High-Tech or Low-Tech?

There’s a balance to be struck between taking too many and too few techy gadgets on an expedition. I’m a bit schizophrenic in this area. I’d like to say I’m a natural Ludditenaturally frugal – last year I hitched home from Armenia with only a knife, phone and poncho – but I also greatly value the usefulness of certain technologies.

But some technologies become nothing but a fad, or – worse – create more problems than they solve. Over-complicated computer systems in small libraries. GPS navigation units which send drivers merrily trundling into rivers, despite warning signs and the presence of bridges. Fashion accessories, which also happen to play music; several times the price of equivalents from companies other than Apple. Phones for which 99% of the functionality has nothing to do with the act of making a call. What was wrong with those little pink library cards anyway?

Some of my cycling kit

This kind of stuff gnaws at my sensibilities, which tell me that every free-new-extra-added-bonus-feature attached to my life actually has a diluting effect on the whole. (As well as making my bike weigh more.) On the other hand, I would be extremely reluctant to sacrifice a digital camera while travelling. Or my video camera. Or internet cafe stops. I want to share what I learn – how else to do it? Do I need to think harder?

Is my bicycle itself a high-tech gadget? How about a cycling computer – is it important how many kilometres I rode today? Should the number on the screen make me proud of or disappointed with myself? Does it add to or detract from the experience, which, when you’re on a bike trip, isn’t about yesterday or tomorrow but purely about right now? How much does each piece of technology enhance or impede the adventure?

What about techno-travelling in general? Recently in Cairo I stayed for a couple of days in a hostel (unusual, I know!). Every evening I would return to find assorted guests from distant lands scattered about the generous rooftop terrace area, snatching brief, efficient snippets of conversation in between staring at the screens of their mini-laptops. You could feel the waves of don’t-disturb-me through the warmth of the late summer dusk. Isn’t social encounter part of the lure of the road any more?

It appears that today’s traveller often carries a complete virtual world with them. I can follow ‘tweets’, real-time one-line updates, from people who are cycling across the emptiness of the Nubian desert, as I was doing exactly a year ago. (It’s just so old-fashioned to be disconnected from the internet while you’re in the middle of the Sahara, let alone waiting a week or so before telling the world what happened today.) Who honestly enjoys this style of look-at-me-I’m-travelling broadcast more than a well-written book or series of thoughtful articles? But it’s easy to get sucked in.

For an upcoming adventure, I have a few decisions to make. Should I take a GPS as a navigational backup, or stick to my tried and tested method of taking the modal average of three different locals’ directions? How about a mobile phone to keep in touch with loved ones when I stumble across a pocket of reception? Twitter updates? (Actually, that’s a no-brainer – wait ’til I get back and grab a cuppa!)

Do I need a full-on tent, or will I be OK to bivvy and take a tarp shelter in case of rain? How many pairs of pants should I take? Just the one, as usual, in case of torn trousers? Do I need to load myself down with tools and spares for every eventuality, or just trust the proven reliability of my bike?

I somehow enjoy this weighing up of the options, the unavoidable mistakes and the consequent refining of future decisions. Reducing weight is paramount: My aim is to take nothing I can live without.

The important thing that I try to remind myself is that there’s no beating those moments of pristine, indescribable beauty, watching shooting stars from the perfect wild campsite, or feeling the wind in your face at the summit of the highest pass, or the recounting of rose-tinted escapades from the comfort of home. These are things that I’d never pass up for want of a gadget.

Snow coated bike

UPDATE: In early 2011 I conducted an experiment. I took a netbook and 3G phone to Scandinavia and attempted to write a daily blog from my frozen tent during the one-month winter tour. It was a bigger success than I could possibly have imagined. The lesson? Daily blogging is sometimes worth the compromises involved. Sometimes…

21 Responses to “High-Tech or Low-Tech?”

  1. Friedel

    Great article, Tom. We often feel torn about technology. On the one hand, we love the connections we make with people around the globe. On the other hand, the weight, the cost and the way you can all too easily miss the beauty around you, because you’re staring at Twitter, tells us to keep technology to a minimum. I don’t think we’ll ever want to update daily while on a trip. We’d miss too many of the experiences we hold on to afterwards.

