Are Off-the-Grid Getaways Becoming Obsolete?

Candice Gaukel Andrews June 11, 2013 21

In certain places in Bryce Canyon National Park, you can now get Internet service. ©John T. Andrews

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

The phrase “off grid” actually means off the electricity grid. ©John T. Andrews

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.

There is still no widespread Internet access at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. ©John T. Andrews

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,

Candy

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.

21 Comments »

  1. Blaire Zahn June 20, 2013 at 4:02 pm - Reply

    It really is interesting to see how the nature of true adventure tourism is changing into much less of a natural experience. For my Master’s degree, we just went to spend a weekend with an indigenous tribe in Talamanca, Costa Rica. It was truly an “off-the-grid” experience as, what little electricity there was, was completely solar powered. These types of destinations have a uniqueness that few people appreciate. It’s sad to see the industry turning away from such natural escapes. As for me, I loved it!

  2. Tim Bashista June 17, 2013 at 6:57 am - Reply

    No not at all, just came back from doing some camping and not being connected to the power grid means more time to be connected to the nature that surrounds us. Any time away is my time away….I go old school and use a notebook…..it just takes me to a good place….my two cents….:)

  3. Lilia Bernede June 16, 2013 at 11:05 am - Reply

    Depends if you want the said eco-lodge to run as a sort of meditation retreat in which case offline would be required but I don’t think that for most people having internet connection means they will enjoy the experience of being in nature less. I did my fieldwork in a small village in Sri Lanka and yes I did have to practically stand on the house roof to get phone connection (and internet) but had connection nevertheless and it is still by far the most genuine experience of being in nature that I have had as I had the option to be in the forest in less than 50 m. In this day and age not having internet or phone connection ends up being more stressful unless the stay is going to be for a long enough period of time that it doesn’t really matter (clearly the ones who go have no urgency to get back…)

  4. Guy Butler June 15, 2013 at 8:33 am - Reply

    Hello Candice

    Its pretty hard to go off the grid here in the UK… With it being so populated, however I have found the best place if you really want to try it here is in the North West of Scotland…. And more specific.. A little gem of a place called Sandwood Bay… http://goo.gl/maps/yVTjs Its as remote as you can get for Great Britain and im planing it later this summer. (And looking forward to the no phone reception)

    Guy
    http://www.guybutlerphotography.com

  5. Rob Wilson June 14, 2013 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    Off the grid rocks…when properly prepared. Last backpack into the Wyoming mountains was a reinvigorating experience, much needed. Just reviewing the photos from that time calms the soul a bit. But I’m a bit long in the tooth to be backpacking these days. Our goal is up and into the wilderness early, stay late. No phone, nada. Just us and the stuff of nature. Getting back at night, it’s barely time for a meal, make a few notes, review the images of the day, and bam! Into bed, rinse and repeat the next day. Have never missed a phone connection – land line or cell – at all while pursuing this. When needing to reach out so folks know we are okay, we hit the library or Starbucks or wherever that has wi-fi and reach out briefly, then back to the off-the-grid routine. To do otherwise, it seems to me, is contradictory to the pursuit of wilderness and wonder.

  6. Denise Erika Stephens June 14, 2013 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    I would go off the grid in a second… but.. not without a group. For safety and other reasons. And… I would want to know for sure that I would not hear one cell phone ring or see someone texting except leader of group who has these items for safety only reasons!

  7. Kristen M June 13, 2013 at 2:56 pm - Reply

    I must say, I’m all for being off-the-grid. Of course, there are some challenges to that–one time we had no tv, no phone, no computer. We headed out for a hike and it was beautiful and sunny. About 7 miles in, it turned dark and a thunderstorm poured on us for hours as we struggled to get out of there. So I must admit, as much as I like being off the grid, I wouldn’t mind a weather update first.

  8. Bob Johnston June 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    A wonderful and thought provoking article Candice. I recall finding myself at an Olympic Park campground last season, sitting at the evening campfire while updating my day’s adventures on Facebook. It was nice to feel connected to family some 2000 miles away while still having a bit of solitude. I am certain that if I turned off the smart phone, everyone would think I had been abducted by Sasquatch!

    When I truly seek solitude in the form of a singular trip under pack and sky, I am certain I’ll need to make everyone aware that my phone will be turned off from here to there. Then I won’t worry that they’re worried (I hope). In this smaller more connected world I do find times when I yearn for the more disconnected adventures of my youth.

    Happy Trails – Bob

  9. Victoria Marie Lees June 13, 2013 at 5:33 am - Reply

    I thought going on vacation to connect with nature and family was just that–enjoying nature and the family. That’s what we try to do. We try to leave all work and “connections” at home so that we can discover something new about nature and each other. It is important to leave the rush-rush of daily life behind when vacationing, even if it’s only for a few days.

