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Technology in the Backcountry – How Much is too Much?

Brunton Solar Power Generators and Storage
Brunton Solar Power Generators and Storage

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of Technology in the Backcountry – you know like cell phones, satellite phones, GPS, personal locator beacons, Go-Pro movie cameras, digital cameras, headlamps, iPods, iPads, etc. There sure seems to be a lot of it these days. Throw in rechargeable headlamps, battery packs, recharging cords, solar panels: it really adds up and I find myself carrying more and more of it with each passing year, especially on overnight trips.

When I started backpacking, the only electronic devices I carried on hikes were a headlamp and a digital camera. Next, I added a cell phone (which I still keep turned off)  and then a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger II, so I could send a daily OK message to my wife on an overseas solo hike to let her know I was safe. None of these required much extra power beyond carrying a spare set of batteries and the extra burden was minimal.

But I recently caught myself thinking about bring an iPad to Scotland to write with when I hike coast-to-coast this May on the TGO Challenge. I like writing about hiking, and I like blogging on my iPad, so it seemed like a natural thing to do. That is until I started to catalog all of the extra power generation and storage equipment I’d have to carry with me.

It took a while, but I decided not to bring my iPad with me and that I’d probably enjoy myself much more if I just focused on the hike and being with my friends. It’s easy to forget sometimes how refreshing and energizing being unplugged and out-of-touch can be. It’s always been one of the main reasons why I hike and backpack and I want to keep it that way.

Where do you draw the line on Technology in the Backcountry?

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  1. I could not agree more Philip!!! As much as I look forward to your posts, and will miss them while you live my dream across Scotland, the “unplugged” solitude is absolutely at the core of hiking!! I carry a camera, a too big I suppose Fuji Finepix digital, Go-Pro video camera, cell phone (off) and head lamp….and plan no more! I will be anxiously waiting to hear about Scotland and see some magnificent pictures! How soon is your departure?

  2. Each hiker is different and each hike is different. Electronics are just another piece of gear that have to be chosen for the given person and purpose of the hike. Normally, I would consider an ipad to be a never-take for the average person. But for a journalist, it is definitely tempting and I probably would take one if I were having to do significant real time recording. For the average Joe/Jane on a thru-hike type adventure, paper journaling with a scribe-at-home is probably smarter.

    As a section hiker who knows when I will stop, but has only a vague idea of where I might end up, a cell phone is a must and some sort of backup battery source is a must. If I can’t communicate with whomever is going to extract me within a day or two of the end of a hike, I might not make my pickup. I used to carry one of the solar charged batteries for that, but then switched to a spare battery when I had a phone with a removable battery. My current phone does not have a removable battery so now I have to decide whether or not to go back to the battery pack or go without. I’m leaning towards going without on this next hike. I keep it off during the day and power it up once a day to get a GPS location to send out to family, send a quick email or make a quick “I’m alive” call back home. On a thru hike, I probably would not bother with any backup power source and just let the family know if I run out of power you might not hear from me in a week but don’t panic.

    The same goes for cameras. On a three week hike, I don;t bother to bring the charger for the camera – If it runs out of juice, I miss a few days of pictures. On a 6 month hike, I definitely would take the charger.

    I’ve talked at least one person out of taking a Kindle on an AT thru-hike. Before you leave, you think that short daylight hours alone in the woods that you will want to read to pass the time. Once you get in the groove of hiking, you quickly realize there’s not much free time, and even reading can sometimes be tiresome. If there’s spare time, sleeping is a very good use of that time. On a busy trail like the AT or the PCT if you are in the wave, talking to your fellow hikers is a much more rewarding option and weighs zero grams.

    I would normally think a SPOT is overkill, but if out-of-country or hiking in sub-optional season or conditions, it makes perfect sense. Electronics are just one more piece of gear that have to be selected for each hiker and each hike.

  3. We were on the AT for a week this summer and I noticed many through hikers carrying IPads for journaling. While I am not a purist, I believe less is more when it comes to electronics: just a head lamp and digital camera. Depending on the trips location and the group I am with I may add a cell phone or SPOT.

  4. Yeah, technology in the back country is not needed for me. The biggest concession made is the phone, but, like others, it is always turned off, unless I need to contact someone. Chargers??? Hell, the batteries last 6 weeks that way, ha, ha…

    I laugh, but, really shouldn’t. The whole backpacking experience is a bit on the technical side. Not so much, the backpacking, itself, but everything associated with it.Some examples: good sharp knives (special stainless steel elctro-hardened blades and plasticised/fiberflass handle), stoves made of high tech aluminum garnered from cans, synthetic materials used in most everything from tarps, sleeping bags to packs, special footwear with fancy Vibram rubber, titanium stakes and utinsels, foam pads, and tiny micro-lights. Just to name a few things. Where would I be without duct tape?

    So, technology is a part of backpacking, one way or another. To add an iPad or tablet is not that much of a streatch. But, I just don’t bring that stuff. After 25 years of working on computers, programming, and being the resident expert, I go out to avoid that suff. Anyway, that’s my take on it…

    • My intent is not to be prescriptive, but to call out how easy it is to slip into carrying so many devices. While I love writing for my readers – I want to experience the hike itself – and jotting down notes and taking photos is enough to help me jog my memory when the time comes to journal my experience.

