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Modern Technology and Courage in the Wilderness

Kayaker looking into a sea cave on Lake Superior.

The last time I dipped into a modern technology in the wilderness discussion, I inspired an almost book-length response — both public and private — from one blogger, so I’ve stayed out of the issue since. Lately, cabin fever has moved me into a more philosophical mood, so I’ve decided to stray once again into a subject that causes tempers to flare. This time, I’m thinking about modern technology and how it affects our view of courage.

Technology in Wilderness

I place technology in a wilderness context into five categories:

  1. Technology that compliments skills.
  2. Technology that replaces skills.
  3. Technology that provides entertainment.
  4. Technology that connects to someone beyond the wilderness.
  5. Technology that supports other technology.

Here are a few examples to clarify my categories. In the first and second category, consider navigation. For millenniums humans used natural and now nearly forgotten skills to find their way across the globe. In recent times, compasses evolved from magnetic needles that floated in a bowl of water and dry compasses to enclosed liquid compasses now used for navigation. In contemporary times, for some GPS units replace compasses and maps. A compass compliments the skills developed to navigate by indicating north which helps find the path forward. GPS units replace the skills by telling which way to go after entering a waypoint destination. An Apple iPod and dice or a checkers board are forms of technology that provide entertainment. VHF radios, satellite phones and PLBs that connect to someone beyond the wilderness fit into category four. In the fifth category, I’d place items like solar panels and power generators. I’ll concede that there might be other categories of technology.



courage: mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty


When I think of courage in the wilderness, I think of the courage of the original American pioneers, the Norse explorers finding their way to North America, the Paleo-Indians crossing the Bering Strait, the Polynesian settlement of their islands and any similar movement of people into the complete unknown. On a more individual level, a journey like Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s quest for the northwest passage exemplifies courage. I imagine it as something such as Thomas Wolfe wrote in Old Catawba, “and hardship, through solitude and loneliness and death and unspeakable courage, into the wilderness.”

On trips less ambitious than Mackenzie’s, something like I might take, I think of courage as attempting something that has a big possibility of failure, has risks that I must manage or overcome and fears I must control to succeed. Adventurers more courageous than I might attempt something like K2, on which for every four people who summit one dies, and on which rescue is nearly impossible. I might not accept a risk like that, because I don’t like the odds, but that’s part of having courage — accepting bad odds and extreme difficulty.

If some travelers are more courageous than others, I can accept that there are different levels of courage. I can image a courage scale with the more courageous side on the left-hand side and the less on the right-hand side.

Courage and Technology

The challenge for me is trying to figure out how or if technology changes the amount of courage it takes to complete a trip, and if courage is even important for a trip. I want to know how technology moves the courage indicator on the imaginary courage scale.

When I examine the navigation example, using a compass and map depends on my map reading skills to travel. I need to have confidence in my personal skills. If I make a mistake, I might get lost. It takes mental strength to know that I can accomplish a task using my own skills. The compass and map help with those skills. Without the compass, the task becomes more difficult and relies more upon a skill set. With a GPS unit, as long as it doesn’t run out of batteries, as long as the satellites work and as long as it doesn’t break, I don’t need to worry about skills or lack of skills to navigate. I know that I can’t get lost. It seems to me that having no tools except for my skills falls on the left side of the scale and the GPS falls on the scale’s right side. And compass and maps somewhere left of center. But what happens when I refine my map and compass skills until they become routine? Then it no longer takes much courage for me to depend on them. Is that an illusion? I don’t know. Even so, I think I can comfortably place technology that replaces skills on the right side of the courage scale. The more important of a skill it replaces, the more courage it takes from the trip, and the more the trip’s courage measurement moves to the right.

Technology that provides entertainment is harder for me to classify. To me it makes the dull days easier to enjoy and persevere. I can think of several times when windbound that a good book or a song on my MP3 player made it easier to sit in the tent. I know someone who carried a dictionary to pass the time on an extended trip. It doesn’t seem to make a difference if the technology is advanced or not. It does the same thing; it keeps the mind occupied. Does it make a trip easier? Yep. Does it make a trip less courageous? I don’t know. Unless, you convince me otherwise, I’m placing it slightly right of center.

When I can connect to the outside world, I have a way to call for help if something goes wrong. I can easily place this type of technology on the right-hand side of the courage scale, because having communication to the outside world reduces risks, fear and danger significantly. If a trip involves less of those aspects, it takes less courage to pull it off.

The last category doesn’t seem to matter.

Does Courage Matter?

If you look at wilderness trips as a form of recreation, something like going to a movie, courage probably doesn’t matter. Because it’s recreation, the goal is fun and not anything else. If the trip takes some courage, that’s cool, but it isn’t necessary. But if wilderness trips are considered potentially transformative, then courage does matter. Being faced with unknown difficulties, dangers and fears has the potential to transform someone when they discover their own courage to push past. To figure out just how much you can handle under stressful situations can serve as a reality check and force you to discover what you’re made of. You might not like what you find. That takes courage. If something like that is the goal, then the less courage-sapping technology the better.

I’m reminded of an old motivational poster I used to keep on my wall. It pictured a climber’s cramponed foot kicking into a piece of vertical ice in the foreground. The motivational quote read, “Without risk, there is no reward.” It takes courage to tackle risk. and I want rewarding wilderness trips in my life. That’s why I examine how technology affects courage.

Note: Somehow, I think Simplicity in the Wilderness is related. You should probably read that post, too.

Modern Technology and Courage in the Wilderness

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  • >>To figure out just how much you can handle under stressful situations can serve as a reality check and force you to discover what you’re made of. You might not like what you find. That takes courage. If something like that is the goal, then the less courage-sapping technology the better.<<

    Very well written. If technology creates the security blanket then going without it will make a person more self reliant.

  • […] courage and how technology can change the amount of courage that a wilderness trip requires (see: Modern Technology and Courage in the Wilderness). I concluded that certain types of technology can reduce the risks of wilderness travel and reduce […]

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