Go Smart Tech
Backpacker opens by asking "Does going ultralight mean going ultraprimitive?" I think we all know the answer to that one is a definitive no – if anything, ultralight, while espousing simplicity, stands astride at the cutting edge (ouch) of backpacking technologies developed or adapted specifically to lighten one's load. In many ways, ultralighters are backpacking's early adopters – we act as (sometimes inadvertent and gullible) guinea pigs testing out the lightest materials before they become adopted or rejected by the mainstream backpacking manufacturers.
So, then, we can agree that technology plays a significant role in ultralight, but what Backpacker is rightly or wrongly interested in when it talks about "smart-tech", is high tech gizmos and gadget geekery.
As a rationale behind choosing which gadgets to take into the wilderness, they advise that "your gadgets should have a clear purpose and, whenever possible replace other items" [my emphasis]. While this logic might be viable for their example of books ("listen to podcasts on an iPod instead of packing a book"), they also astonishingly apply that same rationale to "the ultimate multitasker: an iPhone or Droid loaded with tunes, audio books, a star chart, and ahem, our navigation app (GPS Trails Pro, $3.00, backpacker.com/apps)."
Yes, you read that right, Backpacker just advised you to carry an iPhone instead of a map and compass.
Backpacking North says...
If I catch anyone using that app I'll dunk your phone in a lake. Use a decent iPhone or Android app if you must, but please don't ever rely on a smartphone as your only means of navigation. Always carry a map and compass – they might not be able to multitask or play Angry Birds, but they have the singular ability to function without batteries, and rarely malfunction.
Aside from the fact that Backpacker contradicts its own advice (if "smart-tech" should replace something, what else are you replacing with that iPhone? A star map? A boombox?) how about a scary thought: take nothing. Allow yourself to think, ponder, observe, listen. Enjoy the outdoors without the interfaces. You're out there to get away from the everyday, not drag your gadget addiction with you.
I know, I know. You came here to read about tech stuff, not receive a lecture in ludditism. Don't worry, I'm as much of a gear head as anyone else. I like to try out new toys and find it hard to tear myself completely away from modern technology on the trail. For better or worse, that's the world we live in. Technology exists all around us. Even when we are in the middle of nowhere, we stand amidst invisible signals and wavelengths, and at some point we might welcome being able to be geolocated, or to locate ourselves. Arguably, the development of GPS and other technology encourages us to explore more freely, to travel more widely, and with more confidence. I'm absolutely not denying the need for essential navigational skills; those skills themselves were once technological developments that facilitated exploration. Modern tech is merely the latest in a long line of innovations; to deny its value would be akin to ancient mariners rejecting the use of those newfangled sextants.
Before we delve into the wonders of so-called smart tech, it should be stated clearly that very few of the items on this page qualify as essential ultralight equipment. All of them will add weight to your pack rather thanreducing weight, and with one or two exceptions, they could easily be left behind.
As regards what defines "smart tech", this article will primarily cover the use items requiring battery power, which includes GPS and other sateilite locaots, smart phones, cameras, ipods, eBook readers, watches, headlamps, weather instruments and devices to charge the numerous batteries you'll end up carrying (you will be carrying rechargeable batteries, wont you?). I also throw in a couple of less smart tech items as they didn't really appear anywhere else - knives, monoculars/binoculars. As the article is over 8750 words long, I almost cut these, but decided to leave them in for the sheer hell of it. I can't promise that everything you are about to read forms a complete analysis of currently available smart tech, but at least it should hopefully be a little more informative than Backpacker's original 50 words.
As usual, I throw in a smattering of third party reviews along with my own opinions.
Perhaps the most commonly used piece of smart-tech today is GPS. Only a few years ago it would have been considered extravagant to carry such a device, but today, with falling prices and GPS abilities built in to most smart phones, carrying some kind of geo-location technology is increasingly common.
There are numerous devices to choose from, each with differing abilities. Typically, a dedicated hiking GPS today will feature a colour map so you can easily locate yourself. The higher end models add cameras and video, additional apps, and approach smart phones for functionality.
Simpler (or older) models forgo the map for a basic waypoint-based system and leave the actual landscape navigation to you and your map, and in some ways there is much to be said for this method: it forces you to use and become experienced with a map rather than relying on electronics; the costs are lower; digital maps are not required, and as they are often expensive (unless you can find free ones) this saves additional money and faffing around. They also typically require less power and have much longer battery life.
That said, I use a Garmin Dakota 20, which has a small, colour touch screen display. It's a fairly typical, basic unit – small enough to fit in a pocket, with about 18 hours of battery life, and simple to use. It does some digital bells and whistles (fishing calculator, geocaching app etc) which I never use. I find it perfectly adequate for my needs. I wrote a short review here, but at 153g / 5.3 oz (inc. batteries) it's small and light enough to leave in your pocket and forget about it.
Garmin has pretty much cornered the market on handheld GPS units. Another very popular (slightly cheaper) unit from Garmin is the eTrex, which comes in a variety of flavours. Roger from Nielsen Brown Outdoors uses one and is particularly pleased with the extended battery life it achieves over the more power-hungry, colour touchscreen models. The eTrex 10 is the bare bones model Roger uses, the eTrex 20 adds a colour screen and maps, and the eTrex 30 throws in a 3-axis digital compass, and pressure based altimeter. All weigh around 5oz / 141g.
Even simpler is the Garmin Foretrex – picked by Andrew Skurka as a bare bones, cheap solution that provides longitude/latitude and basic waypoint tracking.
