Pacific Crest Trail 2020 Gear Deep Dive: Electronics

  • Updated: November 01, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst


Being a geek I'm very passionate about the electronics that I carry on the trail. I enjoy fiddling with new devices and figuring out how they can make my hike more fun or effective. When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2020 I had the goal of not using any disposable batteries and this is what I carried.

For an overall picture of my gear see lighterpack.

Phone


My cellphone is the single more important and flexible piece of gear I carry.

I always shake my head when people grumble about how much they hate their cell phone and how they can't wait to leave it behind when they head off to the mountains. 

I do understand that for many people they just act as a leash tying one to family or work. But for me it's my multifunction laptop replacement. It's my camera, video player, audiobook / music player, navigational aid, and often my guidebook. It's how I keep in contact with people back home and post fun updates for the internet.

Needless to say my phone is always with me and I use it constantly. These days I get the largest screen iPhone and I use the iUP program to replace it every year. On the PCT I had an iPhone 11 Pro Max 512 GB. (If that sounds like overkill it might be just a bit but I really hate running low on space)

Additional tips
  • To save battery I almost always have my phone on airplane mode and low power mode switching it off periodically to check messages.
  • My phone would generally last for days even running Audible and Guthooks (without tracking) for 10 hours a day. The biggest power drain was usually forgetting to disable the GPS functionality in Guthooks after checking my location or trying to text and use the internet with only one or two bars of coverage.
  • Speaking of cell coverage I have AT&T and was pleasantly surprised by just how extensive the coverage was. Friends were constantly amazed at how often I was able to post. The only major dead spots were the northern cascades after Stevens Pass and of course the Sierra. Other times it would sometimes come and go in canyons but I would just check whenever I hit a ridge with a different aspect and eventually I'd pick up a usable signal. Guthook comments are also useful for finding areas with reception.
  • Face ID didn't seem to like my sunglasses. After getting annoyed at having to lift them everytime I disabled it and just had to enter my pin every time I pulled out my phone. I missed the older Touch ID functionality though that often failed due to sweat.

Phone Case


The last few years I've used a minimal leather backed case from Oberon Design. I love the feel of the case and it does a reasonable job of protecting my phone from damage. I then add a glass screen protector to the front since 99% of the damage I've ever done to my phone has been screen related.

This worked for the PCT and several other involved outdoor adventures. My girlfriend had the same case with an older model iphone and it also survived her time on trail with me though she had to take more care around water since her phone isn't waterproof.

In the past I used one of the bulky Otterbox Defender case and that's still my goto recommendation for people who have a habit of accidently dropping or flinging their phones on a regular basis.

A phone case can be an important part of your anger management program

Keep in mind any case can only do so much. I've broken screens with the Defender in my bathroom at home when the phone landed at just the wrong angle from two feet in the air and I've had it skitter across rocks and emerge unharmed.

I've looked at various shockproof / dust proof / waterproof options but they always seem to be more trouble than they're worth making it harder to plug in accessories and often messing up the sound pickup. My phone had managed to survive everything from camping in the snow to months on the trail just fine with a bit of care. 

Carrying the phone

Figuring out how to carry the phone during my hike was more difficult than I anticipated.

Usually I run around in hiking pants and I'd just have the phone sticking out of my pocket. But when I switched to shorts a few hundred miles into the trail the only pair I could get my hands on had no pockets. Possibly because they were designed by the hiking clothing equivalent of Hitler.

For a while I put the phone in the hip belt pocket of my ULA Catalyst and that worked reasonably well but when I had the headphones plugged in (aka all the time) it would tweak the port in a way I didn't like. Also it just seemed too prone to falling out when I was having to hop a log or set my pack down.


My solution was to buy a cheap -ish neoprene sleeve off Amazon that could hang off my pack strap with a small carabiner. I just made sure it was big enough for my phone with a little extra space for the case.

I left the sleeve unzipped 99% of the time with the phone inserted face down so that I could have the headphones sticking out the top.

I never had to worry about it falling out, it was well protected, and my only real concern became when it rained really hard at which point I'd toss it into the pocket of my fleece underneath my rain layers.


(The newer iPhones are water resistant and I've personally seen them go for a swim more than once in a fast flowing Sierra stream without apparent harm but it never hurts to be careful)

The biggest annoyance when it gets wet is the touchscreen doesn't work correctly. So often my ability to take pictures in the rain is severely hampered.


