Friday, July 7, 2017

Leadership Lessons: Electronics in Outdoor Ministry

There are increasingly more electronics for the outdoors coming to market. Are they necessary? This article will explore some of the common back-country electronics and their pros and cons. I believe some electronics in the great outdoors are useful, but you ultimately have to decide for yourself. So let's look at some of the details.

There are many types of electronic gadgets for outdoor exploration out there. Traditional back-country wisdom says that when you go into the great outdoors, you leave all electronics behind. Many outdoor ministry leaders probably grew up with this philosophy. I did. But it pays to reassess tradition from time to time so we don’t become pharisaical about it.

Outdoor gadgets range from sophisticated watches to phones, navigation aids, optics, cameras and beyond. Some are sport specific such as avalanche beacons. We previously published an article about electronic back-country navigation tools and rescue beacons (see here). So in this article I would like to primarily focus on electronics for other purposes.

Let’s, begin with the big one, phones. Phones are by far the most common outdoor electronic gadget. Even if you know you will have no service they can do a lot, especially smartphones. Whether you take one depends on what you are doing. So, I will list some pros and cons for you to decide for yourself. Personally, I always take one when I am leading a trip for ministry purposes. When on my own or with a group of friends I am less likely to take one.


Communication when in service (useful for communication with main office, other vehicle drivers or staff, and emergency personnel).

Quality camera

Free to cheap GPS apps and other navigation aids

Carries multiple ebooks, notes, bible translations, guidebooks, music

Alarm clock


Communication when in service (emails, and work or personal calls can be a distraction)

Short battery life


Heavy (but not too bad)

Cause feelings of stress

Next, I would like to discuss e-readers/tablets. These can have many of the functions of a smartphone. Some even can be connected to data over cell towers. To me tablets don’t make much sense in the back-country due to their bulk and limited battery life. However, they may be beneficial for international trips. E-readers have some uses in the back-country especially for larger groups or long trips. They make the most sense for educational programs as they can contain a lot of information in a small package. They often have incredible battery life as well although it is limited. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) did a pilot test and found them to greatly reduce overall group gear weight due to the replacing of several physical books and field guides. So e-readers such as the waterproof and dustproof Kobo might be most useful for an outdoor education trip or college outdoor semester.

Watches are key in backcountry travel and outdoor ministry for time keeping. Beyond this function most other bells and whistles are unnecessary. Digital or analog is a matter of preference, although analog can may work better at extreme temperatures. The key here is to have a watch that is decent quality and truly waterproof. Any name brand (i.e. Casio, Timex, etc.) over $30 will preform well. Go much cheaper and you’re risking its failure on the trail. Some watches are GPS enabled. Their most useful feature is probably altitude readout. This can help during navigation if you are trying to save your handheld GPS battery. Most smart watches have too poor a battery life to last long enough for outdoor trips. So leave them at home. Another note, my friend cracked his Apple Watch screen and then found out it cannot be replaced, you have to buy a whole new watch!

Electronic navigation (nav.) aids are pretty affordable these days. Many have multiple functions. Most of these dedicated GPS units are built ruggedly. These are discussed in detail in the previously mentioned article. So I will be brief here. I personally prefer a GPS app on my phone as it is one less thing to carry and much more cost effective. But if an organization or club is looking for an option than a dedicated GPS would be preferable so the nav. aid is not on one person’s phone who may or may not go on every trip. I prefer the Garmin InReach as it doubles as an emergency beacon. Any name brand handheld GPS will be good. Just remember this does not replace map and compass skills!

Lastly, optics and cameras come in many electronic options. These are only useful if you have the money and the desire to use them. Some digital binoculars on the market can take pictures. Unless you’re hunting or bird-watching these seem unnecessary. Digital cameras on the other hand do have a lot of positive aspects. They might be worth it if you don’t take your smartphone or your organization or club has a dedicated photographer. Its also important to consider if your willing to allow staff to take picture on their phones or not. Many summer camps do not allow this to avoid inappropriate photos in cyberspace. This is a real concern especially for organizations working with minors. One lawsuit would be enough to kill most outdoor ministries. There are tough digital camera options out there worth considering as well as ones that take higher quality images than any smartphone. Assess your needs before spending a lot of money!

Aside from utilitarian purposes I am all for leaving electronics and even books at home or in your backpack, except for the Bible. When in nature, seek to enjoy it and learn from it as God intended. Wadsworth says it best:

The Tables Turned


Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;

Or surely you'll grow double:

Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;

Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain's head,

A freshening lustre mellow

Through all the long green fields has spread,

His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:

Come, hear the woodland linnet,

How sweet his music! on my life,

There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!

He, too, is no mean preacher:

Come forth into the light of things,

Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,

Our minds and hearts to bless—

Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,

Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—

We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;

Close up those barren leaves;

Come forth, and bring with you a heart

That watches and receives.