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How to Get Internet in the Desert: A Look Inside Paul Salopek's Backpack

by J. Nathan Matias

What does it take to live-tweet a camel from a sandy footpath in Ethiopia? A lot more than just a smartphone in your pocket. Journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek is about to leave behind his dromedary companions and needs to lighten his pack. Can you help? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

Electronic oases will be rare on Salopek’s seven-year walk to trace the global migration of our human ancestors. Paul is carrying a lot of electronics, and his solar panels aren’t doing the job, especially when his power inverter overheats in the desert sun.

The image above shows what Paul carries in his pack right now, with the help of camels. On foot, he’ll need to lighten the load. Can you help him improve communications while also cutting weight?

Paul writes:

As a writer and journalist, I gather and record information — text, audio, still photos, video — and use it to tell people’s stories. So I use the basic tools of a foreign correspondent: laptop, still/video camera, digital sound recorder, and the means to share it all online — a satellite data terminal and voice handset. It transmits data at near-dialup speed: 40-60 KB/S. I also carry a local cell phone with interchangeable SIM cards. But for long stretches of the walk so far, I have had access to no local cell signals.

There are four requirements for any telecommunications package on my journey:

  1. Portability: At the moment, I am using camels to assist with travel. (Mainly for carrying water between wells in a hyper-arid region of the Horn of Africa.) But soon I won’t be able to rely on this extra muscle power. So weight is the overriding limiting factor. I need to limit my complete comms kit to about 10 lb.
  2. Power Efficiency: I can’t carry power-thirsty electronics because I am spending long periods (days, weeks) unplugged from conventional power grids. I am carrying solar panels. But so far they haven’t proved very useful in recharging most of my equipment. I think the problem is the DC inverter I’m using; it sucks up the trickle of energy that’s produced with its fan. The only things it charges have direct DC plug-in cables. (could this work for my Macbook Air too?) I could use suggestions for better solar solutions, or alternate power sources, including experimental ones.
  3. Ruggedness: Fragility is a liability. Whatever travels with me goes in a rucksack. I don’t have space or energy to cart around shockproof cases.
  4. Simplicity Any equipment that requires fussing is a non-starter.

To get an idea of the ideal kit bag for nomadism, check out what Paul’s cameleers are carrying.

What would you suggest?

Leave your suggestions in the comments. While we all probably have opinions on what digital camera to use (I would love to see him take a Lytro) the more interesting challenge has to do with power and communications. Here’s what I wrote back to Paul:

Paul, although I love the romance in the idea of power generating shoes, thermoelectric generators like the tPod might offer helpful night-time power.

The power inverter seems unnecessarily redundant. If you can bypass the inverter, you can also lighten your pack of some of the other cables and power bricks that you carry. Let’s ask around about alternatives.

That satellite terminal looks pretty huge. Let’s see if we can find something smaller.

How would you advise?

*    *    *

J. Nathan Matias develops technologies for civic participation, media analytics, and creative learning at the MIT Media Lab and Center for Civic Media. He also co-facilitates @1book140, The Atlantic’s Twitter book club.

Comments (37)


well thats an interesting problem..

I think I would take a modest dslr with 2 lenses 24-120 equiv and a fast prime with video capability instead of both camera and camcorder. A small compact like canon G12 or a gopro could be the backup on this system

Also Paul is lacking backup I cant help on the sat terminal and inverter this Satellite Communicator pairs with your smartphone and might be a fine solution for emergencies http://www.inreachdelorme.com/ the ability to send sms msgs means that you can tweet too..

— Kostas · March 5, 2013, 9:21 p.m.
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Paul Salopek

Thanks, Kostas. My tech gurus and I have been grappling with the still camera/video camera variable. I’m being advised that if I want to record any aspect of the walk cinematically — that is, generate forage suitable for projection onto a movie screen — I need a much higher-quality camera than you describe. Alas, that means a heavier camera. The shakedown phase of the walk, however, is proving out your advice: None of my tech advisors have to carry all this stuff. So until miniaturization catches up with the limits of backpacking, something has got to give. And considering the deserts ahead, it will likely be quality.

