Expedition Tech: The Best Gadgets to Take With You into the Field
There is no denying that technology has had a dramatic impact on exploration in the 21st century. Modern day explorers now head out into the field armed with a slew of devices designed to keep them in contact with the outside world at all times. Thanks to these modern tools, posting regular dispatches from their expeditions has become common place, appeasing friend, family, fans, and sponsors alike. But what exactly is the best gear to carry on an expedition to a remote corner of the planet? Whether you’re heading to the Himalaya, the Arctic, or the ocean, these are the best devices for staying in contact with the outside world.
A laptop has become a crucial piece of technology for just about any explorer in the modern age. These lightweight, yet powerful, computers are perfect for maintaining communication through email, social media, and video chat. A laptop can also be used to take notes, write journal entries, and even record scientific data collected during the journey. These are versatile pieces of hardware that are practically indispensable on any expedition.
Recommendations: If weight is not a factor, the Toshiba Toughbook line of laptops still ranks amongst the best to carry into the field. With ruggedized cases, durable hard drives, and long-lasting batteries the Toughbooks are built to withstand the rigors that come along with an expedition to the remote corners of then planet. Their only drawback is that they are big and bulky, often tipping the scales at over 7 pounds (3.1 kg). That may be too much for a small team of explorers looking to travel light.
For those willing to sacrifice a measure of durability to save some weight, the Surface Pro 3 from Microsoft is a great alternative. This tablet/laptop hybrid is lightweight (1.76 pounds/.8 kg), powerful, and versatile. It offers all of the convenience of using a tablet, without any of the compromise that come along with those devices. For those looking to travel light, and yet still remain fully productive, it is the best option available at the moment.
There are times when even carrying a lightweight laptop still remains out of the question, which is why many explorers now take to the field with a tablet instead. As these devices have evolved over the past few years they have continued to gain in both power and flexibility. At this point, a good tablet is almost as capable as laptop, but it comes in a much smaller and slimmer package. Modern tablets allow explorers to send email and text messages, video chat with friends and family, and even take notes and journal entries. The lack of a physical keyboard can make them somewhat limited at times, but they fit the needs for many explorers nicely.
Recommendations: For a full-size tablet there is no question that the iPad Air 2 is the clear winner. It’s combination of size (just 6.1 mm thick) and weight (.96 pounds/435 grams), coupled with a blazingly fast processor, beautiful display, and an amazing number of custom apps, puts it head and shoulders above the competition. Just be sure to wrap it up in a protective case before heading out into the field. It may be a versatile device, but it is far from rugged.
Alternatively, in the small tablet space the new Dell Venue 8 7000 is a great choice as well. This slate runs the Android operating system, and tips the scales at just over .67 pounds (306 grams), making it incredibly light, yet still very powerful. For basic communications from the field, as well as note taking, reading books, watching videos, and posting to social media, it is a real winner.
Tablets and laptops aren’t the only gadgets that have gotten more powerful over the past few years. The advances that have been made in smartphone technology have been nothing short of remarkable. It has gotten to the point that these mobile devices have become the most versatile tool in the explorer’s arsenal, allowing them to not only take phone calls, but answer emails, interact with social media, and shoot photos and video too. Small, lightweight, and powerful, for some explorers a good smartphone may be the only piece of technology that they need to carry with them into the field.
Recommendations: While there are a number of mobile operating systems to choose from, there are only two that really matter—Android and iOS. For those who are ensconced in the Apple ecosystem the iPhone 6 and 6+ are easy recommendations. They are fast, powerful, have brilliant displays, and take amazing photos. The iPhone’s impressive app store is also a major plus, providing plenty of great software to extend the device’s functionality even further.
On the Android side of the equation there are far more options to choose from, but the quality of those devices can vary greatly. For a ruggedized phone built for the wild, take a look at the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active, which is dust-proof, water resistant, and made with the outdoor enthusiast in mind. For something a bit more elegant, the HTC One M8 will work nicely. It includes all of the features you’d expect from a premium smartphone, in a thin, light, and attractive package. Just be sure to add a protective case to protect it from the elements as well.
Satellite Data Communications
Tablets, smartphones, and laptops are powerful and productive devices of course, but without a data connection they lose much of their usefulness. That’s why most modern explorers also carry some kind of satellite communications system with them on their expeditions. These devices make it possible to stay in contact from remote places, allowing those other gadgets to make voice calls, send and receive emails, and share blog posts, photos, and other information. Data speeds via satellite remain slow when compared to broadband, but a new generation of satellites promises increased speeds and better reliability in the future.
Recommendations: There are a number of satellite data providers available to explorers, but not all are created equal. If you’re looking for the fastest connection possible it is tough to beat the Immarsat BGAN, a device that has proven itself reliable on expeditions to the Poles, the summit of Mt. Everest, and beyond. For something a bit smaller and more mobile, check out the Iridium Go, a product that creates a mobile hotspot that allows smartphones, tablets, and laptops to connect to a satellite network that covers the entire planet.
Satellite Voice Communications
Sometimes a data connection isn’t necessary for an explorer, although carrying a satellite phone on their adventures is still a good idea. A sat phone allows the user to make voice calls from just about anywhere on Earth, and is a good safety net in case an unforeseen emergency arises. Modern satellite phones are smaller and more reliable than ever, with faster start-up times, improved battery life and better call quality.
Recommendations: The Iridium Extreme is the perfect phone for making calls from remote locations, including both the North and South Pole, and the middle of the ocean. It is relatively compact, durable, and designed to survive bad weather and the occasional drop. Alternatively, the Thuraya SatSleeve can turn an iPhone (models 4, 5, and 6), as well as some Samsung phones, into devices capable of making satellite calls as well. This allows you to use your personal smartphone both at home, and while on an expedition. The case slides over the phone providing both increased battery life and a satellite connection. Coverage isn’t quite as impressive as with the Iridium model, but it is a more affordable option.
The final tool that explorers and adventurers can carry with them into the field is a satellite communicator. These devices offer a limited ability to send text messages and provide tracking capabilities so friends and family can see where the person carrying the device is located at any given time. Satellite communicators also have an “SOS” feature that allows the user to call for help should the need arise, scrambling a search and rescue team to retrieve them. They are a good option for those who can’t afford —or don’t have the need for—a satellite phone, but still require a sense of security and safety when they wander off into remote areas.
Recommendations: The DeLorme InReach is the most versatile of these devices, allowing users to send and receive text messages, download maps of the region they are visiting, and pair with a mobile device for better communications options. It also connects to a powerful satellite network that provides a connection from anywhere on the planet which makes the InReach the best choice when visiting some of the more remote areas. On the other hand, the SPOT Gen3 is a more affordable solution and provides the features that the vast majority of people truly need. The SPOT device is a viable choice if two-way messaging isn’t a priority.
Own a piece of gear that you're dying to review? Read our submissions page and let's get it up on the interwebz!