Your mileage may vary

August 6, 2008

Apparently it was released a week or two ago, but I just came across a new Google Maps feature: walking directions.

It works like Google’s driving directions, except it maps out a more direct route using as many two-lane roads as possible.

Walking on roads isn’t my idea of a good hike, but the mapping feature is an interesting idea. It might have some good cycling applications, too, though I think is better suited for that kind of mapping.

Interestingly, as I investigated more about this feature I came across an article at, which said some people are expressing privacy concerns about it. But reading on, I discovered the writer is somehow mixing the StreetView feature with the walking directions feature.

It seems any new Google Maps add-on causes a slight stir with Internet users who are concerned about privacy. The Street View feature, which lets you see a 360-degree photo of the location you intend to visit and then view a succession of images as you travel the virtual route online, is well within legal limits, says privacy expert Mike Spinney from the Ponemon Institute, a think tank that studies privacy issues.

That confusion aside, I doubt there’s any legal grounds for this. I’m by no means a lawyer, but I know you can’t have the same assumption of privacy on your street curb that you have in your home.

A bigger concern should be a concern for Google’s lack of reasonable expectations for walkers and hikers.

I mapped a walking trip from my hometown to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my younger son will start college in a couple weeks.

Walking directions to Ann Arbor, MI
543 mi – about 7 days 11 hours

Sure, that comes with a disclaimer.

Walking directions are in beta.
Use caution when walking in unfamiliar areas.

That doesn’t come close to warning you that hiking at this pace will kill you! Do the math. To walk 543 miles in 7 1/2 days you’d average just over 3 miles an hour — without stopping to rest, sleep, or eat.

I guess that qualifies for “unfamiliar areas.”


Is there something I’m missing here?

January 31, 2008

Trackstick III don’t get this product.

The Trackstick II is the perfect fit for personal GPS tracking. Bring it on vacation to keep a satellite scrapbook of all your travels and record your explorations. You can carry it along on all your regular outings from home to get a better sense of your daily surroundings through Google™ Earth’s cohesive 3D maps of your community.

To be sure, it would take more than three of these to weigh what my Garmin GPSMap 60C weighs.

But it won’t be much good if you get lost.

Oh, wait a minute. Aren’t I always complaining about people relying too much on technology to keep them safe?


UPDATE: I received a spam email today (3/19/08) announcing: “Super Trackstick GPS is now available!” The announcement reminds: “The Super Trackstick is a great stocking stuffer for the GPS enthusiast in your family.”

Um, okay. Would that be an Easter stocking?

Power to the people

January 18, 2008

Bear Electric Fence SystemI’m no Luddite, but sometimes I rail against over-reliance on technology in the wilderness.

In fact, I’m just as tech-obsessed as the next geek. It’s just that I’d rather not trust my life to a set of AA batteries and a few microchips.

So when I saw this product, I was, well, shocked.

Bear Shock is the first ultra lightweight battery-powered, electric fence system and is designed to provide safety and sound sleep while in bear country and to help protect you and your equipment from curious bears by providing a surprising electrical shock if touched. Bear Shock uses three sets of poly-wire with two hot and one ground. When the energizer is turned on, Bear Shock will distribute an electric charge of about 6,000 volts if touched.

Okay, let’s think about this, folks. You’re going to carry a 3.7 lbs. (with batteries) device so you can forgo the need to properly store food and follow other safety precautions in the wilderness.

And if that does make sense, did anyone think of what’s likely to happen when you get up in the middle of the night to pee?

Tip: The Goat

Distress and stress are not the same thing

January 17, 2008

SARSAT satelliteThe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) put out a press release to brag that 353 people were rescued in 2007 with the aid of personal locator beacons.

Of the 353 rescues for 2007, 235 people were saved at sea, 30 were rescued from downed aircraft, and 88 were saved with help from their PLBs — the highest total since PLBs became operational nationwide in 2003. The total rescues in 2007 mark an increase from 272 the previous year.

Personal locator beacons have become cheaper and more commonly used by civilians, so it’s not surprising that the number of rescues has increased.