— Paul Salopek · March 10, 2013, 12:28 p.m.
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I don't know much about electronics etc. Supposing you really need all this stuff to carry around (which you might ask yourself, but anyway…), why not consider using some sort of a shopping cart or sledge-like device on small wheels that you push or pull along? It's not uncommon among nomadic people to use those kind of things, more common than carrying a beckpack.

— Toon · March 6, 2013, 2:43 a.m.
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Paul Salopek

Good point. I may have to resort to this eventually, especially in Siberia. But the notion of pulling a cart across the deserts of the Middle East makes me anxiously scan the empty horizons for cargo camels. They are better company than a cart. Thanks, Toon.

— Paul Salopek · March 10, 2013, 12:28 p.m.
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The cooling system described here might help avoid the power hungry fan:
http://blog.rowbory.co.uk/2011/10/keep-your-laptop-cool-in-hot-places/#more-128

— Clare Causier · March 6, 2013, 3:19 a.m.
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Paul. When I first came across your venture I mailed your site to a few friends. Basic concept being that to call it a 7 year walk with that amount of equipment must add up to a con. It is impossible to walk with that much, + water, + food, + clothing and so on. You must first come down to one camera that will do the stills, vids and perhaps the sound recording. There is a British woman who ran the world over a 5 year project and 20,000 miles. She used a cart designed by Dyson engineers. If you carry so much equipment your legs can not take the weight. Her site is http://www.rosieswalepope.co.uk/

She is always happy to help. I myself have been on the road over 2 years on a bike - that would be the only other way to do it.

— warren sanders · March 7, 2013, 4:03 a.m.
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Paul Salopek

Warren: See my note above to Kostas. I hope to end up using some sort of integrated multimedia system, as you describe. As for long-haul backpacking weights, the bigget challenges are hyper-arid and hyper-cold environments. In more moderate climes such as the Mediterranean and south-central Asia, I’m hoping to go long stretches with a stripped-down load. I’ll be routing through populated areas and relying on daily market purchases for my calories. This obviously won’t be possible in more desolate regions, where I’m going to have to radically purge my all equipment and mail such kit ahead. Thanks for Rosie’s contact. I’ll take a look.

— Paul Salopek · March 10, 2013, 12:29 p.m.
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Could you suspend the Solar charger above the power inverter and device being charged so as to provide shade for the equipment while charging?

A power inverter is quite inefficient. Could you instead eliminate the AC adapter for all the devices and charge directly with DC current. You will only need a transformer to supply the correct DC voltage. Perhaps the transformer would need to be switchable for multiple voltages. Someone knowledgeable in electronics might turn this idea into a workable reality.

— Matt Nowotny · March 7, 2013, 1:30 p.m.
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My suggestion is remove the laptop hard drive.Make a bootable USB using a micro USB drive.I recommend using Linux Mint operating system.This will greatly reduce power consumption on the laptop.All the usual features of the computer can be used.Web browser etc.The weight of the laptop will also be reduced.Linux Mint comes with CPU frequency scaling.This will allow the user to turn down the processor to further increase battery time.I would also remove any DVD drive to reduce weight and increase cooling.Linux Mint is free.Linux is very stable.Used where reliability is essential.

— David Dickson · March 8, 2013, 6:12 a.m.
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Silly me ,I should have pointed out that my suggestion is only for laptops that have conventional hard drives.

— David Dickson · March 8, 2013, 6:16 a.m.
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Paul Salopek

David — I have the smallest MacBook Air available. I’ll look into this. I’m also thinking about switching to a smartphone or iPad-type platform. Many thanks.

— Paul Salopek · March 10, 2013, 12:30 p.m.
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Re ditching a 2.2 lb MacBook Air for a tablet: an iPad is nearly as heavy and much less capable. You'll end up needing a Bluetooth keyboard. There's one advantage and that's 3-4x as much battery life per charge. You can add a bluetooth keyboard and a tiny directional mic to a smartphone for good quality audio.
http://photojojo.com/store/awesomeness/iphone-boom-mic/

Also look into a Livescribe pen for hundreds of hours of audio recording; lower quality than what you're using but a lot lighter and smaller. Uses a special physical notepad and syncs up to Evernote; skip the notepads for now. I plug my iPhone mic (above) into it for higher quality.
www.livescribe.com

Best of luck on the road.

