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Electronic Etiquette: When and when not to whip out your i-phone … and other gadgets while in the wilds

By Johnny Molloy • Feb 23, 2017 at 12:00 AM

I was relaxing in front of Derrick Knob trail shelter, in yon Smoky Mountains, watching thousands of trout lilies tossing about in a chilly spring breeze, reflecting on the day’s hike, when up come a couple of scraggly yet well geared young bucks. They were backpacking the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies, a goal many of us share. I was actually doing the same thing, except traveling the opposite direction.

After dropping their packs, the taller of the two whipped out a smart phone. His buddy on the other end, apparently in New Jersey, got to hear all about the hike. So did I. And I got to hear about the new X-box game the guy from Jersey was playing.

I was irritated but let it slide. After all, we were all going to spend the night in the same trail shelter, so why get things started off on the wrong foot?

Then the other guy whipped out his phone, pacing back and forth in front of the shelter, telling his wife about every ache and pain he was experiencing, between through-the-phone kisses and pleas that he would be back home soon. Apparently some yard work was awaiting his return.

Inside I was fuming. Why didn’t they at least leave the vicinity of the shelter to make their calls, instead of subjecting me to their every word? I did what was in my power and left the shelter area until the second hiker finished his “wife report.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it has been said. Well, properly using electronic gadgets in the wild depends on what the gadget is, who is using it, when they are using it, and where they are using it.

So how do we develop all these behaviors and morals concerning electronic gadgetry in the wild? Is there some arbiter of what is right and wrong? Does a park ranger set the rules? As the electronic age evolves, and penetrates deeper into the back of beyond, the sticky situations to rectify get more numerous, the rules get ever more complex and nobody knows where — or if — it will end.

To that point I have come up with some things to think about when using your electronic gadgets in the backcountry. Of course, many of today’s devices can do all listed below:

Helmet cam: Shooting video through some wicked river rapids is not only cool but expected. The drops, the pools, the white froth, the rocks … You’ll be even cooler if you ride one of those new SUP boards. Make sure your helmet cam is waterproof before you strap on your life vest and hit the water. Snow skiing is popular, too. Strap on the cam, and ski your way down Cataloochee. Then you can post your run on Facebook as soon as you finish. Maybe some people will “like” it.

Using a helmet cam for cross-country skiing? Too boring! It is also not cool to use the cam while following the swaying moves of a curvaceous coed hiking to the top of Wesser Bald. And I am not thinking in terms of inappropriate staring. I’m thinking about those colorful trailside wildflowers you are missing. And the view at the top of Wesser Bald – well, those distant ridges have as many curves as Miss South Carolina.

Smart Phone: Phone reception is getting more universal throughout the Southern Appalachians, from Brasstown Bald in Georgia to Big Meadows in Virginia. You can usually get reception atop a given ridge. It is down in the hollows where things can go incommunicado. Calling friends from McAfee Knob outside Roanoke may interrupt your fellow hikers and vista admirers. However, using your phone to call 911 because someone just fell from McAfee Knob is what you should do.

I-Pad: These things are limited by power – unless you brought your roll-up solar panel. I am all for an eye-pleasing work environment, but working on spread sheets at a rustic campground is too much, even for a workaholic. Turn it off and make some s’mores with your daughter. An I-Pad is okay to use if you are downloading topographic maps via satellite to find your way back to the trailhead.

Digital Camera: When at waterfalls and overlooks taking a picture with a digital camera is not only accepted, it is likely done and expected to be done by everyone there. Cameras may range from those on a phone to the wanna-be nature photographer with more long lenses than the paparazzi chasing Lindsay Lohan. However, taking a picture of someone who just broke their leg while slipping off the falls is a no-no. And don’t worry about having to immediately post your mountaintop pictures on Facebook or Instagram. For once actually absorb the scene rather than focus on letting everyone know you were there and they weren’t.

Earbuds (earphones): Have you ever seen the blank stare that hikers with earphones on give when they pass? They are saying “Don’t talk to me. I am listening to my music.” Yes, you may be tuning in the band Phish, but you are tuning out the sounds where fish live — streams. You are also blocking out the nobles of the air — hawks, eagles, woodpeckers and ordinary songbirds, plus that big ol’ black bear stalking up behind you. However, earphones can come in real handy at a trail shelter when the inevitable hiking expert is critiquing everyone’s gear, or some slob is snoring.

Radio: I still remember coming on a campsite in Maryland’s Savage River State Forest, where a guy was blaring Kiss’ “I want to Rock and Roll All Night and Party Everyday”. That song was in my head for days. For a fact, I sometimes listen to talk radio and University of Tennessee football while camping, but I don’t force it on those who don’t desire to listen.

GPS: This is the one electronic gadget universally accepted by the outdoor set. Some may think you a nerd or overly cautious while using it at the city park, but everyone around figures if they get lost at least the person with the GPS just might help them become found. And I use it as a tool of the trade when working on hiking and paddling guidebooks.

So, when bringing your portable devices into the back of beyond, consider your fellow outdoor enthusiasts before using them. After all, the woods are for everybody.

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