I've been meaning to write some observations about backpacking gear successes and failures from the Sarek trip this year. Unfortunately, because of too many other commitments, things fell by the wayside a bit, and it's taken me this long to clear some much-needed head space and return to thoughts of backpacking and picking apart equipment.
PLEASE NOTE: Revised and regularly updated versions of these posts are accessible from the top menu bar under "Ultralight Makeover". What follows is the original post - to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in the Ultralight Backpacking world, check out the updated articles.
Part 11 of a 12-part series in which Backpacking North analyzes
Backpacker magazine's recommendations to reduce your pack weight, and offers a more comprehensive selection of tips and gear recommendations from hiking blogs and experienced ultralight bloggers.
In this edition we look at the ways "smart tech" can help you achieve a lighter pack weight.
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
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
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,
just advised you to carry an iPhone instead of a map and compass.
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
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
weight to your pack rather than
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
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
, 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
, 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
is the bare bones model Roger uses, the
adds a colour screen and maps, and the
throws in a 3-axis digital compass, and pressure based altimeter. All weigh around 5oz / 141g.
Even simpler is the
– 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
(6.8 oz / 192g - and
) and the even larger
(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, 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
Check out the range of GPS devices at
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
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
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
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
(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 prefer
(see below) which uses the Iridium network that claims 100% global coverage.
SPOT / Globalstar Coverage (from SPOT website)
SPOT also offers the
(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 -
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
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.
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
system, and even has them available for rent ($65/2 weeks).
Reviews among the outdoor community are sadly few and far between.
a couple of years ago, and a more up-to-date state of the market report was recently featured on
(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
(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 (
) and there are no additional service fees, although ACR now offer an optional, very simple SMS/Email "I'm OK" service for $40/year (
) 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
, but it lacks ACR's tracking option which some might find attractive.
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
, 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 (
). 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.
, 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
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.
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,
(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
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.
, so the whole world was able to follow my dog walk and diaper run!
For checking the weather, I currently mostly use eWeather HD (
). 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
, 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
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
, 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:
. There are plenty of
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
far less these days, opting instead to sharing "real photos" via
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
, 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 iPhone
a lot heavier – the constant nagging of twitter, facebook, push alerts; the oddly urgent
to check it regularly; the
to use it or to play with it. When I don't have it with me, I
a lot lighter, and a lot more connected to nature and those around me. So much for "connecting people".
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
'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
(6oz / 170g) is a fraction of a weighty book (
), and allows you to store hundreds more than you will ever read while on a trip. The newest
even has a backlit screen which is an advantage in the wilderness. Battery life is ridiculously good (8 weeks for the Paperwhite, though using the light will reduce this), and the e-ink screens offer 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.
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.
...or, as Suunto would like you to call them,
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
) 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
will happily empty your bank account. At the other end of the scale, you can still find the venerable
in some places – it's simpler, cheaper, and has a reputation for reliability.
Casio also offer their range of
watches with similar functionality, and how shall I put it...
less minimal design
. They seem more reliable and popular than the range from
is a nice carabiner-style clip-on watch). The
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
. While both have some limited form of breadcrumb tracking, the Fenix seems to have a slight edge feature-wise, with integration with their BaseCamp software, and wireless integration with iPhone. Both use rechargeable batteries; Garmin claims around 16 hours use in GPS mode (50 hours with more limited use), which is barely enough for a weekender, and I suspect real life usage times are less (one review on REI of the Fenix claims 8-10 hours of active use, which is pretty lame). The Ambit appears to fare a little better, at around 25-28 hours. In the end it's hard to say which is better, so I'll pass you on to some other reviews and let you decide:
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
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
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
. 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
– a rechargable/prorammable 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 rechargable 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
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
use? I have two: a Zipka and Tikka – they are quite old now; the newer models have better features. I recommend the
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
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
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.
is perfectly okay, with the
standing out from the bunch. The
is popular and light at 2.9 oz / 82g. Fenix make some of the brightest – the
, for example – but remember
One rather clever innovation comes from Mammut in the shape of the
. 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
for use with other headlamps. Full points to Mammut. It is certainly much better than the previous big seller (and
, 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.
