Wednesday 2 October 2019

Electronic and Communication Devices on my Colorado Rockies walk: What I took and why.

When I hiked the Continental Divide Trail back in 1985 the only electronic devices I had were my headlamp and my film cameras, and the latter could be used manually if the batteries failed. This year on my return to the CDT in Southern Colorado as well as headlamp and digital cameras (totally dependent on batteries), I had a smartphone, an e-reader, an emergency satellite communicator, and a solar panel with power bank, none of which existed in 1985. They weren’t even possibilities. 

Did I really need these devices? What difference did they make to the experience of long-distance walking? I’ve been thinking about this since I returned. During the walk I tended to take them for granted. They were just tools, like my shelter and my stove. And like my shelter and my stove I can’t now imagine a trip without them. Of course, they’re not essential but then neither is a stove except for trips where snow has to be melted. But they do add to the pleasure of a trip, which is the point. And also to the security. 

Some people find communication devices interfere with the sense of escape, freedom, wildness they seek in the mountains. I don’t find this. For me they’re no more intrusive than my other gear. If they were a distraction I’d soon stop using them. Two things I don’t do is listen to music or podcasts or watch videos or films. I want to hear nature, even when cocooned in my shelter (I don’t like ear plugs either). I can snap out of reading quickly if I hear something so I don’t find that a problem. 


I first carried a smartphone in 2010 when I walked the Pacific Northwest Trail. I’ve taken one on every walk since. Mainly I use it for navigation and as a camera to take pictures for posting online, when there’s a signal, which there often isn’t in wild places. However, I found years ago that if I uploaded a picture to social media it would then appear whenever the phone had a signal. This can give the impression that I’m online far more often than I actually am!


Back in 2010 I found having GPS made route-finding much easier in densely forested areas where the trail was indistinct or non-existent. This year I was on a clear trail most of the time and I didn’t use it as much. In the woods I did find it useful though. It freed me from having to pay attention to the time or to navigation as I could always check my position on the phone if I wanted to know how far I’d come or if I arrived at an unsigned junction. Above the treeline I didn’t need the GPS and used printed maps instead as I generally knew where I was and just wanted to identify landmarks that were some distance away. In the trees the print maps would only have been of use if I’d kept a close eye on where I was on them all the time, noting streams, trail junctions, pools and other features. The GPS meant I didn’t need to do this.

In 2010 I had topographic maps on my phone. These had no trail information. This year I had apps from Guthook and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. Both with topo maps. These apps are essentially guidebooks with information on water sources, resupply points and more. I found them especially useful for water in areas where there were long distances between sources. For the Colorado Trail section of the walk (it coincides with the CDT for long distances) I also had the Colorado Trail Databook, which contains much the same information but only has sketch maps. With print and phone maps and data I had a back-up in case of problems with either. 

Overall I found the digital maps more useful than the print ones for actual navigation, and not just because of GPS. I could expand the maps to show more detail in places, which was often very helpful. In a couple of places they were also more accurate. Once the print map showed a completely different route for the CDT to the digital one. On the ground I couldn’t even find the trail marked on the print map. The digital trail was exactly where shown. The digital mapping was dated 2019, the print map 2011. The error on the latter was probably the reason I met a hiker walking out because she’d lost the CDT and had given up trying to find it. She said her print-out maps were useless. 

Having accurate up-to-date information, whether print or digital, is important. I also met two day hikers who asked me where I’d come from and named a certain lake I must have passed. No, I replied, I don’t remember that lake. They were confused. You came down that road, they said, pointing. No, I replied. The trail is the other side of the Divide. Out came their Databook. Out came mine. The routes were completely different. Their book was several years old and showed an older route that was no longer the trail.

Given that updating maps and information online is much easier than reprinting I’d rely on the former if there are differences.


Twice during the walk I went for long periods with no internet or phone connection, the first time for five days, the second for nine. What effect did this have on me? None that I noticed. I wasn’t really aware how long it had been until I did get a signal. I was too absorbed in the walk and where I was. When I did have a connection I mostly posted pictures to social media and texted my family. At town stops – there were only two – I did a little more, sending reports to The Great Outdoors magazine, and answering a few emails (and ignoring far more). When I had a signal I enjoyed using it, when I didn’t it didn’t matter. I’d thought this would be the case. It was good to have it confirmed.

Thinking about this I realised I was reacting as I used to with newspapers. I could go for weeks in the wilds without even thinking about them but as soon as I reached a town I bought one and read it eagerly. 


Contacting home to let my partner know I’m okay is important. Before devices like SPOT or even mobile phones existed letters and postcards were the only viable means of doing this (phone calls cost too much). Mobile phones made texts an option , when there was a signal but it was SPOT and similar GPS devices that really changed all this. With one I could send messages regularly from just about anywhere. My SPOT is an early model with limited functions, which is fine. I just use it to send an OK message and location information once a day. My partner knows that it’s not 100% reliable and there may be days she doesn’t hear from me. In Colorado it worked very well though – better than on some trips in the Scottish Highlands. It has an SOS button in case of emergency so I carried it in the top pocket of my pack for easy access. Of course if there is a serious problem you have to be in a position where you can use it and where it can get a signal. I never thought it made my walk safer, just that it gave me an option if things went badly wrong.


