Battlefields and bikes: blogging from the edge

Extreme travel

As well as blogging for journalism, many people choose to blog their travels – and the more extreme the travel, the greater the challenge.

Nevertheless, Dame Ellen MacArthur managed it from on-board the BT yacht and David Hempleman-Adams succeeded in blogging during his record-breaking crossing of the Atlantic in an open-basket balloon in 2007.

Mark Beaumont, who recently completed his record-breaking attempt to cycle round the world (taking just 194 days and 17 hours), also chose to keep friends, family and fans updated on his progress via his website. "It made sense to try to share the journey with as many people as possible and the technology is there to let me do that in a pretty lightweight and efficient way," he says.

Packed onto his bike were a laptop, GPS, mini DV camera and a Panasonic Lumix digital camera for stills, but most of the site updates were done via the more conventional methods of mobile calls and text messaging.

"If you were to do it all yourself, outside of the networks of the western world it's very difficult to keep your units charged and to get onto the internet to upload," Beaumont explains.

"It's almost impossible to upload video even if you compress it, but even photographs and audio are a huge challenge. I often resorted to throwing them onto a pen drive and mailing them back from wherever I could. It was important for me to keep my blog as current as possible, but it's not as simple as it would be if you were doing it in Europe or most of the States."

Going it alone

On 30 April 2003, Lois Pryce jacked in an unfulfilling job at the BBC to ride 20,000 miles from Alaska to Argentina on her 225cc Yamaha dirt bike. No support vans or TV crew – just Pryce and her bike.

She wasn't exactly loaded up with technology, either, carrying no laptop or mobile phone. A Nikon FM2 SLR camera was the most advanced bit of kit she took with her on the journey – and it isn't even digital.

In her book Lois on the Loose, in which she recounts her adventure, Pryce reveals that it was only a question from her mother that prompted her to create a website of her travels:

"Are you going to have a mobile phone with you?" said my mum when I called her with the news later that day.

"No, but…" I paused, as an idea presented itself to me, "I'll do a website, so you can keep track of me."

"Oh dear," she replied, "Does that mean I'll have to get a computer?"

"It started out as just something to keep my family and friends informed of what I was up to," Pryce later explained to us. "My brother works as a software engineer and computer programmer and he offered to make me a trip website for my birthday present."

But with no laptop or mobile phone available to her on the journey, keeping the site updated would require a rather different approach. "I wrote my updates and emailed them back home," says Pryce.

"On my first trip I used an SLR film camera and I'd get the photos developed wherever I was. I'd then either scan them in an internet cafe or, if that wasn't possible, I'd just post them back home – old school! On my second trip I used a digital camera and would upload the pictures to a photo sharing site, which could then be accessed back in the UK."

Pryce's second trip took place in 2006, when she rode 10,000 gruelling miles from London to Cape Town, which she wrote about in her second book Red Tape and White Knuckles. This time, she upped her quota of technology items – to two. "I had a Sony DSC-W70 digital camera and a USB memory stick. That was it!"

Why the lack of gear? "I was travelling on a small motorcycle so luggage space was limited and knowing that I'd probably be able to find internet cafes every couple of weeks, I decided not to take a laptop," Pryce explains.

"Also, I was riding thousands of miles of very rough terrain in extreme heat, so I didn't want to have any fancy kit to worry about. I'm a big believer in keeping things simple and the less stuff you have, the less you have to worry about."

It didn't stop her posting updates, but she did have to rely on finding somewhere to post from.

"I'd try to update my site every couple of weeks. It's always easy to find internet cafes in big cities, even in darkest Africa, but I had to plan ahead a bit if I knew I was going to be out in the wilds for a while. Sometimes an internet cafe would crop up in the most unlikely little place, but the connection would be patchy, even in big cities, and sometimes it could go down for no reason, or a power cut would occur just when I'd written a really long email. You soon get used to saving your work every few seconds!"

Do it yourself

So you want to blog your own trip? "Just go," says Ben Hammersley. "Don't wait for someone to send you: they never will." Alex Strick van Linschoten agrees:

"First thing is to get out there. Obviously, you have to consider the risks, reasons and implications of what you're doing or going to do, but too often you can get locked into a cycle of doubt and uncertainty that prevents you from going to certain places to work. Make sure you have a good support system in place that allows you to get material online, even when you're having difficulties with connections."

You'll also need a support system, says Mark Beaumont. "There's no connectivity in a lot of places, so make sure you have a friend back at base camp who can update the site for you. It's so frustrating when you're out there but have no way of getting connected for another two or three weeks. As good as the technologies are, the most reliable method is still picking up the phone."

But if it's a trip for fun rather than breaking records or reporting from a warzone, Lois Pryce has a different suggestion. "Leave the gadgets at home and keep it simple," she advises. "Don't let technology get in the way of your adventure!"


First published in .net magazine, Issue 182

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Global Editor-in-Chief

After watching War Games and Tron more times that is healthy, Paul (Twitter, Google+) took his first steps online via a BBC Micro and acoustic coupler back in 1985, and has been finding excuses to spend the day online ever since. This includes roles editing .net magazine, launching the Official Windows Magazine, and now as Global EiC of TechRadar.