Honing wilderness skills with iPhone in hand

SAN FRANCISCO — Chuck La Tournous was about two minutes into his presentation this week at Macworld 2013, “Tech vs. Wild,” when a Boy Scoutish-looking kid in the audience shot up his hand.

“I go camping a lot,” he said, “but they won’t let us take our tech into the woods.”

That sort of anti-geek outdoorsman mentality may soon be going the way of analog television. At the 29th annual Macworld, the message was that when the going gets tough, the tough get even techier.

“The idea is that tech can be useful in the great outdoors,” said La Tournous, a 50-year-old blogger from western New Jersey and founder of TrailCamper.com. “As a kid, you maybe could have taken your Walkman on a campout, but today there’s a lot of good reasons to take tech with you. It doesn’t distract from the outdoors experience, it enhances it.”

The San Jose Mercury News decided to take a hike with La Tournous, along with some of the survival products he’s reviewed on his website. But instead of heading for the trails, we joined him on a walk through the urban wilderness just a few blocks from San Francisco’s Moscone Center.

We left Macworld and headed toward Market and Sixth streets, where the drug-dealing, Dumpster-diving, panhandling denizens can make an out-of-towner feel like a babe in the woods.

While some of La Tournous’ tech tools, like stargazing apps and waterproof smartphone cases, are clearly more suited for the wilderness, he said others would come in handy in an urban environment gone bad. That would include terrorist attacks, civil unrest, earthquakes or other natural disasters. He got to personally test this theory recently after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power in his hometown for more than a week.

Walking up Market, La Tournous pulled out one of the survival tools he presented at Macworld. It’s a portable solar battery charger the size of a large napkin (Goal Zero, $80 plus a $30 rechargeable battery) that can charge your iPhone with just three to four hours of sunlight. If power goes out, as it did after Sandy, you can still keep your phone juiced up.

And if cell coverage dies, as it did after the storm, La Tournous recommends SPOT Connect ($170, with yearly $99 subscription). If you’re bumped off the grid, either in the woods or in a post-disaster urban environment, this small device sends a message via satellite to send in the cavalry.

Walking down Sixth, through a phalanx of the shifty-eyed and sinister, La Tournous showed off more tools for times when things go bad. There’s the PowerPot from Practical Power ($149), a thermoelectric generator that transforms the heat of a fire into electricity for charging devices just by boiling a pot of water — “All you need is fire,” he said, “so this will get you power even if the sun’s not out.”

Then there’s the water purifier that uses ultraviolet light (SteriPEN, $99) to clean a liter of drinking water in 48 seconds. “After Sandy, a lot of towns had boil advisories,” Tournous said, “so this would have taken care of the problem of getting drinking water.”

After showing off several seemingly indestructible smartphone cases, which would be nice to have if you’re caught up in a riot and your phone goes flying, La Tournous pulled out the piece de resistance: The Opena iPhone Bottle Opener ($40), which in a way could be considered the ultimate survival tool.

Why? Incorporated into a sturdy protective smartphone cover is an opener to crack that bottle of beer you’ll need after leaving the relative safety of Macworld to spend time on the mean streets of San Francisco.