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
- 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
. 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.
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
(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
(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,
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
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
seem 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
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
if I had a spare couple of hundred dollars lying around.
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
). 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
, and occasionally a
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
(4.4 oz /125g - adds pliers, wire cutters, more screwdrivers, can pener, bottle opener, loses the file and tweezers), and the
(1.4 oz / 39g - much trhe same as micra, minus the ruler). When you start to hit the
things get heavier ( 5oz / 141g) but a bit more rugged.
On the other hand, the
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
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
, 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
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
as it's called in the US). This has gone through several iterations, the current version now being the
. At least I think it is. It's so hard to keep up.
At the premium end of the compact market, the
!) has proven popular (I notice that both Phil And Dave are taking theirs on the TGO challenge). The current model is the
) is a modest update on the LX 5, and it already has some rave reviews among hikers on Amazon.
In a similar vein, the
) gives the LX 7 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
which is still available (
). 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
. However, in the meantime, the other manufacturers were playing catch up.
The undisputed current king of the 4/3 hill is the
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 (
claiming that the DSLR is dead. I'd love one, but the GF1 has a few years left in it yet.
Stepping up again, another camera that receives a lot of thumbs up in the past few years is the Sony NEX5, which has now gracefully matured into the
). With a larger sensor and good user-definable controls it's proven popular with
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.
In order of expensiveness, the
and Leica M240 (not yet released) all offer extremely high quality image-making in a compact package. Would I like one? Why yes, thank you! I'd love to try a Leica, and you can contact me for the mailing address as soon as it's released. Until then check out some reviews from
Categorising cameras becomes increasingly difficult – for example the
(out soon) fall into the compact category, but also compare with the Fuji X100S. They are all great-looking and performing cameras, but I would say that fixed lenses make them more suitable for street photography. I think for backpacking, having at least some flexibility with zoom range, or a multiple lens set up, is a distinct advantage.
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 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
), and I'm very happy with it. The
) is also highly recommended and is a little more forgiving for handheld use. On the Canon side of things, the
) 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.
100% loupe, unsharpened or processed. The original image shown here is a 30% crop of a portrait format shot.
This image has also been poorly resized by Blogger.
As for other cameras, GoPro's range of Hero action cameras are enormously popular. The new
seems the best of the bunch for general use, producing 1080p video. The
goes one step further resolution-wise, for "cinema" quality 1440p, which is probably overkill for most. I have a GoPro Hero 2, and while it shoots excellent video for its size and simplicity, I do find it a little fiddly to use. 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.
GoPro is not the only model available, but by far the most popular.
For another shot at the current camera market,
in 2012. Also Peter Nylund over at Yeti Rides just published
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
). Hendrik recently
, 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
. I'd opt for monoculars for the weight savings. The
seems 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
) look right up your one-eyed alley, and weigh only 2.7oz / 76g. Leica also make the
) which is a little heavier (128g / 4.5oz) but, hey, it's a Leica.
As for 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
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).
which combines solar panels with a battery pack, and the
, so you can use it with standard batteries.
is one of the smaller solar chargers that has a few
and 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.
A couple of years ago, a Kinetic charger was announced that got the ultralight backpacking community in a veritable quiver of excitement. The
promised to harness the kinetic energy generated through walking. Can you imagine? It's perfect for backpacking! Unfortunately I haven't yet seen any extensive reviews based on actual use.
with the creator, and
, although at 14oz / 400g it's not the lightest solution available, but there are a couple of reviews at REI that claim a full charge on an iPhone after just 3 hours hiking. That's pretty impressive.
Another recent "innovation" to generate heat (arf arf arf) among the backpacking cognoscenti was the
, 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 –
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
over the last few thousand years).
If you're just looking to extend the life of your smartphone,
make some of the best options that combine battery and case for your phone. Mophie make a
), if you are accident prone, and Otterbox offer the similarly butch
So after all that, 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
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!
Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:
There has been some discussion on blogs recently about route tracking and logging using various devices - smart phones, GPS units, SPOT systems, and other, simple GPS trackers.
A couple of years ago I bought a Garmin Dakota 20 GPS - a neat, small, lightweight, and low power usage fully-featured GPS unit. Perhaps it's a good time to write a review and compare it to some of the alternatives.
I've been trying out some of the iPhone based GPS systems, because I always carry my phone with me, and if I can carry one device instead of two, I'm a happy man. The iPhone has the advantage of combining GPS, a camera, an HD video camera, a digital compass, and 15,000 apps providing amusing ways to make fart sounds. What more could you need in the wild?
ViewRanger has a very popular GPS app on Android and the iPhone. It's advantage is that it allows you to download maps onto memory, so you can use it effectively outside the cellphone network. The disadvantage is that all this uses a lot of power, and battery capacities are limited.
I can't speak for Android phones, but on the iPhone it maintains a GPS link while running in the background. This drains the battery very quickly, giving only about 4 or 5 hours use. The non-removable batteries of smart phones limit their usefulness on multi-day hikes. While it's possible to use a solar charger to recharge the iPhone, they are not very effective in poor conditions, and at the nest of times are very slow (Chris Townsend recently wrote that after three days one charger provided enough energy to half charge his phone). So, phone-based solutions are fine if all you want to do is check your location occasionally (as long as you remember to manually force ViewRanger to close to conserve power). But if you want to track your route precisely over multiple days, you need something that you can leave on without worrying, and that you can easily resupply power to.
One solution which has recently become popular is the SPOT II GPS messenger. The Spot can send out a automatic breadcrumb trail of beacons, or manual beacons via satellite, and has an SOS button for emergencies. It can also send messages via twitter and email so you can let friends and family know where you are, and that you are still safe and alive. The only thing I don't like about it is the auto-renewing subscription fee for the satellite service. Joe and Jorgen are using one right now in northern Norway, and you can follow their progress here. The SPOT draws power from 3 AAA batteries, providing up to 3 months of standby, or 7 days tracking - which is very good, and shows what you can achieve when you eliminate a screen from the design. But of course, without a screen, the SPOT cannot help you determine where you are.
Enter the Dakota.
Garmin has a whole range of GPS units, each with a dizzying array of features, aimed at different users. I went with the Dakota 20 primarily because it's small, uses only two AA batteries (which can be rechargeable ones), is lightweight ( 152g including batteries), waterproof, rugged, and simple. Some of their larger units (the Oregon) offer cameras, but I felt that was unnecessary as I always carry a decent one, and the tracking sites and software are intelligent enough these days to automatically geotag photos based on when you took them.
One of the nice things in Garmin GPS units is the LCD touchscreen they use. It's designed to be clearly visible in daylight without a backlight, and this cuts a lot of battery drain. I get about 15 hours of continuous use on a standard set of Duracell batteries. This typically covers about a day and a half of hiking before I need to change batteries.
The software design is very easy to use, and the colour screen, although far, far away from the iPhone's retina screen, is more than adequate. The Dakota 20 comes with a topo map DVD for North America. It's easy to select the area you are hiking in on your Mac or PC using the BaseCamp app, and transfer the top quality maps to the Dakota. You can set waypoints before you leave so you have destinations at the ready.
In the field, the Dakota is a joy to use - it's a very good example of an extremely well thought out user interface. It's easy to use without using the manual (ViewRanger could work on this a little harder). Tracking your route is automatic (unless you select otherwise), so as soon as you turn it on, you're ready to go. After the initial geolocation, it remembers your general position so getting a fix is almost instant when you turn it off at camp, and on again the next morning. Little things like this make dedicated GPS units worth their weight. They do one thing, and do it well. Having said that, the version 1 software on the Dakota did crash, becoming inoperable and losing all my data once on the Sioux Hustler Trail when I would really have needed it. Thankfully a software update fixed this bug, but I no longer have a record of that trail.
