along some “connected” device and spends the whole time using it instead of appreciating the outdoors, ignore them. Pity them for not taking advantage. And if it bothers you that much, don’t bring them along next time. Simple.

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  1. […] this kind of device would encourage that kind of thing. Even if it did, that’s really their missed opportunity, and you’re doing it (camping) wrong if you let it bother you. And so, having a CampStove is now pulling you into the debate about being too plugged in, and how […]



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