Electronics in the Boundary Waters (A Complete Guide)
Take a moment to think about all the things you associate with the Boundary Waters. What comes to mind? Is it the call of loons? Water dripping off your paddle? Maybe it’s grunting under the weight of a Grumman on a 300-rod portage?
Chances are, you didn’t think bending over a small, electronic device.
For many, flashing lights and beeping noises aren’t part of the wilderness experience. They clash. After all, don’t we plan trips in the Boundary Waters to get away from all the distractions of our hyper-connected world? To experience a more simple, pared-down way of living, if even for a few days?
The issue of electronics in the Boundary Waters is controversial, to say the least. Wherever you land on this issue, the fact is that nowadays, electronics are a reality of wilderness travel, and in many ways, have changed how people experience the BWCA.
Without taking a stand on this issue (you’re more than welcome to do this in the comments section) let’s take a look at some of the essential electronics people are packing with them.
Quick note: I won’t be covering cameras. It’s just too big of a topic! However, if you want to know what five essential camera accessories you need to bring into the BWCA, check out this blog from Northshore photographer, Bryan Hansel.
Also, I’m not going to discuss ridiculous things like USB-heated smart mugs.
Perhaps the biggest game changer between how people once traveled in the Boundary Waters versus how they do today has to do with communications. Gone are the days of two-way radios or finding the right frequency to try to get an emergency message out to the world. Today’s sophisticated GPS-enabled devices link into a system of satellites and allow you to quickly send messages to the outside world. Let’s take a look at the general lay of the land.
Emergency Location Devices
When consumer-grade satellite messengers came on the scene over a decade ago, they were nothing short of revolutionary. These small handheld devices were affordable and gave everyone the ability to tell worried family members at home that they were okay and, if an emergency came up, allowed travelers to connect with local search and rescue teams.
While several manufacturers make these locator units, Garmin’s inReach products have emerged as leaders in the field, both for the variety of models and for reliability.
The most basic model, the inReach Mini, works by allowing you to send out status updates, via a GPS signal routed via the Iridium system of 66 satellites, which gives you global coverage. With two-way messaging, it also notifies you when your message is received. This is particularly helpful in an emergency, as you can communicate with emergency responders about the nature of your situation and you don’t have to second guess whether or not someone picked up your distress call.
Having the ability to reach out to emergency services is invaluable, but there is a lot more to these little units. They have functions that allow your friends and family to track your progress and get updates on your status. Before you take off on a trip into the woods, you simply load up your unit with customized messages, such as “Need tacos,” “Call work let them I’ll be out for another week,” and when you’re out in the field, you can send these to those who you select to be on your list.
All inReach products also provide basic weather reports for your location or another location you choose, with more detailed weather reports available for an additional charge.
The hub for the inReach unit is the Garmin portal, a personalized online headquarters that gives users access to maps, weather reports, data from previous trips, and a contact list of people who will receive your messages when you’re out in the field. Data from your trips are stored here, so you can easily access the maps and routes from your previous trips to review where you’ve been and where you have yet to explore.
There are several other, higher-end InReach units that have a functional screen and come with preloaded topo maps so the unit can also serve as a GPS. Some have a keyboard function so you can essentially text when you’re out in the field (though because it must go through satellites, there is some lag time). You get these same features with the entry level inReach Mini (or any inReach device) by pairing it with a smartphone, which gives you access to your contacts and phone’s messaging capabilities.
Ultimately, no matter what unit you choose or what kind of functionality you choose, what it boils down to is that, with an InReach or a SPOT, you have an emergency safety device that could very well save your life. For this reason, they have become standard on many Boundary Waters trips.
With the widespread use of InReach and SPOT devices, satellite phones have become something of a relic, and really, it’s hard to justify bringing them on a trip in to the Boundary Waters when there are better options available.
A few outfitters, Canadian Waters and Piragis, still rent them. But ultimately, they are bulky, expensive to own, expensive to rent, expensive to operate, and in the field, are a hit or miss. Reception can be poor and it’s not unlikely that the phone will simply fail to pick up signal.
At one time, tapes were the best way to listen to music. But who listens to tapes anymore? Better technology has come along. The same goes with satellite phones.
You’re much better off with an InReach.
That being said, it is worth noting that you need to be responsible in using these emergency beacons.
- Only press the SOS or help button if it truly is an emergency. The search and rescue teams on the Gunflint Trail and out of Ely are volunteer operations. These are men and women who take distress calls seriously, often at personal cost. Sending out a distress call and signaling you need to be evacuated is because your ankle hurts or your stomach is upset is unacceptable.
- These devices provide a peace or mind, but also can be a source of unnecessary panic. If you miss a check-in day, your family members may get a little agitated or entirely freak out and assume the worst possible thing has happened to you (i.e.: eaten by a moose-bear hybrid).
- Just because you have an easy way to get in contact with emergency services does not mean you should take additional risks. Some worry the safety net created by carrying an InReach or similar device makes people believe they can do dumb things. Don’t be dumb.