Snowbank Lake trail overview
Snowbank Lake trail detail
It's easy to create waypoints and assign them icons, which will all be carried over when uploading the tracks to BaseCamp. Naming waypoints, however, is a bit of a pain. The small screen means that letters are small, and for ham-fisted klutzes, it can get a little frustrating. On the other hand, you could just accept the generic name, and rename it later.
Naturally, the Dakota records all your elevation data, provides an accurate sunset countdown, measures distance hiked, shows your direction using the digital compass, and offers a host of other functionality which you may or may not find useful. I tend to stick to the basics. Geocaching is nice to have, but the implementation on the iPhone is much better.
Trip odometer / data
On a few occasions the Dakota has saved my bacon. In the Badlands and up in the Boundary Waters there have been times when it's proven invaluable. I wouldn't hesitate to take it with me on future trips.
The navigation UI is clear, simple, and easy to use.
The screen in sunlight is great.
Waterproofness and ruggedness. Using it in the rain is no problem.
Battery operation time, and the fact it takes standard batteries.
Quick fix on GPS once it has initially located itself.
Lightweight and flexible - it also mounts nicely on my road bike.
Multifunctions - digital compass, geocaching, etc
BaseCamp software is easy to use, updated often, and Mac compatible.
Nice fishing info screen, showing best days and times to catch that 8lb sturgeon.
The screen seems sensitive to scuffing. I scratched mine at some point just from having it in my pocket.
Naming waypoints is UPPER CASE ONLY AND A BIT AWKWARD WITB THRE SMHELL BNUBTTOBNS
The touchscreen sometimes feels a little unresponsive.
With a background in photography, I spend a lot of time trying to find the perfect camera for backpacking. I'd love to carry my Nikon D300 all the time, but it's just too bulky and heavy. A few years ago I switched to compact, point and shoot cameras. These days you can take pretty good photos with them, but as I photographer I eventually find them somewhat lacking - either in manual controls, accessibility, image quality, depth of field (other than in macro mode) and durability. I used a tiny Samsung NV10 for a while, which took great pictures with nice punchy colours and has the advantage of making me look like a spy, but after a couple of years the automatic lens cover started to malfunction. The tiny lenses on compact cameras easily break when subjected to sand and extended misuse. To counter that I switched ot an Olympus Sylus Tough 6020. Waterproof, shock proof, 14 megapixels, perfect for the outdoors. Jason Klass just got one and seems to like it. I thought it was a piece of shit. It has some nice features but I found the images lack detail, and the colours are somehow flat. The problem with small cameras is that the lenses and sensors are so small the quality of captured data is typically quite low.
Then last year, late to the party as usual, I read about the
. I'd heard about four thirds cameras before, but resisted them as what I really wanted was a full frame, 35mm sensor.
uses a smaller sensor, but the GF1 allows you to select the ratio of the sensor, between 4:3 ( a nice medium format ratio), 3:2 (35mm), 1:1 (for squares) and 16:9 (widescreen, baby). Although the sensor is far from full frame, it is considerably larger than those used on compact point and shoots.
A larger sensor helps to capture dappled light scenes.
As it has been out for a while, there are plenty of other, more extensive reviews of the GF1. Here are a few good ones:
I won't write an extensive review and list all the functions as that has already been well-catered for. Instead I'll focus on it's suitability as a mid-sized camera for photographer-backpackers.
For me, the GF1 is the best of both worlds. It's more compact than a dSLR, offers interchangable lenses, has a larger sensor than a compact, it's not too heavy (470g inc. UV filter), and it has a good set of manual controls which are easily accessible - via real buttons!!!
The GF1 seems especially good at capturing fire. Just look at those crisp flames and smoke.
Lovely depth of field too.
It's light sensitivity performance is not on a par with the latest dSLRs, but I've found it to be more than adequate, with an ISO range of 100 to 3200. Naturally, it shoots in RAW as well as the usual array of compressed JPEGs.