At the upper end of the scale (in both ways), Garmin also offer the now-stylishly-redesigned Oregon (6.8 oz / 192g - and here's the old model) and the even larger Montana (11.7 oz / 331g) - see what they did with the naming there? While these models have cameras and other shenanigans built-in, I find them a touch too large, and I'd rather carry a decent camera (of which more later). The Montana does claim to have a "glove-friendly" display, but I find the Dakota also works fairly well with gloves.
One good thing about the screens on all these is that they work best in sunlight, so you can often turn on the screen backlight and save power.
Another good thing about Garmin is that you can install your own downloaded or scanned maps, so you are not totally dependent on the exorbitantly priced ones sold online. Their cross-platform BaseCamp software is also quite good, if a little unintuitive, and is regularly updated.
Do you absolutely need a GPS? No, not really. They come in useful when visibility is poor (i.e. fog) or geographically restricted (i.e. canyons, assuming you get a fix) – so it largely depends on where you're hiking. I like to take one mainly to track my route and keep a record, but I have used it to locate myself on several occasions. These days, I usually carry my Dakota with me on all but the dullest hikes – even if most of the time it remains stuffed in a pocket, forgotten, it's nice to have if needed, and I enjoy looking a the track when I return home.
Lastly, the Garmin GPS units use AA batteries (I use rechargeable ones), which I think is an important consideration. It's much easier to swap a pair of AAs than to attempt to recharge internal batteries on the trail. In general, I prefer to use standard replaceable batteries when hiking for all electronic equipment whenever possible
Sateillite Locators / Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)
In my experience, most 3G/4G cell-based (mobile/cellphone) services are next to useless outside major population centers – even if coverage is claimed, it often vanishes at the merest hint of elevated land. Satellite-based communication provides far better and more accurate coverage than your average mobile/cell connection. And as the devices are primarily used for emergency location, they often don't have battery-draining screens, and last far longer (assuming you don't overuse the e-communication or tracking options).
However, when we think of satellite location devices, we are really talking about three types of devices which are often confused, so let's begin by clarifying:
- Personal Locator Beacons are a one-way, single purpose device: they send an emergency-only SOS signal when triggered, and not much else. They require no additional service fees. The Acratex ResQLink is an example.
- One-way messaging devices use a satellite network for simple tracking, one-directional messaging (e.g. "I'm safe", and emergengy SOS location. The one-way communication services usually require an additional monthly service fee. A SPOT is a good example of one such device.
- Two-way messaging devices facilitate some form of bi-directional communication, usually text messaging or emergency communication, as well as tracking and SOS location. The initial and monthly costs are a little more expensive. The DeLorme inReach is a good example.
(Note: I'm not including satellite phones in this article – I consider them to be a little over the top for the short weekend trips that are a focus for the Ultralight Makeover series.)
SPOT (147g / 5.2 oz) is probably the most well known device, and has been used by the likes of Ryan Jordan for deep treks into the wilderness. It integrates nicely with their online mapping system, so friends and family can follow your adventures and know you are safe (or in danger) - which is often cited as the main reason for carrying them. The tracking is quite good is you live in an area that is covered. SPOT uses the Globalstar satellite network (in fact Spot is a subsidiary of Globalstar), and if you check the coverage map (below), you'll see that northern Finland lies on the border of coverage. For this reason, and because of incomplete coverage elsewhere, some people preferdeLorme's inReach (see below) which uses the Iridium network that claims 100% global coverage.
SPOT also offers the Connect (140g /4.9oz) which works with iOS/Android as an interface, however I would question the usefulness of this when bearing in mind the appalling battery life of mobile devices. While it's possible to extend the battery life of phones (as we'll see), when one piece of tech starts to require carrying another two or three in order to provide power and functionality, it starts to get too far away from what I'm looking for on an outdoor trip. I spend enough time as it is juggling gadgets at home to want to start doing that in the wilderness. It should be noted that it is, however, possible to send an SOS signal using the Connect without the accompanying iOS/Android device, so even if you do run out of power on your device, you can still get help when needed (although there has also been some criticism of the search and rescue effectiveness of the emergency signalling methods used by SPOT - see comments here)
DeLorme's inReach has a generally more positive reception among the outdoor community – although comments about its weight (227g / 8oz) and annual costs are plentiful. When combined with a smartphone, the inReach offers both two-way communication (i.e. it can receive messages too) and GPS tracking/mapping (however note that apparently the detail provided is lower outside the US). However, the same caveats mentioned above apply for phone battery life.
The other big names in the sateillite location business is Yellowbrick and Briartek.Yellowbrick has a good following and appears to be very reliable. Initial costs are higher, but running costs lower. It has very good battery life, which is a good thing as it uses an internal, USB rechargable battery. Briartek offers the Cerberussystem, and even has them available for rent ($65/2 weeks).
Reviews among the outdoor community are sadly few and far between. Brian Green casts a suspicious eye over SPOT. Jaakko offered an overview of his experiences a couple of years ago, and a more up-to-date state of the market report was recently featured on Backpacking Light (membership required, but recommended reading if you are interested).
For a "back-to-basics" approach, a personal locator beacon (PLB) might be all you need. The ACR ResQLink+ (153g / 5.4oz) offers simple, emergency SOS functionality, and they even offer to give you a new unit should you ever need to use the device in an emergency. The initial costs are lower ($289 at REI / $310 at BackCountry ) and there are no additional service fees, although ACR now offer an optional, very simple SMS/Email "I'm OK" service for $40/year (406Link.com) which can also be used for basic tracking. So if you're willing to eschew the fancy gizmo factor and have something for emergencies only, this might be all you really need. An alternative model is the McMurdo FastFind, but it lacks ACR's tracking option which some might find attractive.
