PDA Power for Paddlers

Music, Mail, Memoirs, and More—In Your Pocket!

The modern wave of portable electronics still raises plenty of controversy among paddlers. If you're a traditionalist, a technophobe, a purist, or a cheapskate, you probably cringe at the thought of adding devices like MP3 players, portable DVD players, PSPs, laptop PCs, or video iPods to your list of "must have" expeditioning equipment. That's fine. You won't get much argument from me. In fact, my own love of kayaking has everything to do with the silence, simplicity, and solitude of the experience, so I incline towards the low-tech mentality myself. Yet as technology continues to improve, some gadgets offer such delicious and versatile capabilities that they are hard to pass up.

For quite some time now, only three electronic devices have enjoyed a regular place among my expedition equipment: a VHF/weather radio, a GPS unit, and a cell phone. The benefits of a VHF/weather radio and a GPS unit are so obvious and extensive they hardly need mentioning. Less "indispensable," but still superbly convenient, a cell phone can be worth its weight in gold when the time comes to arrange a supply drop, obtain information, report a change in itinerary, put worrisome loved ones at ease, or schedule a pick up.

Now, it may be time to add another device to the list—a device I rarely hear mentioned in the world of canoeing and kayaking, though I'm not sure why. Can you guess what it is? Here's a hint: It's an MP3 player, a word processor, a photo viewer, a gaming system, a daily planner, and more—all rolled into a single, lightweight, pocket-sized unit. Give up? It's the wondrous, versatile, feature-packed, space-saving PDA (Personal Digital Assistant)—also known as a Palm Pilot or Pocket PC.

PDAs have been around for quite sometime now, so you may be wondering: Why the sudden interest and excitement? Well, for one thing, modern PDAs have gotten much better: higher resolution screens, longer battery life, greater processing power, expandable storage capacity, Bluetooth and WiFi wireless connectivity, and a wider variety of software, freeware, and ebooks. The cost of these features has also improved dramatically: You can buy a surprisingly capable PDA like the Palm Tungsten E2 for as little as $150 to $200 (new), with more features, greater expandability, and better pre-loaded software than units that carried a $400 - $500 price tag only a few years ago. But all other developments aside, it's the evolution of non-volatile memory that finally makes PDAs attractive to expeditioners. On older units, if your battery went dead, so did all your data; newer PDAs utilize non-volatile memory to preserve your data from oblivion no matter how long you stay away from a power outlet—a huge asset to hard-core expeditioners who don't want to feel encumbered by the need to recharge on a regular basis.

Space and Weight: Super Savings

Before you laugh or scoff at the idea of packing along a PDA, let's consider just a few of the things a PDA could replace on your gear list:

  • packing lists, meal lists, shopping lists, and other checklists or spreadsheets
  • trip-planning information (campsites, mileage, routes, landings, tides, maps, etc.)
  • a diary or personal journal
  • an entire stack of books (thousands of ebooks, fiction and non-fiction, are available free online)
  • travel guides, first-aid information, local flora/fauna, and other references
  • vital medical information (allergies, blood type, drug dosages/intervals, etc.) for your entire group
  • business materials (for professionals) or study materials (for students)
  • a checkers/chess board, a pack of cards, and other game supplies
  • an alarm clock

The multi-tasking benefits don't end there. Aside from many other basic functions the PDA could serve, it also offers advanced features that may make it irresistible to paddlers with particular needs.

For writers like myself, for example, PDAs look especially enticing as a viable substitute for a laptop, which would be too bulky, delicate, and cumbersome to pack along on a long trip. Add a fold-up keyboard and you've got a miniature word-processor to go! I consider this a huge benefit. I can type much faster than I can write, and very often I end up neglecting details in my trip journal because writing by hand feels too cumbersome when my arms are recovering from a long day of paddling. With the portable word-processing power of a PDA, it would be much easier to record my thoughts and reflections at camp—making the PDA every bit as valuable as a good camera when it comes to "capturing the experience" of the trip.

For those not averse to multimedia, a capable PDA can also serve part-time entertainment duty as a gaming device (checkers, chess, sudoku, campfire games, etc.), photo viewer (memories from home, destination pics, memorization aids, etc.), and MP3 player (for music or audio books). For musical composers, programs like the miniMusic Handheld Music Suite can convert your PDA into a portable music toolkit for composing music on the go.

