Cell Phones at Camp: Not Very One-Sided Anymore

If you’ve been involved with any organization that takes frequent camping trips – whether it be the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or even an after school program – you’ve probably heard some rendition of this from the group leader:

Cell phones and other electronics are not to be brought to camp, as they distract us from the outdoor experience.  Please leave them at home.

At first glance, we can’t help but think, “Well duh!”  Especially with the younger generation, cell phones have become a part of the human body; it’s always on their person.  Text messaging, checking Facebook, tweeting, and watching the latest viral YouTube clip… and this is just the beginning of the cell phone “addiction.”  What’s more, the mere presence of a cell phone on a campout can pose a recipe for disaster… homesickness, that is.

Is leaving your beloved electronic device at home really the solution?  Perhaps we can channel that energy toward something constructive – something that can further the mission of the organization.  What if there were a way to accentuate the benefits of electronic devices, while moderating their use during the trip in order to keep reality in check?  Are you with me yet?

To be honest, I once was a the die-hard skeptic when it came to electronic use at camp.  I believed in the common saying, “You don’t need your cell phone at camp!  People in the ‘old days’ didn’t need cell phones to survive!”  Even today, I try to limit my attention to my phone while at camp, partly because there’s just so much more to devote my attention to when I’m in the great outdoors.

But considering today’s mass proliferation of cell phone technology, coupled with the rapid expansion of the gadget-using population, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate our stance against technology at camp.  After all, cell phones don’t merely place and receive calls anymore; they are our mobile office, entertainment hub, digital camera, social media publisher, and web browser – among other things.

Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely a point when people cross the line and abuse their gadgets.  In fact, I’ve seen many adults who seem to pull-out their phones much more than their own child would on a given campout… especially to check the score of the “big game.”  Come on, guys!  Wait 24 hours and check the score when you get home.  Using your device productively is the key here.

So back on track, let’s get to the good stuff: How, and when, can we effectively embrace technology at camp, while maintaining the away-from-home atmosphere?  And perhaps more importantly, how can group leaders allow their youth members to use technology while keeping the “bigger picture” in check?  Here are my ideas:

  • Airplane Mode It.  Most modern cell phones have a feature known as “Airplane Mode” which turns-off the wireless features of the device.  Originally intended for travelers to safely use their devices while on an airplane, this feature effectively reduces the amount of distraction due to incoming calls, text messages, and mobile web features.  What’s left, you may ask?  Perhaps a cool application that works as a compass, the camera to snap a picture of the snake you find along the trail, or perhaps a bit of music to quietly listen to on a hike or while laying in your hammock.  The other benefit of Airplane Mode is extended battery life, which is great for longer camping trips.
  • Use It, Don’t Abuse It.  Let’s say your Scout troop is taking a longer hike.  Yes, many hikers enjoy the opportunity to take-in the local scenery and listen to the sounds of nature, sans electronics.  But what’s the harm in allowing a Scout to listen to his iPod for 15 minutes while hiking the trail?  Quite possibly, this could be a simple means of allowing the Scout to unwind from his busy school week he had, and clear his mind for the rest of the camping trip.  Moderation is key here; try it!
  • Capture the Campout, High-Tech Style.  Digital handheld cameras are quickly being pushed aside, in favor of high-resolution cameras built into today’s cell phones.  Why not encourage your Scouts to snap a few pictures over the weekend, then collectively create a slideshow of the best shots when you return home?  Not only will the Scouts think that you’re “cool” for letting them use their cell phone cameras, but you’re also documenting the priceless experiences of camping.  For Boy Scout troops out there, perhaps cameras could be used in a scavenger hunt, either for fun or to accomplish a plant/animal identification requirement for a rank or merit badge.  Pretty neat, huh?
  • Pack Smart, Pack Light.  Unless you’ve got a really old cell phone (I can remember my parents’ old “bag phone” we had in our family car), your phone weighs far less than a book would – not to mention the space savings in your pack.  What better way to encourage youth to read than to encourage them to use their phone/tablet as an e-reader?  There’s even a cool Boy Scout Handbook app that is a digital version of the paper book.  This is just one example.  Other cool (and many times, free!) apps include those that teach you how to tie knots step-by-step.  Resources like this will help you pack light while your Scouts use their devices for “productive” uses.
  • Geocaching.  Looking to add a modern thrill on your next campout?  Why not try geocaching?  Using a GPS receiver or a GPS-enabled phone, a user can hunt for hidden “cashes” across the nation.  In support of this ever-growing sport, the Boy Scouts of America recently released a Geocaching Merit Badge for Scouts to earn.  How’s that for an endorsement of technology!  As another example of a high-tech scavenger hunt in Scouting, the 2012 National Order of the Arrow Conference (NOAC) included a “Munzee” game in which participants searched for and scanned special QR codes with their mobile phones.  Not only were Scouts interacting with technology, but as a side-effect they were encouraged to participate more fully in the conference and meet new people.
  • Survival Mode.  Another neat feature of devices with built-in gyroscopes, accelerometers, and GPS navigation is their applicability to your next camping trip.  I’ve seen some really stellar apps that allow the user to keep a log of where they’ve been, the distance they’ve traveled, and a compass to point them in the right direction.  These features – and many more – can be extremely invaluable on your next trip, not to mention potentially lifesaving if you happen to “accidentally” wonder-off the trail.  Hey, it happens to the best of us.  Disclaimer: battery-powered devices have obvious limitations that a map and compass do not.  Use cell phones as a supplement to your knowledge and instruction of navigation, never as a replacement.  A compass requires no batteries, won’t fail if exposed to water, and won’t “crash” on you!
  • Weather or Not, Here I Come.  A good habit to get into before leading a group into the wilderness is to check the weather forecast before you leave.  Before the proliferation of mobile web technology, that’s all you had to go on.  Keeping a web-enabled phone on hand could be useful to alert you of an approaching dangerous storm.  Weather apps and services can even send you a text message or alert when your location is subject to a storm warning or watch.  These alerts can ensure the safety of your group at camp, ’nuff said.
  • Safety First.  Perhaps one of the most beneficial features of having a cell phone with mobile web capabilities is its use in potentially life-threatening situations.  Especially as E-911 services are continually expanding, a call to a 911 dispatch could save your life, or the life of another.  There’s even a First Aid app, created by the American Red Cross, that provides step-by-step instructions to care for a variety of medical situations.


Intrigued?  Here’s another fantastic article, published by Scouting Magazine, that evaluates the pros and cons of cell phone use at camp.  The story does a terrific job of presenting both sides of the argument, and cell phones’ effectiveness in Scout troops.  Looking for the best Scout-friendly mobile apps?  Here’s a list of them!

I’m also interested to hear your thoughts on this topic!  I understand that this subject is somewhat controversial.  Regardless of whether you support or oppose technology use at camp, I encourage you to research the topic further, and become informed about today’s technology.  Many people are quick to take a stance against technology (as I once did), while ignoring its ever-growing relevance to out-of-doors camping.  I’ve seen many who fear to try something “outside the box,” and others who strongly believe in keeping traditions alive.  To those skeptics, I encourage you to try it – you just may be surprised.

What you you think?  Please leave your comments below!  Happy trails.  -BL

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