Saturday, May 19, 2018

Backcountry electronics

Electronic gadgets can be tremendously convenient for navigation and safety in the backcountry. Here's the suite of goodies I'm taking on an extended ADV ride through the Rockies this summer. We'll be camping and riding through long stretches of wilderness, where self-reliance is critical and often no cell service or other amenities will be available.

Solar charger (top)
Anker makes some high quality, thoughtfully designed gadgets and their PowerPort Solar charger is no exception. At 21W, it's one of the more powerful options in this size/price range, and it includes two USB charging ports and a mini-USB cable in the package for around C$90 from Amazon. The panels are rigid but fold flat to about the size of a 2L hydration bladder. It's a good size and shape to fit into a small backpack, and the eyelets let you clip it to the back of your motorbike to enable charging while riding. The integrated pouch on the right has enough room to stow a cell phone or battery pack while charging, keeping cables from flapping around.

Satellite beacon (left)
Garmin recently acquired Delorme's inReach global satellite technology and introduced improved versions of the original inReach safety beacon: the inReach SE+ (yellow), the inReach Explorer+ (orange), and the inReach Mini. I bought the basic SE+ model, which provides functions such as two-way text messaging and basic GPS navigation. The Explorer+ adds advanced mapping capabilities, but there are some frustrating restrictions on what maps can be used (for instance, you can't use Garmin maps you've already purchased), so the additional cost was unjustifiable for me--especially as I already have another GPS. The Mini was not available when I bought my SE+, but it looks like it would probably serve as well or better than the SE+, given the SE+ offers such rudimentary map features anyway.

With any of these devices, they are only useful if you get an annual subscription to the satellite service. I opted for the Annual Safety Plan option, which was the cheapest and can be upgraded if necessary. Registering with the plan was straightforward. If I ever regain the freedom to enjoy the backcountry more regularly, I'd probably upgrade to a plan that allows breadcrumb tracking and test messaging at a better bulk rate.

Motorcycle GPS
Again with Garmin, the Montana 610 I bought last year has proven to be a worthwhile upgrade from the 64st handheld model I used the past few seasons. First, the larger screen is a blessing to my aging eyes and much easier to read while riding. Second, the touch interface is easy to use with gloves on. Third, the handlebar RAM mount incorporates a ruggedized power connection system that is far superior to a USB plug. Overall, it's hard to beat the Montana and Garmin's free mapping software (Basecamp) at this price. However, I'm looking forward to if/when Garmin ever updates their operating system and tools to more modern, user-friendly designs. Their devices look (and operate) about 10 years behind the rest of the electronics market, which would be OK if they were priced accordingly.

UV flashlight
OK, this gadget is probably unnecessary for most people, but as I'll be camping in desert areas in the American southwest, I wanted a way to check for scorpions when nature calls me out of my tent in the middle of the night. For $15 on Amazon, I'm hoping this flashlight improves my odds of not stepping on something painful and crunchy.

Cell phone
Yeah, nothing new here. It's an iPhone 6S. The camera is good, it's nice to have some tunes, and having web access is valuable for booking ahead, ordering parts, etc. Many of the areas I'll be traveling through won't have good (or reasonably priced) cell access, so any data services will have to rely on occasional WiFi. Hence the inReach beacon.

My travel companions picked up some used Android waterproof phones which, combined with downloadable maps and mapping software, will serve as their mounted GPS device. This could be a good solution, although I'm concerned about how reliable their power connection will be when exposed to a month of trail abuse. In any case, it'll be a good comparison test of alternatives to Garmin's overpriced technology.

USB cable
I'll be packing two of these to charge various devices, as experience shows one is guaranteed to crap out for no apparent reason.

Battery pack
This is another fine Anker product, a Powercore 10000. It's about the largest size that can be feasibly charged using the 21W solar panel, and will serve as backup if all else fails.

Relying on any complex technology that requires thousands of fragile components and millions of lines of code to all function perfectly and in harmony is a tremendous leap of faith. As backup, buried in my gear are an orienteering compass, waterproof maps, and a trusty old LED headlamp that doesn't need an online Facebook account and software updates to simply turn on and use. And there are plenty of sticks and rocks lying around to fend off any scorpions.

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