By Candice Gaukel Andrews
The use of cell and satellite phones in the outdoors can be frustrating: frustrating for you when they don't work and frustrating for the people around you when they do! It wasn't that long ago -- in 2009, in fact -- when I would have cringed if one of my fellow travelers had pulled out a phone during a nature trip.
But four years ago, most people didn't own smartphones, miniature computers that, incidentally, can also place and receive calls. A cell phone isn't just a phone anymore: your "smart" cell phone is a camera, video recorder, mini office and access to e-mail.
So now that more people are regularly using smartphones and are accustomed to everything that they can do, it's harder to leave them behind when embarking on a long trip. For those who like to travel light, taking your smartphone along means there's no need to lug a larger camera or laptop. What's more is that these small gadgets may not only be convenient cameras, plant and wildlife identifiers, and communication devices but lifesavers. Jason Stevenson, writing in Backpacker Magazine, says that even in a location where your phone has no service, attempting to dial 911 or leaving the phone turned on intermittently could transmit an electronic lifeline that lets rescuers know you're alive.
On the other hand, we're all familiar with the guy who uses his smartphone to conduct loud conversations with his business associates or friends while you're trying to enjoy the view or spot wildlife, or the annoying woman who is constantly looking down to text and missing what's standing right in front of her.
For most travel companies, it's still your call
Recently, I took a quick poll of the cell phone policies from Adventure Collection member companies. It seems that most still feel the decision of whether or not to bring a cell phone along on a trip is an individual choice.
David Tett of Bushtracks says that his company has no official policy on phone usage during its trips, but that's because one hasn't been needed -- yet.
"In operating safaris for more than 20 years," states David, "it has never been an issue. Most of our guests bring cell phones or a few might bring handheld satellite phones. People use them to stay in touch with friends and family or, on occasion, to conduct business transactions. When they do use their phones, we have found our travelers to be very considerate of others. They often make calls in their rooms; or if they are out on a group excursion, they do it away from other travelers during a break in the touring."
To date, Trey Byus, chief expedition officer of Lindblad Expeditions, has had similar experiences. Lindblad's travelers, he says, "are very conscientious and very engaged in their vacation, using phones privately and only when necessary, generally speaking. It's up to each traveler to determine how much or little they want or need to stay in contact. So long as they are not disruptive to other guests' experiences, I believe this is very much a personal matter, for each guest to decide on his or her own."
Still, there are some who see such devices as an intrusion on the nature experience. Steve Markle, director of sales and marketing at O.A.R.S., told me that "We treat the use of electronics on wilderness trips like smoking: if you must do it, please be mindful of the impact it may have on others, step away from the group, and be discrete. Ultimately, there are folks who are unwilling to separate from their smartphones and/or satellite phones, but in our literature -- as well as on the ground -- we try to discourage the use of electronics."
With the increasing ubiquitous use of cell and smartphones, however, a policy may soon need to be put in place. Maura Ginty, managing director of marketing for GeoEx, says that her company's policy is to ask guests not to use cell or satellite phones in a shared vehicle or in public areas at the safari lodges. But GeoEx does recommend travelers bring satellite phones if they must be in touch with home or work, although they are asked to use them in the privacy of their own rooms. "Much of the time, though," says Maura, "guests are relieved to unplug. I've had requests that we include digital bans in some of our marketing materials, as well as in our trip documents. Parents sometimes prefer that an outsider sets policy and not have a cell phone issue be a personal struggle of wills with their children. Our operators do see increasing requests for Wi-Fi availability. In my own experience, capturing a quick video or picture has helped me share some incredible moments with my family back home. On one trip, I was happy to unplug for the majority of the time but was thrilled to stay at a Victoria Falls hotel with Wi-Fi in order to Skype with my family on Thanksgiving Day -- and then head back to a digital-free safari for another week."
Missing the magic
Back in the 1990s, when my children were young, I took them on a trip to Disneyland in Florida. As we watched the nighttime Main Street Electrical Parade, I noticed a man videotaping the event, seeing the whole parade through the eyepiece of his camera. I remember thinking how much he had missed by not opening his eyes to what was happening all around him.
Steve Markle may have verbalized best what I was feeling way back then when he recently stated: "Our trips are really about taking a break from our hyperconnected lives and using wilderness to restore some balance. If you're glued to your phone to help manage a merger or acquisition while you're on vacation, you're missing the magic."
Do you think that nature-and-adventure travel companies should now have official cell phone policies in place? Have you ever had a bad -- or good -- experience with cell phone users on an adventure trip?
Safe and happy travels,
Photo Captions and Credits:
1. Do nature-and-adventure travel companies now need to have official cell and satellite phone policies? ©hadynyah
2. Engaging in your vacation -- rather than being glued to electronic devices -- can help restore balance to your life. ©James Kaiser
3. While staying at a Victoria Falls hotel, Maura Ginty of GeoEx was able to connect with her family via Skype on Thanksgiving Day -- and then head back into a weeklong, digital-free safari. ©Nicola Destefano