Does Backpacking North carry a satellite locator? Currently, no. I'm looking into it however, but I'm always turned off by the pricing structures. DeLorme is very expensive, while SPOT is cheaper but offers an apparently less reliable service. I want to let my family know I'm safe while away on trips, but I can't afford annual subscriptions that I infrequently use (plus I hate subscription models as a rule). So I find myself in a quandary about which to choose, and end up choosing neither, relying instead on the age-old method of telling people my route and making an emergency and contingency plans. I suspect that in a few years, services such as SPOT and DeLorme will disappear as they are rolled into smart phones or watches. There are problems with that, of course – SOS services are already notoriously prone to abuse by lazy hikers – but technological convergence is inevitable.
iPhone / Android
Undoubtedly, a smart phone allows you to take smart tech into the outdoors. There is an overwhelming amount of apps for almost every conceivable purpose (and several inconceivable ones) that range from the mediocre to the essential. With GPS, accelerometers, cameras, torches, and even, I'm told, the ability to make phone calls, these devices have transformed how we experience the outdoors – to such a point that there is a danger that our experience becomes more one of augmented consumption of the outdoors rather than pure enjoyment.
Do we need to take these devices into the wilderness? Should we? Whichever side of the geofence you stand, these things are here to stay. You either embrace them or leave them in the (locked) glove box. Me, I tend to take my iPhone with me, but leave it off most of the time in the attempt to save battery and remain as disconnected as possible. Fortunately, with spotty 3G coverage outside the city, this is relatively easy.
A few years ago, I wrote a short article about the iPhone apps I use most outdoors (Apps for the Wild at Heart). Looking back at it I see some that I continue to use, others that have fallen by the wayside, and more that did not exist or were not popular at the time. Instagram, astonishingly, was released the month after I wrote the article, in October 2010 – since then it has reached it's zenith of popularity, and fallen foul of corporate greed. If you ever want to feel the weight of rapidly passing time, look back a couple of years in your digital archive. The reference to "Droid" in the Backpacker article inspiring this series already feels oddly anachronistic.
Today, the smartphone landscape continues to change, affecting our experience of, and actions in the wilderness, as well as our interactions with each other, both in real and online space. This will not be an exhaustive discussion; instead, as with the rest of the articles, I will highlight a few of the most popular, relevant apps. I have tried, where possible, to include apps that exist on multiple platforms, but I have little or no knowledge of Android or Windows Phone, so I leave any interesting addenda to the comments.
MotionX GPS continues to provide the most "GPS-like" functionality on iOS. While other apps exist for basic tracking (RunKeeper, Endomondo), MotionX feels like a GPS unit. The downside is that its maps leave something to be desired.
Other tracking/mapping apps include AccuTerra, Gaia, EveryTrail, and TopoMaps in North America, with Memory Map and Anquet popular the UK, and Karttaselain in Finland, UT.no in Norway, and a zillion other regionally- and country-specific apps available at the tap of your fingertips.
If I had to pick a stand out app, ViewRanger (iOS/Android/Nokia) comes to mind. It is an increasingly international app (it began as very UK-centric) with downloadable maps for a growing number of countries. However, the most interesting thing about ViewRanger is it's connection to another online mapping service: Social Hiking.
I think it's fair to say that Social Hiking has revolutionised live, online tracking for hikers. After setting up your account and linking it with ViewRanger, your phone automatically sends beacons which are updated live online. It's kind of like a lite version of SPOT/sateillite tracking (and, in fact it also works with SPOT & Yellowbrick devices), but connected to an abundant (and ever growing) array of social media services, so any tweets, photos, video, or audio you spit into the digital wind are geotagged and magically placed on the map. It's a fun service that works globally, even if ViewRanger doesn't have a detailed map for the area you are in. Of course, there is one major downside: on a phone live tracking is reliant on your access to a network connection. In well-populated areas this is not an issue, but sadly here in Lapland the poor network availability away from civilisation gives poor results. I did accidentally activate it while writing this though, so the whole world was able to follow my dog walk and diaper run!
For checking the weather, I currently mostly use eWeather HD (iOS/Android). There is a tendency among weather apps to emphasise cool, visual interfaces over useful information. As a backpacker, it's helpful to have more information at your disposal than "it might rain". eWeather provides pretty much everything you can think of – wind speed, air pressure, precipitation predictions, humidity, sunrise/sunset, moon phase, aurora predictions – and does so in a reasonably compact and intuitive interface. It also allows you to choose Foreca or U.S. Weather as a data provider.
Although I really don't like to spend much time using my phone, I occasionally allow myself to catch up on some reading late at night. I save interesting articles I come across on twitter or Reeder toInstapaper, which allows for offline reading (providing you download them before you leave) when far away from network signals. I also occasionally use iBooks, mainly for reading .pdfs which I transfer to it via Dropbox. I prefer a physical book to reading from a screen, but iBooks or the Kindle app facilitate e-reading if that is your cup of tea. It would make more sense to read using a Kindle or phone from an ultralight perspective (as we shall discover), but I've never felt comfortable with it.
Of course, you can also listen to music, podcasts, audiobooks or watch movies from your smartphone. Again, I rarely do this, preferring to be at peace in my surroundings. But if you find some music helps you relax at night, go for it, the more uses you can find for your smart phone, the better. I can't imagine there are many people who trek into the wilderness to watch Iron Man 3 on their tiny screens in the evening, but if you do, I'm not one to judge; just do it over there, well away from me.
If I do want something to keep myself busy in empty moments, I still keep a couple of Knot apps on my phone. Even if I do pack knot knowledge, I find practicing new knots in camp is a good way to keep the knowledge fresh (like thay say, "if you want to learn a knot, tie a knot a lot". The apps I use are essentially the same as those listed in Apps for the Wild at Heart: Knot Guide & Animated Knots. There are plenty of others available on Android.
