Electronics for lightweight and ultralight backpacking
In 2015, I published a popular article: Electronics on the trail – what works for me. Here’s a new version, detailing the items I’m carrying right now. This article is kept up to date.
“Nothing that uses a battery can be relied upon in the wild.” This is something we hear from time to time, but how true is it? What level of electronic gadgetry is necessary or appropriate in the outdoors? The purpose of this article is not to dictate what you should or shouldn’t do – it’s simply to demonstrate what works for me at this point in time, and to share some of the points I’ve learned over the years.
A mobile phone is a necessity for the modern backpacker. Even if used for nothing else, it’s an essential lifeline in the event of emergency. But most backpackers will choose to take advantage of a smartphone’s near-miraculous ability to replace other items as well.
In 2017, my smartphone of choice is the iPhone SE (64GB). It has exceptional battery life and does absolutely everything I want it to do; the only way I’d improve it is to add water resistance. But it doesn’t matter what kind of smartphone you have. They are all good these days, and any modern smartphone will do everything the wilderness traveller could need.
What I use a smartphone for
Here’s what I use my smartphone for on the trail.
1. Voice and text. For keeping in touch with people at home. Because I’m on the Three network, I get free roaming in most European countries, and I’ve found signal to be decent in the Highlands too.
2. Journaling. This depends on the trip. Sometimes I still take notes in a paper notebook (especially in winter), but on ultralight backpacking trips I often find it convenient to write up notes about my day in the Ulysses app. This is also my app of choice for writing articles and features. Sometimes I carry a lightweight folding keyboard, especially if I have any actual work to do when I’m away, but mostly I just type on the screen.
3. Digital navigation. This depends on the circumstances, but I use ViewRanger to a greater or lesser extent on every single trip. Sometimes it’s my primary method of navigation; sometimes it’s just for occasional position checks. ViewRanger is the most important app I have on my phone when I’m on the trail. For trips abroad, I use Gaia GPS.
4. Travel information and documentation. I use a combination of the Trainline app and Bus Checker for planning public transport and purchasing tickets. The Trainline app also stores journey details. I keep a physical duplicate of all travel documentation in a pocket notebook.
7. Photography. The iPhone’s camera is actually pretty good. Although it isn’t my main camera, I use it for shooting quick snaps for Instagram, and as a backup to my main camera/s. The Lightroom Mobile app is good for capturing DNG RAW files for maximum image quality.
Many people choose to keep their phone switched off while they hike, only turning it on when they need to use it, but my preferred strategy is to leave my iPhone set to airplane mode, which disables all wireless antennas except for GPS. This enables me to use ViewRanger and access data stored on the device, but dramatically reduces power consumption. Due to the often poor signal in mountain areas, power can drain far more rapidly than usual unless you activate airplane mode – this is a key technique for taking your smartphone into the wild. I also recommend you deactivate background app refresh and other processes that run in the background.
Note that if you use Gaia GPS, the new app is currently power-hungry because there is no way to deactivate GPS while using the app. I recommend the old app (Gaia GPS Classic) instead. The Classic version of the app has a setting called ‘No GPS While Activated’ which saves a huge amount of power.
I have found that my iPhone SE has far better battery life than previous devices I’ve owned. In general, modern devices have superior battery life across the board, so if you’re still using a phone from 2012-2013, consider an upgrade – it will be worth it.
I use two cases: the minimal Griffin Survivor Core in summer, combined with a Ziploc bag when necessary, and the beefier Griffin Survivor in winter (which adds extra protection against cold and moisture).
I used to carry the annoyingly expensive Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader for transferring images from my camera, but both my cameras are now Wi-Fi equipped, so I usually prefer to leave the adapter at home and just beam photos across now.
On the rare occasions I decide to take a keyboard with me, my choice is still the EC Technology foldable wireless keyboard.
While ViewRanger and Gaia are quite capable of covering most of my GPS needs, sometimes I require something with a bit more muscle. In winter, if intricate navigation in foul weather is expected, or if I need to record a GPS track over several days, I sometimes carry the Garmin eTrex 20.
This is a lightweight (132g) and waterproof unit that runs from 2x AA batteries, and has astonishing battery life – several days of average use from Lithium cells, and that includes GPS tracking. It has built-in OS mapping too, although the small, grainy screen makes this a poorer experience than using ViewRanger on my iPhone.
I wouldn’t carry a dedicated GPS for lightweight summer backpacking in Britain or Europe. This is a niche tool for specific scenarios, but when I need it, I’m glad I’ve packed it.
For summer backpacking, the only choice for me is the Petzl E+lite. This is an incredibly light headtorch at only 27g, and it provides enough light for use around camp or in a bothy. The new model is much brighter than the old one. It still isn’t really powerful enough for night hiking with, but for the majority of summer use that’s an edge case.
If I need more power – for winter trips, or summer alpine routes where pre-dawn starts are required – then I favour the Black Diamond ReVolt. This lamp can either use rechargeable batteries (charged from USB within the torch itself) or standard replaceable AAA cells (Lithiums for winter).
I currently have a dual camera setup. The gear I pack with me depends on the trip and the objective. Not all this gear is ultralight by any means, and it is guided by my specific needs (I need to produce high-quality images for my work). Most hikers will be quite happy using their smartphone’s camera.
My main camera is the Fujifilm X-Pro2. This is Fuji’s flagship rangefinder-style camera, and carries all the excellent qualities I appreciate from previous X-Series cameras over to an upgraded, weather-sealed body with the new 24MP sensor. I really like the hybrid optical viewfinder for use on the hill. It doesn’t wash out in bright sunlight and helps save battery life. It does, however, have an EVF mode that can be activated with the flick of a switch if required. Another great improvement is the second SD card slot.