— Diana Wynne · March 11, 2013, 1:39 p.m.
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Paul- I'm hoping my compadres and alums from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism chime in here. Many have reported from remote locations and dealt with many of the challenges you now face. I agree with the above comments on having to give up on something, and I appreciate the push back from your tech gurus. I'm a multi-platform, whateveryouwanttocallit modern journo who does vid/photo/audio/print and the thing I constantly tell myself is: you can do it all…but not all at once. Your adventure is tremendous and 50 years from now when my sons want to explore your journey, they will do it via the notes of your memoir and still images. While I am the first to appreciate high quality video and its place in the here and now, I find the words of explorers and still images of fleeting moments most valuable for sharing the human experience. Video must be overly concerned with itself because of its technology needs, during and post production. I've researched for a number of film docs and it's always the printed word and still images that bring forth the richest experiences. Vid formats change so often, libraries that can play all of them are few and far between. The Canon G12 mentioned above is a great option. Sure you won't be showing it on an IMAX screen, but you will have great resolution for most applications. GoPro should be all over you, as well. You can't beat it for durability and size. Heck, use a homing pigeon as your carrier for the cards and you can eliminate the need to edit in the field. Again, deciding the priority for your venture dictates all tech decisions.

Lastly, I found myself actually surprised that you weren't using a throw back compass and series of NatGeo maps. I had somehow romantically imagined your trek as a blend of world history and modern perspective. Funny, I didn't take into account that your challenges might include the hardware needed to tell this story to today's audience. I look forward to whatever you bring back, but mostly I'm excited to hear your insight and knowledge of the world from someone who has walked it. Safe Travels.

— Linnea Edmeier · March 11, 2013, 4:28 p.m.
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Paul Salopek

Linnea: No fear — I carry an old fashioned compass, so not all the romance is lost. Thanks for spreading the word at Berkeley. (I was out there over the winter, talking to the amazing paleoanthropologist Tim White.) I agree that written words still resonate loudest over time. But then I would; I’m a text guy. Your other recommendations (below) will be thrown in the pot and stewed with all the others. I’m having a GoPro Hero 3 sent to me to test out. The iPad is definitely in the mix. I can tell you that the most portable gadgets, while obviously best, are deadweight unless I have satellite connectivity. I’m walking in one of the least wired corners of the inhabited world. (Though that’s changing fast.) Thanks.

— Paul Salopek · March 14, 2013, 10 a.m.
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After my right brain hijacked my first post, the left side couldn't let it go. Yes, answer the questions first, then keep a laptop for functionality; ditch the Marantz brick for an iPhone w/mic; lose the GPS, use Google maps when possible and a compass; if you go with iPad, take a mini and get a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse. I vote for keeping the notepads. Some things just can't wait or dont' fit on a screen.

— Linnea Edmeier · March 11, 2013, 4:54 p.m.
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Paul when i go hiking and camping i use a Hand Crank Generator instead of solar panel and converter. It puts out 120v at 10 watts but it will charge most portable electronics or run while in use. http://www.k-tor.com/hand-crank-generator/

— Gabriel Andrews · March 12, 2013, 9:17 a.m.
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Paul Salopek

This is very cool, Gabriel. If I switch away from a laptop it would charge just about everything — barring the satphone data terminal. This, though, gave me pause: “The Pocket Socket charges your mobile device at the same rate it would charge in a standard 120v household electrical outlet.” That means I’d have to crank for 45 min- 1 hour to power up a device. A lot of calories after trekking 20 miles, no? The kinetic charger (below) looks to be on the cusp. 30 million footsteps is quite a charge. I’ll keep an eye on it. Cheers, P

— Paul Salopek · March 14, 2013, 10:05 a.m.
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There is also a new energy product called a kinetic charger you put in your backpack. It uses the constant movement to charge an internal 2000mah battery which can charge other devices or batterys. http://www.npowerpeg.com/

— Gabriel Andrews · March 12, 2013, 9:48 a.m.
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Hello Paul,
Perhaps you should invite people to walk with you for sections of your journey. All of the above people who gave you great technical advice, can bring practical solutions with them, take back the equipment you don't need. They can bring you a little bit of “home”. People would be better emotional support than camels or anything Dyson can ever manufacture. They can physically help carry your load. When my ancestors walked out of Africa, they didn't do it alone. So while you are tracing the steps of humanity, walk with humanity. Walk with your brothers and sisters and allow them to help you.