With the ever-growing number of WiFi "hotspots" and cyber cafes, a WiFi-equipped PDA may also offer a practical solution for checking e-mail during your trips. Yes, I know most of us like to think of paddling as an escape from things like e-mail, but for some paddlers, WiFi connectivity may make it possible to stay away from the office much longer, which is always a good thing. It could also offer peace of mind to those paddlers who have trouble enjoying their time away from the world due to the dread of returning to a thousand e-mails when they get back to the office. And yes, though I cringe to think of it, a PDA may even allow paddlers to take a little office work along on their trip, if necessary.

Finally, keep in mind that all of these benefits (and many more) are offered by a single device which occupies only negligibly more space and weight than a standard pack of playing cards!

Convenience with Self Regulating Temptation

Perhaps the finest "feature" of the modern PDA comes from its inherent limitations. PDAs are powerful, but not too powerful—not yet anyway. In fact, where the temptation for abuse is concerned, they are almost self-regulating. They have just enough battery life to perform basic tasks and provide modest entertainment, yet not enough to allow you to waste whole days playing games or listening to music. As such, they hardly threaten to intrude upon the simpler joys of paddling, or to steal the focus away from the outdoors by letting you feel like you're back at home amid the comforts and luxuries of technology. In short, they won't spoil you with their conveniences—not in a bad way.

Many PDAs can last 6 - 10 days between charges if you use them very conservatively, or 3 - 5 days with moderate use (approximately 20 - 30 minutes per day). "Power users" and traveling professionals often speak of battery life as one of the major shortcomings of PDAs, but for expeditioners who share my aversion to bringing "too much of the world" along on their journies, this limitation may be a terrific asset. No, a PDA will not stand up to whole days of games, book-reading, video playing, or word-processing. No, it will not blare music for hours on end. What it will do is break up the tedium of waiting out a storm, or entertain you while you hide in your tent from the mosquitoes, or coax your paddling partner back into good spirits with a few games, or lull you to sleep with some music. With limited battery life and no power outlet in sight, a PDA forces you to make smart choices about how, when, and how long you put its features to good use—which makes you value it more, to boot. In short supply, its features become a special treat—one which rewards a hard day of paddling with a few chapters from a good book, a couple of rounds of Sudoku, or half an hour of music before bedtime.

Examine Your Needs

Is a PDA a "must have" item for all paddlers? Certainly not. As with most pieces of equipment (especially electronics), its place and priority among your paddling gear must be dictated by individual needs. Obviously, I can't give you all the answers, but here are a few quick observations that might help you think more intelligently about what you gain, or sacrifice, by embracing the PDA.

Books, Journals, and Documents

If you're a confirmed bibliophile or a dedicated writer, as I am, a PDA is very attractive. In fact, you would save a noticeable amount of space and weight even if you only used your PDA to replace a single book! If you use it to replace your trip journal, your alarm clock, and a pack of playing cards, it gets even better. Now factor in its ability to serve as a portable word processor, and, like me, you'll probably find yourself falling in love with the idea of a PDA.

Understandably, some folks will still prefer real paper to an LCD screen. After all, a good journal is not only cheaper and more rugged, but more charming as well—especially if it's a fine, leather-bound journal. Similarly, real books offer their own joys: the smell of the paper, the feel of the pages, the simple joy of holding them in your hands or your lap, and the convenience of jotting notes in the margins. If you prefer the undeniable charm of a genuine leather-bound journal, and you just can't live without the romantic allure of real books, then by all means, stick with what you like best. I understand completely.

For me, the practical benefits of a PDA outweigh the aesthetic sacrifices. Yes, I know I'll miss the pleasure of scribbling notes in my trusty journal, but I won't miss the tedium of transcribing my notes later when I write up an article for this website. With a PDA, I can even start writing the article before the trip ends. And yes, I know I'll miss the visceral experience of turning the pages of a good book, but I won't miss the weight and bulk. (Books have always caused me more packing troubles than any other item I carry.) With a PDA, I can carry the entire works of Shakespeare, the collected poetry of John Donne, the novels of Mark Twain, and many, many more classics—all without any of the packing hassles, or any need to limit my choices to just one or two books.

For gear checklists, shopping lists, reference information, medical histories, and other miscellaneous documents, the PDA is a no-brainer. I've never managed to organize this information as well as I should, and often, I end up shortchanging it because I never feel like digging it out of my hatches when I need it. But a PDA provides a convenient way to store it all in the same place, for quick, easy access.

The Sound of Music: Nuisance or Enhancement?