These days, I prefer taking a real camera on trips, but it is possible to get acceptable results from many in-phone cameras. Instagram rose to dominate the social photography scene, but after facebook acquisition and a PR disaster over usage rights, it feels far less alive than it once did. I certainly use Instagram far less these days, opting instead to sharing "real photos" via flickr, twitter, or facebook.
I often forget that my phone shoots video. The quality is reasonable enough for documentation purposes, but good video is hard to achieve without being dedicated to the task. I find that I can only focus on one thing at a time: taking photographs or shooting video – and in general I prefer photography. Making a good video requires a lot of time and planning, and I find this to be at odds with what I want from my trips. The process is very different to photography, a fact which is oft forgotten. (I also, somewhat against the grain, don't particularly enjoy watching backpacking videos or gear reviews – they take up too much of my time and you can't easily skip past waffly sections like this.)
There are not many other photography apps that I use on a regular basis, but one you might be interested in is Golden Hour, which, as the name suggests, calculates the optimal times for photography in any location worldwide. It also plots the compass bearing for the sun's position throughout the day. It's a useful little tool for planning your shots.
A final word: remember the battery life. The more you use your smartphone, the quicker it runs out of battery, and the less smart it seems. You might need your phone to make an emergency call or SMS. Even in poor reception areas you can often climb to the top of a hill and find just enough coverage for emergency purposes. But you can't do that with a dead phone.
It's a worthwhile point to remember that an older, simpler, backup cell phone (I have a crappy old Samsung clamshell thing) has a much longer battery life (often up to a month on standby) than power-guzzling devices with retina screens, GPS, camera, light sensors and other whizzo tech. If you truly want to go ultralight, consider going technologically ultralight too. My iPhone weighs 140g, my crappy Samsung clamshell, 70g – but my iPhonefeels a lot heavier – the constant nagging of twitter, facebook, push alerts; the oddly urgent need to check it regularly; the desire to use it or to play with it. When I don't have it with me, I feel a lot lighter, and a lot more connected to nature and those around me. So much for "connecting people".
Roundup of Hiking Apps from AppAdvice
iPods / Music Players
Are there other music players than iPods these days? Somehow even iPods feel a little out of date. But if you don't have a smart phone, or don't want to carry yours, but you still feel the need for the soundtrack to your life, consider taking the smallest, lightest music player you can find. The iPod Shuffle's 15 hour battery and 2Gb storage should last you on a weekender, and can play music, podcasts and audiobooks.
Kindle / Nook / iPad etc
E-ink readers can offer significant weight savings for avid readers. The weight of the lightest Kindle (the Voage 6.3oz / 180g) is a fraction of a weighty book (Marcel Proust - À la recherche du temps perdu, Part 1, 527g), and allows you to store hundreds more than you will ever read while on a trip. It even has a backlit screen which adapts to ambient lighting – an advantage in the wilderness. Battery life is ridiculously good (8 weeks, though using the light will reduce this), and the 300ppi e-ink screen offers a much better reading experience than even retina-display equipped tablets.
The rigours of backcountry travel will necessitate some kind of protective and waterproof cover which is beyond the remit of this article (but important enough that you should consider it for all your valuable electronic equipment). I once accidentally sat on my wife's Kindle, cracking the screen: when it breaks, it becomes useless, but at least all your purchased books are safe in the cloud.
Does Backpacking North use a Kindle? No. I just don't like them. I'm old school, and prefer the feel of a book, the ability to flick to any page, the smell, the sound, the set of the type; the whole bookish experience. I don't like the way e-ink readers re-paginate, I don't like the fonts on offer, and the feeling of engaging with a device distracts me from the experience of being spirited away; I am continually drawn back to the technological present. I can completely see their worth for the backpacker, and especially for the ultralight long-distance hiker, but they are not for me.
I always end up stuffing a book in my backpack, and 99% of the time it returns with me, unread. I find when I am out there, there is either plenty to do, or I am content to sit back and observe the world. The one time I do read is on rest days on longer trips, in which circumstances I can imagine nothing more pleasant that sitting on a rock with a book in hand.
But that's just me.
Here's a video review from Chad, a ultralight Kindle user.
Andy Howell also posted a review in 2011.
Francis Tapon likes his Kindle Paperwhite, and offers a review of some protective cases, to boot.
...or, as Suunto would like you to call them, wrist-top computers. The range and functionality of technologically-loaded watches has been growing in recent years. Alongside Suunto, Garmin, Casio and HighGear have a range of watches for various types of outdoor activity. The watches we are interested in are those which feature altimeters, barometers, temperature guages, digital compasses, and more recently, GPS functionality.
I've been wearing my Suunto Core (reviewed here) every day for over three years now. It's an "ABC" wrist-top computer, with Altimeter, Barometer, Compass (ABC), with temperature guage, storm alarm, altitude/barometric logging, sunrise/sunset times, waterproofiness, and an inverted black screen. I stand by what I've written in the review, and after three years of daily use I would emphasise the following:
First, the inverted black screen might look cool, but it's impractical in use. If you get one, go for a traditional black-on-white screen.
Second, if I was buying one again, I would get one with the rotatable bearing dial around the outside – again, the Core Extreme (which I own) is a case of design over practicality; it looks nice, but the lack of dial makes it less useful. Third, the compass is incredibly unreliable. I never use the thermometer (because you have to take the watch off for it to work), the altimeter, or the altitude logging. The best aspect of the watch is the barometer, which works as long as you regularly set the reference altitude, and can help you predict local weather conditions. The storm alarm works well providing you are stationary or are moving on relatively gentle terrain.
