Thursday, November 5, 2009

iPhone: The Backpacker's Best Friend?

How much technology do you need with you when you go on a backpacking trip in the wilderness? Or, perhaps more to the point, how much do you actually want with you?

My general rule with packing for a backpacking trip is to bring as little as possible, and only as much as you're willing to carry. When a friend brought his iPhone on a recent backpacking trip, I scoffed at the idea. Why on earth would you want to bring that confounded device into the wilderness? There won't be any signal, and you certainly can't pound in a tent stake with it.

The iPhone compass: because real compasses are a snooze-fest

As often happens post-scoff, my initial skepticism softened over the course of the trip as it became evident that the iPhone might in fact be worth considering on your packing list.

With an iPhone you get all of these:
  • Camera
  • GPS & Compass
  • Light
  • Emergency contact (if you happen to have signal)
  • First aid info
  • Taking notes, writing journal entries
  • Plant/animal identification apps
  • Dictionary to settle important arguments
  • Calculator for adding up your score in Rummy
  • Level: you can check to see if your campsite is level (it never is)
  • Entertainment: games, podcasts, music, showing friends stupid pictures/movies
  • Fending off bears
  • More potentially useful stuff hidden amongst the thousands of other apps
There are some drawbacks to many of these functions, in fact I'd venture to say that it's not particularly good at any of the important things. The camera is pretty abysmal and has no flash, but it does well enough as a point-and-shoot during the day. The GPS functionality is limited. The light is no match for an LED flashlight. Note taking takes longer than a pencil and paper. Many apps require connection to the internet. As an emergency contact device, the iPhone is not the best phone for maximizing reception in low coverage areas. Battery life on iPhones can be pretty bad, especially when you're, say, using it. The speaker on the iPhone is hopeless. Needless to say, the iPhone isn't built for withstanding the elements. On the plus side, for all of these functions, limited as they may be, the iPhone is light and extremely compact compared to carrying an individual tool for all of the above functions.

But here's the rub: by using an iPhone in the wilderness, you might just be reserving a special room in hell. You'll get to share this room with people that talk on cellphones while riding horses, smoke on chairlifts destroying the air for everyone behind them, blast loud music or have a gas-powered generator for their television in campgrounds, people on snowmobiles that zoom by while you're cross-country skiing, and a suite of other people determined to spoil the experience of nature with unnecessary bits of modernity.


While hiking through an old-growth Douglas fir forest in the Marble Mountains, I thought I heard people behind us. I stopped to listen; I could hear thin, distant voices, but couldn't make out where they were or what they were saying. Were there people gaining on us from behind? I doubted it, as we were hiking at a fair clip on a rarely used trail and hadn't passed anyone. When my iPhone-toting friend walked up, I found the source of the voices: he was listening to a podcast about the state of venture capital in the current economy through the tinny speaker on the iPhone.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Hmm? Oh, listening to a podcast. I already finished Madeleine Albright at the Commonwealth Club - you can listen to it later if you want."

I wasn't inclined to take him up on this offer and instead pictured myself snatching the phone from him and crushing it under the heel of my hiking boot with a satisfying crunch.

Now I'm the last one to fight the future – after all I have multiple Twitter accounts, blog in several places, and recently got a little too excited by seeing Chad Vader and Kevin Pollak in a hard-fought bout of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots — but there are times when the trappings of technology interfere with our enjoyment of the world. This was one of those times. I go on backpacking trips to get away from tweets and touchscreens: I want to build fires, swim in pristine lakes, hunt down wild onions for making soup, make seats more comfy by padding them with bracken fronds, and bore my friends to tears by explaining the concept of buzz pollination. No offense to Madeleine Albright and venture capitalist podcasters, but I would be happy if they stayed at home. Well, unless they wanted to carry the tent and some extra beef jerky.

1 comment:

Lauren Quinn said...

Great post. When I travel, I bring my iPhone, but leave if off, and only use it for emergencies. More because of the cost of using an iPhone out-of-country than anything else (using GPS would have been damn helpful a couple times). But I think it'd good to unplug at times. And trekking through the wilderness seems to be one of those times...