Using a Digital Voice Recorder as a Trail Journal

 Digital Voice Recorder

Over the years, I’ve tried countless different notepads and ultralight miniature space pen combos for keeping notes about what I experience each day when I’m on the trail. Each evening before I go to sleep, I try to write a few pages of thoughts about what happened when, what I was feeling during the day, cool animals or new plants I saw, landscape descriptions, notes about gear performance and technique, and so on. These little details help me add color to my trip reports.

But keeping a written notebook has not worked for me. First off, I never get much written before I fall asleep at night. After about 3 pages, I’m dead to the world. Then there’s humidity: the notebooks get damp and then soaked and then congeal into a solid lump if it rains. And finally, there’s the fact that I can’t write legibly anymore. I’ve been typing on a computer keyboard for over 30 years and my penmanship has suffered. I can do it if I really want to, but cursive and even printing are hard for me to do in any sustained way.

Instead, I’ve decided to go digital and picked up a refurbished Sony ICDP620 Digital Voice Recorder for about $40 to bring on my trips. It only weighs 2.3 oz, including 2 AAA batteries. My old pen and notebook combos weighed 2.0 oz ,or a bit less if I ripped out some of the extra pages to save weight.

I’ve discussed this move with other long distance hikers I know and some of them have even tried it with good results. They use their digital voice recorder to record details during the day, interview their hiking partners, and record notes to themselves about the people they meet on the trail. It’s funny how rich those impromptu conversations can be when you hike up to someone in the middle of nowhere. They take on new meaning when you haven’t talked to anyone all day.

If you’re interested in getting a digital voice recorder there are a couple of thing you should be aware of when you are evaluating different models. Some have the ability to generate high quality, podcast-ready mp3s, while others only pump out a proprietary sound file format. This wasn’t important for me but would be useful to know about if you want to post stuff on the web. Podcast capable units however, tend to be very expensive, so I went with a refurbished unit.

The DVR I purchased comes with enough on-board memory to hold 260 hours of recording, it has a built in mike as well as jacks for headphone and an external microphone. I don’t expect to be using those, but they’re nice to have.

The other must-have feature for me was a USB connector so I could transfer sound files to my computer for long term storage and back them up using the online backup service I use to backup all of my photos and itunes music. I’ve had two computers die on me since I started writing sectionhiker and I’ll never lose irreplaceable digital photos or content again.

Disclosure: The author owns this product and purchased it using their own funds.

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7 Responses to Using a Digital Voice Recorder as a Trail Journal

  1. John Y July 10, 2009 at 4:10 am #

    I've used my camera and MP3 player for voice recording in the past. With multi Gb storage comonplace on these devices, the record time should be more than adequate, and of course if you carry them anyway, there is no added weight.

  2. Earlylite July 10, 2009 at 4:23 am #

    I thought about using my digital camera as a voice recorder, but it only works if I'm recording a video, which chews up memory. I'll probably end up replacing most of electronics this year and will try to consolidate functions then. What we need is an all-in-one personal locater beacon, cell phone, digital voice recorder, hi resolution digital camera, GPS, and alarm clock in one solar powered 4 oz waterproof unit. Wasn't that the goal of digital convergence?

  3. md July 12, 2009 at 5:39 am #

    There's some appeal to the voice recording solution, but it's not easily searchable and difficult to skim. Are you planning on transcribing your voice recordings when you get back to civilization after each trip?

    I already find it rather a chore to sort through my digital photos when I'm back. I don't think I'd want to have to spend additional time putting a recording into written form.

  4. Earlylite July 12, 2009 at 5:46 am #

    I probably won't transcribe them but use them as a sequential record of filler for my trip reports. There may be times when I do save them longer term but the intent is mainly as a replacement for paper & pencil.

  5. woolybear June 19, 2010 at 5:32 pm #

    A year later are you ready to revisit solar power and digital convergence? Did anyone on the Chally use solar? Does a spare package of lithiums still seem simpler? I value redundancy but I want my gadgets to take a back seat in the woods so one gadget instead of 4 or 5 really appeals. Oh, and add to your function list above NOAA weather broadcasts and blogging. Right now I carry cell, camera, GPS, nano. I have really wanted voice-activated recorder for long car rides to and from trips.

  6. Earlylite June 20, 2010 at 2:58 am #

    Gadget consolidation would be nice, but is not a priority for me. I'm perfectly happy to carry a few spare batteries and I'd look daft carrying a giant DSLR into a meeting just so I could get a recording of a conference call.

  7. Rocky February 24, 2012 at 3:34 am #

    I’ve been using digital voice recorders for 7 years now, just replaced one with a broken switch.

    I use mine on solo day hikes and backpack trips. I’ll come back from a 3-4 hour hike with 45+ minutes of recordings. I returned from a 100 mile backpack trip with about 8 hours of recordings.

    For me, a recorder must be easy to operate without squinting at a screen or deciphering inscrutable buttons. You’d be surprised how many recorders fail this simple usability test. Unfortunately my new recorder is just a little bit over the line on the inscrutable button scale.

    This requirement also eliminates cameras, phones, and other multi-purpose gadgets. I’d rather carry the extra 2-3 ounces and capture my thoughts, than leave a hard-to-use recorder in my pack and capture nothing. Sometimes I forget my recorder but not my iPhone, and I mostly swear at the iPhone instead of capturing my thoughts.

    I usually transcribe my recordings into various computer files, but that’s getting tedious. I’m considering transcription services, where you send in the recordings by email or upload, and they return the transcription.

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