2020 – A Decade of Lessons Learned . . . Electronics and Technology


Lessons Learned:

  1. A good power bank (battery) is essential.
  2. Invest in learning how to use devices and apps.
  3. Apps have improved my experiences.
  4. Electronics are a tool but dead weight if not utilized.
  5. Photography is a huge part of every adventure.
  6. Accident insurance is worth every penny.

Although hefty, electronics have become a weight penalty I’m willing to accept as I find great value and enjoyment from technology. I still prefer carrying a camera to using the one on my phone as I don’t find the quality comparable. Additionally my phone uses far more battery than my camera. I also prefer map apps on my phone to a GPS device. I find phone apps to be more user friendly with more flexibility. Having a satellite communication devise is non negotiable. It holds me accountable and keeps me more responsible while also offering a safety and security.

Phone:

Rarely do I have cell signal while hiking and backpacking. I keep my phone on airplane mode and primarily use it for the following functions:

  • Map Apps – I currently use Gaia as my primary digital mapping and tracking app. I pay for premium membership which includes helpful layers such as National Geographic, National Parks, USFS, snow levels, fire history, geology, etc. You can find great tutorials on YouTube and the Gaia blog. I also use Avenza and wrote this blog post with helpful tips, Hiking with Geospatial PDF Maps (Avenza).
  • Trail Specific Apps – There are general apps such as All Trails and REI’s Hiking Project which help you find nearby trails and provide user comments as to current conditions.
  • Park Specific Apps – I’ve gotten in the habit of checking the app store before going to a State for National Park as often they have their own apps which are helpful in planning and gaining insights.
  • Identification Apps – This is one of my favorite features of smart phones. I have several wildflower apps. It’s worth checking to see if there are ones specific to a particular area you’re visiting. Another favorite app is Peak Finder where I can take a photo of mountains and it adds names and elevations. It helps me later when I’m looking at my photos. Other fun apps I use are related to geology, astronomy and scat and tracks. I also have helpful apps such as ones focused on first aid, knots, and slope angles. One in particular helps me level my car when using it as a sleeping vehicle.
  • E-Books – I spend a lot of my down time reading so having books available on my phone is a necessity.
  • Screen Shots – I use this in conjunction with my maps to note location on map showing feature I may have photographed with camera. I also use it to note time I was at certain places and the associated stats from my tracker.
  • Camera/Video – I tend to use my phone for selfies and videos.

Battery life is an important feature for me since I’m fairly dependent on my phone, especially as a navigational aid. It’s at the top or near the top of the list when I’m looking for a new phone. Tip: investigate best ways to extend battery life on your particular phone.

Satellite Communicator:

My inReach is my security blanket, plus it keeps me accountable and responsible. I’m diligent about using it consistently so if my pings disappear hopefully someone will notice and begin the process of finding out if I need help or if I had a technology failure.

The key function is SOS which utilizes a satellite network. After carrying this device for several years, I had to push the SOS button in 2018. It worked as expected. Be sure to set up your emergency contacts online in advance. Here’s the link to the details of my experience: Life Interrupted . . . Forever Grateful for the SOS Button

One of the reasons I chose inReach over other units was the two-way texting option. Competitor products may have this as a feature now as well. Not only do I use this for check-ins but also for urgent issues. Examples:

  • While hiking the PCT in Washington, my power bank (external battery) was failing. I was able to contact a friend who had a replacement shipped to my next resupply town.
  • It had been raining for multiple days and I wanted/needed a hotel room. I texted a friend and she made a reservation and texted back with confirmation.
  • My mom fell and broke her hip. My niece messaged me and I was able to stay in touch while she underwent emergency surgery.

Most of these devices require a subscription service. Garmin has several plans including a flexible option which allows for putting the unit on vacation mode. Since I’m on a budget I have the safety plan which includes unlimited preset messages. This allows me to have tracking without paying the tracking fee. I send a message at the beginning and end of my trip indicating the location of my car, every evening and morning from my campsite, and each time I change trail or find myself crossing sketchy terrain including uncomfortable water crossings. I can also text any major change of plans.

I’ve been using this unit for many years without incident. I consider it an essential item and wouldn’t hike without a satellite communicator.

Camera:

While phone cameras have significantly improved over the past decade, I still prefer my camera for a few reasons.

