I’d like to tell you that I just returned from a totally off-the-grid vacation. Somehow, I feel more adventurous when I say that to you.
I’d like to tell you that, but it wouldn’t exactly be true. Since the phrase off the grid is not yet universally understood, however, you’d probably grant me some wiggle room. Today, when people say they’re “traveling off-grid,” they could mean anything from they’re heading somewhere with spotty cell phone coverage to a destination that’s off the beaten path.
The term off the grid actually means off the electricity grid—a location that is self-sustaining by using solar, wind, hydro or some other means of power. It also typically refers to having no Internet service. And where I went—to three of the Southwest canyons—it was possible, in places, to get an Internet connection.
I’d say there’s a bit of schizophrenia when it comes to defining what true nature travel is today. While the bastion of bare-bones, rustic nature travelers—campers—seems to be demanding more electric sites and amenities lately, those who prefer their outdoor doses with a cup of comfort are calling for less connectivity to the outside world. It’s a counterintuitive conundrum.
Rustic, but rooted
I recently traveled to Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. On check-in at the The Lodge at Bryce Canyon, I was told that I would not be able to get Internet service in my room, but I could get it at the main lodge building. I was also advised to avoid trying to connect between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., since that was the time frame in which there would be stiff competition for service from my fellow guests.
It struck me as strange that so much of my check-in time was devoted to telling me about when and where I could get Internet service rather than what hiking trails were open or closed. When I originally left home for my trip, I had no intention of checking e-mail or calling anyone. But after the detailed instruction at The Lodge at Bryce Canyon check-in desk, I felt that not taking advantage of this amenity would mean I wasn’t getting the most for my travel buck. I have to admit that I did go to the main lodge once to use my cell phone and check e-mail; mostly because I had been told that I could.
In my home state of Wisconsin, there’s an interesting trend that helps illustrate this drift. At Devil’s Lake State Park, our most visited with more than two million guests per year, it’s been documented that campers’ fondness for electricity is growing stronger. A recent report stated that those who reserve the most rustic campsites are tapping into unused outlets at electrified sites, in order to charge their laptops. Other campers are leaving phones charging in the visitor center or in bathrooms. And on hot days, RVers are cranking their air conditioners, blowing the park’s circuit breakers.
According to a 2012 report by the National Association of State Park Directors, in most states more than 60 percent of campsites have access to electricity and plumbing in restroom facilities.
Comfortable, but not connected
Still, as campers are demanding more technological amenities, more and more upscale lodgings are touting how they give you less, keeping you off the grid for the length of your stay. For example, in the web version of a recent article published in the travel magazine Afar, 20 resorts were featured, all promising to keep you offline. Some business travelers are even taking advantage of the trend, saying they prefer staying at offline hotels in order to get work done without distractions.
Perhaps in the end, these two seemingly opposing demands of nature travelers will get closer together, where both campers and comfort-seekers will require a modicum of connectivity. It’s probably just a natural progression that we will all want our outdoor excursions to reflect something of our modern, connected, day-to-day lives. And if the goal in these times of rampant physical inactivity is to get people outside more, it may be wise to include what is rapidly becoming a basic need (Internet connection) into the experience.
I do know that now, here in Wisconsin, there’s a lot of excitement. In early July, the largest electrification project for the park system in decades will be completed—just in time for the summer camping season.
Do you prefer to be on the grid, totally offline or some combination of both when on a nature vacation? Have you ever gone to an eco-lodge or resort and been disappointed to learn that there is no access to the Internet?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
For a sometimes-off-and-sometimes-on-the-grid adventure similar to the one I took, see our Grand Canyon adventure tour. If you want to be totally off-grid for a while, check out our humpback whale and spirit bear tour in British Columbia, which will take you into the wilds of the Great Bear Rain Forest—where there is still no Internet connection.