My only bugbears with the X-Pro2 are that you can’t charge the battery by plugging the camera directly into a USB power supply, and battery life could be better.
I carry the X-Pro2 on shorter trips, any time where photography is the main focus, and in winter. During the colder months I find the weather sealing, optical viewfinder, and improved handling of the X-Pro2 to be major benefits.
I have the following lenses and other items:
1. Fujinon XF 18mm f/2. A lightweight and highly compact wide-angle prime. Image quality is unspectacular but decent. Fuji’s other wide-angle lenses are better, but this is by far the lightest and smallest (and it was cheap too).
2. Fujinon XF 35mm f/2. A compact, quiet, and fast normal prime lens. I have always loved the 50mm (FF) perspective, and this lens is the best I have used. Read my review here. Although I love this lens, it isn’t always the most practical focal length for the mountains, and I don’t always carry it.
3. Samyang 12mm f/2. A fast, compact, superwide prime with image quality good enough for astrophotography. This is my landscape lens of choice.
4. Fujinon XC 50-230 f/4.5-6.7. My tele landscape lens. It’s slow, and it’s a heavy item so I don’t always carry it, but it’s pretty good for landscape tasks.
5. UV filters for all lenses. I find UV filters convenient for coping with the moisture, grime and condensation that go hand-in-hand with backpacking photography.
6. Lens hoods. To help cope with difficult lighting and as another layer of defence against water droplets.
5. Lowepro Nova 170 AW camera bag. When I’m just carrying the camera with a single lens I sometimes use a much lighter Polaroid shoulder bag, but the Lowepro has enough room to carry most of my gear, and it has a very good waterproof cover. It’s a heavy item at around 500g so not for ultralight trips!
6. Spare batteries. The X-Pro2 seems to get through batteries at a prodigious rate, so I’ve added an extra battery to my collection. I usually carry 3-4 spare batteries on most trips.
7. Pedco Ultrapod II ultralight tripod. This is a lightweight (113g) but very small tripod at only a few inches high. It’s my camera support of choice when I need to go as light as possible, although the reduced height can be a real restriction at times. I usually have to find a boulder or tree to perch it on in order to get enough height.
8. Vanguard VEO 235AB tripod. At around 1.5kg, this is the heaviest item I ever carry on the trail, but on trips where photography is an important focus I suck up the extra weight and carry this tripod instead of the Ultrapod.
9. Lens cloths. Because stuff gets dirty.
My backup unit is the excellent little Fujifilm X70. Here’s an overview of why I bought it, and why it’s excellent for ultralight backpacking. In brief:
- It weighs only 356g fully loaded with battery, memory card, UV filter, lens hood, and wrist strap. It’s physically tiny, about the same size as an iPhone 4 (but thicker, of course).
- It has a large sensor and is capable of image quality approaching that of the X-Pro2.
- It has a fixed wide-angle lens. This is a very handy focal length in the mountains.
When carrying the X70 I don’t use a camera bag – I just pack it in a drybag in my rucksack hipbelt pocket and call it a day. The only extra things I carry are the Ultrapod II tripod, a spare battery, and a lens cloth.
I carry a 6th-generation iPod Nano. This tiny device weighs about 21g, has 16GB of storage, and runs for 24 hours on a single charge.
Because the device’s battery is so ridiculously small, it offers a huge amount of value for a tiny amount of power. It can recharge from my battery pack in about an hour, then offer me over a week’s worth of evening audiobook listening.
This is a luxury item, of course. I could use my iPhone for this purpose, but when I carry the iPod I can switch off my phone completely in the evening to save its battery for more important things. It’s worth the tiny added weight; not carrying it places that bit of extra strain on my power supply system.
I use the iPod Nano with standard Apple headphones.
Keeping this lot working is the key to the system. If you haven’t thought through your power strategy then you might as well leave the gear at home for any trip longer than a couple of days.
I have two different power banks. Each has a different niche.
- The Anker Astro E1 (5,200mAh, 124g). This has enough juice to charge my phone from flat 2-3 times, and is capacious enough for short trips. I also take it on thru-hikes where I know I’ll have reliable access to solar energy (more on this shortly!)
- The Anker PowerCore 20100 (20,100mAh, 356g). This much larger power bank can charge my phone 8-9 times from flat. It can easily keep me going on the trail for over two weeks with no supplemental power, but it’s heavy and bulky, and takes a very long time to charge. For this reason I prefer to take the smaller power bank if I can get away with it.
For a mains charger, I carry the Maplin Twin 2.1A Travel USB Power Supply. This comes with plugs for any country, and provides 2x 2.1A USB ports in a very lightweight package (68g, including the UK adapter). Despite the poor reviews on Maplin’s website, I’ve found this adapter to be excellent.
In 2015 and 2016 I used the Portapow 7W folding solar panel (now discontinued). I have recently upgraded to the 11W model, which is a decent upgrade: more powerful, lighter at 310g, physically smaller, and with an extra USB port. I find a solar panel to be worth the weight for long, remote trips in countries with reliable hot sunshine – I’d rather top up my power bank when I want rather than waiting for hours in town for a large power bank to charge. However, a solar panel is pretty much dead weight in the UK.
The weight of my electronic gear has crept up since 2015, even as my overall pack weight has decreased, although the capabilities of my camera setup is worth the slight weight penalty. I aspire towards an ultralight load to enable me to carry more camera gear if I need it. Versatility is the name of the game – I can pick and choose items I need, tailored for the specific trip. Nothing on the list can really be said to be essential except for the headtorch and, arguably, the smartphone.