    Reply
    • Tom

      Thanks for commenting – I’m with you on that. I think it would take talent indeed to convey a journey through 160-character snippets. Maybe it’s even approching impossible.

      On my last trip I was alone, and the rest days combined with the act of processing my thoughts into a full article were highly therapeutic, enabling me (and I think the readers) to make sense of what had happened. I once met a veteran cycle traveller who said that stopping to ‘download’, as she put it, is critical for making sense of the intensity of life on the road – I think she was spot on.

      Reply
  2. Sebastian Wevers

    As with many words that are supposedly simple and straightforward I check the dictionary. Also in my own language I do this. Now I travel with a gadget called a Macbook and the dictionary in it tells me that travel is: make a journey, typically of some length or abroad. So length and distance are important to make it travel. Why? Because being away from your own traditions, habits and language makes a journey a whole new experience.

    But with modern technology this can completely disappear. We are always a flight away from home and a call away from soothing voices. These are great achievements but ask for conscious choices. I learned a lot from travelling because I could not go home (money) or call a friend or family member.

    Just last week I was reminiscing a long journey with a (now ex) girl friend. She remembered that in our 2,5 year Holland-Australie tour (1996-1998) the longest that our families had to do without any news from us was two months. I cannot imagine that now but I am so happy I have been so far away on my travels.

    Reply
  3. LizA

    Modern technology – bah humbug!
    I fully appreciate your thoughts. However, possibly from a selfish point of view, I think one also has a responsibility to consider the emotional needs of those loved ones left behind. Fortunately, or unfortunately, gone are the days of ‘no news is good news’ Moden technology used in moderation is O.K?
    Love Mum x
    P.S. What sort of mother brought you up to have only one pair of pants!!!!!!?

    Reply
  4. All wired up for cycle touring

    […] with all this nonsense, and I'm saying this as someone who follows a few online. I agree with Tom from a small village in England who says this kind of stuff gnaws at his sensibilities. In the end it must surely also gnaw at the […]

    Reply
  5. Will Hawkins

    Tom, good point. My Dad nearly went berserk with worry when my brother and I were cycling across the Sahara in Algeria in 1991(and we shoved our bikes on the back of a pick up for the really sandy bit) from Tamanrasset into Niger and he did not hear from us for two months. He was phoning my future father-in-law (who worked in Botswana at the time with the Foreign office) asking him and the High Commissioner to send search parties for us. That went down like a lead balloon.

    We popped up in Ouagadougou on the phone saying we were fine, apart from having ‘the shits’ and the lack of comms was down to the lack of anything where we had just been through. “Hey! We’re in our early twenties and we are invincible!”

    Technology is great as long as it works. But, it’s better for the soul when you rely on as little as possible to make your journey because it shows you that a simpler life with less ‘clutter’ is possible and very enjoyable. You don’t need much ‘stuff’ to have a wonderful time and unless you are very good at expressing yourself about your travels with instant updates using your tech stuff to your gazillions of followers, then save your money, don’t buy all the gear and use what you save to travel a little further and a little longer.

    Reply
    • Tom

      Your trip sounds fascinating and I’ve got my eye on your diary write-ups – looking forward to reading about your Sahara crossing… I wonder if that route’s still possible?

      Will’s site is twoforafrica.co.uk for anyone else interested!

      Reply
      • Will Hawkins

        Hi Tom,

        I’m not sure if it is still possible because of the political situation. The Algerian borders shut down a couple of months after we left the country and I am not sure if they have opened them on that route since then.

        Glad you are getting a chance to look at my updates!

        Thanks

        Will

        Reply
  6. Nigel Francis

    Thought this to be a good place to ask…’dynamics of blogging while on the road’?

