Tech – blogging

Daily blog

I’d made writing a daily blog another important aim of my hike. I wanted to do it so that I’d be able to share my daily travails with others – especially the 200 or so people who had been generous enough to sponsor me.   In the end, writing the blog every evening after a long day’s walking, turned out to be one of the hardest yet most rewarding aspects of whole exercise. 

I’d considered various different approaches to blogging software but after taking advice from an IT expert friend of my son’s (Nathan Ruttley) I chose WordPress as my on-line blogging platform. Over the summer of 2013, Nathan set up the basic structure of this website and then “handed the keys over to me” for further development. So this website, which hosted the blog, was built on a WordPress ver 4 platform (though this updates from time to time) and currently uses the “2013” theme.

I can’t pretend that I’m an expert in either web design or construction and I found WordPress both impressive and frustrating to use. I made extensive use of “plugins” to add functionality – for example the ability to display interactive maps, and to download files. I also used WordPress to display all my photos and generally speaking that worked well.

The big disadvantage of WordPress is that you have to be on-line to use it, and getting photos and text to display exactly how I wanted, where I wanted, proved to be very fiddly. There are a variety of apps you can use on the iPhone and iPad which are supposed to improve access and assist in uploading photos, but generally I found they didn’t work very well.

So to make life a bit easier for myself, I built my own off-line blogging tool in “Excel”. I created a structured spreadsheet where I could enter my blog text, photo captions and walk statistics, and it would automatically generate the HTML code to display the daily blog in the right format.  It had a separate tab for each day of the walk, and the daily statistics automatically cumulated from one tab to the next, meaning I could get running totals as I went and didn’t have to do all the adding up manually.  I could fill in all the details offline, then just cut-and-paste the HTML code into WordPress when I could get on line. Then I just had to upload the photos, place them in the right position on the blog, and publish. It wasn’t perfect but it certainly made everything a lot easier. In case you’d like to use this offline blogging tool yourself, I’ve made it available for free download here:

Web Post HTML Generator (737 KB)


Screenshot of the web-post HTML generator used for blogging
Screenshot of the web-post HTML generator used for blogging

When I loaded my daily blogs, they appeared as WordPress “Posts”. These original posts are available to view by clicking here. For a variety of technical reasons, I subsequently made copies of these and converted them to pages, which form the mainstay of the website now and can be viewed by clicking here.

By far the biggest challenge in writing the blog was in getting online so I could login to WordPress and upload my photos and HTML code.

I’d hoped I’d be able to use my iPad (the same one as I used for navigation) to do this but I quickly found that while the iPad is great for many things – such as navigation – it has a lot of drawbacks which made it unsuitable for blogging. The first was that Microsoft Excel wouldn’t run on it, so I couldn’t use the offline HTML tool (though there is an iPad version of excel available now, but I haven’t had much luck with it). The second was that you can’t use a mouse with an iPad and it’s impossible position HTML code and photos precisely enough when you’re logged onto WordPress, just by dragging and dropping with your finger. And third, getting the photos off my phone, where I had taken them, to my iPad proved complicated (my iPhone 4s didn’t support “airdrop” and I’ve subsequently found airdrop to be unreliable anyway). Plus it was hard to deal with the “upside down photos” problem (see photography page).

So I had no option but to buy a fully specced Windows laptop and carry it with me. This had all the flexibility and functionality I needed, but of course added weight.

The Asus laptop "convertible" I carried for blogging - with travel mouse (lightweight, and with retractable USB cable)
The Asus laptop “convertible” I carried for blogging – with travel mouse (lightweight, and with retractable USB cable)

In the end, I bought an Asus Transformer T100 Windows 8 “convertible” laptop (i.e. it has a detachable keyboard with touchscreen capability – though I always used it in keyboard mode). I found the Asus had some serious drawbacks – the small (32GB) hard drive being the most significant, and which I partly overcame by adding a 128GB micro SDXC card. I also found the lack of mobile data, lack of GPS and lack of a backlit keyboard annoying. But on the plus side, it wasn’t too expensive (about £300 without the SD card), was very light and small and had a very long lasting battery (see “power” page).   The ability to charge it via a micro USB cable was also surprisingly handy, as it meant that I didn’t have to carry a separate bespoke charger around with me.   It also proved reliable and never once let me down even after being used in a variety of difficult circumstances (the most challenging being in a field full of curious cows which insisted on dribbling all over me and only narrowly missed the laptop..).

charging all devices from battery
Keeping everything powered up from my rechargeable Li-Ion battery

So at the end of each day’s walk, I downloaded all my photos from my iPhone to the laptop, rotated them (see “photography” page) so they were all the right way up, filled in my blog, captions and walk statistics in my offline HTML generator, then logged in to WordPress and uploaded the whole lot.

