'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 currently works for me, and to share some of the points I’ve learned over the years.
There is no inherent virtue in being tech-free in the outdoors. It’s up to the individual to decide what they need. If you go to the mountains to leave the Web behind, then by all means switch your phone off until you need it. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with logging on if you happen to find some 3G signal. It’s easy to preach about the value of being disconnected in the outdoors until you’re on a long-distance hike and every moment of contact with the outside world is precious.
"This gear allows me to communicate with anyone in the world, capture and share my adventure quickly and easily, navigate more efficiently, carry a library of entertainment material, and supply enough power to do all this without worrying about dead batteries"
I’ll start this article by looking at the most versatile electronic device any hiker or mountaineer could ever use: a smartphone.
Smartphones haven’t been around for very long but already they have earned a place in most of our lives. For the weight-conscious backpacker, a smartphone’s utility should be immediately obvious: it has the magical ability to replace numerous other items, if you let it and if you’re happy with the compromises involved.
A smartphone can replace:
A traditional mobile phone
Most of the functions of a Web-connected computer, if you need such functions
An MP3 player
A paperback book or dedicated Kindle reader
A paper notebook
A mapping GPS (but not a paper map and compass)
A barometer (generally only certain newer models)
A watch (although I always wear a basic digital watch as well, as checking the time on a phone screen wastes power)
Of course, you may not carry all or any of these things anyway. But a smartphone gives you these functions without adding any weight whatsoever, only power supply demands, and it’s fair to say that the majority of outdoor enthusiasts will have a mobile phone of some description for emergency purposes anyway. Having experimented with going back to a basic phone, I can confidently say there is no advantage in using a traditional non-smart phone. With careful power management – which I’ll come to shortly – a modern smartphone is simply a better choice due to its extraordinary versatility.
The key is how you use it. Unrestrained use of a smartphone in the wild can only result in frustration and a drained battery. Many people will choose to keep it switched off unless they need to use it; my preferred strategy is to leave my iPhone set to airplane mode, which disables all wireless antennas. This enables me to use the device as a GPS. My software of choice is ViewRanger, which works perfectly well offline. There is often no signal in the mountains, which discourages the pattern of frequent smartphone use you might be accustomed to in your regular existence – and besides, you will be busy hiking and enjoying the outdoors! Used in this way, a smartphone can last a fortnight between charges, which should be long enough for anyone.
The model of phone you pick does not matter. Some devices are better than others in terms of speed or battery life, and some are best avoided due to substandard software (Windows Phone, I’m looking at you), but generally speaking any smartphone you can buy nowadays will do the job handsomely. Some are even waterproof.
You don’t need many smartphone accessories in the wild. The only essential item is a good case – preferably a shock-resistant one. Waterproof cases exist but these tend to be cumbersome and expensive. My solution to keep water out is simply to put the whole setup in a ziplock bag. This worked for the entire length of the Cape Wrath Trail despite almost continuous wet weather.
You may want to carry headphones for listening to music or audiobooks. The set that came with your phone is probably good enough – the lighter the better.
This is the only truly critical electronic item for the wilderness traveller. Most of us will choose to carry a headtorch. There are many models to choose from, some optimised for sheer power, others for weight. For summer backpacking, the only choice for me is the Petzl E+lite (see UKH review here). 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 (see review here). This is still a lightweight device, but it produces an order of magnitude more light and a controllable beam. The small red LED is incredibly power efficient for general use in your tent after dark. Many headtorches require separate batteries, so of course it’s always wise to carry a spare set. Some models can now be recharged, which – if you’re carrying a portable power plant, as I recommend – makes things easier.
If you’re already carrying a smartphone, do you need a dedicated camera? I think that depends on what you want from your photography. If you are just looking to capture snaps for personal enjoyment, then the camera on a good smartphone will be more than capable. The better smartphone cameras even give you the ability to make large prints with little noticeable drop in quality, and of course they’re good enough for Web or blog use. Many ultralight hikers would not even consider carrying a dedicated camera in addition to their smartphone.
But if you want photos of publishable standard, of if you’re a photography enthusiast who wants more control over your photos, then a dedicated camera really is the way to go. The choice is, do you need a DSLR or will a compact camera do the job?
You can now get very small, light cameras with decent sensors and quality optics, for example the Sony RX100 range or the Fujifilm X30. Cameras in this class are capable of producing excellent images in good light and give you full manual control over your photography, and they will likely suit the vast majority of backpackers and climbers. Most of these cameras offer electronic viewfinders that make composing images significantly easier than squinting at a tiny LCD at arm’s length.
However, for maximum versatility – if you want to take photos of your starlit wild camp, for example, or if you need specific lenses – then a DSLR or mirrorless system camera is the way to go. For excellent low-light performance you need a large sensor and a fast lens. It’s worth bearing in mind that most DSLRs are significantly heavier than mirrorless cameras, but a DSLR has certain other advantages (better autofocus, better battery life, and a real optical viewfinder).
My main camera of choice is the Fujifilm X-E1. This is a lightweight mirrorless system camera weighing only 350g (body only), and I usually use it with Fuji’s excellent 18-55mm f/2.8-f/4 stabilised zoom lens. For an even lighter setup I also have a 27mm f/2.8 ‘pancake’ lens, which converts the camera into something looking a lot like a compact – it’s almost pocketable! A mirrorless camera like this will give you full control over your exposures, the option of changing lenses, an electronic viewfinder, and excellent performance in all lighting conditions.