About 20 years ago, I remember getting a state-of-the-art headlamp for my birthday. The thing was a beast. It was wired into a monstrous battery that you had to attach to a belt or put in your pocket, and sucked the life out of four D-sized batteries in an hour.
How things have changed.
Modern headlamps are small, pack a ridiculous amount of light, and can last for hours.
Most, if not all, allow you to vary the power of the beam and have a red-light option that preserves night vision. In fact, unless I’m going out for over two weeks, I don’t even carry a backup set of batteries. Granted, if I’m out during that time of year when the light is scarce, like the winter or late fall, I’ll definitely have some backups, but not in the summer.
Many, if not most, modern headlamps are both rechargeable and run off standard batteries. Petzl Actik Core is one I use. It kicks out 450 lumens of light (which is a silly amount of light) and, because it can be powered by AAA batteries, you can juice it up by either plugging it in or putting in new batteries.
Like all the ridiculous flavors of Doritos and Oreos, there are way too many varieties of headlamps to choose from. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by the choice. Go for one that’s both rechargeable and takes batteries.
Remember, whatever you get, there’s a 99 percent chance that the cheapest headlamp you buy is going to be better than the top-of-the-line model that was available 15 or 20 years ago.
For large groups staying up late and playing games of 500 in the tent, you don’t want to be blinding one another by crossing beams and shining your headlamp in one another’s faces.
GoalZero makes a number of neat lanterns that are both collapsible and solar-powered, but if you’re in the market for an all-purpose lantern, the Lighthouse 400 Lantern might be your ticket.
Well, first, you can charge it three different ways: by solar power, by plugging it in, or by turning the hand crank to charge up its internal battery. This lantern also has a USB port that gives it the capabilities of recharging small electronics, like a phone.
Quite the gizmo, to say the least.
For those who want to go a more traditional route, there are candle lanterns available. And while they seem neat, they just don’t give out much light, even with a reflective mirror. They can set the mood in camp, but are not very functional, and in a tent, not safe.
With so many great lighting options available, it’s worth remembering that, in the 21st century, truly dark skies are becoming something of a rarity. Light pollution from urban centers, from buildings and houses, blot out the stars. The Boundary Waters has become a destination for those who wish to see the full brilliance of the Milky Way or lie back on a bug free-evening and stare a sky speckled by millions of stars.
It’s an astonishing thing, and a rare experience.
That being said, when you’re out there, take a moment to turn off your headlamp. Your eyes will adjust and many people are surprised at how well they can see at night, just with the aid of the moon and the stars. It’s hard to express just how impressive a dark, star-filled sky with a touch of moonlight is.
Keep things charged — Power packs and solar rolls
Just because you use electronics in the Boundary Waters doesn’t mean you’ll need to recharge them. However, if you’re out long enough, you’ll run into a situation where you need more juice.
The company Goal Zero is pretty much the gold standard when it comes to making portable chargers and solar panels to use in the field.
For most trips into the Boundary Waters that last less than 4 or 5 days, you can get away with bringing some variety of powerpack.
Goal Zero’s powerpacks come in a variety of sizes, depending on what kind of device you need to charge and how many times you need to recharge them. Simply charge these packs before a trip, tuck them away, and if your headlamp dies because you couldn’t put down The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, you’ll be able to get it back up and shining.
If you’re something of an electronics junkie and think you’ll go through more than one charge on even a large powerpack, you might want to consider bringing a foldable solar panel with you. With one in tow, you can both recharge a solarpack and recharge small electronics.
Perhaps the most novel way of charging your devices comes from a Biolite, a company that has pioneered several off-the-grid energy solutions. For backpackers, canoeists and campers, their CampStove line of stoves burn sticks and other pieces of kindling, and convert the energy generated by the fire into electricity.
Simply plug in your small electronic device, and it charges while your food cooks or your coffee brews.
Smart phones, tablets, and other devices in the BWCA
Inevitably, we come to a topic that makes many people cringe: Smartphones in the Boundary Waters.
Now, they do have their place. If you put your phone on low battery or airplane mode, you have a pocket-sized camera and access to any number of books you may have previously downloaded.
Also, with the right apps and software, your device can be essentially turned into a GPS unit and used to navigate. But that’s a topic for another blog.
And yes, you can listen to music, but c’mon. Not even Meatloaf will enhance the sounds of nature.
If you plan to use your phone or tablet, be sure to invest in a waterproof case that also floats.
A final note
Electronics, like Kevlar canoes, waterproof tents, and cushy air mattresses, are meant to enhance the experience. They add a layer of security and convenience. However, they can also distract from the experience. Since it is now possible to watch a movie in the BWCA, we all must ask ourselves how much is too much?
Certainly, you can bring electronics into the Boundary Waters and still fully experience the wonders of the wilderness.
But before you load up a few episodes of your favorite show or press play, remember how rare it is to be away from these modern entertainments, and how rare it is to camp at the edge of a pristine granite-lined lake in the middle of what we like to think of as America’s premier Wilderness Area.
Enough pontificating! Back to dreaming of canoe routes!
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