    My trips have been small distances compared to yours, and I have always complied a blog afterwards. Now I will later in the year be doing far larger trips and would wish to blog on route. I am presently using a WordPress.com. I have tried WordPress.org but gave up the ghost and have gone back to the setup of WordPress.com, easier and fewer hassles! I have been experimenting with Windows Live Writer (I use a netbook) but find once I put photos on it, it does become a bit slow, at times crashing.

    So how do you compile your blogs while on the road? What are the physics?

    I see Friedel has also commented here, so input from two experienced bike cyclists may point me in the right direction.

    Reply
  7. Henrique

    Hello,
    Modern tecnology, like GPS it´s a fantastic tool. It can be the difference betwin traveling or not. If you just have a two weeks vacation and have to plan an intire trip, you have to be sure that you journey will be what you espect to be. I´m also a bycicle traveller but I hate cycling on asfalt, so fist of all I select GPS tracks of the journey (off road) than schedulle the stages I want to do always lefting one or two days for some inconvinient thing, and every thing works well. last year me and my son did 850 kms in Slovenia, 60% off road, 20% secundary roads and only the rest in main roads. we pass true places even Slovenian people doesn´t know, It can´t be possible without a GPS.
    Hey, but we whrote the intire journey in a papper log book old fashion way 😉
    regards
    Henrique

    Reply
  8. Ruth

    Hi Tom, really enjoyed and appreciated reading about your experiences, thanks for documenting as well as you do, pleasure to read. Just wondered what equipment you used for filming? Totally not technically minded, but interested in documenting my own experiences. Many thanks, Ruth

    Reply
  9. mark

    thinking of getting into touring … was wondering what the bike brand in the snow

    Reply
  10. spyros

    It’s hard to say no to technology: tablets and smartphones have become the drug of today and many people become addicted to all kinds of gadgets. I think that on long bike tours you have to let all your gadgets behind, the weight adds up pretty quickly and your bike gets very heavy. I would certainly take with me the following “gadgets” though:
    1. My smartphone, cable and charger.
    2. My camera with its charger. No cable, download the photos upon returning back home.
    3. A good extra small, extra light headlamp
    4. A multitool for the bike
    5. A multitool for general tasks

    I could add more but the weight increases and finally you end up carrying many “just in case” stuff that you never use.
    Thank you, keep writing useful articles.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      I’m right with you! I’d ditch the smartphone for my first big trip, though. Better to reconnect fully with the real world on that one.

      Funnily enough, even though it’s dogma to take one these days, I’ve never really got much mileage out of the Leatherman/Gerber style multitools. In all these years I’ve never had to use anything but the blade. Now I just take a bike-specific multitool and an Opinel pocket knife. I can borrow a pair of pliers if there’s a really pressing need.

      Reply
  11. Rob

    Hi Tom, i found your site yesterday so i am still working my way around but i have read loads of great info so far. Good to see i have been playing with all the normal human obstacles in setting off, it will not be long for sure before i hit the road, no goal or destination other than to leave it all behind, i nearly spat my tea out reading somewhere “Strapping a big middle finger to the back of the bike” but i am sure once i start learning to be a real person again instead of an employee or a dole dweller scrounger (media stigma) i will reconnect with my fellow humans in the right way. My bargain tent and trailer for the bike are in the post as i type, thanks for sharing i am still exploring

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Good to hear you’re getting closer to the off. Best of luck!

      Reply
      • Rob

        I had originally procrastinated about waiting until spring for nicer weather and then the penny dropped that a British winter will be some of the milder climates i enjoy so I might as well get going and toughen up a bit quickly

        Reply
  12. ferruccio

    I have just come back from a 2000 km tour around Central Europe, no camera, no gps. I was forced by my wife and kids to send one message a day telling them where I was, no more than 10 words. I find going low tech liberating.

    Reply
  13. Marty

    I got myself a smartphone as I thought the google maps GPS feature would be great for upcoming cycle trips seeing that I am so often getting lost on those poorly mapped country lanes , now I’ve realised that stopping and asking for directions is a great way of getting chatting to locals and finding out a more scenic route , a nice place to camp etc , phone could be staying at home .

    Reply

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