I note that newer marketing texts for the Core describe a "unique start-from-zero function [that] simplifies altimeter usage by eliminating need to enter a reference altitude". I don't seem to have that functionality on my watch, and cannot find any info anywhere online about what that really means, but if it works, then it solves one of the problems with these watches: the barometer and altimeter are co-dependent, as both height and barometric pressure are measured by air pressure.
Suunto has a range of different Core watches, but the only difference between them is in the external design and materials used, and the corresponding prices they charge. If you really want to lay down some cash, the Suunto Elementum Multifiunction Expedition Watch or Suunto Elementum Terra will happily empty your bank account. At the other end of the scale, you can still find the venerable Suunto Vector in some places – it's simpler, cheaper, and has a reputation for reliability.
Casio also offer their range of Pathfinder and ProTrek watches with similar functionality, and how shall I put it... less minimal design. They seem more reliable and popular than the range from Highgear (although the AltiTech 3 is a nice carabiner-style clip-on watch). The Pathfinder Atomic Solar watches do, admittedly, offer a couple of advantages: they're solar powered, and they set themselves automagically via the atomic clock, which is undeniably cool.
The latest thing to cram into your wrist is, of course, GPS. Both Garmin and Suunto are in on the game with the Garmin Fenix 2 (and just released Fenix 3) and Suunto Ambit 3. While both have breadcrumb tracking, the Fenix seems to have a slight edge feature-wise, with integration with their BaseCamp software. Both use rechargeable batteries; Garmin claims around 16 hours use in GPS mode (50 hours with more limited use), which is just about enough for a weekender, and in my testing this seemed fairly accurate. The Ambit claims to fare a little better, at around 25-28 hours, but in pactice I found the performance to be about the same once the correct settings had been made (limiting GPS pinging frequency). In the end I found the Garmin Fenix to be more appropriate for backpacking becuase of it's more integrated mapping experience, however Suunto's implementation of the Altimeter/Barometer was functionally more useful. You can read my extensive reviews of the Fenix 2 and Ambit 2 at the links below.
Backpacking North's Garmin Fenix 2 review
Backpacking North's Suunto Ambit 2 review
Utah Outside's review of the Suunto Ambit
Chad Brackelsberg on the Ambit.
Ultra 168 on the Fenix
DC Rainmaker's extensive review of the Garmin Fenix. If you raise your eyebrows at two-sentence reviews of products, check out this 13,000+ word, fully illustrated baby!
Do any of these devices help in lightening your load? Not really, unless you normally carry a separate watch, GPS, altimeter, barometer and thermometer. You certainly shouldn't omit the real compass from your pack, and if you need a GPS, then one of the dedicated units mentioned earlier would be more reliable and useful.
There are some cases where an altimeter and barometer can come in handy, but in pretty much all circumstances, alternative solutions exist: just look at your map/the sky/your compass.
I suspect that this year (or at least within the next three years) the marketplace for wristwatch-style computers will be forever transformed, and we'll soon be doing a lot more with our wrists (ahem) than current products allow. If smart watches do make an appearance, expect to be loading GPS, weather, and a whole hose of useful apps on them, and for Suunto to fall behind the times like another well-known Finnish company. It will be interesting to see what happens – but until then, check out the full range of Ambulation-Oriented Wrist-Top Super Computers at REI or Backcountry.com.
Headlamps & Lanterns & Flashlights
You'd think that, having moved beyond the days of the venerable candle lantern, the choices for ultralight lighting would be simple: grab a simple headlamp and go. But no. Even the humble headlamp has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the age of USB programming and headlamp hacking.
Take the current high-end offering, the Petzl Nao. It features a reactive lighting system that automatically adjusts brightness to ambient conditions. It even comes with software that allows you to program it's output for various activities. It weighs 187g / 6.6oz. Frankly, I think it's overkill for backpackers, ultralight or otherwise. And the more you complicate a relatively simple thing, the more that can go wrong with it.
Not wanting fall behind in the headlamp development race, Petzl also introduced the Core – a rechargeable/programmable battery pack for their range of smaller, Tikka2/Zipka2 lamps. It allows you to program the light output to suit your needs. From an environmental standpoint, the rechargeable battery is a good thing, but although the programmable battery is clever (some, including Chris Townsend, like it) I can't help but feel I'm being sold something I really don't need. I can see how, on a long, extended trip of several weeks, a carefully programmed light might be useful, but for general use it just seems like a gimmick. Do I really want to spend time programming my headlamp? What next? Programmable backpacks?
If you take away the fancy factor of programmability, it's simply a rechargeable battery, and you can buy a bunch of rechargeable AAA batteries for a fraction of the cost and still walk around with a smile on your face, happy that you are doing your bit to save the planet.
Oddly, the Core battery pack seems to be unavailable in the major retailers at the moment, so if you feel the need to program your lighting, maybe wait until a new version arrives; who knows, maybe it'll let you program it's weight.
So what headlamp does Backpacking North use? I have two: a Zipka and Tikka – they are quite old now; the newer models have better features. I recommend the Zipka2 for it's compactness and weight (83g / 2.9oz). It has a 70 lumen beam that lasts 70 hours on maximum, 150 on minimum. Unlike my older model, it also has a red bulb to help maintain night vision and annoy your companions less in camp. The Tikka XP 2 offers slightly more light (80 lumens) and a more comfortable strap, bringing the weight up to 88g / 3.1oz.
For the true ultralight light, the Petzl e+lite wins the contest hands down. Weighing just 27g / 0.9oz, it's waterproof, has a retractable cord, and has white and red lamps. It only manages 26 lumens, but many people swear it is adequate for their needs around camp. It uses those awkward lithium watch batteries though, which provide a claimed 35-70 hours use. I'd like to try one, but in Lapland I face two extremes: 24 hours of light in summer (so no headlamp needed), and 20 hours of darkness in winter (so a longer-lasting, brighter light is appreciated). Your light mileage may vary.