  • Battery Life – I can usually get about 500 photos per battery on my camera, which can then be recharged from my external battery; however, I usually carry an extra in case of battery failure. I’ve also had memory card failures so I keep one in my emergency kit. Yes there is a small weight penalty for these non-essential items but because photography adds to my experience it’s worth it to me. Taking photos on my phone drains the battery quickly.
  • Photo Quality – I’ve never had a phone that takes the same quality images.  When I compare side-by-side photos taken at the same time, there is no contest. If I were just taking photos for instagram or facebook, my phone would be fine.
  • Photo Processing – I takes tons of photos. It’s rare I come back from an outing with less than 500-1000 images. I download the memory card to my computer where I can review, edit, organize, back up and share.

External Battery (Power Bank):

  • Size – There are lots of options from which to match your needs. I carry an Anker with 10,000 mAh. It usually keeps my phone charged for up to a week, even while running my Gaia tracker, plus if needed I can use for camera, inReach and headlamp. Anker has been a reliable brand for long distance backpackers for many years. You’ll want to do plenty of research to determine price, weight, fast charge, input/output options, etc. This Anker power bank (Amazon link) is a good starting point.
  • Cords – I found short cords to provide more efficient charge than longer ones (Amazon link). Research indicates it’s most efficient to recharge your phone when it’s no less than 30% and to stop at 80%.
  • Wall Charger – If you plan to recharge along your journey, you’ll want a light, small and fast charger. Once again I recommend Anker but don’t have one to recommend as I haven’t done the research recently.
  • Solar Charger – There are very few instances I’d carry a solar charger. Those include when I plan to be out for more than a week and/or I’m primarily dependent on my phone for navigation. Even then I’d be more likely to bring two power banks. The reasons are:
    • Weight of solar charges are usually more or similar to a power bank.
    • You still need to carry a power bank as few devices accept the trickle charge provided by a solar charger.
    • You need to be disciplined about placing the solar charger in direct sun during your breaks (while keeping the power bank in the shade)
    • Solar charges aren’t very efficient when they aren’t in the direct sun for long periods of time. While you can mount on your pack, the panels are rarely in alignment with the sun.

Insurance:

I have a history of having accidents with my electronics while hiking.

  • Camera #1 – dropped in a creek, but rescued and saved with the rice/freezer method, only to break the screen a few months later when I sat on it on a concrete bench.
  • Camera #2 – chipped the lens

Then I discovered Squaretrade Accident Insurance.

  • Camera #3 – dropped in the sand, outside my insurance period. I think I might have bought 2 years, now I buy 4 years.
  • Camera #4 – dropped in the sand. Sent in for repair under accident insurance.
  • Camera #4 – dropped on rock, shattered screen. Sent in for repair under accident insurance.

When I purchased my inReach and my phone, I added the insurance. It’s worth the peace of mind knowing something might happen on that first outing. The cost is very reasonable and is related to the price you paid for the item.

Loss Prevention:

  • Add your name and phone number to your items to help it find it’s way back to you
  • Add some duck tape or other easily identifiable tape to make it easy to differentiate your items from another hiker especially in areas where you might be sharing recharge plugs.

Related Posts:

Links:

Me and My CRV – Safety, Security, Self Reliance

There are inherent risks with both life on the road and car camping. Much like my life at home or in the wilderness, I believe in being prepared for the what ifs that you hope never happen.

Vehicle Maintenance:

  • Before leaving for a trip, take care of any standard maintenance issues such as oil changes and tire rotations.
  • Verify your spare tire is at the recommended air pressure.
  • Budget for maintenance along the way depending on trip mileage.
  • Budget for repairs. In 2016, I had my first flat tire; in 2015 a tiny fender bender.

Vehicle Insurance:

  • Review your policy to ensure it is sufficient to cover the additional miles, states, countries you may be visiting.
  • Maintain a copy of your policy information (it may already be available online).

Vehicle Contents Insurance:

  • Most likely your car insurance does not include content coverage.
  • Review your home owners or renters insurance. These typically cover vehicle contents. Keep the details readily available.
  • Take time to make a list of your vehicle contents. It simplifies reporting theft and recovery.

Vehicle Emergencies:

  • Consider roadside emergency coverage. If you already have a policy, review to verify details. Before you became a vagabond, you might have had a policy that only tows 5 miles. Consider upgrading to 100 miles. Beware that most policies do not cover assistance on forest service roads, etc.
  • Canned air (might give you enough tire pressure to get back to a main road or tire repair facility)
  • Battery charger and jumper cables. Tip: Tiny portable power banks for jump starting your car are now available (see below photo). 