Where multimedia is concerned, I confess to being a curmudgeon. I've never cared for the idea of bringing radios and CD players along on a kayaking trip—partly because they tend to detract from the experience, partly because they scare away wildlife, and partly because they often come equipped with loud speakers that annoy anyone else remotely in the vicinity. Even when you keep the volume fairly low, it's surprising how far the sound of music carries—especially over the water—and nothing shatters the joy of remoteness and isolation faster than music (especially "pop" music, but that's another matter entirely). In fact, if you want to see me get red in the face, just ask me how I feel when some idiot turns on a radio anywhere near my campsite. I suppose this bias of mine—my distaste for noise pollution—has caused me to scorn iPods and MP3 players as well, though unfairly. In truth, those devices are almost always headphone dependent, so paddlers who enjoy them aren't really bothering anyone with their music. Still, iPods and MP3 players have never really appealed to me because they feel extremely intrusive.

Whenever I don headphones to listen to music, I feel instantly disconnected from my surroundings. I enjoy the music, of course, but I stop enjoying the experience of the trip—or I enjoy it much less, at least, because sound is vital to my sense of experience. I like—in fact, I need—to hear the stroke of the paddle, the droplets trickling off the paddle blades, the sounds of wildlife, the wind blowing over the water, the creaking of my seat and my PFD—even my own breathing. Without those sounds, I feel numb and I quickly tire of paddling. With them, I can paddle happily for hours on end and forget about the work my arms are doing. I'm not sure why headphones affect me this way. Perhaps it's because I've always used them to deliberately tune out my surroundings in other contexts, like writing my dissertation at the coffee shop. Whatever the reason, the thought of plugging in and losing myself in music while I'm already lost in the joys of a kayaking expedition makes as much sense to me as taking a vacation from the vacation I'm already on.

That said, I freely confess that there are a few, rare moments when a chilly morning could be warmed, or a sunny beach enhanced, or a sunset improved, with the help of "one perfect song" to set the mood. For me, those moments have always been too few and fleeting to justify purchasing or packing a dedicated MP3 player, no matter how small, light, or cheap they may come. But with MP3 capability, most modern PDAs offer the benefit of music for free (that's "free" in terms of space and weight). So, if I'm going to purchase and pack along a PDA for all those other reasons I've already mentined, why not carry a handful of songs as a special treat for the right moments? Honestly, I can't think of a reason why not. Better yet, since most PDAs have a tiny external speaker which is loud enough to hear from your lap, but nowhere near loud enough to bother anyone more than a few feet away, I can enjoy the music as an enhancement to the moment, without the numbing effect of headphones. Voila! Both of my major complaints about MP3 players are settled!

Now, I'm sure plenty of audiophiles will laugh at the thought of listening to music through a PDA speaker, but before you assail me with protests about the "poor quality," "dynamic losses," and "tinny sound" of such a "limited" audio device, let me just say that I love the tinny sound of the speaker on the Tungsten E2, which not only exudes the charm of an old transistor radio, but adds a "classic vinyl" feel to the soulful songs I would want to listen to—songs by artists like Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Etta James, Norah Jones, and the like. Don't get me wrong: I like the other stuff—heavy metal, hard rock, alternative, even rap—but to me, packing that kind of music along on an expedition is a lot like drinking a bottle of fine wine with individually-wrapped Kraft cheese slices, or slapping an obnoxious bumper sticker on a Bugatti EB110. If that's your cup of tea, fine. But it's not mine. For paddling, I prefer songs that complement, rather than assail, the sounds and rhythms of nature—songs that help to cure insomnia on a cold evening, or that get my blood moving in the morning without rocking my brain—songs that sound just fine on a transistor radio. Of course, if you're pickier about sound quality (if you regularly catch yourself talking about "highs" and "lows" and "graphic equalizers"), a PDA will still serve you as well as an MP3 player, but you'll need a good set of headphones to take full advantage of the sound quality.

The Paddler's Soundtrack

While I'm on the subject of music, here are my personal song picks to help raise your paddling experience to the ethereal level:

Best early morning wake-up song: "Here Comes the Sun," the Beatles

Tinkling sounds, apt lyrics, and an upbeat refrain (but not too upbeat) make this the perfect early morning song. Trust me, you'll catch yourself singing it from the seat of your kayak long after the sun has risen.

Best song for lazing around in the mid-afternoon sun: "At Last," Etta James

If you don't know how to relax and stretch out in the sun, the first few notes of this song will teach you how. Etta's voice is so alive, so full of feeling, that it's almost palpable. Her words stretch themselves lazily into the air and soak up the sunlight like a cat on a windowsill. You will too.

