Backpacking with a Smart Phone: Multi-Tool or Anchor?

What’s Up With That?

It amazes me how many people hike with smart phones, or cell phones in general. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-technology. I use my iPhone for business a lot. I travel and manage a field force of consultants with my smart phone. I check schedules, read reports, handle email, sync with my laptop, read books, listen to music, pay bills, and do a myriad of other tasks with my phone. I even talk to people on my phone. But I abhor and don’t utilize the “texting” function. I also keep it synced with my iPad. The smart phone allows me to be more productive when I am working.


With all the apps available, it is easy to see why people would want to consider a smart phone as a multi-use tool for backpacking. Some things you can do with it:

  • Load topographical maps
  • Use it as a GPS unit
  • Use it as a compass (not very accurate)
  • Camera
  • Thermometer (not always accurate)
  • Read books
  • Listen to music
  • Use it as a level
  • Use it as a journal
  • Keep lists and reference material handy
  • Use it as a flashlight
  • Check email
  • Twit or facebook or whatever that social media stuff is
  • Call someone
  • Other?

I have taken my iPhone backpacking three times to experiment with the viability of using it as a multi-tool. And because of the following have found it lacking, and now leave it in my car when hiking:

  • Battery life is poor. I don’t have the inclination to implement a battery charging solution, even though I own a small solar system that would work. Too much fiddle factor for me.
  • Fragile. I am constantly worried about dropping it, getting it wet, etc.
  • None of the apps work as well as other options (map, compass, GPS, light, camera, etc.).
  • The communication functions separate me from the wilderness — and to be honest — most places I hike don’t have cell phone coverage anyway.
  • The screen is small. An iPad would work better, although it is heavier and takes up more space.
  • Everything the phone can do that is necessary to survive in nature I can do with something else.

I will admit that the Topo map app I have really does work well. I like it. But I like a good map and compass better. I never had a map or compass break. I have had cell phones break or somehow lose a couple electrons.


Okay, the technology does tether you to the man-made world. For me that is not a good thing — but for others, it is important. Choose your own cup of tea.

In literature we are taught that there are 3 kinds of conflict

  1. Man versus Man (or society)
  2. Man versus Himself
  3. Man versus Nature

I would argue that Man versus Nature is not a conflict, because Nature has no free will — it is not a cognizant entity. It has no prejudice against man or animal. It is up to man to enjoy and survive in nature. When I go into the wild, I go there to enjoy whatever Nature has to share. I enjoy Nature, just as I enjoy the man-made world. And I like to visit each on its own terms. Technology in Nature separates and alienates me from Nature. Of course the gear I take with me is all technology — but I prefer to co-exist in Nature with the skills and knowledge I have developed over time. A pack is just a vessel to carry my food, water and shelter. A phone tethers me to the man-made world. It is an anchor.

With a map I know where I am, I monitor and plan my route. The purpose of a map is to never be lost. A GPS tells you where you are — a subtle difference.

People tell me they need a book or music to keep them occupied, because they get bored. I shall counter that intelligent people do not get bored. I have taken a book or two with me over the years. Never had time to read them; I was too busy with Nature. Music? Nature has its own music — even silence is nature’s own music — something that is rare or non-existent in the man-made world.

Stay in communication with the man-made world while in the wilderness? Heck, just stay at home then.

Some people say it is not fair to your family and friends to go into the wilderness unprepared. I agree. But a phone is not the answer.


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