— Chamelle Pitt · March 12, 2013, 3:37 p.m.
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Paul Salopek

Hi Chamelle. Great point. I’m already inviting people to walk along — local folks, Afar nomads mostly. (They’re better company than camels, hands down.) In fact, I hope to be accompanied most of the time. I’ll also be happy to walk with fellow nomads from more distant locales (I can’t say “home” because I carry that construct with me) whenever the physical and human topography permit. I see the walk as a symphonic undertaking: replete with duets, solos, adagio passages, fortissimos.

— Paul Salopek · March 14, 2013, 10:06 a.m.
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Hey, do you remember me? I'm that student who stayed long enough after your presentation on how you would travel the world on foot so as you could record the story of our African ancestors. But I must know what countries have you discovered so far and how have you constructed your reports to be unbiased, but factual? I'd missed those past stories over the last 38 days or so, so I want it straight. Thanks for you unlimited boundries/imagination.

— Chibuzo Achebe · March 13, 2013, 5:41 p.m.
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Paul Salopek

Chibuzo — do indeed remember you. Take a look at the storytelling and judge for yourself: outofedenwalk.nationalgeographic.com

Many thanks for keeping up.

— Paul Salopek · March 14, 2013, 10:06 a.m.
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Hi Paul,

at first want to say, that your project is amazing. I will follow time by time your journey.
My suggestion is to consider exchange your MacBook air for this machine: http://surface.microsoftstore.com/store/msstore/Content/pbpage.Surface_Pro?ESICaching=off … computer with Win8 PRO, full touch screen, can also use pan for handwriting. Weight is similar, but I thing you get more features from this machine.
Not sure to carry satelit phone when you have sat terminl. Together with computer can call over skype, etc.
And this is not technical advice and maybe it is not advice at all, but I walked in totally 16000 km in last 31 months around Europe and carry in average 20 kg. First section was 10000 km in 17 months and second one 6000 km in 10 months. So want to encourage you and let you know that is possible to manage long distance walk with heavier load, even it is not so comfortable. :-) Here is short video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1_ICnh4z9c
I wish you to find solution for your issue. God bless you on your way …

With Peace

Petr

— Petr Hirsch · March 15, 2013, 4:40 p.m.
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Paul Salopek

Amazing journey, Petr. You walked out the trail of the Cro-Magnons. I’m envious. Thanks for you tip on the Win8 Pro. I’ll look into its features.

— Paul Salopek · March 21, 2013, 4:19 p.m.
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Paul, just read about a new device in Fortune mag. MARCH issue. See it on web @ raspberrypi.org. I know you could use this somehow and it's Cheap and small.
ONWARD, THRU THE FOG!!

— E patton, esq. · March 17, 2013, 8:21 p.m.
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Paul Salopek

What a gadget. Does everything but walk for you. It’s portability is a huge plus — but I’ be concerned about the quality of the imagery. I can’t go back and re-do the journey, so I’m aiming for as near-archival quality as possible, given my weight constraints. Thanks for this idea.

— Paul Salopek · March 21, 2013, 4:19 p.m.
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sorry no tech. tips to help you, but would just love to echo the thoughts posted earlier of having “locals” join and assist you with the journey and the lugging of the equipment that you not only you need but that you wish to have for documentation. just like your initial travel companions (inc. george and ringo :-) ) a combination of solutions and styles… which brings to mind one of your own initial introductions of one of your first posts. “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.” — African proverb. and thankyou for the richness on all levels of what you have shared so far… an amazing journey …

— waterbird · March 18, 2013, 7:55 p.m.
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What a great adventure. Congrats! You could trim weight and power consumption trading your Marantz gear plus camera with one iPh or iPod. I posted a pic of my backpack journalism kit on Twitter @patricioespnoza

— Patricio · March 21, 2013, 1 a.m.
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Paul Salopek

Patricio — I’m definitely looking at some sort of smart phone solution. A filmmaker friend tells me that the imagery/sound recorded by such pocket devices will be near-professional quality in about a year. I’m eager to experiment.