Incidentally I had a great deal of problems connecting my iPhone and iPad to the USB port on my laptop. I found that many cables simply failed to connect reliably and in the end found that Anker cables generally seemed best for the lightning connector on my iPad and cables from StarTech were best for the 20 pin connector on my iPhone.

Anker charger
Everything USB….

Getting on line was always a hassle. I needed a good network connection because every evening I had to upload about 20MB of data (most of the data being in the pictures). Generally speaking I had to go to a pub or cafe to use their wifi (almost all pubs and cafes in the UK now seem to have free wifi). I also made very extensive use of BT wifi hotspots (which is actually an excellent service and is free if you are a BT broadband customer) and which are, in some remote places, the only hope of finding a way of getting on line. Some of the more modern campsites had good wifi networks which did give me the luxury of being able to write my blog from the tent – but these were few and far between and usually expensive subscription services.

Using the only wifi hotspot in the Flow country to upload my blog! (the hotspot came from the tin house in the background) - at Kinbrace
Using the only wifi hotspot in the Flow country to upload my blog! (the hotspot came from the tin house in the background) – at Kinbrace

Before I set off I had naively hoped that I’d be able to use the 3G Vodafone mobile phone network to get on line, by creating a mobile wifi hotspot from my iPhone.  But I quickly found that the UK 3G network is very poor. Outside a few main cities, there was no 3G access at all and I would guess that at least 95% of my walk was outside Vodafone’s 3G area. Although gprs (2G) coverage was very good – probably 90% of my walk was in coverage – it is so slow for network access that it is unusable. I occasionally found an EDGE (2.5G) signal and did once manage to get on line but it was excruciatingly slow.

I also carried O2 and EE 3G usb data sticks which increased the 3G coverage beyond just Vodafone. But generally I didn’t have much success. The O2 network coverage was worse than Vodafone’s and to use the data stick required installing complicated software which interfered with my laptop’s wifi access software. So although I tried a few times I never once managed to get online with it. I had more success with EE – the 3G coverage was much better than Vodafone or O2’s and the data stick presented fewer technical problems. I managed to get on line with it from my tent on several occasions – including some pretty remote places like Shiel Bridge.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think I would probably have been better off just getting another second hand iPhone 4S from eBay and putting in an EE SIM with a pay-as-you-go contract.   That way I’d have had a spare iPhone in case of emergency, and been able to use it to create a wifi hotspot from the EE network

In some remoter parts of Scotland, like Kinlochhourn and Oykel Bridge, I got on line via a satellite uplink. Generally, where I could get access to one of these, they worked very well. In fact if it wasn’t for the eye-watering cost, if I were doing the walk again I would seriously consider taking a mobile satellite data system with me (e.g. inmarsat). It would have offered a lot more flexibility and removed a lot of the stress I had every evening in trying to find somewhere to get on line.

Satellite broadband system I used at Kinloch Hourn to get online
Satellite broadband system I used at Kinloch Hourn to get online

As well as getting my laptop online, I also had to get my iPad online so I could transfer the day’s GPX file, recorded using the Viewranger app. to my Dropbox account (I could then get a web link to the dropbox file which I posted into my blog so people could download my track if they wanted). So even if I could get online on my laptop with my USB stick, I still had to find a wifi hotspot or suitable 3G connection to get the iPad on line.   And made doubly complicated by the very poor wifi connectivity of the iPad mini 1 (I believe newer models are better).

So – that’s how I did my blog. Every evening, I also updated my Facebook page and tweeted about the day’s events. If I could get on line during the day, I would also send one or two Facebook and Twitter updates every day as I was walking (incidentally, unlike WordPress, I found I could upload picture to Facebook over gprs if I had a very strong signal). With these various electronic updates, I built a reasonable on-line following.   Up to 40 “likes” on my FaceBook posts, and some 200-300 daily visitors to my website. This, combined with the positive feedback I’ve received on the blog, made it all worthwhile. But whether I’d do it again or not, I don’t know. I certainly enjoy going on hikes now, and not having to spend 3 hours every night fiddling with the technology!