ROCHESTER, N.H. (AP) – When Dick Bailey recently prepared for a month-long hike on the Virginia section of the Appalachian Trail, his equipment was as much Silicon Valley as great outdoors.

Alongside a tent, sleeping bag and other standard camping essentials, Bailey loaded up a PDA on which were stored his trail data book, 23 novels and his whole journal from his 1998 hike of the entire Appalachian Trail.

And he couldn’t forget his MP3 player/FM radio, which was loaded with 150 songs and audio books, a watch with altimeter and barometer and a cell phone.

“They’re not really a necessity,” said the 60-year-old Rochester resident. “But there’s no reason that you have to go out in the woods and suffer.”

Toting gadgets is a growing trend among outdoors enthusiasts, who these days are as likely to hit the trails with global positioning systems and pocket computers as they are with maps and compasses.

Outdoors retailer Eastern Mountain Sports reports that its sales of electronic gadgets are increasing at a higher rate than that of overall sales.

“And it has continued to grow steadily for the last two to three years,” George Lesure, product manager for outdoors accessories, said from the company’s corporate offices in Peterborough.

“This spring that category has been on a very good roll for us, especially the GPS segment.”

Lesure attributes the growth to improvements in technology. “There’s a certain group that is always looking for the next greatest toy,” he said. The new toys, however, also are functional.

Global positioning technology, for instance, allows hikers to navigate in the wilderness with the help of satellites. The hand-held devices feature a screen that displays a map, longitude and latitude coordinates and compass bearings.

The technology gained notice during the Gulf War in 1991, when the public watched on television as aircraft delivered satellite-guided weapons into enemy territory.

As the devices evolved throughout the 1990s and got cheaper, smaller and easier to use, they gained commercial popularity.

Another hot item for hikers is the wrist instrument, similar to a watch but with multiple functions. A basic model, starting at $169, features an altimeter, barometer, thermometer and stopwatch.

More advanced models, which can cost more than $400, feature a digital compass, heart-rate monitor and personal computer interface.

“The main attraction to it, for runners or whatever, they really pay attention to how you’re doing compared to others,” said Patrick Ruane, a salesman at Banagan’s Cycling Co. in Concord. “It really gives you hard evidence to either reinforce how you’re feeling or, conversely, if you’re not performing up to peak.”

But not everyone embraces the influx of electronic gizmos into the wilderness.

Some veteran Appalachian Mountain Club instructors warn that global positioning systems shouldn’t be considered a replacement for map and compass skills. They say if you don’t know how to set a correct compass bearing, the gadgets are worthless.

“One danger we see with it is that people who are buying them are the techies who are new to the outdoors environment,” said Tim Kennedy, the treasurer of the state chapter of the AMC. “Education is the answer. Whether you’re using a GPS or an old-fashioned compass, as long as you understand the basics you’re going to get the same result.”

Kennedy said caution should be used in the Northeast, where the thick spruce forests present a challenge not present in the ragged and rocky mountains out West.

“Above tree line, they’re extremely accurate,” he said. “But here in the Northeast … you can’t count on getting an accurate reading.”

AP-ES-04-20-03 1559EDT


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