Technology for keeping in touch

Phones

Being away for a while means you need a reliable way to keep in touch - to reassure folks and friends and also to hear important news from home. In the Alps, mobile reception can often be pretty good. Mobile phone antennae follow wealth, so near ski resorts and towns there is frequently some reception. Often if you have a valley within sight some sort of signal can be found. That may not be enough signal for a voice call, but certainly enough for a text.

Isle in Konigssee

In Europe at least, voice calls to mobiles overseas are still very expensive, so texts are a great way to go. To save batteries, just turn your mobile on shortly before you pitch camp to be sure of a signal. You can then text people with your days events and catch up with news while waiting for supper to cook. It helps if you leave them a detailed map with towns and village names and spell those out carefully in your texts.

You need to warn people that no news is not bad news - more likely a flat battery or remote terrain. Also that your text can take several hours to wander back home, so there's little point them staring at the screen at 8pm every night. Information is most simply sent to one place that other people can check on - a web site for example. If your Mum isn't up with all the techy stuff then you should be able to text her land line - most of the phone providers will ring her with your text and a machine will then read it out to her. If you test this with your Mum, it can help to reassure her you haven't been eaten by wolves!

Modern handsets hold enough charge to last a long time this way, but for longer trips, consider taking either a mains charger plus adapter, or an external battery or wind-up charger.

It's worth looking into bulk deals from your phone company, for example Oranges Travel Text 75 gives you 75 texts/month back to the UK for £15, half the normal cost.

This is a rapidly changing area, and I haven't looked into sending photos by phone from overseas for example. Keep all your phone numbers on paper, separate from your phone, so all is not lost if you drop your phone in a stream.

Pictures

Most of us have digital cameras these days, and after the first thrill of photographing the cat yawning 32 times because it costs absolutely nothing, we've settled down to taking rather too many photos and perhaps sorting everything out when we get home. This works ok for short trips, but for longer trips, it's nice to send copies of photos home as you go. Internet cafes are quite readily found in small mountain towns as many town councils have realised that broadband brings wealth and breaks down isolation, so discreet subsidies often support these ventures.

Summer meadow in the Alps

This means that you can often connect your camera and download your pictures. You probably can't send many by email but you can burn a CD. In fact make that two or three CDs. Then you can carry one in a plastic bag, and send two on different days to different addresses from different Post Offices to avoid delivery gremlins.

Flash memory (SD cards, memory sticks or CF cards) is becoming cheaper and cheaper. I think it unwise to buy the very cheapest, and pointless to buy extra fast ones unless you use burst mode for action pictures. Rather buy several of modest capacity from a well-known maker. Only buy from a well-known outlet to avoid fake cards that don't perform. With prices dropping, consider not re-using any cards, so you have all the originals with you (but still copy to CD in case you lose some).

If you are looking at replacing your camera look for one with a voice memo - and use it. The task of sorting hundreds of pictures when you get home, relying on your memory, can make completing tax returns seem fun.

Email

If you find texts too restrictive, then a practical and economic solution for staying in touch is the Sharp Pocketmail. This is a flip-up device with a decent screen and proper keyboard, much used in the US for composing trail diaries. Simply connect to an ordinary phone to up and download emails. No need for international calls. The price and running costs are modest too. This device is old technology, but it is simple and works. I don't find the tiny keyboards found on phones and PDAs much use when hiking.

MP3 players

Some people have to take their music on the hill - me, I can do without. But MP3 players often have a microphone so you can record thoughts and detail about the day. I used to keep a paper record, but often found that my fingers were so cold I could barely write. Instead, I get in reflective mood after a meal, and can natter away about stuff that's happened. The best of this can be interesting to others (honest), but it's quite fun to listen to when you get back too.

Look for one with a removable memory card, so you can download and copy that at an Internet cafe too. And start each one with some detail about the date and the destination, so you don't finish with a list of files and little idea what they all are.

If all of this is new to you, then try it all out before your trip - you won't want to be experimenting while struggling with a keyboard with a Slovenian character set!