Electronics for lightweight and ultralight backpacking
This article was last updated on 21 June 2018, and is kept up to date when I make changes to my kit.
“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 2018, my smartphone of choice remains the iPhone SE (64GB). It has good 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.
My iPhone is starting to feel its age a bit now. I’ll be upgrading to a waterproof iPhone model in September.
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.
8. Music and podcasts. I don’t listen that much on the trail, but find it convenient when on hours-long journeys on public transport.
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).
On the rare occasions I decide to take a keyboard with me, my choice is still the EC Technology foldable wireless keyboard.
For midsummer 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 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.
Between 2015 and early 2018 I used Fujifilm mirrorless cameras, but after assessing my true needs I decided to ditch the heavy gear and adopt a radically simpler and lighter setup.
In 2018 my camera of choice is the Canon PowerShot G9x Mark II. This is a pocketable compact camera with a 20.1MP 1″ sensor – good enough for detailed reproductions on magazine double-page spreads – and a 10.2-30.6mm f/2-4.9 zoom lens, offering a useful equivalent magnification of 28-84mm in full-frame terms. Its dynamic range and level of detail are impressive, especially when shooting in raw.
It has all the controls and features I require, including full manual mode, aperture priority, exposure compensation, raw shooting etc. It’s also surprisingly capable at astrophotography – 30 seconds at f/2 and 1,600 ISO is good enough to capture the Milky Way, although image quality isn’t be quite as good as my old Fuji kit.
Most importantly for a thru-hiking camera, it weighs a mere 206g and can charge directly with a Micro USB cable. It also supports Wi-Fi image transfer for sending photos to my iPhone.
I carry the following accessories with my Canon PowerShot:
1. Pedco Ultrapod Mini ultralight tripod. This is an ultralight (49g) camera support, good enough to produce self-portraits when in the mountains. It has a Velcro strap that enables it to be strapped to fence posts, tree branches and so on.
2. Spare battery and SD card. I rarely need these, but they could prove essential.
3. Ziploc bag. This camera is not waterproof. It needs to be protected from rain.
4. Lens cloth. Because stuff gets dirty.
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.
In 2018 I simplified and re-thought my power kit, ditching the solar panel and ensuring all my equipment was compatible with Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0. This dramatically reduces the amount of time it takes to charge battery packs.
I have two different power banks:
- RavPower 10,000mAh battery pack. This one weighs 193g and lasts me up to 5 or 6 days on the trail, with careful use.
- Anker PowerCore Speed 20,000. A key upgrade over my old Anker 20,000mAh power bank, this one charges in half the time thanks to its QC3.0 rating. It’s heavy at 359g but permits autonomy for well over a week, and in remote areas is worth the weight.
For a mains charger, I carry the RavPower 30W USB Fast Charger, which weighs 111g and can charge one device at QC3.0 speeds. It has two USB ports in total.
I also carry a total of four power cables: two Micro USB and two Lightning. One of each set is a long, manufacturer-original cable, while the other is a very short Anker cable, carried as a backup – being unable to charge a device in the field would not be good, and cables do fail from time to time. These cables weigh 75g altogether.
The weight of my electronic gear has declined in 2018, largely thanks to ditching heavy photo kit I did not truly need, and now stands at 920g all said. 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.