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GEAR AND GADGETS

New Devices for Hikers and Left-Handed Klutzes : Hit the outdoors with a sound amplifier, mini- telescope, headlamp and knife for southpaws.

April 04, 1993|JUDI DASH

The sounds of nature just got louder, thanks to a hearing aid that picks up only high-frequency sounds--the kind usually made by animals--but not low-frequency ones like people talking and background noise. Walker's Game Ear, developed by Bob Walker, a Pennsylvania hearing-aid specialist and nature lover, attaches to the ear like a regular hearing aid and operates much the same way, using a miniature microphone to amplify sound.

Bird-watchers will no doubt thrill to the sound of a rare chirp magnified three to five times, and hikers can listen for the crackle of deer sprinting through dry leaves or turtles splashing in a brook.

I took the Game Ear to New Jersey's Delaware Water Gap, an area with abundant bird life, and found it did indeed fill my ear with all manner of tweets and crackles. The experience was disorienting at first, as I could not tell which direction the sounds were coming from and at times felt trapped in an echo chamber. But with practice (the device can be adjusted), the Game Ear was a fun product. Though it is designed to be worn on only one ear, friends who have tried using one on each ear rave that now they can listen to nature in stereo.

Game Ear, $173 from Walker's Game Ear Inc.; (800) 424-1069.

Moving on to the sense of sight: Minox, makers of the miniature "spy camera," is marketing a small pocket telescope that magnifies objects eight-fold--a boon to backpackers and city walkers alike. You home in on your target with one eye using the regular lens of the German-made telescope, and then move your eye down slightly for a eight-power magnification, focusing with a wheel at the top corner of the device.

Four inches long and just a half-inch thick, the telescope is not much bigger than a business card and weighs just 2.2 ounces, and this makes it a nifty alternative to heavy binoculars. And after a rough day on the trail, you can wipe off the mud and take the Minox to the opera.

There's nothing to mastering the telescope. I found it easy to focus even while wearing glasses. I took it everywhere for a week--zooming in on hawks swooping over a mountaintop, people whispering in restaurants, the highest windows of 30-story buildings. Nothing to report, except that a colleague absconded with the telescope for an entire weekend to keep track of his shots on the golf course.

Minox T8 Pocket Telescope, $315 at camera stores, or by mail order from Monrad's, Modesto, Calif.; (800) 545-4205. (Shipping and handling is extra.) Any camper who's had to visit the woods in the middle of the night knows the awkwardness of maneuvering a flashlight, clothes and toilet paper. Can't be done--unless your hands are free. That's where the headlamp manufactured by REI comes in handy. Powered by a battery pack in a plastic case attached to an adjustable elastic headband, the lightweight lantern pivots on a hinge for aim, and can be turned on and off with the flick of a switch.

I've found numerous uses for the head-lamp: reading at night (in a tent or a hotel room, when I didn't want to disturb my companion by turning on a table lamp); navigating through caves, finding my car in a dark parking lot. I've given the headlamp as gifts to at least a dozen hiker friends, all of whom found it of great help.

The headlamp comes in two sizes (I own both), and each has its advantages. The regular-size lamp, which uses four AA batteries (not included), lasts longer and shines brighter, and a little niche in the screw-off bulb case holds an extra bulb (included). The smaller "mini-version" uses 2 AA batteries and has no spare bulb compartment, but it's a good weight and I tend to favor it when I'm packing.

Cordless II Headlamp (item No. J410-004), $24; Mini Headlamp (J410-134), $18.50, from REI; (800) 426-4840.

Left-handed people suffer myriad indignities--smearing ink over their own handwriting, having to learn to play a guitar right-handed. But one thing they no longer must endure is the right-handed bent of their trusty Swiss Army knife. Wenger, one of two manufacturers of the distinguished multi-function utensils, has developed a line of Swiss Army knives specifically for southpaws. Available in five versions, from the eight-tool Viking to the 16-tool Matterhorn Plus, the knives are designed with a reverse spiral on the corkscrew, inverse machining and mounting of the scissors, and inverse machining of the can opener. The other tools also are inversely machined and mounted, a subtle distinction that nevertheless makes the knife more comfortable to handle.

I, a lefty, have owned Swiss Army knives for 20 years and always thought my problems with them were the result of a mental deficiency. I sampled the left-handed nine-tool Traveler version, and was amazed and delighted to discover I'm normal after all. Southpaw Swiss Army Knife, Traveler model, $40 (other models, $25-$85), including a leather belt sheath, from Portside Properties, a Massachusetts mail-order company specializing in products for lefties; (800) 825-3389.

While not as snazzy as a hand-carved walking stick, a collapsible cane can come in handy. This 10-ounce version folds down to an exceedingly packable nine inches. The four aluminum sections collapse with the help of a heavy-duty elastic cable, and there's a hardwood handle with finger grips. This is not designed to be taken into the mud--the joints can get clogged--and a rough mountain trek demands a sturdier stick. But the cane is fine for a stroll in the hills or a trek through the city.

Folding Cane in two sizes, 33 inches (No. WA221R) or 36 inches (No. WA221L), $20 , from Magellan's; ( 800 ) 962-4943.

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