Why go offline on the Cape Wrath Trail – and how?

Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone. That is the secret of invention. Be alone. That is when ideas are born.

—Nikola Tesla

For some years, I’ve been aware that I can’t think properly when my mind is exposed to the web.

It is a busy, vibrant hive of splendours. Tools and platforms that exist on the internet have enabled and eased my work. Many of my most rewarding personal and professional human connections have been forged here. Let me state for the record that I’m no luddite; I chose a degree in computing science, and I’ve been a technology enthusiast since childhood. At its best, I love the web.

But there is a hidden dark side. I have struggled with it for many years.

Fighting the noise

An overloaded planet leads to an overloaded mind.

—Matt Haig

The web is a place where hundreds of millions of voices, human and machine, churn out content, hot takes, reactions, backlash, witty retorts, insults, fake news, and everything else in a stupefyingly vast galaxy of connections – information as religion and the wisdom of the crowd as ideology. The noise is deafening. The pace is bewildering. It’s far beyond human scale.

I try to use the web meaningfully, by going to a specific site to perform a specific task and then getting on with my life, but as the internet eats the world – and as consumerism eats the internet – this becomes more and more difficult. Shutting out the noise and finding focus becomes harder. It’s easier just to go with the flow and let the noise wash over you. The problem is that the noise of the web annihilates my ability to think creatively – maybe even to think at all. The illusion of thought is there, but only after I’ve taken myself offline for 48 hours or so, ended the bombardment of external ideas and opinions, do my own real thoughts begin once more to surface.

This is a huge part of why I love long-distance hiking so much: because I can finally think again, free from the oppressive buzz of all those opinions and ideas from others
I can’t speak for you, but I have long known that spending time online makes me just a bit less human, just a bit more machine. I have to fight hard to keep my linear mind alive – the part of me that can sit and do nothing but listen to a symphony from start to finish, without feeling compelled to check Twitter or look up some pointless factoid on Wikipedia or just flip through apps for no better reason than I’ve been conditioned to do so. The linear mind is the best part of me, the part that can read a novel in one sitting, the part that creates things of true value. But there’s no place for the linear mind online, and spending time here actively stunts it1. I feel trapped between my appreciation for all the good things I love about the web and its insidious, multi-decade war against my creativity and attention.

I’ve been working to nourish my linear mind for the last couple of years. As my mind recovers its ability to concentrate intensively on creative tasks – as I rediscover the true voice of my own thoughts – the one thing I crave above all else is silence.

I find this silence in the remotest, wildest places, where I have no choice but to be offline. My very best ideas come to me in these places. This is a huge part of why I love long-distance hiking so much: because I can finally think again, free from the oppressive buzz of all those opinions and ideas from others.

My mind thrives in solitude, and solitude is difficult to find on the web.

The definition of solitude

Even when we are alone it is only a provisional solitude if the world is only a click away.

—Neil Ansell

When I attempt a winter Cape Wrath Trail in February 2019, I want to find solitude on my terms. That means going offline for the entire duration of my hike. I have no objection to technology in itself; the purpose of this exercise is simply to see what, if anything, happens when I remove myself from the web for a multi-week period. Let’s see what quality of silence I am able to discover out there.

I will carry my iPhone. It will be used for the following tasks:

  • Communicating with family, friends and supporters by voice call and SMS. This will also be how I receive weather and avalanche information.
  • Digital mapping with ViewRanger.
  • Audiobooks and music (finding silence is all very well and good, but Scottish winter nights are awfully long, and a person can have too much of a good thing).
  • Recording voice memos.

The iPhone will be prevented from accessing either mobile data or Wi-Fi by configuring the iOS Screen Time feature. My wife will set a Screen Time PIN to prevent me from overriding it. She will text me the PIN when I reach Cape Wrath.

I will also be carrying a SPOT X satellite communicator for safety reasons. I will use it to send and receive SMS messages with my wife and supporters. I will not configure it for active tracking, and it will not be used to post updates to social media. There’s also an SOS button should I need it.

That’s about it. I hope I have made some sense in this attempt to explain why I am doing this. I welcome questions, and will endeavour to answer them until I leave on the 5th of February.


  1. Carr, Nicholas: The Shallows.  ↩

2 Comments

Excellent article, Alex. Very thought provoking. I agree that the Internet does, at times, make us a little less human. It is certainly a time killer. The social media side also too often leads to conflict eg you and I have had the occasional Twitter spat- nothing serious thankfully – which almost certainly wouldn’t have happened face-to-face when communication can be more nuanced and subtle.

I’ll be interested to hear more about the effectiveness of tbe Spot X. I have the Spot Gen3 and would like to know whether to upgrade.

Good luck on the CW Trail. Hope you get a crisp, dry spell.

Thanks, David. I found it very interesting recently to read ‘You Are Not a Gadget’ by Jaron Lanier, which puts forward the hypothesis that social networks are actively reducing the very concept of personhood. It’s an illuminating book. I recommend it! Face-to-face interaction is certainly a lot more nuanced – and I’d go so far as to say that even interaction on a blog is more nuanced and human than Twitter.

The long-term forecast is looking a bit iffy now. Fingers crossed!

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