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Books Are Just the BeginningKindle in the Backcountry

Kindle in the Backcountry

By Tamia Nelson

May 24, 2011

The book trade hasn't seen anything like it since Gutenberg started fiddling around with that newfangled movable type, back when the French were booting England off the Continent. What's all the fuss about? E‑books, of course. Amazon, which calls itself the "world's largest bookstore," is selling more e‑books than print books. It's much too early to announce the death of the book, but it's clear that change is in the wind. Many adults — even older, more conservative types — now do most of their reading online or on‑screen. I know I do, and this very column is testament to readers' changing habits.

Luckily, as revolutions go, it's a pretty tame affair. More akin to a bloodless coup than an armed insurrection. But while owners of independent bookshops may have cause to mourn, the e‑book has given paddlers a lot to be thankful for. Not only do we have easy access to thousands of formerly hard‑to‑come‑by titles — explorers' journals, travelers' tales, and how‑to handbooks — all of them available at little or no cost, but we can carry hundreds of volumes in our packs. If you've ever been windbound for three straight days with just one book, or wondered what life was like in and around Moose Factory when it was still Moose Fort, you'll appreciate what this can mean. And e‑book readers like Amazon's Kindle do even more. For instance, my newish Kindle 3G helps me navigate (it holds a small library of PDF quads, and the display is larger than the one on my Garmin GPS). It even lets me (1) check NOAA weather radar to find out whether the storm on the horizon will last an hour or a day, (2) eyeball a gauge reading at a put‑in before I get there, and (3) check my e‑mail — though I can only do those three things when I'm within reach of a cell‑phone network. No matter. It's still a plus.

The upshot? My Kindle is much more than a leisure‑time toy. It's a useful tool and constant companion, whether I'm paddling, hill‑walking, or cycling. But just when I thought I'd figured out everything it could do for me, I discovered a few more applications. It all started when I found myself …

In Need of Instruction

A dud watch battery did the trick. My watch isn't very complicated, but I can never remember how to set the time and date after a battery change. At home I just pull out the little sheet of instructions that came with it. Once I've found a magnifying glass to enlarge the tiny print and translated the text into readable English, I'm good to go. But what if my watch packed it in on a trip? What then? Would I remember every detail of the multi‑step setup? Probably not. And the same thing could be said about the manuals for my digital SLR and GPS. I seldom need to consult these instructions, but when I do, I really do.

In the past, I've had to trust to luck, guessing which manuals I'd need to bring along on a trip and hoping that I'd guessed right. This hasn't been entirely satisfactory. Instruction sheets and manuals — even the 268‑page tome that accompanied my SLR — tend to be small things, easily lost in a pack or left behind at a campsite. And to make matters worse, they're printed on paper that's little better than bum wad. A few drops of moisture and they start to dissolve.

But then I realized I could put my collection of manuals on my Kindle. This was a eureka moment. Many manufacturers make PDF versions of their user guides and manuals available for the price of a click, and the Kindle has no trouble digesting and displaying most PDFs. You can guess the result. I now have a library of instruction sheets and product manuals at my fingertips, even in the backcountry. As long as my Kindle keeps working — so far it's performed flawlessly, but if it ever stops I can always borrow Farwell's — I've got almost everything from cameras to cookers covered. Problem solved.

Then I explored the further implications of my belated epiphany. Since the Kindle handles PDFs so well, and since the 16‑level grayscale display does a pretty good job with all sorts of embedded images, I figured I didn't have to limit myself to user manuals and maps. I generate a lot of PDFs myself, particularly when planning trips. Why not put these on my Kindle, too? Why not, indeed! And here are just a few of the possibilities:

Route Directions and Cue Sheets  Often the trickiest piece of navigation on a trip is getting to the put‑in. Written directions help. A lot. And turn‑by‑turn cue sheets are invaluable for the cycling leg of any amphibious jaunt. Then there's difficult whitewater. This deserves some cue sheets of its own, especially if it's been a while since you ran the drop(s) in question. Of course, you'll be sure to scout, too. Rivers are living things. They change from one year to the next. Moreover, as the flood surging past my doorstep today proves, heavy rain — or the decisions of distant engineers — can turn a trickle into a torrent in a matter of hours.

Still, if you take their limitations into account, there's no denying that cue sheets are very useful things, on and off the water. You'll probably want paper copies for times when you venture out into harm's way, but a waterproof pouch will do much to make your Kindle into an all‑terrain, all‑weather navigation aid. And even if you (sensibly) prefer to keep it tucked safely away while you tackle the rough stuff, having backup copies of all your cue sheets on the Kindle can't hurt, can it?

Contact Information  Getting away from it all doesn't mean you won't need to keep in touch. The Kindle is a great place to store an electronic address book, with the phone numbers and e‑mail addresses of colleagues, friends, and relatives, not to mention campgrounds, motels, and favorite eateries. You probably have many of these on your cell phone, but a PDF list can be a lot more comprehensive. You can keep bookmarks for useful websites in the Kindle's browser, too. Saves a lot of typing.

