Technology in the Hills

Technology in the Hills

My last post about how much time we spend on our phones got me thinking. Has the surge in popularity of technology changed how we experience the outdoors and is it a good thing?

When I was 12, I went on a school walking trip from Whitby to Robin Hood’s Bay. For a small boy, it had all the ingredients of an epic adventure. The minibus broke down on the way, we slept in bunk beds in the Youth Hostel on the cliff-tops right by a spooky abbey, set off early the next day seeing the sun rise over the North Sea, got zapped by an electric fence and arrived home muddy, tired and with huge grins on our faces.

I was hooked and spent the next few years completing the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. The expeditions took us to some really wild places and our only contact with the outside world was the occasional 10p call from a public phone box to let base camp know we were ok. We could always get through, the batteries didn’t run out, nobody was constantly thinking the worst had happened – the system worked.

Common to all of these schoolboy adventures was the lack of mobile phones. We didn’t give it a second thought that we were fending for ourselves. We were taught first aid, navigation and campcraft on day walks before being let loose into the wild. We made mistakes, learnt from our peers and had great fun in the process. It’s astonishing to think we didn’t get eaten by monsters, fall off cliffs or spontaneously combust.

Nowadays, the expectation is that we are always contactable. If we don’t reply to a message or answer a call immediately, the other party assumes we must be lying in a ditch and starts to panic. My mum does this all the time – it’s never that there might simply be no reception or that I’m just enjoying the silence of a light breeze across a mountain tarn.

If this ‘always on’ attitude follows us into the outdoors, it can seriously undo some of the benefits of being outside. Many people head to the hills to escape the stresses of everyday life – they deliberately choose to go off-grid. This concept is becoming increasingly alien, as the world becomes ever more connected and people can’t handle being unplugged from the matrix.

I often feel like the human race is heading for the scenario depicted in the film Wall-E. We’ll all just sit in chairs, have everything available on tap and forget the simple pleasures of doing things for ourselves. We’ve lost the ability to process detail – people want instant results and will look elsewhere if they don’t get it. Advances in technology are undoubtedly fuelling this attitude. Great if it works but all too often it lets us down. It can only lead to disappointment, or worse, put us in a situation which is beyond our capabilities.

I watched a great episode of Countryfile on the BBC last week. It focused on the Cairngorms and featured a piece with the Safety Adviser for Mountaineering Scotland. In it, we learnt that there has been an increase in the number of incidents in recent years. Many of these incidents involve people getting lost when their technology has failed. Using the tech without an underpinning of basic map and compass skills is a recipe for disaster when the battery inevitably runs out. These skills are things we used to have no choice but to learn – now, with technology doing the hard work for us, it’s far too convenient to over-rely on our electronic friends. All well and good until it decides it doesn’t want to play any more.

So, with this in mind, I’d urge you to pause before taking too much technology into the hills. If you simply can’t let go, try my oh-so-scientific guide to substituting the new for the old…

Instead of… Try…
Using an app on your phone to navigate Using a paper map and compass
Capturing that once in a lifetime selfie Looking at the view
Using a device to track your steps Measuring how far you’ve walked using a piece of string and a map
Relying on the weather app for the forecast Learning to read the weather conditions from the environment around you
Taking a smartphone Taking a cheap, simple phone with a huge battery life but that only allows you to call and text
Documenting your trip on social media Recording your thoughts in a notebook – it’s a lot more meaningful when you dig it out to read 10 years later


I am certainly not out to say there is no place for technology in our hills. Far from it. I love a decent gadget. But I also feel we have so much of being connected in our lives that the mountains should be our one safe haven where we can go back to a simpler way of life. By all means put a mobile phone in your rucksack for those genuine emergencies but otherwise switch off and be like your 12 year old self having a proper adventure.

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