There are other manufacturers making lamps, and in general they are all of a similar quality. Black Diamond's range is perfectly okay, with the Storm and Spot standing out from the bunch. The Princeton Tec Remix is popular and light at 2.9 oz / 82g. Fenix make some of the brightest – the Fenix HL30, for example – but remember the wisdom of Blade Runner.
One rather clever innovation comes from Mammut in the shape of the T-Trail Headlamp and Ambient Light Dry Bag. Combining a headlamp with a waterproof, transluscent dry bag, it creates a lantern that can be used in your shelter. I think it's a smart, safe update of the old candle lanterns, that mixes in a bit of ultralight multi-use sensibility (the dry bag is a stuff sack, which even has volume markings). The lantern/bag can also be purchased separately for use with other headlamps. Full points to Mammut. It is certainly much better than the previous big seller (andBackpacker fave), the Black Diamond Orbit Lantern, which is both heavy (4.8oz / 136g w/o batts) and not particularly bright.
Talking of lanterns and innovation, this week's novelty gizmo award goes to Snow Peak, who seem to be on a roll recently.
The Snow Peak Hozuki LED Candle Lantern is a riff on Chinese paper lanterns, but cleverly obviates the possibility of you burning down your shelter. The lamp hangs in your tent, provides up to 100 lumens, and has a (get this) candle setting that flickers in response to sound or wind, and will even "blow out" if jostled too much! Seriously, who wouldn't want one of these? It weight 5.6oz / 158g, so it's not exactly ultralight, but we're all allowed one luxury item, right? If I had to choose, this would be mine – it would make those long winter nights quite romantic. There's also a Mini Hozuki - a smaller, lighter version (2.4 oz / 68 g), so now you really have no excuse. Get shopping!
While researching the plentiful lighting options available today, I came across another Snow Peak item, the Snow Peak Lapel Torch. I have absolutely no idea what the point of this item is. It's a complete mystery to me. It's advertised in a video featuring fly fishing, to maybe Tenkara bums will snap it up. It weighs a scant 1.4 oz / 40g, throws out 60 lumens, and lasts 55 hours on high. So there you go. Dix point for innovation, though.
Lastly, I prefer, and generally advocate headlamps over flashlights on the trail. Headlamps allow you to keep both hands free (especially handy – haha – if you have walking poles), they can easily be attached to something else, they always point in the right direction, they tend not to get lost or dropped so easily, and these days they are significantly brighter than during the initial switch to LED tech. However, if you are a die-hard flashlight user, you'll find plenty on offer at the links below. I believe Fenix are the people to beat in this area. The Fenix PD32 (3.8oz / 107g), which can throw out 740 lumens, should be enough to startle anyone on the trail, but the true ultralighter will prefer the Fenix LD01 (0.9 oz / 25g) a simpler, 72 lumen pocket torch just 3 in/ 7.5cm long, and recommended by Andrew Skurka.
Last but not least, this is the ultralight headlamp you are looking for.
I first read about weather instruments in Chris Townsend's Backpacking book. While I like the idea of measuring and predicting the weather while backpacking, I can't help but feel it's a little unnecessary on short trips. If it's very windy, you don't usually need a device to tell you that. Sure, it can be interesting, but necessary?
Of all the items in this article, wind instruments are possibly the least essential – especially now that much of their prediction functionality is available via smartphone apps. However, I include them for completeness, and because at least the ADC Summit/Pro won't make too much of an impact on your base weight.
In the end their value depends on your potential use for them. If you are hiking up high, in rapidly changing conditions, and might need a more accurate alert to bad weather than that provided by an altimeter watch, then these might be of interest. Otherwise, Mike Clelland's LATS technique (Look At The Sky) might serve you better.
I found three widely available weather instruments by Brunton - and of the three the 1.7oz / 48g Brunton Atmospheric Data Center Summit and Proseem to be the lightest and most useful, providing wind speed/wind chill measurement, barometric pressure, temperature, and altitude (the Pro throws in water flow measurement, dew point analysis, heat index etc.). It is able to examine trends and give a potential 12 hour forecast, and includes a storm alarm for rapidly changing conditions. In many ways, apart from the wind speed measurements, it shares many of the features and limitiations of the ABC watches covered earlier – the basing of altitude and barometric measurements on air pressure being the main issue affecting accuracy, and requiring regular calibration.
Kestrel is another manufacturer. The Kestrel 4000 provides much of the same functionality as the Brunton ADC Pro, but is a little heavier at 3.6 oz / 102g.
I have to admit, being a weather geek, I'm kind of interested in playing around with one of these, and I'd probably opt for the ADC Pro if I had a spare couple of hundred dollars lying around.
Review of Brunton ADC Pro at Utah Outside and Wild Snow
Knives and tools
Do knives and tools qualify as tech? Probably not, and the choices are so numerous and personal it would be hard to pick one winner over all the others.
For tools, a very simple Leatherman or Victorinox is the most popular and sensible choice. My ideal tool would have the following
- a blade
- flat & Phillips (cross head) screwdriver
- mini saw
In the past I would have added corkscrew and bottle opener to that, but these days my inner wino now repackages in platy bags (I just use basic ones, not these). In all honesty, the mini saw is not very useful either apart from cutting very small branches and amputating hiking companions' fingers while they're sleeping.
Typically, however, tools never have the full compliment of items you actually want them to have: there is always one missing that is present on a different model, but that other model is missing something else. Such is life.
I carry a Leatherman Micra, and occasionally a Marttini Puuko (knife). The Micra is a handy and very small tool, featuring scissors, flat & Phillips screwdriver, blade, tweezers, nail file, bottle opener, ruler. It weighs 1.75 oz / 50g.
