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Hiking in Britain

Dream Hiking Equipment

Note this was originally written in 1999, and updated in 2003. Much of the functionality I document of on this page is now aavailable on smartphones. I have kept it here for historical reasons, and to highlight the speedy march of technolgy over the desolate plains of dreams.


Background

I have a (sometimes expensive) habit of collecting little pieces of electronic gadgetry. What I would love to do is to connect all the walking related gadgets together to perform data and route logging, suitable for long trips. Now I realise that this is not to everyone's taste, that most people go to the hills to get away from everything, but I also happen to be an info-junkie as well as a gadget-freak, and therefore cannot get enough info about my walks.

In this dream scenario, as I walked I would be getting continual data logging into a handheld computer. This data logging would be coming from my GPS, from an alitimeter and an electronic pedometer. When I was set up in camp for the night, I could edit web pages about that day's walk using the data and publish it on the WWW using a mobile phone.

This is all, at the moment, a dream. There are many factors working against all this; expense, lack of suitable equipment on the market; the slow speed of mobile modems; lack of quality of digital cameras etcetera. However, all these problems are slowly being overcome (although IMHO 3G services are not currently good or widespread anough) and over time the situation will improve.

Batteries for all this equipment will also be a problem, especially on multi-day hikes. ATM, my GPS, handheld computer and walkman both use the same sort of batteries (AA's), so I just carry a fair few spare sets of these with me. However, the mobile is another matter. Perhaps a portable solar panel mounted on the top of my rucksack would be an idea ;-)

Every night a spend an hour or two typing up notes and directions on my Psion 5. This is reasonable (although hard on my fingers) when I have nothing else to do, but when I am busy it is a pain in the backside. On the Coastwalk I initally tried dictating the notes and getting Sam to transcribe them, but that system did not work at all well. For this reason it would be really nice to able to dictate the notes and use software such as Dragon voice recognition software to transcribe them.


The process

Ideally every couple days I could download the photos off the camera, add captions to them, download each days notes off my Psion and update the website automatically. This would be an ideal, but will not be achievable for some time. For this reason I need to think of a system that will allow me to do as much as possible of this as possible.

So how would all this equipment work? On my walk around the coastline of Britain I took about fifty phots a day, or about sixty megabytes of data. Multiply this over a three-week walk, and in data terms alone you end up with 1,260MB of data. Naturally, if it was another year-long walk then it will be about 21,900MB (or just under 22GB). For this reason I need a way of storing these photos during the walk.

On the Coastwalk I used a PC that was housed in Mervan, and downloaded the photos from the Smartmedia cards every four or five days. Obviously carring a desktop PC and monitor about is not an option, and so I am considering a ruggedised portable. This will allow me to do everything I need, but comes at a price - battery life is very short (only a few portables allow over three hours usage). The biggest price, however, is weight - a ruggedised laptop comes in at nearly four kilograms, not including charger. Such weight and the fact that it is a fragile object probably means that carrying even a subnotebook PC is impossible.


The Equipment

Listed below is all the equipment that I would love to have interoperating in this equipment-fest:

  • GPS.
  • Handheld computer.
  • Mobile Phone.
  • Digital altimeter.
  • Digital pedometer.
  • Digital Camera.
  • Walkman. (Just so I can listen to weather forecasts when I'm in my tent.)
  • Electronic maps


Current availability

At the current time (02/11/2003) the current situation with regard to the technical feasability of such a system is as follows:

Handheld computer

A typical handheld computer (for instance a Psion 5) will have no problem connecting with most of the peripherals that I require. Unfortunately they do not have enough storage for photos; for this I need a device with a 20+GigaByte hard drive in it.

Electronic mapping

I have paper maps covering almost the entire country, but scanning these into a computer in order to do route planning is a bit of a nightmare. Recently I bought the Anquet mapping software, which givews 1:50,000 map coverage for the entire country south of the Humber. The MultiMap version of this software allows the maps oto be displayed on a PcoketPC device, but the Anquet software does not allow this currently.

GPS.