Of all the new electronic devices this is my favourite and the one I’d never leave behind. I’ve always carried books on long walks, sometimes a few kilos of them. With an e-reader I can have a whole library for the weight of a small paperback. Having a wide choice of reading is wonderful. On the walk I finished Robert Macfarlane’s superb Underland  and began Laura Dassow Walls biography Henry David Thoreau, which is also excellent. These are books that require concentration. When tired I went for old favourites, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (I’d forgotten just how good The Truth is) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (I was impressed at how gripping The Hound of the Baskervilles still is even though I know it really well).

Of course I could save weight and read books on my phone. However I prefer the  larger screen and matt light of the e-reader to the small screen and bright glare of the phone. It also saved the phone battery for other uses. The e-reader itself, in airplane mode for the whole of the trip, never ran out of power between town stops, where I was able to charge it. The longest period without charging was twelve days. It still had 20% left. 


Electronic devices require power, especially the phone. Expecting much sunshine in Colorado a solar panel seemed a good idea. The one I took was fairly small and came with a power pack that could charge the phone twice. It can charge devices directly but I didn’t find this very efficient. The panel proved just big enough. It never charged the power pack more than 80% and when it was cloudy or I was in dense forest for hours it barely managed 20%. By careful use of the phone I never ran out power though.

To maximise sun on the solar panel I set up outside my shelter for the last evening light and the first morning sunshine then attached it to my pack while walking, sometimes on the side when the sun was low, but mostly on the top.


For town use I had a USB plug and some cables. That way I could ensure everything – phone, e-reader, power pack, cameras – were fully charged when I set off again. The cables weigh little. The plug is a universal one with lots of connectors – I used it on the GR5 in France last year – and could be a bit smaller and lighter.


  1. Really interesting post, Chris. I'm particularly interested in your remarks on time spent offline. Your experience is very different to mine, as we've spoken about before – I feel the online/offline dichotomy keenly, to the extent that it colours my entire experience. I wonder if this might be, in part, a generational thing? People who encountered the web (and especially the pocketable web) later in life often seem more able to use it intentionally as a simple tool, with a lower psychological impact. Millennials who grew up with it seem to have far more hang-ups – or they're incapable of going offline at all without losing their minds (I've seen this!). Perhaps we've internalised it as part of our identity? That could explain a lot. Going through your teenage years as the internet exploded in popularity has got to leave its mark…

    Also interesting points on digital mapping. I hadn't considered the advantage of digital maps being more up to date in cases where the trail often changes. This is a significant advantage.

    1. Thanks Alex. I've wondered about the generational thing too. Certainly seems the case for some people. I guess how much you used it as a teenager makes a difference. My stepdaughter, who's thirty, doesn't use the web or social media much and isn't very interested in it.

  2. Thank you for all this useful information

  3. A really interesting post Chris. Re digital mapping, I must admit I'm tempted. Walking across the Pyrenees, a Casio Pro trek watch linked to my smartphone with Viewranger maps installed could have saved a lot of weight (1.5kg). Peter Forrest also offers GPX for the route which I have on the Viewranger maps on my phone. It really is very good. I chose against the Casio Pro trek and went for a Suunto Core Graphite to replace my faulty Suunto Vector. I love paper maps, but carrying the whole lot from day one is somewhat burdensome. Maybe I should post them ahead, and post them home.

    I don't know how I managed before I had a smartphone. It is my library, newspaper, email contact with friends, phone mum, book train tickets. But I have decided to give up social media completely. For a professional hiker like yourself, I can see the positives of social media. I was alarmed to learn that I'd spent on average 42mins per day on social media.. I could spend that time on Duolingo learning Spanish that would be a skill for life!

  4. Thanks Jay. I've usually posted maps on ahead. They are heavy! Viewranger is great. I didn't use it on this walk because the Guthook and CDTA apps both included topo maps.

    I must admit I enjoy social media - I'd use it a lot less if I didn't! Of course most days in Colorado I didn't have it. Before it existed I spent much more time reading newspapers and magazines.

  5. I have almost completely given up on paper maps and use Viewranger all the time. I have a tablet as a book and back up map. I am doing LEJOG in stages and didn't take paper maps between LE and Edale. I took Harvey strip nap for Pennine Way but they never came out of the rucsac. For Pennine Way I bought the fully waterproof and drop-proof Landranger phone which so far has been great. I will continue to take a paper map for wilder country like the Pennines and Scottish Highlands.

  6. Land Rover phone not Landranger. Getting muddled up with paper maps now!

  7. Thanks for your comment Rory. I used the Land Rover phone on the GR5 last year and reviewed it for The Great Outdoors - I've been thinking about buying one ever since.

  8. I find electronics and comm devices have a deep impact on my town experience, making it busier than it used to be. This is not necessarily bad, just busier. Lots of new things to do, from comms themselves to recharging everything.

    Regarding comms, including social media, I feel about them similar to coffee, beer or other town-specific pleasures, ie I'm happy going without while on the trail, then enjoy them greatly when the time comes. It's my sweet spot and I like it.

    I've been thinking a lot about digital nav lately and how could we even survive without it a few years ago. As per my recent experience on the CDT, I feel the digital apps saved a lot of time, making more accessible a trip that's a bit of a race against time. Regarding maps specifically, I made the effort of carrying paper maps all the way through and even tried to use them sometimes. I found I loved the wider view they offered over the tiny smartphone screen for a better understanding of the land, even in the tunnel-vision format of a set for such a long hike, but the digital stuff was just so quick and easy that I couldn't stop using it to the point that I'd felt lost without it. Kind of worries me :)