I was surprised it captured such a range of light in this cabin shot.
It has a metal body which, while not waterproof, is reassuringly sturdy. The buttons are sensibly arranged, and include my essential requirements: an exposure and focus lock, manual focus, and access to ISO and metering. A dial on the top allows switching between different modes, aperture or shutter priority, manual, and the various other more 'compact-user-friendly' modes. Two custom settings are useful if you want to set up the camera for sepcific uses.
While the GF1 doesn't have a dedicated macro mode, the pancake lens allows
you to focus down to about 15cm.
There are a few things SLR users will miss.
A depth of field preview button would be nice
[edit: I just remembered it
have a depth of field preview on the 'Trash' button in camera mode. It also previews shutter speed. Trés neat!], and old fashioned as I am, I curse the day that aperture rings were taken off lenses and put into camera software. While the GF1 makes it easy to switch between shutter and aperture adjustments by alternately pressing the control dial, I'd still prefer dedicated dials for each. It's better than hiding them behind a menu system though (but more on that later).
Personally, in this type of camera, I don't miss the absence of a viewfinder. The LCD is bright, crisp and superbly detailed. Viewfinder fans can get an electronic viewfinder which sits on the hot shoe.
In the original file, the light on the bird's wing is very detailed. Curses on JPEG compression.
The camera also records HD video, and you can record some pretty stylish material using some lovely depth of field effects.
Indeed, depth of field is the main draw of a camera like this for me. While point and shoot's are undeniably lighter and smaller, they are limited in what they can achieve with such small lenses. While depth of field is achievable in macro modes, at mid ranges the effect is much less than with the GF1 or a dSLR. Sure, you can fiddle in Photoshop later and create the effect you want, but I love using focus in my photography. For many outdoor photographers, the crisp, clarity of an F16 landscape is what they are after, and the GF1 excels in this also. The lens (I have the pancake 1.7/20mm) is absolutely superb. The detail it captures is often stunning. I never notice any chromatic aberration or other visual inconsistencies, and at a fast shutter speed, frozen droplets of water from a dog jumping into a lake are frozen in the air in remarkable clarity.
With a camera this size and weight, with this functionality, I am more than happy to carry a couple of hundred more grams. I keep mine safe in a
all weather case, which straps to my belt and has a built in rain cover(!) There's not a lot of room in there for any filters (I usually carry an ND and polarizer), but at least the camera is safe and not too bulky.
I also purchased a Joby Gorillapod for compact cameras, but unfortunately the GF1 is a touch too heavy for it. I really need the SLR version, which is a shame as it is a touch too large for my tastes.
Snow scenes are often hard for cameras to expose correctly.
The GF1 does a remarkably good job.
So, I've been very happy with the GF1. I've had it about a year now, and every time I'm impressed with the quality of pictures it takes. If you are looking for a camera with more than a compact, but less bulk than a dSLR, I recommend it. But there are also many alternatives out there - the Sony NEX-5 has been getting good reviews although some of the photos I've seen taken with it look a touch flat, and occasionally blurry - this could be related to low light performance though.
One thing to note is that the Panasonic Lumix GF2 is out soon - it's smaller, has 1080i video, and a touchscreen interface - but in my opinion they've tkaen a step back towards compact cameras by hiding the controls in the user interface of the screen, rather than having dedicated buttons. On the other hand, you'll find GF1s available at a bargain prices right now. I recommend the pancake lens if you just get one.
A photo of the person making the recommendation of the camera used to take the photo.
Alternatively, if you're looking purely for a compact camera, the
produces some very nice results - very close in quality to the GF1. Take a look at
(how does he do that??). The image quality seems superb, and although the effects of a smaller sensor and lens are present, they are far less noticeable than in most cameras.
As for me, I'm sticking with the GF1. In fact, I think I'll take it out for a few snaps this afternoon!
Great detail. Great Sahti.
Irrelevant and gratuitous shot of secret bushcraft shelter found near Rovaniemi.