Also popular from Leatherman are the Juice (4.4 oz /125g - adds pliers, wire cutters, more screwdrivers, can pener, bottle opener, loses the file and tweezers), and the Style CS (1.4 oz / 39g - much trhe same as micra, minus the ruler). When you start to hit the Skeletool things get heavier ( 5oz / 141g) but a bit more rugged.
On the other hand, the Victorinox Classic is exactly that – a classic. The "Swiss Army Knife" packs a knife, file, screwdriver, scissors, toothpick, nail file and tweezers into 1.3oz / 36g, and some would argue that's all you need. A the other end of the scale, there's always this monstrosity.
A good, sharp, basic knife can come in handy for many purposes, and is essential if you are travelling light and using found wood for fuel (with a Caldera Cone or BushBuddy, for example). I have a Lynx Lumberjack Carbon, made by Marttiini, based in Rovaniemi, Lapland! It's a classic knife with a flat top good for cutting kindling, and weighs in at 90g / 3.17 oz in its leather pouch. I won't list any other knives as they are such a personal thing; everyone has and favors their own.
Ryan Jordan shows you how a knife, hatchet, and saw will help you find dry wood in most situations in this video at Backpacking Light (membership req'd)
A potential can of worms as it represents an area of almost infinite variety, annual updatery, and fanatical zealotry; it would be very hard for me to pick out "the" ultralight camera, and as a photographer my opinions on the matter are somewhat lengthy.
I will write more on this subject in the future, but to keep things at their simplest in the interest of finishing this post this year, here are some starting points for consideration. Readers please bear in mind that I am just selecting cameras that I've seen in use, or are currently raved about. There are plenty more out there that some will prefer. Just remember the following two pieces of advice:
- the best camera is the one you have with you
- shoot first, ask questions later (sorry, photo student joke)
If you want to keep your pack as light as possible, and take a step up from smartphone cameras, a compact "point-and-shoot" is the way to go. In recent years I've been impressed with what I've seen from Panasonic's Lumix range, especially the TZ10 (or the ZS7 as it's called in the US). This has gone through several iterations, the current version now being the ZS30 / TZ40. At least I think it is. It's so hard to keep up.
At the premium end of the compact market, the Lumix LX 100 is the current cream of the crop (geddit?) with some rave reviews among hikers on Amazon.
In a similar vein, the Sony RX100 Mark III gives the LX 100 some stiff competition. Some have called it the best compact camera available on the market today. With a Zeiss lens and CMOS sensor, reviews claim that it's image quality approaches that of a DSLR.
For more control, multiple lens options, and better images, a micro four-thirds ups the ante. They fall nicely in the middle ground between compacts and DSLRs, offering interchangeable lenses in a compact body, making them ideal for lightweight hiking and backpacking. The best of both worlds, if you like.
I have the first edition of the Lumix GF1 which you might still find on the used markets. Subsequent revisions of the GF series removed much of what was attractive from the original (notably good manual controls), until Panasonic split it off and released a true successor in the GX1. However, in the meantime, the other manufacturers were playing catch up.
The undisputed current king of the 4/3 hill is now the Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark II which has a 16 megapixel sensor, built-in EVF, excellent manual controls, and perhaps most attractively for the backpacking photographer, a weather-sealed body. It looks rather nice and retro too (incidentally, my first-ever 35mm camera was an Olympus OM-30). As they say in Minneapolis, it's a bit spendy, but appears to be worth every cent. Tómas wrote an excellent review of the original version claiming that the DSLR is dead.
The most exciting thing about the Mark II version is the 40megapixel mode. This allows the OM-D EM-5 to take a super high resolution image by moving the sensor and capturing multiple images. It's an amazing new development in camera technology. Admittedly it has limitations at the moment: the camera must be on a tripod, but for the backpacking photographer this is a game changer. It allows us to capture beautiful 16mp images in a small package, but still have the option to capture a true DSLR quality image if we need to. This makes the EM-5 Mk II my first choice for best backpacking camera for the ultralight photographer.
My second choice would be the Sony a7ii (24mp) and a7R (36mp)– a full frame mirrorless camera that has given DSLRs a serious run for their money. Using the same sensor as Nikon's D800 series, the a7 is an amazing camera, let down only by the poor lens selection. Of the two I'd go for the 24mp version, until the mark ii a7r is released.
For the ultimate in relatively compact cameras, a burgeoning range of high-end, rangefinder-style shooters have been released in the last year or so. These are expensive, very high quality cameras popular with professional photographers as secondary- on inconspicuous travel cameras. With the legacy of rangefinders lying in the field of landscape photography, there is much to find attractive in them if your pockets are deep and minted. The Fuji X100T is the best of the bunch.
For the pros, I can assure you the DSLR is not dead; in fact it has been reinvigorated by the final adoption of full-frame sensors matching 35mm film in size, and approaching medium format in resolution, quality and, most importantly, dynamic range. In this camp you're either a Nikon of Canon fan, and if you're already at this level, it's unlikely that you need my advice on which manufacturer or camera to choose. I have a Nikon D800, and I'm very happy with it, but the latest version, the Nikon D810 is the bee's knees. The D600 is also highly recommended and is a little more forgiving for handheld use. On the Canon side of things, the 5D Mark II is a favourite. There are of course ample prosumer DSLRs with smaller APS-C sensors, but in my opinion, full-frame is the way to go. With such high resolving detail, you can even get a decent zoom/crop from a 50mm prime lens.