Here are the accessories I carry for my camera:
ThinkTank Mirrorless Mover 5 camera bag. This is exactly the right size for my camera when fitted with the pancake lens, it fits on the waist belt of my rucksack, and it has a waterproof rain cover. The best part? It only weighs 146g!
Benro Cool Walker Z10 camera bag. If I’m taking my zoom lens, this is the camera bag I use.
Spare battery. My camera battery lasts for about 350 shots, so at least one spare battery is essential for most trips. DSLRs tend to have better battery life.
Spare memory card.
UV filter. Essential for keeping debris and moisture away from the lens in harsh mountain environments.
Lens hood, which can improve contrast and avoid flare in difficult lighting situations. It also provides some protection to the glass.
Circular polarising filter. Valuable for certain situations in landscape photography.
Lens cloth. Because condensation will get on your lens.
- Pedco Ultrapod II. This is a new addition to my kit – an ultralight (118g) tripod with ballhead and a sturdy velcro strap for attaching it to all kinds of things.
Keeping this lot working is, of course, 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.
Nowadays you can buy external USB battery packs that can be recharged and then used to top up devices in the field. These packs have a capacity measured in mAh, commonly ranging from around 2,000mAh (enough to charge most phones once) to 20,000 or more. There are compromises involved at both ends of this scale. The smaller power packs are very light and charge very quickly, but only store a tiny amount of power. The very large batteries store a huge amount of power, often enough to charge a phone many times, but are very heavy and can take a very long time to charge (often as long as 24 hours plugged into the mains). The slow charging time is a deal breaker for the average backpacker who rarely stays anywhere for that long.
My favoured solution is a 12,000Ah pack by Powergen. It weighs only 292g with the necessary cables, and stores enough juice to recharge my smartphone 4-5 times. I can fully charge it in about five hours from a 2A mains charger. For most purposes this power bank alone will provide enough energy, and I often won’t take a mains power adapter or solar panel to top it up.
For longer trips, especially to remote locations, you will need some way of replenishing your power supply. If you expect to encounter pubs, campsites or cafes at least once a week, then a 2A compact mains charger is the easiest solution. This is the setup I took on the Cape Wrath Trail; I only had to charge the power supply twice on the whole journey, although I used my phone very sparingly.
I also have a Portapow 7W folding solar panel. This weighs 363g and only cost me £20, but if there’s enough sunlight then it’s more than powerful enough to meet my energy demands on the trail. The idea is to use the panel to keep my power bank topped up. I used it on the Tour of Monte Rosa, where the abundant sunshine provided more energy than I could possibly use – even when blogging from the trail and frequently using 3G data on my phone. However, I don’t think this solar panel would be anywhere near as effective in the UK. I think a solar panel is only likely to be worthwhile for destinations where regular bright sunshine is virtually guaranteed.
I can see you scratching your head. A keyboard? In the wilderness?
Well if you’re using a smartphone for entering a lot of text, you might decide that a folding wireless keyboard is worth the weight. If, for example, you are blogging from the trail or keeping a journal on a smartphone then it’s absolutely worth it. I’ve tried typing longform pieces on a touchscreen keyboard before and it’s no fun – in fact, the experience is so poor that you end up recording far less detail and are far less articulate. A quality keyboard can make the difference between remembering everything about a day on the trail and forgetting it.
Of course, this boils down to the question of whether or not you choose to use an electronic device to store your journal. There’s something special about writing a journal on paper but, as with everything in this article, there really is no right or wrong way to do it. Many backpackers don’t journal at all and simply use their camera to record their journey.
My keyboard of choice is the EC Technology wireless keyboard. It has a robust folding design, a built-in rechargeable battery that lasts for months of average use, and dedicated number keys. Its layout is very similar to a regular laptop keyboard and I can type effortlessly on it. At 184g I’m quite happy to carry it into the wild, although as a luxury item it’s one of the first things to be ditched if I’m looking to save pack weight.
I have used one of these keyboards for quite a while and it’s my first choice if I need to keep an electronic journal or blog from the trail.
All the gear I mention above weighs in at a total of 2kg. This is a significant chunk of my overall pack weight, but in terms of the value per gram it’s actually hard to beat. This gear allows me to communicate with anyone in the world, capture and share my adventure quickly and easily, navigate more efficiently, carry a library of entertainment material, and supply enough power to do all this without worrying about dead batteries.
Nothing on this list can be said to be essential except for the headtorch, and depending on the objectives of any given trip I may well decide to leave some or even most of the items at home. But it’s a versatile setup and each piece of equipment has been carefully chosen to suit my specific needs. Depending on the trip I can pick and choose whatever I require from this arsenal.
About Alex Roddie
Regular UKH contributor Alex Roddie is a freelance editor, writer, and outdoor enthusiast. He divides his time between editing the work of others and writing about mountains.
His passion is the history of mountaineering and he has published two novels on the subject, The Only Genuine Jones and The Atholl Expedition. He is currently working on his third novel.
For more on what Alex is up to see his website
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- One Minute Mountain: Liathach 27 Nov, 2017