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Prof Hike: The End of Off-the-Grid

Spot's new gadget adds satellite reception to smartphones anywhere.
With satellites hovering overhead, will we ever be truly alone? (JS)

One more wilderness wall is about to fall. And this one is big. That’s why I’m bumping my dispatch on winter camping for this special report.

Earlier this month, Spot LLC, makers of the bright-orange Spot Personal Tracker and Messenger, announced a new gadget called the Connect that gives smartphones the ability to send custom text messages via satellite uplinks.
Since 2007, many hikers, including Backpacker’s Rocky Mountain editor, have carried Spot products as an extra safety measure. These devices use satellite antennas to send pre-recorded updates, map a person’s progress online, and alert search-and-rescue teams when things get hairy.
The new Connect, when paired via Bluetooth to a smartphone running a Spot app, does all that. Plus it lets you update your Facebook status and Twitter feed, or send short text messages (up to 41 characters) from anywhere under the open sky. With the Connect, interacting with your social network isn’t limited by cellular reception or Wi-Fi hotspots. Instead of watching your iPhone’s signal bars disappear as you drop below the Grand Canyon’s rim (heck, that happens in downtown Brooklyn), you can text and tweet all the way to the Colorado River.
OK, time out. If this tech lingo has you confused (Blueteeth, what?), don’t worry. Your trusty map and compass still work fine, at least until the Earth’s magnetic field flips. And when that happens, just pretend the red needle points south. However, if you own a smartphone, GPS, or satellite beacon—and even if you don’t—the Connect’s ambition of satellite reception for the cellular masses could have you mumbling, “Out, damned spot” in the near future.
First, if you want to buy a Spot Connect now, the device and its smartphone apps won’t be available for several more weeks. If you can’t wait, GPS-maker DeLorme teamed up with Spot to offer the tweet-ready
Earthmate PN-60W GPS that’s available now for $550 plus the Spot subscription service (starting at $100/year). 
Second, this post isn’t a review of the Spot Connect or the DeLorme Earthmate PN-60W. To discover the down and dirty details on these two products, check out Backpacker’s online and print editions over the next weeks and months. Editors are testing them now.
Third, if you want to know why Prof. Hike thinks the combination of smartphones and satellite reception will make it easier for unprepared hikers to endanger themselves on the trail, read on.
The way Prof. Hike sees it, your brain—and not a battery-powered plastic gadget—is the most important electronic tool in your arsenal. According to National Park Service statistics, two-thirds of backcountry rescues are caused by insufficient planning or equipment, falls, fatigue, and darkness. None of those factors are solved by more touchscreens or antennas. True, using a GPS could keep you from making a wrong turn. However, most hikers get lost because they lack a paper map, not a mapping GPS.

Plus, carrying a GPS and knowing how to use it are two different skills. Too many unprepared hikers treat cell phones and GPS devices as “Get out of trouble free” gadgets, instead of as backups to common sense planning and smart decisions. I’m guilty, too. I once took a shortcut in Montana’s Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest while bolstered by the knowledge that I carried my trusty GPS. Even with my Garmin, we got hopelessly lost and slogged through a steep burn zone with a dwindling water supply for three hours before we regained the trail. I learned three lessons that day: No shortcuts; burn zones suck; and a GPS is as fallible as the human trying to read its screen. 

While I always encourage people to bring a cell phone on every hike, carrying one doesn’t automatically make someone a safer hiker. In fact, I think cell phones and personal locator beacons encourage more risk-taking when basic skills, like the 10 essentials, routefinding, and group leadership, are not also known or practiced.

Troubling incidents have already occurred—like the inexperienced backpacking group in the Grand Canyon who pushed S.O.S. on their Spot Messenger three times in 36 hours for ridiculous reasons before being forcibly evacuated from the canyon via helicopter.

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