As for other cameras, GoPro's range of Hero action cameras are enormously popular. The new Hero4 Silver Edition seems the best of the bunch for general use, producing 1080p video. The Black Edition goes one step further resolution-wise, to 4K video, which is probably overkill for most. I had a GoPro Hero 2, and while it shot excellent video for its size and simplicity, I found it a little fiddly to use. The touchscreen on the new models improve this a lot. I think they are best suited to more active sports than backpacking. There are a host of videos on Youtube and Vimeo of people doing crazy stuff. My more modest adventures are absurdly tame in comparison.
For another shot at the current camera market, Hike It, Like It wrote a pretty good summary in 2012. Also Peter Nylund over at Yeti Rides just published his take on compact cameras.
Last but not least, if you're taking a camera, remember to pack an extra battery, SD card, and possibly a mini tripod. I like the Ultrapod II. Hendrik recently reviewed the Velbon V-Pod, which looks quite good for smaller cameras.
Monoculars / Binoculars
Another item I never carry, but which I know some like to carry for trail scouting or wildlife observation. Generally, if I'm carrying a zoom lens I'll use that to get a closer look at something – it performs much the same function and I have it strung around my neck anyway. And you never know, I might snap a shot of a lesser spotted amber-throated grebe warbler and win an award while I'm at it.
But if you're interested, here are the offerings from Backcountry and REI. I'd opt for monoculars for the weight savings. The Brunton Echo Zoomseems to fit the bill at a modest 3.2 oz / 90g, although don't expect Zeiss optics.
If you do expect Zeiss optics, then the Zeiss 8x20s (EU) look right up your one-eyed alley, and weigh only 2.7oz / 76g. Leica also make the Monovid 8x20 (EU) which is a little heavier (128g / 4.5oz) but, hey, it's a Leica.
As for binoculars, Hendrik reviews a pair of Vortex binoculars, which look nice if you need them. I would say they are a little overkill for the average ultralighter though.
If you're going to carry a lot of electronic gear, you're going to run into the issue of battery life. The longer you're out, the more power you'll need, which either means carrying a large collection of heavy batteries, or using some kind of recharging system.
Battery chargers come in many forms – solar, kinetic, heat, battery-powered – but all suffer from the same efficiency problems: they don't provide a great deal of energy.
Solar chargers are the most ubiquitous. The idea is to sit the charger on top of your pack as you walk, harvest the rays of the sun, and charge your device(s) as you go. It sounds great, but in practice I've yet to read of anyone extolling the virtues of one particular charger. Most provide a trickle of power, and the dependency of some devices (e.g. iPhones) on a constant charge mean that interruptions in light halt the charging process, and you have to re-plug the charger in again (which gets annoying after a while).
A slightly better solution is to use a solar charger to recharge AA or AAA batteries, and use those to recharge other devices. The bigger the solar panel, the more efficient the charging, and for this reason the larger "roll" panels offer a better solution, albeit at a weight penalty. Whether or not you really need them on a short weekend trip is debatable, but if you do, the Brunton Solaris 26 or SolarRoll seem to fit the bill.
Rather than charging devices directly, it makes more sense to re-charge a battery pack which you then subsequently use to charge your numerous devices (this basically gets around the problem of interrupted trickle charging). Goal Zero have the Guide 10 Plus which combines solar panels with a battery pack, and the battery pack can also be purchased separately, so you can use it with standard batteries.
The PowerMonkey Extreme is one of the smaller solar chargers that has a few good reviews onlineand at REI. Brunton, on the other hand, seem to bring a different mini solar charger to market around once a week, but most appear to be of little use. If anyone has any experiences with one that actually works and is of use, please leave a comment.
Another recent "innovation" to generate heat (arf arf arf) among the backpacking cognoscenti was the BioLite stove, which burns wood to boil water, and uses the energy from the fire to produce power that can charge your devices. The problem should be evident with only a little thought: you would need to keep the fire going a very long time to generate enough power to charge anything. It's a very heavy 27oz / 768g too. I'm not the only one to be very sceptical – Andrew Skurka criticised it with good reasoning (although I disagree with the part about wood stoves not being user friendly – making fire is one thing that distinguishes us as a species, so one would hope we've become fairly adept at it over the last few thousand years).
If you're just looking to extend the life of your smartphone, Otterboxand Mophie make some of the best options that combine battery and case for your phone. Mophie make a ruggedized outdoor edition (EU link), if you are accident prone, and Otterbox offer the similarly butch Defender ION.
What does Backpacking North take?
The whole point of going ultralight is to take only what you need, and cut out the unnecessary stuff. For that reason, I try to limit what I take to essentials: things that might get me out of a scrape or serve some kind of important purpose.
With that in mind, the following items pretty much always find their way onto my packing list:
- GPS (for tracking, occasional position checking)
- Suunto Core (for time and barometer functions)
- iPhone (turned off, most of the time)
- simple headlamp (for winter only - no need for it in 24 hour daylight Lapland summers)
- leatherman micra (knife occasionally)
- camera (GF1 or D800, depending on the trip and potential use of images)
For me, it comes back to what do I want from my trips into the wilderness. If I start to need to carry a ton of equipment, and then more equipment to charge that equipment, I start to wonder why I'm really going into the wilderness.
One reason I go is to force a separation away from all the stuff; the everyday pressures and tensions of living in a connected world. I go to disconnect. But I know it's hard, and I don't really succeed totally. Looking at that list I still see items I don't really need. I could really live without the GPS. The Core is just a watch. The iPhone just a temptation that could be replaced by something lesser. Even a camera provides a distraction from the now, with the constant allure of capturing a moment for the future, to share with others.
Perhaps I should try, just once, going with nothing. Savoring the moments as they drift by; here, then gone.
On the other hand: smart watches! weather instruments! metal detecting sandals!!!
Hiking in Finland's recommendations on waterproof protection for gadgets
Gadgets Ultralight Outdoor Gear likes a lot
REI Electronics & GPS