There are many different brands and types of GPS recievers out available, and there is no problem connecting mid-and high- range recievers to handheld computers or PC's. Currently I use my Psion 5 and a package called GARoute to downlaod tracklogs from my GPS every day, which I can then put into the Anquet mapping system.

Mobile Phone.

Using a mobile phone in such a setup has a couple of problems:

  • The first problem is battery life on multi-day hikes. However since the phone is only envisaged to be used at night to upload website data, this might not be such a problem as it could be switched off for the rest of the time. This not such a mjor problem, however, as I have a very lightweight battery charger for my current Nokia 5100 phone.
  • The second problem is more thorny - the GSM network can only have data sent across it at around 9,600 bps. This may be okay for text-only webpages, but for digital camera pictures (which can easilly be over 1MB in size at high resolution on modern cameras) it would be *far* too slow. This is a fundamental of the GSM network as it currently stands, and is not something that I can alter. Hence transmission of pictures from the mobile is currently unrealistic. There are currently plans to improve the 9,600 bps limit fourfold using GPRS, but this would still be too slow. There are also other plans (3G) to improve this to over 100,000 bps (a speed which would be acceptable), but currently the coverage of this technology is exceedingly patchy.

Digital altimeter.

This device would send the current altitude at a set interval (say every five minutes) to the handheld computer for logging, allowing a graph of alitude deltas to be produced, along with total height climbed and descended during the day. The ideal electronic altimeter would also take temperature into account (as the temperature changes from a set basepoint the accuracy of the altitude reading changes due to pressure differences), hence giving a more accurate reading. Thus a thermometer measuring current tempature would be needed as a part of this component. Although there are digital altimeters on the market, I have yet to find a portable, lighteight one which would have the capability to be connected to a handheld computer. Fortunately Garmin have released the ETrex Summit GPS reciever, which has a barometer built in. Unfortunately I shall have to wait for my current GPS to go belly up before I buy a new unit.

Digital pedometer.

Just for fun I would like a pedometer which would measure the number of steps taken and also send this data every few minutes to the computer. Pedometer data is made largely redundant by the GPS (which can also measure distance travelled more accurately), but I'd have this just for completeness and redundancy. Ideally the altimeter would be combined with the altimeter into one unit.

Digital camera.

This would be used to obtain pictures which oculd be publised on the WWW. The only problems with digital cameras at the current time is the size of the images and the fact that they consume many batteries. Again, the digital camera would have to be able to be connected to a handheld or laptop computer, via USB or firewire.

Walkman.

This will *not* be connected to the handheld. I suppose I could get a portable MP3 player and connect that to the handheld, but that would just be silly ;-)

Speech recognition

Every night a spend an hour or two typing up notes and directions on my Psion 5. This is reasonable (although hard on my fingers) when I have nothing else to do, but when I am busy it is a pain in the backside. Speech recognition software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking weould be an ideal solution, but such software needs at least a laptop PC to perform the transcription, and that is not practical for the reasons described above. Ideally I would like such capability in a handheld dication machine, but as DNS needs at least a 2GHz processor, then this is not going to be achievable for some time.


Software

There will be a need for controlling software to be written to control the logging of the data from all the components. Ideally, this data would then be able to be automatically used to generate WWW pages of the day's data using a template HTML page.

The software side of such a system will probably be far easier to sort out than the existing hardware problems, especially if the software is allowed to be non-consumer and therefore more klugey and less optimal.


Feasablity

Is such a system feasable? Certainly, there are several components that I have not found suitable sources for several of the components (in particular pedometers capable of being connected to computers). Even if they do exist the price is likely to be very high.

There is the possibility of using a device sych as the new Garmin ETrex Summit, which has logging data and barometer capabilities, and it should be feasible to connect an electronic pedometer (which are very simple devices) to a Psion.

There are also the problems of keeping all the equipment dry and clean. When you are up to your chest in the River Etive it is hard to keep all you equipment dry. Also, it will have to be fairly robust due to the very nature of hiking, and the connections between the devices would have to be robust. Either cables or IR beams could be used, and both would have various advantages and disadvantages.

Okay, so such a system is not feasable at the current time without a great deal of money being spent. However, the situation is improving over time, and besides, if we didn't have dreams nothing would ever get done ;-)


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