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Appalachian Trail Cell Phone Guide

Powermonkey Extreme charging an Android Phone in camp
Powermonkey Extreme battery charging an Android Phone in camp

Cell phones have become a ubiquitous sight in the Appalachian Trail and for good reason. Cell phone service is pretty good along most of the trail, provided your phone is on the Verizon Network or serviced by a discount network like StraightTalk. (StraightTalk is much less expensive than Verizon but has the identical coverage.) If your cell phone service provider is AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint, you’ll have much poorer to non-existent service. Switch. Now.

Multi-Function Device

In addition to running an Appalachian Trail app, like Guthook’s Guide to the Appalachian Trail, your phone can help you shave weight off your gear list by serving multiple functions, including:

  • phone
  • GPS
  • camera
  • music and movie player
  • email reader
  • web browser
  • book reader
  • weather “radio”
  • voice recorder
  • trail journal

While none of those are strictly necessary to hike the Appalachian Trail, they sure make it a lot more enjoyable and take up a lot less space than bringing individual items to serve those different purposes.

Cell phones can also be useful for contacting shuttle drivers, coordinating rides, reserving motel rooms and hostel space in town when you’re still on the trail, or god forbid in an emergency when you need help.

RavPower 9000mAh Battery with Wall Plug and Built in micro-usb. Shown with 6 inch USB to Apple lightning cable output
RavPower 9000mAh Battery with built-in Wall Plug and micro-usb (apple lightning model also available.) This quick charging battery can charge two devices at the same time.

Recharging Technologies

Keeping your phone charged isn’t that hard either, although you do need to be smart about it by putting it into airplane mode when not in use and shutting down apps that use a lot of power to stay synched with the cloud. But forget solar power. There are to many trees on the AT and too many rainy days to count on sunlight to recharge your batteries.

The best way to keep your phone charged is to carry a rechargeable battery with you to top off the battery when it gets low. I like batteries that have a wall plug and USB or Lightning jack built into the unit, so I don’t have to bring along device specific chargers. It’s important to get a fast charging battery, because you don’t want to spend half the day in a Starbucks waiting for your battery to charge up when you could be hiking.

Mail Drop
Mail Drop

Bounce Box Batteries

I own a couple of rechargeable batteries and I send fully charged ones to myself in resupply mail drops that I pick up along my route. You can do the same thing if have a bounce box, recharging batteries in town, and then sending them on ahead so you can switch out a dead battery. Anker makes really good fast-charging batteries too, which you’ll want for short town stays before you hit the trail again.

What’s your experience been with cell phones on the Appalachian Trail?

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  1. I was surprised how much I enjoyed having my smart phone the first time I took it on the AT in 2010. Even though I had a cell phone for 15 years prior to that, I always shunned bringing my phone as an intrusion on nature except one hike on the west coast where I decided at the last minute to bring it and did end up having to call search and rescue for a medical issue).

    I can vouch for the Verizon superiority in coverage. Only one mountaintop do I remember an AT&T subscriber having signal where Verizon customers did not. It’s not uncommon to hit the peak of a climb and see all the cellphones come out to see if everyone has signal.

    I have used it to make a new equipment purchase from REI and have it shipped to the next PO. I did take a wrong turn coming down Mt Greylock in MA and used the GPS feature to pinpoint me on the map (I managed to head east instead of continuing north along the spine) and found out I was near a snowmobile trail, so I just headed north on the alternate trail instead of climbing 1000 ft back up to where I veered off trail.

    I have had bad experiences with trying to use airplane mode (Android) where apps (never found out which one) would wake it up and I’d find out at the end of the day that the battery was on all day and almost dead. I ended up just powering it off during most of the day. I know the Apple folks can go a full week on airplane mode, I only made i about 3 days.

    I don’t like to use it as a camera, though. I keep the phone in 2 ziplocks, in either powersave or powered off mode, and takes too long to get to the point where I can take a pic. I carry a weather resistant camera on my shoulder strap and can snap a pic in seconds and keep motoring.

    I tried the solar route one year. A solar/battery combo that could charge the phone twice and take 26 hours to recharge. I never got enough sun time to ever bump it up one bar on the power meter, it was only useful as a battery pack, so I just bought a smaller battery pack for subsequent hikes where a phone was important – I don’t always bring even that.

    I don’t bother to use it as an audio player, either. If I did feel the need for music, I’d probably just bring a nano. I don’t journal on it – too annoying, but will send small emails. If I really wanted to journal on it, I’d probably dictate audio and transcribe later.

    Another really interesting use is simply as texts to other hikers or home. Twenty years ago, the shelter registers were great for spreading information backwards, but it took much longer for information to move forwards. Now there are enough hikers with each others numbers, that texts go both directions very quickly. I was hiking in NH in 2013 when Geraldine Largay went missing and heard about it 150 miles away from other hikers the same day they started search and rescue.

