In a post earlier this week I announced my desire to “get away from it all” during my John O’Groats to Lands End – and then went on to talk about live GPS tracking and streaming video of parts of the ride… I appreciate this was a bit of a contradiction.
Whether I like to admit it or not, I like my tech, and there’s absolutely no way I’m planning on doing this ride on a battered old Sturmey-Archer three speed with nothing but a groundsheet to sleep on or under.
So what am I planning to take?
Well first of all, whatever I take, it’s going to need power. Of the seven nights I’ll be sleeping during the journey, one will be at a friend’s house, two will be in hotels and the rest will be on campsites (or Dartmoor) with no electric hookup. While there are dynamo chargers out there, I’ve never used one, don’t know how reliable they are and it will almost certainly be heavier (and create some rolling resistance that I don’t want) than the alternatives. The alternatives being a stash of humble power bars or a slightly more complicated and expensive solar power bar. You can get either in a selection of storage capacities and configurations and I guess the solar version is my preferred option. I can leave it on the back of the bike happily charging it’s battery during the day (or plug it in if presented with the chance) and then discharge it into my other bits of kit over night. Most come with more than one USB socket, and tend to come in at less than £50. I’m sure it wouldn’t just be used on this trip, so it would come in handy in the future – REALLY handy if the zombie apocalypse ever strikes!
Now to the kit itself, and possibly rather surprisingly to my friends, there’s not that much of it. The first (and most important) thing will be a mobile phone. However much I want to just disappear into the hills for eight days, I have to acknowledge that even if I don’t have an emergency, a certain level of contact with family is desirable. A phone call at the start and end of the day and the odd progress update are practically mandatory. The phone does have other advantages as well.
I’m currently an iPhone 5s user on a good mobile data plan. As much as there are many cyclists who are anti-Halfords, there are many phone users who are anti-Apple. Whether you’re for or against them, they are fairly sturdy, reliable bits of tech (as long as you haven’t just carried out an iOS update). As a result I’ll have access to a reasonably good camera, music, films, news, TV and apps that will show me where to go, how far I’ve gone, how far I’ve climbed, what my expected time of arrival is, what the weather is going to be like and so on and so on… And in addition to all of that, by using something like Runtastic which is a GPS tracking app connected to a website – other people can see how I’m getting on as well. A lot of this is simply to put people’s minds at rest, but equally there is a bit of a statistics nerd in me that likes to know the facts and figures.
I can access WordPress and update things on the fly, check on the fundraising total on Just Giving, catch up on Twitter and all without the need to lug a laptop around. And you get all of that for the grand total of (wait for it) 112 grams. Bargain.
I already have a Twisty Ride mount (pictured), something I really should have used on the last ride as trying to lever a phone out of your pocket, unlock it, open an app and then work out directions while cycling along an A road is not the most sensible thing in the world… It’s a decent bit of kit that still enables you to use the phone whilst attached to the handlebars and is a waterproof and shockproof protective case at the same time. There’s even removable rubber bungs in the bottom so you can plug in the charger or headphones without having to remove it from the case.
I have been looking at Garmin Sat-Nav systems for bikes, but for the extra cost I don’t know if I can really justify not using Google Maps on the phone. From previous experience the cycle directions (despite the huge disclaimer that it’s in the beta phase and should not be completely relied upon) have been fantastic. Several of the Lands End to John O’Groats routes people have ridden recently (that I’ve been reading about) have been navigated using Google Maps and it’s handy if there’s a last minute change of plan for any reason. And one thing I must agree with the Apple critics on is that the Apple Maps system is dreadful – so that’s instantly disqualified.
So where previously a camera, media player, phone, navigation aid or collection of maps or notes might have been taken, for the last 5 years or so I imagine that everything has been condensed into one item for most people.
Access to a camera cannot be underestimated, not for me at any rate. I take photos of absolutely everything. Although I’m considering taking either a 35mm film camera or a digital camera, I’m just as likely to end up simply using the one on the phone. I’ll have it with me anyway, won’t need to go rummaging through a pannier to find it, I can share photos from it instantly and edit them beforehand if I want to. Oh, and it’ll reduce the weight if I don’t take a bulky 1980s Nikon or the more modern Fuji digital camera. It is nice to be able to take “proper” photos though. I think it’ll come down to space and weight considerations before I set off.
The only problem with using the phone for all of this is that it does drain the battery quite quickly, especially anything that is running GPS. I’ll have to make sure that background services are disabled where possible, ensure that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are turned off and that the screen brightness is turned down to a sensible level in order to eke every last bit of juice out of the little fella. This issue is further compounded by the fact that you can’t easily swap the battery in an iPhone… Apple critics win another point on that one as well.
The other main item of kit I know I’ll be taking is my EE Action Cam. Although the quality isn’t as high as a Go Pro (and it’s a much chunkier item), it uses the same mounts so it can go everywhere a Go Pro can. The one real advantage the Action Cam has over it’s more well established rival is its ability to live stream video via an onboard SIM. Now I’ve had to think really carefully about this. I’m probably going to be riding for the best part of 100 hours, and even people who love me dearly will be bored to tears ten minutes into that. So I’ll really only use it on the more interesting bits – the Highlands, North Wales, the approach to the finish line. But the other consideration is my little boy.
He’s an avid viewer of Fail Army on YouTube. He’ll happily spend hours, days even, watching people have near death experiences brought on by stupidity, misadventure or just plain bad luck. Live streaming video does actually present someone with the unique, once in a lifetime opportunity to broadcast the moment of their own death under the wheels of an articulated lorry to their nearest and dearest. And that’s not something I really want to be remembered for. Video is streamed to a website via Skeegle and viewers are invited based on a contact list as the video starts. Facetime on the phone is more useful for two way communication as although I could stream messages using the Action Cam, I wouldn’t get anything back.
The Action Cam itself can either be slaved to a phone to use as a viewfinder and controller (as it doesn’t have a screen itself), but as demonstrated earlier, the phone already has plenty to be doing, so instead I’ll use the watch that was provided with it. Screen resolution isn’t fantastic, but it allows you to start and stop video, switch between modes and get a reasonable picture of whatever the camera is pointing at. Both options are wireless so I won’t end up wrapped in cables.
And what does the final output look like? Well we used it initially on a family holiday to Lake Garda, where it was dunked, dropped and shaken about by the kids and although the video quality is a bit washed out and low contrast, it performed pretty well. It’s got a good wide angle lens on it so it’s also proved itself to be fairly useful for taking nice still shots where you want to get a bit more of the landscape in – and even if you don’t use a viewfinder, because the angle is so wide, as long as it’s pointed in roughly the right direction you normally end up getting the subject in the frame as much by accident as anything else. Below are a few examples.
The only other techy bit of kit I might take is my Kindle. I am a book fanatic. Try as I might, I cannot see a library of ebooks ever replacing the real thing. That said, I do appreciate that you can’t take a library of books with you everywhere you go, nor can you read them in the dark. The Kindle on the other hand allows you to do both. Although I don’t think I’ll find it particularly difficult to fall asleep at the end of a long day in the saddle, it will be nice to know that I can entertain myself for a couple of hours and relax if I need to. One charge before I set off and as long as it’s set to airplane mode it should last most of the trip, so I won’t have the same power concerns with the Kindle as I will with the phone.
So it turns out I won’t be taking that much after all. If I’m honest I think rather than taking any more items of technology I’d probably be better off taking an extra pair of dry socks and a decent sleeping mat rather than a basic foam one. I will miss the PS4 though.
And the family.