  5. As a Linux system administrator in real life, I’m on the opposite side of the fence. While I would never take anything as large as an iPad, I am trying to work toward being able to do more and more through my smart phone. The more I can do from my phone, the longer I can stay out in the wild while still being on my electronic leash.

    I take my cell phone, running GPS logging software so I get a track of where I have been. Additionally, for similar weight as a dedicated camera, paperback book, or mp3 player, I get a lot more functionality and the ability to touch base with family and friends.

    I have a solar charger that I haven’t actually used on the trail yet. I have been doing some testing, but have not made any conclusions yet. But a spare battery may be less weight and just as effective.

  6. I’m so anti-technology that I still have a dumbphone. I sometimes carry it with me on hikes (and always do on a solo hike) but ALWAYS turn it off first. And I usually put off the return to civilization as long as possible after the hike too, keeping it off until I get home. I just really love being away from the rest of the world, and cell phones intrude on that. It’s funny, though, because when I am not hiking I’m very plugged in and definitely like to know what’s going on in the world. I guess hiking is just my way of giving myself a break.

  7. I go to the woods to get away from technology. I spend all day every day on the computer for my job so I am getting to the point that I am beginning avoid technology (in the form of electronics) in the back country.

  8. The only electronics I carry into the woods are a digital camera, headlamp, wrist watch, and dumbphone for emergency only.

  9. For me, usually the only thing I bring with me is a cell phone. Since my Android phone has off-line topo maps with GPS, I sometimes use this feature but I usually stay away from making or receiving calls. I like to avoid the modern world when I am out hiking since my day job involves me being around computers and servers 9 hours a day. Such is the life of an IT consultant. If I ever leave this field I’ll probably do something completely opposite like try to get a job as a park ranger or something. I think that would be a fun job.

  10. Funny, I’m in IT as well. ;^) I bring a phone that stays off for the most part. Headlamp.

    I bring a (old school) kindle as well. Lighter than a paperback, battery lasts three weeks and I can pick from whatever I happen to be in the mood to read (which is usually something much different from when I’m around the house).

    I have brought paper and pencil to journal, but I’m usually too tired so I stopped.


  11. My usual hiking spots had no cell service until recently. Now, I take my Android phone and a couple extra batteries. The phone has a GPS and I store offline topo maps and satellite photos on it, which have come in very handy for route finding in some of the desert areas I traverse. Being able to get up to date weather forecasts has been helpful and since I often have grandchildren with me, having the option of calling their mom occasionally is nice. It keeps her from worrying so much and sometimes helps them when they get separation anxiety.

    Although my father at times thought I was a knot head, I have no knots in my head, and cannot tie a bowline to save my life. Thus, I keep a free knot program on my phone to guide me–another use of technology in the back country.

    I do daily Bible reading in the morning after I get up and having the Bible with footnotes and research software loaded helps me keep that habit in the back country. I usually don’t have time to read in the evening because I’m so busy setting up camp, fixing meals, cleaning up after them, critter proofing all the smellables, doing things with the grandkids before bed time, etc. By the time I’m done with all that, I might as well go to bed, too.

  12. I work in tech also and sit in front of a computer most days. When backpacking I leave everything at home, its my time to unplug and get off the grid (don’t even take a camera). I do have my cell phone (turned off, battery out) only because I don’t want to leave it in my car at the TH. Couldn’t even imagine taking a tablet or anything, it would ruin the experience for me.

  13. I generally take the same thing regardless of whether I am out for 10 weeks or 2 days, plus or minus a charger or two. In general- I want to stay away from electronics in the woods, but consider some items a benefit. I have my cell phone (always off and buried in my pack except when I want to call home) and my digital camera (always in my hip belt pocket).

    I typically try not to use my phone for anything other than calling home due to the battery impact (I carried a dumbphone on my 10 week hike for that reason). I journal the old fashioned way (pen and paper) and walk away from everybody if/when I want to use the phone. My phone and camera today have swappable batteries, so for trips under a week I take just a spare battery for each. For longer trips I take an external battery/charger that will charge my phone at least once away from an AC connection. If I was going on another multi-week hike I would also carry an older Kindle- l missed reading and that seems like the best solution considering battery life.

    I don’t carry a SPOT (although I would consider it on my next multi-week hike), however I try to call home every night. I have been amazed at the connectivity- I can’t remember anywhere between GA and PA where I have gone longer than two days without the ability to check in.

    I would love to have a single device solution for a reader, phone, GPS and camera, but at this point I haven’t found one that is (for me) a good trade off of ability and battery life. Until I find one, everything I carry will be a weight to benefit decision based on the trip.

  14. If your photo is the basis of how much tech gadgets should there be on a hike, I’d say that would be waaaay tooo much. Part of the joy of hiking is getting unplugged and “unwired”.

    • Haha – I think that is a display booth at a trade show. I would freak out if I saw someone unload all that on a trail. Too funny.