    The other really interesting things about texts is they can go though with a much poorer signal than voice, and they are cached. So if you don’t have a good signal, just send a text and as you move, when you do get a good signal, any cached texts will go out and it will check for incoming ones.

    • Great points. I agree with all of it. Journaling with a cell phone is pretty annoying unless you just use the voice recorder function to keep short notes and transcribe them later. It’s also good to take the battery out of an Android phone when not in use. Mine turns on even when it’s turned off. I’m about to switch to an iPhone since they’re power management us so much better.

  2. I will put in a plug for Life Proof cases. Waterproof and very rugged. I have dropped my phone on rocks, in streams and on pavement without any breakage. (I am notoriously rough on phones.) The waterproof promise is real too, I even use it when kayaking in salt water. Lastly their customer service is great. I had the door that covers the charging port break off. Put in a support request, filled out a short for and they shipped me a new case within 24 hours.

  3. Thanks for the Information.. I at first was hoping it was a list of Dead spots along the trail, maybe one of your Readers who walked the trail in the last couple of years can write a story about that..I’ve owned a Verizon Flip phone since the late 90’s in fact I just had to replace it two weeks ago because they no longer make parts for it. The youngsters at the Verizon store were all surprised I still used this phone. They were disappointed when they could not get me to get all those Ap’s and special features which send my $39. phone bill to $100+ heaven. A fool and his money are soon parted, plus I get to buy more gear and food for trips instead of paying Phone bills….. On the West Coast I can verify it was the “Phone” or “Service” to have out on the PCT and the majority of Smaller side trails, and in Los Padres National Forest and Cleveland National Forest….. In Deer camp in Georgia three years ago my Verizon phone was the ONLY ONE which had Bars out of 4 others. So we made sure we kept my phone fully charged by a hand crank emergency Radio combination.. Instead of Battery Packs,,,could you do a story on using those small rollup Solar Panels to recharge you Flashlight, Cellphone, and any other devices hikers bring along with them… I’ve been hemming and hawing about buying one for some time now and that would be a great service and story for you…Sure I have read other Authors and their “glowing” reports but in real life their Marketing people, so they have little creditbility with me, I do not trust them as much as I trust you….

    • Thanks Eddie – Blitzo (in his comment above) says that it took him 26 hours to recharge a cell phone with a solar charger and I’ve had similar experiences on tree covered trails like the AT. That’s why I think fast charging batteries that you plug into town outlets are the way to go.

      Sunjack makes a great fast charging 20V solar panel, but it’s really a basecamp solution, way too heavy to carry on a hiking trip. The thing is amazing in a good sunlight when we’re car camping and will charge 2 x 8000 mAh batteries in a matter of hours.

    • Eddie S,
      If you want to upgrade to a smartphone without a huge phone bill I can heartily recommend getting a Tracfone. I have their LG Ultimate 2 which was the best compatible Android. It cost $99 which is very reasonable these days. It’s not the best smartphone out there, but it has good battery life, good speed,and ok display. I wish it took better pictures.
      You pay for the phone and buy minutes that don’t expire. I mostly text on my phone so I am paying less than $20/ month. Plus I use it as a book reader, gps, so so camera, and game toy. It has replaceable batteries.
      They have less expensive Androids but they are not worth the savings. The OS is so slow and the display is pathetic.
      I am looking for a lightweight charger for the LG batteries. I can go 3-4 days on one battery.

  4. I’ve been using my phone’s GPS to track my hikes, but in some remote areas I have no GPS signal at all for many miles. I’ve been wondering if a dedicated GPS unit would be able to get a signal where my smartphone can’t – any thoughts on this before I shell out the $$$?

    • Probably. You can get a Garmin Etrex 20 refurbished or Etrex 30 pretty cheap and they get good satellite coverage.

    • Why do you need a separate GPS? Your phone gets a signal from satellites and works like any single purpose GPS.

      I spent two week in Italy last year. My phone was put in airplane mode, so I wouldn’t get hit with big international roaming charges. I had download an app called “Here,” which can work solely with a phones GPS (no data required). The maps I needed were downloaded and the setup worked great. I walked everywhere and used the app daily.

      • I was wondering if a dedicated GPS would have a better antenna for picking up GPS signals where my phone cannot. I did recently upgrade my phone to a newer model and it seems to get a strong GPS signal where my old phone couldn’t, so I suspect a dedicated GPS would go even better.

      • I would test your phone first. I’m a sailor, too, and I used my phone this past November to pickup latitude and longitude coordinates on the way down to the Virgin Islands from Virginia. It worked fine and always picked up a signal. Of course, there was an onboard GPS, also. Both my phone and the single purpose GPS worked comparatively well. My phone is a Samsung GS5.

