In 2015, I published a popular article: Electronics on the trail – what works for me. That article is now out of date. Here’s a new version, detailing the items I’m carrying in 2017.
“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 of some description 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 (except Windows Phone). If you prefer Android, I recommend the inexpensive Moto G range.
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. 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. Update: I am no longer using ViewRanger. Here’s why. I’m switching to a mapping-capable Garmin handset for digital navigation this year.
3. 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 my pocket notebook.
5. Social media. I try to keep this to a minimum when hiking. Instagram is the only social app I actually have on my phone, but I access Twitter through Safari. I try to keep off Facebook as much as possible.
And here are the things I choose not to use my smartphone for.
1. GPX track logging. This uses too much battery on long trips. I carry a dedicated Garmin GPS for this purpose instead.
2. Camera. The iPhone SE has a pretty good camera, and can even shoot in raw, but I try to use my Fuji for all photography purposes. The iPhone’s camera is strictly a backup.
3. Email. I activate an ‘out of office’ autoresponder and prevent my phone from polling for email. Saves battery (and my sanity). If I find myself somewhere with plentiful power and signal, I sometimes fetch email manually, but generally I don’t look at it.
4. Blogging and journaling. I’ve changed my views on this several times over the last few years, but currently I’m using pocket notebooks for journaling again, and am no longer blogging from the trail. Why? I like having the physical record, and it saves battery life for the more important functions I’ve listed above. It also means I no longer have to carry the weight of a folding keyboard, except occasionally on shorter trips where I might want to get some work done on the train home.
5. Entertainment. Again, this is all about saving battery life. I now carry a lightweight iPod Nano for audiobooks and music (which offers significant battery savings and only adds a few grams of weight).
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.
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 carry the annoyingly expensive Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader for transferring images from my camera. If I used an Android phone I could use a cheap USB SD card reader instead.
On the rare occasions I decide to take a keyboard with me, my choice is still the EC Technology foldable wireless keyboard.
Although I have not yet used it in the field, I recently purchased a used GPSMap 62s as a ViewRanger replacement. This device integrates with the Garmin Basecamp mapping suite on my computer, and contains a complete 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map of the UK in its memory (along with topo maps for other European countries I like to visit). My hope is that the GPSMap can kill two birds with one stone, by replacing ViewRanger’s digital maps while also providing the robust track-logging and nav capabilities I have always liked Garmin handsets for.
I have my eye on a used eTrex 20, which is much the same as the GPSMap 62s but in a lighter, more compact package, with a smaller screen. These devices are now so cheap on the second-hand market that I’ll probably keep both, and deploy the appropriate unit depending on the requirements of each specific trip.
For most of 2016, I was carrying a much smaller and lighter Foretrex 301 – a wrist-mounted unit for basic navigation and recording tracks. However, since I now want a Garmin unit that can provide mapping, the Foretrex is no longer the best fit for my needs.
My headtorch choices haven’t changed since 2015.
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. It isn’t really powerful enough for walking 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 Petzl Tikka XP2.
I currently carry a 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. Otherwise it’s perfect for my needs.
I carry the following lenses and other items:
1. Fujinon XF 35mm f/2. My go-to, do-(nearly)-everything prime lens: compact, quiet, and fast. I have always loved the 50mm (FF) perspective, and this lens is the best I have used. Read my review here.
2. 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).
3. UV filters for both lenses. I find UV filters convenient for coping with the moisture, grime and condensation that go hand-in-hand with backpacking photography.
4. Lens hoods for both lenses. To help cope with difficult lighting and as another layer of defence against water droplets.
5. Circular polarising filter. In practice I rarely use this, but it weighs very little and it’s sometimes very useful.
6. OverBoard waterproof SLR camera bag. An attempt at keeping out the weather. To be honest, I don’t rate this bag – the fabric already has several holes after only a year of moderate use. I have yet to find a camera-carrying solution I’m completely happy with.
7. Spare batteries. The X-Pro2 seems to get through batteries slightly more quickly, so I’ve added an extra battery to my collection. I’ll probably be taking four spares with me on my trails this year.
9. Lens cloths. Because stuff gets dirty.
In 2015 I was using my iPhone as a music player and for audiobooks, but in an effort to save battery life I decided to dust off my old 2012 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.
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-supply strategy then you might as well leave the gear at home for any trip longer than a few days.
In 2015 I was using a 12,000mAh Powergen power bank, but this device keeled over and died in early 2016 so I was forced to upgrade (see Going paperless in the hills – how feasible is it? for more information on this). I replaced it with the compact and affordable Anker Astro E1 (5,200mAh). Although it has a much smaller capacity than my old power bank, I’ve found it’s actually good enough if I am frugal with my needs on the trail – hence cutting back on the things I use my smartphone for.
I also have the much larger Anker Astro E5 (16,000mAh), but it’s quite weighty and takes a very long time to recharge, which makes it inconvenient to use on the trail. In most circumstances, I would rather have a smaller power bank that only takes a couple of hours to charge from flat.
For a mains charger, I now 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.
I use a Freeloader CamCaddy 2 for charging camera batteries. At 65g, this gadget provides a convenient way of charging any camera battery from any USB power source. I’d prefer it if my camera could charge directly over USB, but this is the next best solution.
I am still using the Portapow 7W folding solar panel, although that model has now been discontinued. The current equivalent seems to be the 11W model, which appears to be a decent upgrade – slightly lighter, with extra power and a second USB port. I carried my solar panel on the Tour of Monte Rosa in 2015 and the Haute Route Pyrenees in 2016, and on both occasions it provided more power than I could use. However, a solar panel is only useful in areas with reliable sunshine – it would be dead weight in the UK!
The weight of my electronic gear has crept up since 2015, even as my overall pack weight has decreased. In 2015 my complete electronic kit weighed in at 1.8kg; now it’s 2.2kg. But I am now carrying a significantly more capable camera setup, and it’s worth the extra 400g.
As before, versatility is the name of the game – I can pick and choose items I need, tailored for the specific trip. Again, nothing on the list can really be said to be essential except for the headtorch (and, arguably, the smartphone).
There’s a chance that two years from now my list will look different again, but after much experimenting I think I have found the sweet spot for my needs. I certainly have no plans to upgrade this equipment any time soon.
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