- A good power bank (battery) is essential.
- Invest in learning how to use devices and apps.
- Apps have improved my experiences.
- Electronics are a tool but dead weight if not utilized.
- Photography is a huge part of every adventure.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.