I improved things along the way by finding a thin strap of webbing small enough to store into the front pocket of the sleeve when I wasn't using it. Whenever I was running around a town I'd throw the webbing loop across my body and clip the carabiner to it letting the sleeve rest at my hip. I could even fit the small DCF pouch I use for a wallet inside with the phone.

Yes, I had a mini phone murse.

Apps

Phones are only as good as the software your using and here are the ones I found most useful:
  • Guthook: I used this more than anything else on the trail. The app allows you to purchase guidebooks for different trails and provides an interface to download maps and waypoints that you can use offline. It'll also show you your location on the map using the phones GPS chip which is 99% of the navigation I needed for the entire PCT. 
  • GaiaGPS: This is my goto map app when I'm not using Guthooks. I've been using it for years and the interface makes it easy to import / export tracks and waypoints that I like to publish with my trip write ups. I used this as my backup map while on the PCT.
  • CalTopo: Similar in functionality to Gaia but it has the advantage of being tied to CalTopo.com so you don't have to do extra steps transfer points back and forth. It's a relatively new app and I've come across a few bugs so I tend to still default to Gaia.
  • Garmin Earthmate: Used to pair with the inReach Mini (see below) and send text messages using the phone keyboard. It'll also show you your location on the map if you pay for the maps but I'd recommend using something else.
  • Google Maps / Yelp: Useful for finding your way around town and locating decent food during stops.
  • Audible:  I love listening to audiobooks while I hike and Audible is my preferred solution for this. They offer monthly plans which give you x credits a month that can be exchanged for any book regardless of the length or cost. If you need more than that you can purchase a three pack of credits for $35 at any time and they also offer daily deals and constant sales where you can buy books directly for a steep discount. Once you've purchased a book it's on your account so you can redownload it at any point with the app which is great for saving space. I also really like that the app allows you to speed up narration for books where the narrator is painfully slow. I usually listen to books somewhere in the range of 1.3x to 1.5x.

Battery & Charger


If you're going to be relying on your phone then you're going to need to carry some sort of battery to get you through those longer stretches.

I often see people online trying to decide on a battery and focusing solely on capacity. They're usually debating if a10k or a 20k battery is enough and fair enough. Personally I swear by the 20k since I use my phone quite a bit and also charge my headlamp and inReach. I've been able to make it last for 10 days or more depending how much I'm trying to do online.

But I'd argue the more important factor is actually how long it takes for the battery to charge when you have it plugged into the wall.


When I was doing the Theodore Solomons Trail in 2019 my one real resupply was at Vermillion Resort. I arrived in the morning, plugged my battery in right away, and then spent several hours eating and repacking my resupply box. Then I ate again because I'd kind of run out of food the day before and I was slightly ravenous. And then when I checked my battery I found it was only about half full!

I ended up wasting another 2 hours that I really didn't have desperately waiting for the battery to finish charging until I finally just had to leave. I ended up having just enough power to make it through the end of the trip but it added additional anxiety that I really didn't need.

As soon as I was off the trail I did some more research and found I'd made two big mistakes. The first was using a USB wall charger with a low output and the second was picking the wrong battery.

Not all batteries are made equal. My first would fully charge in 7-8 hours which was fine if you were staying somewhere overnight but less than ideal for a brief resupply stop. Then I found the the Anker PowerCore Speed 20k. It was the same capacity, weight, and looked almost identical but it could charge fully in 3-4 hours.

It was more expensive and when you add in the included wall charger it weighs almost 3/4 of a pound but the faster charging was a game changer. Since I usually don't run my battery down all the way just being able to plug in for an hour or two is usually enough to fully top me off.

Additional tips 
  • I'd strongly advise marking your battery and charger as distinctly as possible. You'll find most charger stations are a snarl of very similar looking batteries and the last thing you want is for someone to "accidentally" walk off with yours.
  • Along the same lines be careful leaving your battery unguarded especially overnight. I usually don't worry leaving it for an hour or two at the resort charging stations but I have heard of multiple incidents where someone left a battery plugged in overnight only to find it gone in the morning. That can be a real bummer when you're depending on it for the next section and any potential replacements are days away.
  • Along similar lines I'll often try and hide my battery in a bag or beanie at the charging station just so it's not as obvious for someone to grab.

