Updating, 11/30/2011: Since I published this article, Amazon lower prices on the original Kindle, and introduced several new models including the Kindle Fire. You can now choose Kindles that operate with touchscreens rather than keyboards, and Kindles with larger tablet-sized displays. Kindle Fire was built for internet browsing and makes checking email from a mountaintop a simple procedure instead of the tricky workaround it used to be. For about half the price of an Apple iPod, the Kindle Fire offers many of the same features including music and movies on demand and of course the wide selection of free and for-purchase books in the expanding Amazon library.
By far, the best feature on the Kindle fire is the color format. If you want to carry a field guide to edible plants in your Kindle library, it’s handy as heck to have actual color photos on hand instead of the equivalent of 18th Century line drawings. Accessing topo maps with the Kindle now makes sense, because you can make out the contour lines and the meaningful shades of green and brown.
Although touch screens are handy and very popular, if you’re going to be where your hands aren’t always clean and grease-free, a keyboard Kindle makes a little more practical sense. A weatherproof cover is also a must, but the total package comes in light and compact and offers infinitely more than my worn copy of Moby Dick, including a free Moby Dick.
Favorite things tend to go traveling with me no matter how much they weigh, and I’ve been packing a copy of Moby Dick by Herman Melville and a comfortably sized journal notebook on nearly every trip since the early 70’s. I did step down from hardcover to softcover, but there hasn’t been another chance for an upgrade until just recently. Now that the Kindle Wireless Reading Device is here, I could replace those two items — not just the novel but the notebook and pen also — with one device that weighs about the same and takes up less space.
Ebook readers haven’t attracted me before this, but it’s because I do two things which are book-related: I read, and I write. Those are entertainments I dislike leaving behind, even though on the trail I find little time to spend on them. To me they’re necessities I’d hate to lose, and I suppose it’s the same way other people feel about their cell phones and email. Recently I downloaded the free Kindle for PC software and tried the system out, and I’ve been very impressed with the streamlined command system and the many conveniences. Not only that, I downloaded a few free ebooks to read, and learned that most of the free libraries online like Project Gutenburg now provide downloads formatted for Kindle. Hey! Why did no one tell me this sooner? I suppose Amazon tried to but it takes awhile to get me listening.
I’d only consider the 10 ounce Kindle One at this time, since the Kindle 2 is larger and heavier and lost some of the convenient features of the first version. Many customers who upgraded weren’t happy with the new model and some even went back to the original Kindle. At 8″ by 5.3″ by .36″ the Kindle One is just a little smaller than the notebook I usually take, and space is just as important as weight to backpackers who like gear.
More reasons to consider the Kindle for backpacking and camping are the many options which some consumers don’t realize are a part of the device. Advertised as a Ebook reader, the Kindle is much more that. Wireless connectivity and a built-in simple web browser give access not just to your Kindle account at Amazon but to many other important web services as well. In fact, it’s even possible to send a simple email by signing in to one of your webmail accounts (preferably one with a simple interface) and typing a short message on the Kindle keypad. Most won’t find sending a long message easy, and there are some quirks. The Kindle browser was designed to view pages which are text based, not graphics based, and it will have problems with sites that aren’t designed for mobile format. But who cares? You don’t go to the mountains to browse the internet. Since G3 network coverage is so widespread in the continental U.S., the Kindle could be a valuable emergency communications system if you’re willing to keep the message short. Something like, Hey, Fred, I broke my leg and I’m really tired, could you call me a ride home?That might come in really handy someday, and it has as much chance of working as any cell phone.
Another intriguing feature of the Kindle is the note-taking option. Of course, you might be able to keep your journal online via the web browser, but you won’t always be in a place where reception is that good and slow connections (still the norm in much of the country) make that a pain. While reading any book, however, Kindle allows you to make “margin notes.” It’s a well organized note-taking system and enough for a daily trail journal. At home, you can download the file to PC and do a little copy and paste work to recover the material. That’s certainly not the fastest way to write, but have you ever tried to decipher your own handwriting and transfer it to electronic media? Writing is now an electronic skill and the pen and paper approach is a relic talent.
I’ve experimented with portable electronic notebooks before — personal data organizers and pocket pc’s — which had input keyboards no better than the Kindle’s keyboard. I actually learned to write quickly with an HP pocket pc’s stylus and screen-tap keyboard and I don’t see the Kindle version as more difficult. Run-time on battery power and convenience of file transfer were the big issues with the pocket pc; mine had a working lifetime of two hours on batteries and used a file-sync system that never ever worked right. After two years I hadn’t figured out the bugs and was happy when I turned it on one day and the screen flashed brilliant white, briefly, indicating a merciful death. In contrast, the Kindle’s software seems nearly bulletproof. Turn off the wireless feature and the Kindle operates for two weeks on one charge — half that with connectivity.
Will the Kindle Survive the Woods?
Any time you’re taking a good piece of electronics to the woods you do need to think about durability, and the Kindle has a leg up on that since it was built to lug around in briefcases and urban backpacks anyway. You’d need to provide a weatherproof case and store it carefully so it isn’t the first thing you land on if you fall over backwards. Laugh if you will, but I’ve done that on occasion while wearing a backpack and did ruin a good 35mm camera that way. The value of the camera was about double that of a Kindle One, so I can’t say I don’t risk expensive and fragile gear. Most of us do.
Temperature and water are the Kindle’s main enemies. The working temperature range is the normal consumer electronics range of 32 degrees F. to 95 degrees F., common limitations few people pay any attention to. Below 14 degrees and above 113 degrees F the Kindle’s electronics may suffer damage, so it isn’t a good toy for trips through the Rockies in winter or Death Valley in the summer warmth. Keeping it out of water is just plain common sense, and Amazon makes no claims that it will survive rain or an accidental immersion. Remember not to do that. Ziplock bags are great gear-saving devices for wet weather.
What About Hidden Charges?
Having worked for one of the major wireless carriers some years ago, I’ve become very wary of wireless plans and I took the time to go through Amazon’s offers carefully. While there are plenty of ways to add fee-based services to Amazon’s free basic system, the Amazon plan isn’t so murky you’ll never comprehend it. In the manual, for example, there’s an explanation of how to convert private documents for download to the Kindle through an Amazon fee-based service. It’s possible to do this for free with a less convenient method the manual explains, but it’s also possible to receive documents from others at your cost unless you set the account limit to zero. That’s easily done. Kindle wireless services may incur charges outside the coverage area of Amazon’s chosen service provider, but the current free service zone is huge. That’s something to know in advance, because if your trip does take you into the territory of a different wireless provider, and you spend hours trying to read your email on Kindle, you may receive a huge bill for that. The pitfalls aren’t unavoidable and shouldn’t scare anyone away, but reading the fine print should be standard operating procedure with any wireless device. Amazon actually offers a convenient way to un-order a book if you happen to buy one by accident, and that’s great.
With so many free and useful services, the ability to listen to downloaded MP3’s and audio books through the Kindle’s stereo earphones, to read Kindle versions of current books and magazines and much more — you’ll have to admit that the Kindle is getting too good to leave behind.
Some Good Kindle Links:
Map of Current Free Wireless Coverage Areas for Kindle — beware the Great White areas, where other carriers may charge fees.