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Outdoor Activities: Tech and Travel Trends


It seems that more of us are taking adventure trips—or, at least, incorporating some sort of outdoor activity or adventure into a vacation experience. It also seems that although many of us long to disconnect and simply enjoy nature, a lot of the newest technology actually enhances an outdoors experience. One example is Rand McNally’s Foris™ 850 GPS device, with maps, resources, and tools geared to hiking, biking, geocaching, and other outdoor activities.

We recently asked Chris Ashford—an adventurous spirit who’s also brand manager for Southern California Outdoor Adventures (SCOA), an outdoor activity club—for his takes on travel and other technology trends involving the great outdoors.

RAND MCNALLY (RM): What trends are you seeing in terms of outdoors/sports activities and travel?

CHRIS: The trends depend on available resources. Travelers who have more means are booking adventures to off-the-beaten-path destinations and maybe even staying with a family in a local village. The memories of being a fisherman, cattle herder, or a marine biologist for a week last a lifetime. Those less adventurous or with more modest resources opt for sea kayaking, mountain biking, and nature hikes. Regardless of resources, catching a fish or seeing a sea turtle face-to-face definitely provides a different experience from meeting Mickey or enjoying an infinity pool in a resort somewhere.

In the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of activity-based outfitters in Southern California. We receive requests from local concierges for hikes frequently but typically opt out of such requests over concern of individuals becoming lost on the trails. New technology is helping to address those concerns.

RM: Speaking of new technology, there’s a lot out there that—like Rand’s Foris™ 850 GPS—enhances an outdoor experience. What are some other technology trends you’re seeing?

CHRIS: Smartphones are the most ubiquitous outdoors gadget—not so much for the ability to make calls but to act as a camera, heart rate monitor, and note taker in one. Also, we see people turn off e-mail on their smartphones but keep their Facebook and Instagram accounts open. . . .

We’re also seeing the personal locator beacon grow in popularity. Being able to share your location 24/7 with a spouse or family member back home helps ease anxiety associated with outdoor travel. New models interface with cell phones and can send personalized messages. . . . Many families also enjoy the tracking feature, which provides real-time breadcrumbs online for the interested party to follow.

RM: In what other ways are advances in technology—or even science—enhancing outdoors experiences?

CHRIS: It took manufactures awhile to get it, but they all appear to be focused on making their products easier to use and more comfortable. Ski manufacturers—after decades of making long, stiff, clunky gear—are now making shorter, curvy skis. Mountain bike manufacturers used to believe that one style suited all. Now there are three different size wheels and frames specifically designed for the needs of women and children. . . .

The longer an adventurer can stay properly hydrated, the longer he or she can play, so, probably the product having the biggest impact to outdoor sports is the hydration pack/backpack. These flexible bladders are everywhere. Long gone are the days of steel canteens and iodine packs.

Some companies have incorporated body hugging designs that let you comfortably carry more water for greater distances. Other companies are making simpler, lighter bladders that casual walkers can use anywhere. Plus, specially designed filters and electronics allow the collection of water from previously non-potable sources. This makes all-day adventures much easier, as you no longer need to haul around a gallon of water (8 pounds).

RM: When and why does it make sense to stick with more traditional/low-tech items?

CHRIS: Probably the most important low-tech item to have is a map. Along with a map, having the skill to read it properly is imperative. It’s scary the number of times, I have seen people with a working GPS or a map that are still lost in the middle of nowhere. Proper planning with a map and map reading skills are essential to a safe outdoors experience.

RM: Which high-tech or trendy items are currently on your wish list, and why?

CHRIS: Top of my list is a Spot Connect, which lets you compose short messages and send them to an SMS or e-mail address from anywhere there’s GPS coverage. As a newlywed, I understand the importance of communication. I’m frequently out of cell phone range and late getting home. Being able to send a quick message to my sweetheart will go a long way toward improving communication.

My two most favorite activities on the earth are mountain biking and scuba diving. I promised myself I’d spend more time on the bike this year. The technology they put into downhill mountain bikes is amazing. How is it that a 205-pound bag of skin, flesh, and muscle can roll over rocks and trees for miles with the bike begging for more? I hope to upgrade my downhill bike to a GT Fury.

During my stint in the U.S. Navy, I spent some time close to the coast with access to amazing scuba diving, and today I get to the coast to dive as often as possible. For years, I’ve been eyeing re-breather systems—devices that scrub your oxygen during your dive. In some cases, you can stay submerged longer. Additionally, you don’t release any bubbles, so you reduce your impact on fish and other marine creatures, which tend to hide as soon as they hear the loud bubbles of an approaching diver. There are many re-breather models to choose from, but I like the Poseidon to start with. Wish me luck!

Chris Ashford cut his teeth in adventure sports on a big wheel back in the day. The youngest kid on the block, he learned not to brake when racing downhill in order to keep up. Before long, he was racing and winning. Big wheels turned into BMX and road bikes, which turned into airplanes and a career as a naval aviator. After the military he traded his flight suit for a project manager suit in the high-tech industry. He still yearned for adventures but didn’t have the time to plan or organize them—and he knew that there were others in the same boat. SCOA was born as a jumping off place for adventure and outdoor activities for people living in Southern California. It currently has about 6,000 members who participate in activities from mountain biking to scuba diving to mountaineering.