  15. I don’t have problems getting disconnected from technology. I’m an introvert, so I’m mostly a lurker – I don’t do social media or much interacting at all on the web. People who know me know that I don’t keep my phone on me at all times and that I’m usually not immediately reachable. Luckily this is not a requirement for work either. Maybe this is what makes it easy to get unwired – that I just don’t feel the pressure to be that “wired” in my daily life.

    I grew up with computers and I love the tools that technology offers if I choose to use them. My phone also doubles as my GPS, field guides, knot reference, night sky map and music player. I use it very infrequently on hikes (thus no need for an extra battery) but it allows me to carry many luxury items for no weight penalty. I also carry a camera for picture quality and to avoid draining phone batteries. On a recent leisurely thru-hike of the Wonderland Trail I brought a Kindle for the first time and read three books before our hike was over at the weight cost of about half of one paperback. An iPad would be too much of a weight penalty for my taste but I can understand how it would be useful to some others.

    I see technology as a tool that we can choose to use – a lot, a little or not at all. Just like some people like quilts over bags or one type of pack over another, tech is a personal gear choice. I don’t judge unless someone is interfering with my isolation and wilderness experience by being obnoxious in their use of it. Luckily the lack of cell reception in the backcountry keeps that to a minimum.

    • JZ, good stuff. This matches pretty much my own view.

      My first backpacking experience was with my grampa, and he taught me how he knew it, we carried a so-called blanket pack, using a wool blanket to make a self-contained backpack, and we probably carried enough heavy canvas to equip an average man-o-war. Back then, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d ever hike with a Tarptent, mat and sleeping bag that together probably weigh less than the rope grampa used to tie my pack. In other words: Times change. Don’t fret it. Today’s kids will ALL have anytime-anywhere Internet, no matter where they go in the Backcountry, and they will see it as perfectly OK (and they will probably fondly remember their Grampa who took them on their first camping trip with this super bulky Tarptent :)

      Sometimes, I disconnect completely, other times, I enjoy reading a bit on my ancient 1st gen Kindle before tucking in. The Kindle is way lighter than the paperbacks that I used to carry before, after all. I also like to bring a camera, and doing so actually became more important to me in the past couple months. My dad has Alzheimer’s. He doesn’t “get it” anymore if I explain to him what I did or where I was, but he sure likes the pictures. We spend hours discussing them.

      One obvious yardstick for “too much” tech in the backcountry is when I find that I worry more about juice/power than about water and shelter :). Other than this .. sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes none. And all are good.

  16. I carry an InReach, camera, iPhone and a GPS. I got the in InReach for peace of mind when my wife, who’s my normal hiking partner, was recovering from a stress fracture in her foot.

  17. I find the less tech I bring the more I enjoy the woods.

  18. I alway carry my Android phone but leave it switched off and turn it on when needs be,
    As others do I have offline maps on it, I use the phone Camera and Kindle app so no need for a book or camera, if I do read I turn the screen right down and use my head torch instead to read by.

    On weekend trips I carry one spare battery but if I was out for a week or so I would carry 2 batteries and 130g USB charger which will charge the phone 3 times, to be honest that amount of power would probaly do me fine for a couple of weeks.

    Sometimes I will carry a Satphone when heading to out of the way areas but that always stayed
    switched off and only turned on to tell the wife I haven’t ended up as an extra in Deliverance :-)

    My Smartphone does nearly everything an IPad will do for me (while outdoors) and if I had to my phone will let me connect to work email (I am an IT geek also) but they can pee off I am checking my email on holidays.

    Oh and in winter I carry a Kestel 2500 ;-)

  19. I take pencil and paper to take notes and sketches, and rather minimize my electronics since I like to navigate by way of compass and map rather than GPS units. However, I do carry a Petzl Tikka Plus 2 headlamp and a Samsung S390G phone. The phone is a kind of insurance, and is only turned on at trailheads as a way to coordinate with rides.

  20. I love tech stuff and have a slew of electronic gadgets at home. example: I got caught up in the GPS craze and upgraded every year to the latest device. Then about 5 years ago I decided to pare down and get back to what got me involved in backpacking 36 years ago .. experiencing the outdoors with few distractions.

    Now i take my 30+ year old silva 15r and appropriate maps for navigation and my only electronic devices are my headlamp and a small digital camera. I always carried a small notepad of waterproof paper and a fisher space pen (trekker) in case I need to leave an emergency note or record vitals if injured or want to record something of interest that I might forget.

  21. I think about this a lot when I see folks w/gadgets on the trail. Reckon its to each his own, I tend to lean on the side of less is more, I enjoy thinking about days gone by and how people adapted to doing without, living in these old mtns. I also enjoy sitting down w/folks at camp and hearing who they are and stories about thier lives. Story telling seems a lost art these days. That being said, I too am also sucked into the information age, but I save that for when I’m home. I carry a small camera/motion picture recorder to preserve my adventures so my kids can one day see what ol dad was up to….figure there more apt to read a blog than a leather bound Jornal when they are older.

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