I’m all for safety, and I know that if my life was in peril while in the wilderness, I’d be grateful for a rescue, but I wonder about the effects this technology will have on rescue agencies and volunteer organizations.

One of the rescue “highlights” cited by NOAA is the aid given to a 71-year-old hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail, who was too exhausted to continue his hike.

Admittedly, I don’t know many details of this rescue, so perhaps this was a legitimate, life-threatening situation. But I know there are thousands of cases every year in which hikers get caught ill-prepared for conditions and unaware of the risks.

PLBs may soon do what cellphones and GPS units now do for some people in the wilderness, provide them a false sense of security.

PLB manufacturers include warnings like this:

This Personal Locator Beacon should only be used in situations of grave and imminent danger, and only as a last resort when all means of self-rescue have been exhausted.

But some people seem think their means of self-rescue has been exhausted because they forgot a flashlight or a raincoat.

It was bound to happen sooner or later

May 29, 2007

backpackingvideosYouTube was started in early 2005. Time magazine, in usual slow-to-catch-up fashion, hailed it in 2006 as “Invention of the Year.”

Today in 2007, video is ubiquitous on the Web. So you knew eventually someone would put together a site of backpacking videos.

It turns out that someone is Jason Klass.

Check it out:

Nice site, Jason, but no RSS feed? That’s so 2004.

UPDATE:  As Jason notes in the comments, he’s added an RSS feed to the Latest Videos page. Subscribe!

No excuse for geting lost

April 5, 2007

My Google MapsTwo years ago, Google changed the way we looked at maps with the launch of Google Maps.

Soon after we began to see map mashups spring up, combining the map with all kinds of information. I’ve written about a few I thought would be interesting to hikers and backpackers.

Until recently, creating a mashup required a little technical knowledge. Not a lot, because even I have created them, but it took enough that few people added them to blogs or used them to track their whereabouts. Even with the use of a blog plug-in like Cyberhobo’s WordPress Geo Mashup, they required more technical skill than most people wanted to mess with.

The trend is now shifting. Now anyone can create a map and put it on their own site. What’s more, they can collaborate with them and share them.

The first map-sharing service I’m aware of is Platial. Last month opened up a Platial widget to its subscribers.

The latests of these is, well, Google Maps. A new tab has been added that says, “My Maps.” Here you can add your own markers, draw routes, lines and shapes, and share them with others. They’re easy to create.

Google hasn’t opened up the new feature as much as Platial. You can’t put your maps on other sites, like you can put YouTube video on another site, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that soon.

Dan Gilmor thinks this is a big step.

Mapping is about to go super-mainstream, and we are just at the edges of understanding how powerful it will be.

He’s right. Services like these help make maps an important means of content sharing and community building. And because outdoor activities rely on maps, I expect you’ll see them show up with greater frequency in blogs and community sites.

I smell a rat

March 16, 2007

Human Powered AdventureSocial networking and user-generated content are some of the hot buzzwords of the Internet these days. New sites pop up every day trying to duplicate the popularity of MySpace and Digg, the success stories of today’s Internet.

So it’s no wonder that consumer product companies want a piece of that action. The latest of these companies is Outdoor Research, which makes a variety of niche gear and apparel.

A couple months ago I wrote about OR’s Lab Rat program, an admirable Web effort to listen to customers. Too bad the same effort put in that site wasn’t put into the company’s new community Web site,

The intent of the new site is to let outdoor enthusiasts share in discussion forums, trip reports and gear reviews. But sadly, OR left out some key ingredients in a successful community-driven site, like allowing members to comment on posts and ways to express their identity.

In the publicity OR sent to Lab Rat members they said it is still in beta, so I guess I shouldn’t judge it too harshly. I’ve released sites in beta before and know that’s the time when you need to test them and collect feedback.

But phew, this one reeks.

The problem isn’t that it’s light on content, which it is, or that it has some navigation that doesn’t work right, which it does.

The site is dull and uninspiring. And that’s pretty much the opposite of what you want in a community site for outdoor enthusiasts. Dull and uninspiring tends to deflate the community and dampen the enthusiasm.

OR needs to set a trap for this rat and start over.