— Paul Salopek · March 21, 2013, 4:20 p.m.
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Hi Paul, just my two cents worth. I have been travelling for extended periods in outback Australia for many years. Although I am vehicle based, the principles are the same, although weight of course is not really an issue. Efficiency however is a major issue. I work for weeks at a time in a base camp on Solar Panels only. From a technical point of view, you want all your equipment to work/charge at around the same voltage. Try to pick a standard, say 5V or 12V. This will mean less problems with multiple chargers and minimal losses because you dont have to change voltages. Also absolutely avoid mains chargers and inverters. These are terribly inefficient. Anything you get out of a 20watt solar panel will be gone in the inefficiency of the system. For the Mac I have a Mac Retina Pro that I use on the road. I charge it at 20Volts DC through a DC/DC inverter. Its more efficient than inverting up to 240volts (Australia) then back down to 20V, but still somewhat inefficient due to the inverter. I don't know what the voltage of a Macbook Air is (your technical boffins can find out), but you should be able to connect it to the solar panel via a regulator set to its required voltage (Open circuit solar panels typically run about 20-22Volts). Equally you could have a regulator set to 5V or other for your other gear. However, 20 Watts will probably be to small to charge the Mac. It may just run it on a good sunny day though. My Macbook Retina Pro idles at about 1.2A when running and fully charged, so I would expect you may have some success with the Macbook Air and small solar Panels. The regulators may have to be custom made as very little is available off the shelf. Again your technical boffins may be able to help.

I hope this helps. Sorry about all the technical details, but unfortunately it cannot be avoided.

Enjoy your trip Paul, it is most refreshing seeing someone slow down to actually soak up the world around them. I have been reading your posts with great interest since your trip began, that is when I am near the internet:)

Regards,
Murray Hill

— Murray Hill · March 22, 2013, 12:17 a.m.
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Paul Salopek

Murray Hill — we’ve learned the hard lesson of inverters’ thirst for trickle feeds. I’m actually carrying two soft panel solar charges now with a total (theoretical) potential of 50 V, and the inverter still sucked virtually all of it up. I’ll pass your suggestions to the tech buds advising me. Many thanks.

— Paul Salopek · April 1, 2013, 10:55 a.m.
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Hey Paul,
I once used a universal charger which has a place for you to change the voltage and different “mouths” that can be used to plug into devices. Using one of this means you carry just one power pack about instead of different ones. Downside is you have to charge your devices one at a time & you need to pay attention to the voltage requirements of each device so as not to damage them. All the best.

— A. Yekeen · March 25, 2013, 9:56 a.m.
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hello paul i hope u have a great journy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

— branden · March 27, 2013, 8:16 a.m.
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felicitarlo y desearle mucha suerte en esta travesía.
pregunta: aceptaría si en algún trayecto uno o varios caminantes se unieran por su cuenta y riesgo para acompañarlo?
un abrazo
mauricio

— mauricio torres maldonado · April 8, 2013, 10:11 p.m.
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Paul Salopek

Mauricio: Espero estar acompañado durante la mayor parte de la jornada. Amigos locales son y serán mis “ventanas” a la cultura de cada lugar. Pero my trabajo también require soledad. Entonces las repuesta es complicada y variable — dependerá del lugar y mi tarea narrativa. Lo único que le puedo aconsejar es mantener el contacto.

— Paul Salopek · April 19, 2013, 12:27 p.m.
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Para Mauricio:

Creo que si lees el “Dispatch” titulado “Let's Walk”, veras que en los comentarios Salopek indica que habrán trechos del viaje durante los cuales habria oportunidad de acompañarlo.

— Antonio · April 15, 2013, 10:14 a.m.
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I'm wondering if a burro or pack goat could help you in the Middle East.

— Val Pemberton · May 6, 2013, 12:31 p.m.
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Lab Talk

Can storytelling be slowed to a walking pace in an age of nano-headlines? How do you share a journey that spans not seven days — but seven years? Paul Salopek and his Web partners will be exploring these and other questions here in Lab Talk. Join the discussion. We welcome guest posts from interested walk followers on such topics as the latest multimedia technology, new digital mapping tools, exciting social media experiments about global affairs and the rewards of “slow journalism.”


Dispatches from the Field
via National Geographic

The Out of Eden Walk's journalism is produced in partnership with the National Geographic Society. Follow exclusive dispatches from the trail at outofedenwalk.nationalgeographic.com.