Travel Conditions:

  • Tire chains
  • Shovel

Personal Security:

  • InReach – I already own this device for backpacking and hiking purposes, but I also use it to check in while on the road. When I leave the highway, I’ll send a waypoint to my map. I’ll do the same each evening and each morning. If I don’t check in, I have written a plan of action for my family. You can also use this device to text for help, when you don’t have cell service (i.e. if you break down or are delayed in meeting someone).
  • I lock my car when I’m sleeping, which activates the alarm. If anyone were to break in, the loud shrieking noise may deter further advancements even if I’m in a remote location with no one else around.
  • Wasp Spray is more effective than pepper spray due to the additional distance you can be away from an assailant, plus much less expensive.
  • If you are outside your car, but nearby, and feel threatened, activate the car alarm with your key fob.
  • Trust your gut. Don’t park somewhere you don’t feel safe. Be prepared to move if the situation changes.

Personal Practicalities:

  • Recharging Electronics
    • I carry an external battery and recharge it regularly. Many times because I’m using my phone for maps, music and reading, it doesn’t get fully recharged while driving so I’ll charge it at night from the external battery.
    • I also carry an inverter to recharge my computer while I’m driving.
  • Photos
    • If you’re taking photos on your phone, set your app to back them up online regularly. Unless you have an unlimited data plan, you’ll want to limit upload to when you’re on WiFi.
    • If you’re taking photos on your camera, you’ll want to back them up. SIM cards are known to fail. Many of the newer cameras have a WiFi option where you can store a copy online. Mine doesn’t so I use my computer to copy from the SIM card to a USB drive. I organize the photos into folders on the USB drive based on location, then create subfolders with the best photos. When I have WiFi access I’ll upload the best photos to Google for further backup.
  • Lost or Stolen Phone
    • Do you know how to ping and lock your phone?
    • Keep the instructions handy, including the number of your carrier.
    • Verify your contacts are backed up, so if you need to replace, it won’t be such a painful process.
  • Passwords
    • Most likely you’ll be managing your bills and accounts online while your traveling. Store an accessible but secure list of your passwords and apps/website links (or make available to a trusted friend or family member).
  • Lost or Stolen Wallet
    • Maintain a list of your credit card numbers and contact numbers on your secure online list (or make available to a trusted friend or family members).
  • ICE (In Case of Emergency)
    • Use the ICE option on your phone to flag emergency contacts. That way even if your phone is locked, others can access your family/friends should an incident occur.

Tip: Travel with a tiny backpack or other carrying device you can grab when you leave your car unattended (i.e. shopping, sightseeing, etc). Keep stuff with you that will be a major hassle to replace (or trip ending) such as passport, phone, wallet, camera.

More posts about Me and My CRV

Backpacking Gear List – Electronics Jabber

My BASE WEIGHT is about 14 pounds, with my ELECTRONICS representing 20% of the weight at 2.8 pounds.

Click on graph for a better quality image and to activate the product hyperlinks. Right click on each hyperlink to open in new tab or window.

Blog - electronics1

Blog - electronics2

Electronics are probably one of the most controversial gear-related topics. You’ll find lovers, haters and a full spectrum in between.

With these devices representing a whopping 2-3 pounds of my base weight, I’ve obviously decided they are an important part of my backpacking and hiking gear. Without these devices, I would be less likely to explore, especially solo, as I do not have a good internal compass and am not as proficient as I should be with map and compass navigation.

Phone

This is my all-purpose utility device. I keep it on airplane mode and use it for:

  • GPS
    • Halfmile and Guthook Apps (I use when hiking on the PCT)
    • Trimble Outdoor Navigator App (I use for navigation and tracking)
  • Resources
    • Maps (saved as PDF or as off-line document)
    • Information & Guidebooks (scanned, photographed or saved to Pocket App)
    • Fun/helpful apps (compass, identification of scat and tracks, wildflowers, constellations, peaks)
  • Entertainment
    • Music
    • Audio and E-Books
    • Camera
  • Connections
    • Instagram/Facebook Updates
    • Texting/Phone

Tips: Go prepared for phone failure. Mine has malfunctioned, I’ve broken the screen, and one time I even lost (and found) my phone on trail. Know how your apps work and practice, practice, practice. Learn the best way to conserve battery life. 