  10. Carlyn Kline June 12, 2013 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    What we hear during most of our daily lives is the cacophony of a world where noise is inescapable. A true vacation would allow us to listen to the silence, the soundscape of nature, and our own thoughts.

  11. Adedolapo George June 12, 2013 at 2:33 pm - Reply

    Basic phone connection is necessary but can do off the grid if I really need it. Most parks here in Nigeria, offer basic phone service around the lodge but on the trails, connections are intermittent.

  12. Roy DuVerger, MWC June 12, 2013 at 2:32 pm - Reply

    I think the problem a lot of people have with going off the grid is their employer and not themselves. There are many companies out there (and I have worked for a couple of them ) that require that you are “reachable” even when you are vacation. That you “will” check your emails in case there is an emergency. That “getting away from it all” is not an option if you want to remain employed.

    For me, I try to get as far off the beaten path as possible. I tell my friends and family in what part of what country I’ll be in, and will call when I get back. And If I don’t make it back at least you know I went doing what I love most.

  13. Anne Fuller June 12, 2013 at 9:16 am - Reply

    I’m reminded that people have struggled with what it means to get away….from the 30’s (I think) comes this motto: no guns, no dogs, no radios on hikes.

    Yes, I enjoy travelling without contact: we’re flying home in six weeks, look for a postcard, no can’t tell you when I’ll be where.

  14. Douglas Fink June 12, 2013 at 9:15 am - Reply

    I can barely remember the last vacation I had but when planning/fantasizing about a vacation I usually look for information on internet access.

  15. Robert June 12, 2013 at 6:55 am - Reply

    What a great article and point of discussion. I completely agree with you that there are several definitions to the buzz word “off the grid”. As technology has increased dramatically and become really affordable; especially for things like WiFi and satellite internet it seems that a new term needs to be used when marketing getaways. I like how you compared the terms “off the grid” and “offline” I think “offline” is a more appropriate term for truly remote places.

    Personally I prefer to be completely isolated, both off the grid and offline when I am on that type of vacation. The whole point is to truly get away, and how can we do that when we are still connected to the modern world, even partially. That being said, I work at a remote fishing and hunter provider with several fly-in properties. Over the years we have made it so that every lodge or outpost at least has WiFi internet and a spare plug to charge mobile devices, because even when on vacation many of our guests are doctors, lawyers, ect and can’t afford to be completely offline in this fast paced world.

    If anyone’s up to the challenge I suggest somebody write an article on ‘How to be Completely Offline When on Vacation’ With all the stress and rush of todays society I’m sure there are many people out there who would benefit from something like this.

  16. Alan Short June 12, 2013 at 6:27 am - Reply

    I do want cell phone connection, but not interested in internet. But of course, nowadays cellphone connection = internet connection on my smartphone. So maybe what I need to do is take a dumbphone with me, with a few important numbers (family, and boss so I can let him know my car broke down and I’ll be a day or two late).

  17. Duane Mitchell June 12, 2013 at 6:26 am - Reply

    Candice, My purpose for vacation is to get away from the phone, emails, etc. I take my phone, but only for emergencies. I honestly don’t understand having to “stay connected” at the beach or in the mountains.

  18. Patricia Herlevi June 11, 2013 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    I’ve never been off the grid, but an off the grid vacation would provide an adventure.

  19. Travis June 11, 2013 at 11:38 am - Reply

    I typically set up my voicemail and email to autoreply or inform people I’m away. Then I don’t have the expectation looming to return those messages on vacation, but I can still have connectivity without some of the trappings. A phone is often my downloadable map, my travel documents, my GPS, my walkie talkie. I like the consolidation that it provides me on a trip, but not the accessibility it presents me to the outside world. I think leaving it on airplane mode is the right way to go.

  20. DAN ELISEUSON June 11, 2013 at 11:10 am - Reply

    In our family and friends we have a saying, summer is for recreation- – – winter is for camping (Northern Minnesota). I have worked in many facets of the outdoors.

    As a Park Ranger, recently, I noticed that GRAND PARENTS are camping with the GRAND KIDS, several reasons, Parents don’t know how to camp, parents feel they need to be on the internet.

    As a matter of fact ,there are several publications out on “How to Camp wit your Grand Kids”

    Hospitality follows the trend, it is their income.

  21. John Howard Gaukel June 11, 2013 at 10:39 am - Reply

    I would like to say totally off the grid. But there is comfort in knowing that you have a cell phone connection in case of a emergency at home or with yourself. Also by having Internet access, it might even enhance your travel experience because you’d be able to look up information about something you had seen or done.

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