  5. I take my cell phone along as a multi use item. First and foremost, I use it to text my wife to let her know I made it to camp and that I’m alright. If it helps give her peace of mind, then I am more than happy to do it. I also use it as my camera. To keep it charged I have a small charger from Brunton. It weighs about 2.2 oz and gives a one off charge to my phone. More than enough power for a 3-4 night trip.

  6. Does anyone have a recommendation on a high-density battery in the 10-15k mAh range that is less than eight oz? Seems everything over 8k starts getting very heavy for its capacity. I don’t need two USB ports.

    • The battery I use is an Anker Astro E7 26800mAh battery. The downside is that it weighs over a pound. On the plus side, it can keep my Samsung Galaxy S5 charged and operational for a week straight. I generally am running the Backpacker/Trimble GPS app to track mileage, mapping and other stats. Use it for a camera, reading at night with the Kindle app, texting, phone calls, notebook (rarely), and an mp3 player. All of which suck a lot of juice out of the phone.

    • I found a Chinese 50K mAh battery on eBay for about $13.00. It would charge my Galaxy S4 in about 2 hours and would last for several charges before it needed a charge. It’s the same size and weight as the S4. I liked it so much, I bought one for my daughter and another for my brother. The problem is that mine quit working after a month and the one for my brother’s arrived DOA. My daughter’s battery is still going strong a couple months later. Today, I took a twenty dollar chance on a 100K mAh battery with solar cell (which probably is useless). I’ll see how that works. I’d like to be able to go a week off grid with full GPS usage.

      Last December, a couple brothers in law and I did an 83 mile kayak trip on the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River. One brother in law had a folding solar cell (very likely the GoalZero Nomad 7) that he hung in a tree as soon as he got up. By the time we’d finished breaking camp, his iPhone was completely charged.

  7. Two bits from a Colorado hiker (not a thru hiker)…

    1) Samsung Galaxy S5 (and earlier) phones have removable batteries which are very light. The battery life on the S5 is much better than my old S3 (the battery is larger and Samsung improved its energy management). After-market batteries are quite cheap on Amazon (like $3-5).

    I use my Galaxy S5 on the trail for camera, GPS, books, flower and bird reference apps, music, podcasts, and sunrise/sunset charts.

    FYI, did you know all smartphones contain an FM radio chip? It allows you to listen to free FM radio off the air. However, Sprint is the only carrier that has enable the FM chip. AT&T and T-Mobile say they will soon follow. Motorola and HTC phones also have functional FM chips. FreeRadioOnMyPhone.org

    I use airplane mode without any issues, and one battery will last for about 2 days of taking photos and checking GPS. It would probably last a week simply without those uses. Recording a GPS track will drain the battery much more quickly, however.

    iPhones cannot remove the batteries, right? Something to consider if you’re buying your next phone. I believe the Galaxy S6 battery is no longer removable, so Samsung just lost my future loyalty.

    2) I use Sprint, which roams on Verizon’s towers. Sprint is cheaper and I get to use Verizon’s coverage! (But check your plan to make sure you can use data or text while roaming.) Verizon is definitely the coverage leader almost anywhere in the U.S.

  8. The Samsung S4 is a great trail companion. The ability to carry extra batteries is huge but light. I carry one battery for every two days on the trail. I understand this is not an option with most phones including the I phone. Pick a smartphone with a removable battery.

  9. My only experience on the AT was last May — an 80 mile section hike in GSMNP and north to Hot Springs, NC. My iPhone (enclosed in a Lifeproof case) with ATT did okay, but I had to be on a ridge with an opening to the west into Tennessee to get any reception and even then it was mostly only good enough to get text messages out and back. I kept the phone off unless I was in such a location except to take pictures. I took a Jackery 3200 mAh and charged my phone once with power to spare, though I did recharge the Jackery at a campground when we left the trail to resupply.

  10. Hi Philip- Longtime reader first time commenter. I have the Mophie Powerpack XL which can charge a cell phone 8 times or an iPad twice. It is 11 ounces but seems to take some time to charge. You can charge it overnight easily, but not in a couple hours sitting in Starbucks.

  11. I have a Ventev Powercell 3015 Battery Charger I bought at an AT&T store a few months ago for maybe $35(?). I’ve used it twice on the AT to recharge my iPhone. Together with a cable it weighs about 0.299 oz. good for a couple charges.

  12. One question about bump boxes w/ a battery: have you checked postal regulations about sending lithium ion batteries (the types modern phones use) in the mail. I think that they may be a restricted material as they are both explosive and highly flammable.

  13. Just a quick note — if Verizon service works well on the trail, Sprint service will work similarly well (if you have Sprint post-paid).

    Just make sure that domestic roaming is enabled on your Sprint phone, and you’ll automatically roam on Verizon’s 3G network if there’s no Sprint coverage available.

  14. Sending yourself a full battery pack is a smart idea. That’s definitely something I’ll have to try when I’m out on my next hike! Thanks for sharing.

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