Best song while reclining in a hammock or napping in the shade: "Joe Knows How to Live," Eddy Raven

An upbeat tempo, a tinge of nostalgia, and a good story about leaving work behind to take off for Mexico circle lightly around the deeper theme of living life to its fullest. Play it on a trip, and it'll make you appreciate where you're at. Play it at work, and it'll make you yearn wistfully for your next paddling vacation.

Best song for wading along the shore in the afternoon: "Blue Bayou," Roy Orbison

No one sings quite like Roy Orbison. During your trip, Roy's nostalgiac encomium to Blue Bayou will fill you with romantic appreciation for the experience you're living. After your trip, it will fill you with the longing to go back, just like Roy.

Best song for watching the sunset: "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," Otis Redding

What can I say? The man could sing the dictionary and make it sound soulful. A finer voice was never heard, and few classics capture the spirit of a lazy evening by the water better than this. Dig your toes in the sand while Otis transports you with his silky lyrics and the soft, lonely sounds of the seagulls in the background.

Best song while waiting out the storm: "Stormy Weather (Keeps Rainin' All the Time)," Etta James

She's singing about the stormy weather of love, but the rain and cloud imagery are apropos to bad weather. If you're stuck in your tent, you hardly need to be reminded that it keeps raining all the time, but Etta's voice is so lovely, you'll find yourself dreaming of sunshine anyhow.

Best song (with lyrics) to lull you to sleep: "Georgia on my Mind," Ray Charles

This song elevates Ray's voice to a whole new level. Nostalgia, longing, sweetness, regret, beauty, and love—the emotions pour over the lyrics like syrup on pancakes. You'll fall asleep dreaming of moonlight through the pines.

Best song (without lyrics) to lull you to sleep: "Sleepwalk," by Santo & Johnny

If you find it hard to fall asleep to voices or lyrics, try the hypnotic sounds of the steel guitar. The music is eerily beautiful—good enough to dance to, but soft and slow enough to put you in a restful mood. Play it on auto-repeat, close your eyes, and start dreaming. It's that simple.

Recommendations

With so many models and features to choose from, the PDA market can be daunting, but for prospective PDA-buyers, an excellent place to begin looking is the Palm Tungsten E2, which I consider to be the best feature-packed PDA for the money (approximately $150 - $200 new, as of July 2006). I liked it so well, I finally bought one myself. With a gorgeous hi-res screen, a good set of basic applications (simple but perfect for new users), outstanding document software (DataViz Documents to Go), good battery life, expandable SD memory, a lighter and thinner form factor than many Pocket PCs, and the option to add a WiFi card later ($99), it's a terrific deal. It's also a very worthy successor to the Palm Tungsten E, the best-selling PDA in history. An SD card (128 MB or better), a screen protector, and a protective case are all smart investments—see if you can get a deal by buying them at the same time you buy your PDA.

If you don't like the Tungsten E2, or even if you do, make sure to shop around and look at several models before you buy. If you shop at the office stores, the salespeople will normally try to up-sell you by convincing you that you "need" all the latest and greatest features. Truth be told, mid-level PDAs in the $150 to $250 price range should have more features than you will ever need, especially if this is your first PDA. Units that sell for twice as much will typically include a larger screen, built in WiFi, and a few gimmicky "upgrades," but the actual value-per-dollar diminishes quickly above the $300 price point. Honestly, most folks will never miss having WiFi, so don't invest in a WiFi-capable unit unless you're absolutely sure you need it. Here again, a unit like the Tungsten E2 is particularly attractive because you don't have to make the initial investment for WiFi, but you can always add it later.

Protective Cases

It's a good idea to protect your investment with a good case, but be wary of flip-style leather cases that use magnets to hold the flip-lid shut. Yes, people have been using them for a long time, and most seem quite happy with them, but I cringe at the thought of putting magnets anywhere near an electronic device, let alone right on top of the LCD screen. (Ever try putting a magnet up to a TV or computer screen? Don't. It can wreck the screen.) I can't prove it, but I suspect that many of the horror stories you read online about screen and button failures on brand new PDAs probably have a lot to do with magnetic-closure cases. Regardless, magnets are more gimmick than necessity. The flip lid on my leather PDA case closes just fine without them.

In terms of case materials, neoprene, nylon, and leather are perfectly adequate to prevent scuffs and scrapes—perhaps even to absorb the shock of a short fall. If you're extremely concerned about protection, however, you might prefer an aluminum or steel case, which provides far better crush protection when your PDA is packed at the bottom of a dry bag.