Camera

Photography plays a huge role in my hike (as evidenced by my blog). It is not unusual for me to take a few hundred photos per day. Not only do I prefer the quality of photos taken on my camera, the battery life and storage capacity is much better on my camera versus my phone. When selecting a camera, besides functionality, the other things I consider are:

  • Battery – I prefer the lithium-ion battery packs as they can be recharged in the camera (vs AA or AAA)
  • Recharge Port – Since I have an android phone, I’m able to bring just one USB/micro cord to charge all my devices

Tips:

  • The GGS DC LCD Screen Protector is a great solution for preventing scratches on non-touch screens. These are not like the cheap protectors. They are a harder plastic that doesn’t scratch, tear, peel, and is easy to clean without any degradation in visual quality. I’ve used them on my last 3 cameras and never allow myself to use my camera until one has been installed.
  • Consider WiFi memory cards (i.e. ezSh@re) if you want the convenience of transferring photos from your camera to phone for upload to your blog, instagram or facebook (without internet access).
  • If your photos are as important to you as they are to me, you may want to bring along a second battery (in case the primary battery fails), and a second memory card (in case your primary memory card fills or fails). I call this insurance!

Emergency Device

There are basically two types of devices.

  • Personal Locator Beacons (PLB)
  • Satellite Messengers (i.e. SPOT and InReach)

I purchased the InReach SE in summer 2014. I can’t say enough good things about this device. It has given me freedom and security. What do I like about this device?

  • I can send out customized “I’m okay” messages via email, texting and to my map
  • All my messages have my location embedded
  • I know whether the message was sent or not
  • My family and friend network can text me and I can reply (and visa versa)
  • I can use it for non-emergencies (i.e. coordinating transportation or to say I’m going to be late)
  • When SOS is activated, dispatch can text me for more information (i.e. type of emergency) and I can reply
  • The plan cost is reasonable and flexible (InReach Subscription Plans)
  • The battery is extremely long lasting when the device is turned off when not in use
  • It has a micro plug for recharging which allows me to carry one USB/micro cord for all my devices
  • You can receive weather reports based on current location
  • Although I don’t use this feature, it connects via bluetooth to my phone for easier texting and use of DeLorme maps

Tip: If you want to carry a standalone GPS you might want to consider the InReach Explorer which combines GPS and SOS devices.

GPS

Standalone GPS units tend to have many more features than phone apps, but can also be more complicated to use. The two most popular brands for outdoor activities are DeLorme and Garmin. There are lots of reviews and options; I don’t love mine so can’t share any recommendations.  Carrying a unit you don’t know how to use or a dead one, is just worthless weight. On the other hand, they can be lifesaving, very helpful on finding trails, staying on trails, going cross country off-trail, etc.

Entertainment

While I use my phone for my music, audio and e-books, you may prefer an electronic reader and music player. Just like everything else in backpacking it’s a personal decision.

Recharge Solutions

There are three options:

  • Device Batteries – You could bring extra batteries for each device
  • External Battery – This is the most common solution and there is a huge variety to choose from based on size, weight, capacity and price. The two most popular brands are New Trent and Anker.
  • Solar Panel – While these are not a perfect solution, they can be a good option. I’ve been using the Suntactics5 model since 2013 with satisfactory results. Considerations:
    • Works best if exposed to the direct sun (i.e. breaks)
    • When attached to pack, the device being charged needs to accept trickle charge otherwise you’ll lose the benefit as the device turns on and off when traveling under tree cover or through shaded areas. Most external batteries accept trickle charge.
    • If hiking in shaded areas (i.e. canyons) or in cloudy areas, it’s probably not worth the weight.
    • I drilled holes in the four corners and inserted Nite Ize S-Biners to attach to my pack.

Additional Tips

  • Carrying electronics on hiking or backpacking trips most likely will result in accidental damage to your device. I consider myself careful and I take extra precautions to protect my devices, but yet I’ve still had more than my share of electronic accidents. I dropped my camera in a creek, cracked the screen of my camera when I sat on it, scratched the screen of my phone on granite, scratched my camera lens . . . . So now I buy SquareTrade Electronics Accident Protection Plan for my phones, cameras, GPS units, etc.
  • Go prepared to protect your electronics in inclement weather, during freezing temperatures, in extreme heat, down scree fields, through water crossings, etc.
  • The weight and purpose need to be considered when packing electronics. If not careful, soon your devices plus batteries will add pounds to your pack.

Lightening My Load

YES, I know there are ways I can lighten my base weight. I could eliminate either the external battery or the solar charger which would save 9 ounces. I could also eliminate my camera which would save another 10 ounces. BUT I love having my camera and want the insurance of having both my solar panel and external battery, so for now I’ll carry the weight.

Links

Grams = Ounces, Ounces = Pounds, Pounds = Pain

Choose your pain wisely!