Cables

The Speed 20k has one USB-C and one USB-A port while the included wall charger has a single USB-C. As a result I decided to standardize everything on USB-C.
  • USB-C to USB-C: Used to plug the brick into the wall charger. I carry a 3 ft cable which often allows me to discreetly hide my brick inside a bag while it's charging. See above. 
  • USB-C to Lightning: Used to charge my cell phone from the brick or wall charger. I prefer the 3 ft length so I can use my phone easily while it's plugged in. 
  • USB-C to USB Micro: Used to charge my headlamp and InReach. I use a 6 inch version since both devices are light enough to just have dangling off the wall.
I also added a USB-C female to USB-A male adapter. This lets me charge my phone and one of the other devices at the same time or to take advantage of USB power strips I might come across. It's really small and light I usually keep it plugged into the micro cable so it doesn't get lost.

What about solar panels?

I absolutely love the idea of having a solar panel hanging off the back of my pack providing an unlimited supply of energy for all my device needs. No more having to limit my usage when I'm worried about stretching that last bit of battery to the next stop!

Sadly they just don't work well.

I own a Goal Zero solar kit aimed at hikers and I've had the opportunity to fiddle with a few different ones thanks to my wilderness class. I've never found any that work reliably hanging off a pack. They really need to be set out in full sunlight at a consistent angle not partially shaded as you pass under trees or the trail turns you away from the sun.

Theoretically you could set them out when you get to camp but the reality on a long trail is that you're just not going to be spending many daylight hours in camp. It's really common to be hiking before the sun is up and to continue until at least dark.

The only realistic use case I see for the panels is longer trips with an established base camp where you can leave it set out in the middle of the day. Anecdotally the only solar panels I saw on the PCT were early on and those folks seemed to have all switch to batteries within a few stops. 

Headphones


If you look through pictures of me on the trail you'll notice that I'm almost always wearing headphones. I'm a big fan of listening to audiobooks or music when I'm hiking alone and I really don't want to be one of those people obnoxiously blaring their music out of a speaker.

I've tried a few different brands of headphones several of them specifically designed for sports or running but I always end up coming back to the standard Apple EarPods that used to come packed in with new iPhones. They don't have ear hooks but they fit my ears well enough, they're fairly durable, and I really like having the control stick on the right ear chord so I can pause /unpause or adjust volume as I go.

They retail for $19 and since they come with each new iPhone you can generally find friends who have extra pairs sitting around in a drawer somewhere.
  
Durability wise I can generally get months of trail use out of them before I start to have issues. Eventually I'll start to notice on ear playing quieter than the other which can be adjusted for by going into Settings -> Accessibility -> Audio/Visual and changing the Balance option.

Eventually the bud will go out completely though sucking and blowing on the speaker seems to correct the issue at least for a while. Other people claim to have use a single pair for an entire 6 month thru hike but then again I'm just hard on things.

Additional notes
  • Careful when buying the Apple EarPods on Amazon. Buying from either Apple or Amazon itself is fine but if you look at reviews some people ended up with knockoffs or empty boxes from third party sellers. When in doubt just have someone order a pair for you from the Apple store.
  • I've had people tell me I shouldn't be wearing headphones when out on the trail because I won't hear snakes / bears / trees about to fall on me. Personally I don't listen to them loudly enough to fully block out the outside world. Also if you're relying on your hearing to detect bears I'm not sure what to say. When it comes to snakes I've had multiple rattlesnakes go off near me while hiking and I've always been able to hear them quite clearly even with my headphones in.
  • Please don't be one of those people everyone hates walking down a busy trail blaring music out of a speaker. Just don't. 

What about AirPods / Bluetooth Headphones? 

One of the big pluses of wired headphones is that they don't require power. The tradeoff is you have to deal with the dangling chord which can catch on brush or other items and get ripped out of your ears.

This was such a pain point on the Condor Trail that I was briefly tempted to switch them out for a pair of wireless headphones. I now own a pair of AirPod Pros that I really like and if you ever come across me at a coffee shop working on one of these writeups I'm generally using them. I didn't care for them while hiking.

The fact they are another powered device you have to manage is the biggest downside. The AirPod Pros currently get about 4 hours of listen time. They recharge by being placed inside the carry case which apparently has around 24 hours of extra charge.

I have talked to people who would use just one at a time. That let them listen for 4 ish hours and then they'd switch to the other earbud letting the depleted one recharge in the case. They'd then charge the case at night in their tent. Which fair enough but that just seems like too much of a hassle and I don't personally like listening in just one ear.

Also they tend to be bloody expensive even for the non Apple version. It's a bummer when I break my $19 headphones but the idea of losing a $200 airpod in a stream crossing is enough to cause me anxiety. 