Productivity

For word-processing, the DataViz Documents to Go software (which comes pre-installed on the Tungsten E2) is the best document solution, bar none. It preserves all of the major formatting features of Microsoft Word, while synchronizing the PDA documents seamlessly with those on your PC. If you type as much as I do, you may want to add a collapsible IR keyboard to your PDA; otherwise, you can use the tiny on-screen keyboard or the Graffiti writing area, both of which work surprisingly well after a little practice.

For itineraries, task lists, and expense logs, the built-in software that comes with the Tungsten E2 is perfectly adequate. I prefer to keep the planner and organizer features simple, so I appreciate the fact that the built-in software is scaled down to a very basic, but useful set of features. Perfectionists and scheduling-freaks may crave something a little more advanced. Fortunately, more powerful task management software can be had for free or for a modest price. Projects, for example, is a fine freeware replacement for the pre-installed Tasks application, with the ability to manage multiple tasks at once.

For shopping lists, the HandyShopper freeware program provides a great way to keep track of supplies you may need prior to, or during, your trip. Items can be organized by category, price, store, and more. You can also download icon sets to give visual distinction to any or all of the items on the list. The most convenient feature of this program is the way it groups grocery items by three major criteria: those items you want to "purchase" (check the desired items to create your shopping list before you go to the store), those items you "have" (check off each item off as you put it in your cart), and those items you "need" (the unchecked items you still need to find as you shop). You'll never forget to buy the right supplies again.

For studying or memorizing just about anything, try the excellent (and free!) QuizWhiz program, which can be used to create customized quizzes in flashcard, multiple choice, and true-or-false format. There's even a Quiz Library with a few ready-made quizzes you can download free. (Do you know your State Capitols as well as you should?) QuizWhiz would be a wonderful way to create custom quizzes about VHF radio procedures, morse code, wilderness first aid, navigational trivia, and other useful bits of expedition knowledge. You'll return from your kayaking trip smarter than you left!

Entertainment

I keep the games on my PDA to a minimum, but if you're looking for something to help you wait out a storm, try SuLite, a freeware Sudoku game which is extremely addictive. Vexxed is another good choice. So is the famous Bejeweled, hailed by many to be the single best PDA game, though you'll have to buy it. Or you could opt for more traditional campsite games like Solitaire or Checkers, which can also be found for free. There are even PDA games designed to be played at camp, with suggestions for campfire activities. The list goes on, but I've found SuLite and Vexxed more than sufficient to occupy dull moments.

The Tungsten E2 comes pre-loaded with the PDA version of RealPlayer, but I highly recommend upgrading to PocketTunes (pTunes) Deluxe, which has several desirable features, including an automatic shut-off so that you can listen to music for a pre-set number of minutes before bedtime, without fear of waking to a dead battery. It also supports the WMA file format, which can approximate the same sound quality as MP3 files in a much smaller file size—particularly useful if you need to squeeze your songs onto a small SD card. Rip your music from CDs in Windows Media Player at 64kbs and you'll get good sound quality with an average file size of 1 - 2 MB per song.

Whatever software you desire, always check out what's available as freeware before you spend more money. Some freeware applications are surprisingly good. In a few cases, they might even be better than anything you can purchase. Many sites offer links to PDA freeware, but PalmGear.com and FreewarePalm.com are two of the best. ClubKayak.com has a short list of free PDA programs specifically for paddlers—including a PDA tour to paddling the Cedar Keys and the Crystal River in Florida. Not all of the software on these sites will run on every PDA, and some may cause serious problems with your OS. Be smart when deciding which freeware to download, and backup your data before you add a new program; otherwise, you may find yourself exasperated by freeze-ups, fatal errors, and hard resets.

For access to tens of thousands of free eBooks, check out Project Gutenberg, Memoware.com, the University of Virginia's eText Center, and Chuggnutt.com. Most of these sites offer a plethora of great books in the Palm eReader format. The Palm eReader software comes pre-installed on most Palm devices, but it can also be downloaded free at www.ereader.com. The $10 upgrade to eReader Pro gives you a little more control over the look and layout of your eBooks, including the nice ability to add in different fonts. Whatever you do, don't buy any font packs from Palm. There are several great freeware font packs out there, so there's no reason to pay $14 - $16 to buy a "font pack" just to change the look of the text.

Final Words

Well, there you have it: a crash course in the world of PDAs and their potential benefits for expeditioners. The more I consider what PDAs can offer, the more remarkable it seems to me that PDAs are rarely mentioned in the world of paddling. Certainly, not every paddler will appreciate their conveniences or feel able to justify the cost, but some paddlers are sure to find them truly indispensable. As always, think carefully about what a PDA could offer you. If you've been searching for a way to cut weight, save space, and get organized, a PDA might be calling your name.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting


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