Checklists and Recipes  This is self‑explanatory, right? And the Kindle makes keeping track of that 10‑page gear list easier than ever. I also load working copies of In the Same Boat articles on my Kindle. Then I can review and annotate them in camp. Well, that's the idea, anyway. There are always rainy days…

Does all this sound too good to be true? It's not. But first you have to generate the PDFs, and if you don't work regularly with documents, or if you aren't familiar with the process of converting text files to PDF, the whole thing can seem like a conjuring trick. Yet this is magic for the masses. I'll suggest a simple workflow approach in a minute. First, though, a few words on …

Finding and Downloading PDF Manuals

The manufacturers' websites are the places to start. More and more of them are making their entire libraries of manuals and user guides, both past and present, available as PDFs. You may have to hunt a bit to find them, but they're probably there. (And if they're not? Send an e‑mail off to the manufacturer.) A case in point: I wanted a PDF manual for my GPS, so I headed over to the Garmin site, then clicked the link for the Support page. Once there, I followed the prompts to get the manual I needed. Here's a screenshot of the downloads page:

Manual Work

The rest was easy. I downloaded both the manual and the "Quick Reference Guide" — it took no more than a minute or two with a rather sluggish broadband connection — then checked both for viruses. This didn't require any extra work on my part, by the way. My virus software automatically screens anything that lands in my Download folder. Then, once the PDFs had received a clean bill of health, I opened them to make sure I'd got what I wanted. (Every so often, a PDF is defective, but if it opens, it's a pretty good bet that it's OK.) Now all I needed to do was to copy the PDFs to the Documents folder on the Kindle, using the included USB cable. When the transfer was complete, I ejected the Kindle and put the manuals in the appropriate collection. (That's Kindlese for folder, more or less).

I did the same thing for every other manual I thought I might want. On the rare occasions when a manufacturer's website was less than helpful, I tried a Google search. This usual did the trick, often taking me right to the download page that I'd been seeking unsuccessfully on the manufacturer's site.

An aside: Many manuals are printed in tiny text, almost impossible to read without a magnifier. But with the Kindle you can zoom right in, making even the smallest text readable. It's a real plus.


All right. I promised I'd say something about creating your own PDFs, and I will. Here's the lowdown on …

Text to PDF Conversions

It's a three‑step process. The good news? All the tools you'll need are free. You can spend a lot of money on proprietary software, of course. But you don't need to. I didn't. Now here are the steps:

  1. Create a document on your computer using any word processor that can export files as PDFs. I use's Writer. It's free, it's multi‑platform, and it's easy to use. Pass the Word!

  2. Once your document is in its final form, just export it as a PDF.

  3. Copy the PDF to your Kindle.

Piece of cake, right? But it pays to glance at the small print, so to speak. As it happens, I do most of my writing with a text editor. This lets me write and code for the Web at the same time. But the text editor I use, TextWrangler, doesn't export PDFs. So when I want to create a PDF from a TextWrangler document, I open the text file in Writer, tweak the formatting as needed, and then export it as a PDF. Occasionally, though, I create a document directly in Writer. This makes generating the PDF even easier.

Here I am working in Writer, preparing to export a document:

Open(Office) Secret

Clicking the highlighted link brings up a panel that gives me some control over the format of the resulting PDF. The default settings usually do the trick. Then it's just a matter of clicking the Export button:

Export Trade

A third panel now appears, allowing me to change the document's name before saving it to the hard drive. Once that's done, I open the new PDF, using Adobe Reader (also free), and check to see that all is as it should be. It is:

Quality Control

I'm done. At this point, my new PDF is ready to copy to the Documents folder on my Kindle. A cautionary note is in order here, however: Font size affects how a PDF is displayed on the Kindle's small screen, so you'll probably need to experiment a bit to strike the best balance. I've found that large fonts work best when I'm formatting documents for the Kindle — much larger than the fonts I'd use for reading on the computer. But you'll soon find what works best for you.

Whatever you write — anything from a gear list to your next best‑selling novel — you can take it from your computer to your Kindle in just a few minutes. And it couldn't be easier. Hope that kindles some fresh ideas!


A Satisfied Customer


If your brain can hold only so much information before it starts to bog down — and you're not alone; even Sherlock Holmes complained that clutter clouded his memory — you'll find that an e‑book reader is a welcome companion in the backcountry. When I bought my Kindle 3G I thought I'd use it only for reading. Then I discovered it could hold whole file drawers worth of quads. And now? I use it to decide on the best line through a tricky drop, help me troubleshoot an exposure setting on my camera, and remind me whether Reggie's Lemon Risotto needs two tablespoons of lemon juice or three. In short, the Kindle has innumerable uses, on and off the water. Books, it seems, are just the beginning.



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