InReach Satellite Messenger


A satelight messenger is a handheld battery powered device that you can use to send messages when you're out of cell coverage. They are similar to Personal Locator Beacons though those usually only have SOS functionality while the messengers allow you to send non emergency messages as well.

I'm a big believer in carrying something with SOS functionality as it can mean the difference between a prompt rescue and sitting around for days hoping someone will come across you.


More often than not I've used them to help someone else like in this picture above where we had someone fall down a snow chute and break their leg. But it's also a comfort to know I have something with my when I'm hiking solo just in case I break my foot in a remote canyon somewhere.

The two most common devices you see people carry are the Garmin inReach and the SPOT. SPOT was popular a number of years ago but the unreliability of their network combined with some unpleasant customer service experiences led to me strongly recommending the inReach instead.

inReach devices come in a variety of sizes. Any of them can do basic transmitting and receive functionality so it just comes down to whether you want a screen and some additional GPS mapping functionality or a minimal device that connects to your phone. 

I bought the inReach Mini because its small, light, and independant of my navigational tools. The reason I prefer to have a seperate emergency device is that I had an experience years ago where someone had a SPOT they were using for tracking. We had someone get hurt and when we tried to trigger the SOS the device was flashing that it was low on batteries and we couldn't tell if the message was getting out. We had replacement batteries but that when we learned the device would only take lithiums (he had alkaline) So we had an exciting 15 hours or so where we didn't know for sure if anyone was coming.

These days the devices are capable of two way communication which means after you hit the emergency button someone will be in contact to assess how serious your situation is. With the Mini you can type using your phone paired to the device with bluetooth or somewhat laboriously using the limited buttons on the device itself.

It can do a number of things like live tracking which absolutly kill the battery but if you only turn it on once or twice a day to send and reviece messages the battery will last for weeks.

I generally send a preset All Ok message each night when I get to camp. This sends an email / text message to a configurable list of friends and family along with a link letting them see my location on a map.


This is a really cool feature since it gives them comfort when I'm out for long periods of time and it lets them follow along from home.  

There's also the ability to send normal text messages though unlike the check in pings which are unlimited you pay for a certain number of messages each month depending on your plan. And they charge you for incoming and outgoing messages. 

On the $12 a month plan I use I get 10 text messages a month and then they cost me 50 cents each. Most of the time when I use them when things have gone minorly wrong and I need someone to help me figure out a plan.

Additional notes
  • It's worth stressing again that the SOS button is for true emergencies meaning something where you're unable to hike yourself out. Rescue crews put themselves at risk every time they go out so please don't be one of those people who hit the button just because your tired or ran out of water.
  • Talking about where you carry a satelight messenger device while hiking is enough to trigger a religious war online. I've had people insist that the only safe thing is to have it on your pack strap in easy reach at all times. Personally I keep mine in my 10 essentials bag near the top of my pack. If I suppose if I were to fall and get my arms trapped that could burn me but at least it makes it far less likely I'll lose the thing. I saw at least three separate posts this year about people finding them on the trail.

Headlamp


Those who have done peakbagging trips with me know I usually carry a headlamp capable of throwing a blinding spotlight all the way across a medium sized lake. This is because I've had years of experience coming off of peaks in the dark and having to get a group back to their cars or camp.

On the trail my needs were a bit different. I did some night hiking but the PCT is a very well established trail and I generally wasn't having to route find. And most of the time I just needed the headlamp around the tent at night.


Not wanting to hassle with disposable batteries anymore I switched to the light, affordable, and rechargeable Nitecore NU25. Because I really feel guilty running a pile of old batteries to hazardous waste a few times a year.

I can't tell you exactly how long the NU25 battery lasts but I can tell you that in practice it's always been enough. I'll generally hike on the second level setting which lets me see enough of my surroundings to get by though I do miss my old headlamps spotlight sometimes when I'm looking for campsites. When the battery gets low the light will start to dim until your struggling to make out anything.

I recharge it off my battery pack using the USB mini cable. I haven't measured exactly how long it takes to reach full charge but I never seem to have to leave it plug it in for longer than an hour. 

This is another item that's worked so well I bought it twice. And both my girlfriend and I use these daily when we're back in civilization living out of our van.

Additional notes
  • Some people modify the headlamp to use shock cord instead of the normal headband to save weight. I've held off so far since I use the thing a lot and I want to be able to wear it comfortably.

And that's it for electronics! I'm always interested in what other people use so let me know in the comments below if you've found something that works better!

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