More and more we’re told to go for a hike without any technology in order to get back to nature. The new term ‘digital detox’ has even made it into regular usage with many boasting of the benefits of such technology retreats. However, what I think may have been forgotten here is the fact that one simple piece of technology has single-handedly cut down on our pack weights more than any other advancement. This item is none other than the smartphone. Yes, it is a good idea to embrace hiking as a form of getting back to nature, but bringing at least your phone with you will enable you to move about more freely with fewer kilos on your back. Plus you won’t have to go rifling through your bag to find one hundred and one different pieces of gear.
Our lives are so entangled with technology now that we all too often take it for granted, not even realising how much we depend on it each day, and how much of what we regularly use is in fact ‘modern technology.’ So, here are the benefits of bringing along your phone in terms of what you no longer need to bring with you.
Until recent decades, the humble watch was worn by almost everyone. However with the advent of mobile phone technology I’ve noticed that more and more people, myself included, often forego this time-telling device. With the quick flick of the wrist (pardon the pun here) you can pull up the time on your phone instead, having only glanced away for a split second. I find that on more arduous hikes a wristwatch can actually become rather irritating and sweaty. Furthermore, I’ve destroyed a number of watchbands over the years and these days prefer to leave the watch at home, especially for hikes in which some rocky scrambling is involved. With my phone protected in my pocket or backpack, it’s just not worth risking scratching the face of a perfectly good piece of jewellery (analogue or digital). Your phone is perfectly able to replace your analogue watch, not to mention that the numerous functions of digital watches – alarms, timers, stopwatches, even the illuminated background which was ground-breaking back in the 90s – all come as standard in modern mobile phones as well.
If you’re away on a longer, multi-day hike, it’s no harm to pack a small headlamp, especially if you plan on walking before or after dark. However, if you’re staying in B&Bs along the way, and especially if you’re hiking in Ireland during the middle of summer, there’s really very little need for a specific, single purpose device such as a flashlight or head-torch in your pack (plus the accompanying spare batteries). Instead you can simply rely on your smartphone’s in-built flashlight. Just remember to use it sparingly if you’re worried about making your phone battery hold out longer. And speaking of those long summer nights in Ireland, hikers to Ireland who’ve never travelled so far north will be amazed to see the sun rising at 4.45 am in the middle of summer and setting at an astonishing 10:30 pm! Years after moving here I’m still getting used to it. If you’re interested in experiencing it for yourself, why not sample a multi-day hike in Ireland this summer? When the sun is up for almost 18 hours straight you can certainly spread your days out, taking plenty of rest stops to take in the scenery along the way. Just remember to say a prayer for us in November when we begin our rapid descent into the long, dark depths of winter!
While this is something which, more precisely, has vanished from common usage instead of being replaced by phones, the intended role has been assumed by smartphones as well. Thanks to stronger and more reliable mobile data connections, even when hiking through remote areas, we can now perform all of our banking transactions from our pockets. Instead of dealing with traveller’s cheques abroad, you can now travel from the United States to Europe and conduct all of your financial dealings – in both Euros and British Pounds – from your own smartphone. No more fretting over where you put those delicate bits of paper, where you can cash them in and how to keep them waterproofed and undamaged in your pack.
Perhaps somewhat out of fashion these days, I still like to keep at least a brief travel diary when heading off for more than a short trip. There are many benefits to this, including practising mindfulness by putting your thoughts down on paper – or in this case into a notes app in your phone. It also helps for my own work as a professional photographer to keep a record of exactly where I was and at what time. This is priceless information when selling photos to magazines and websites in the future in terms of keeping track of the exact details behind important shots. However, many would rather forego the clunky pen and paper while trying to pack light and keep their bags simple. This is especially true for hikers and multi-day walkers, so why not jot down some memories from your experience in your smartphone instead? You never know when you’ll want to revisit them again in future, or when they’ll come in handy down the track.
This one’s probably a bit more obvious, and becoming more so with each passing year. While the difference was substantial just a few years ago, with recent advancements in phone cameras we’ve seen the gap between professional level cameras and smartphones closing quite rapidly. I was a real latecomer to the game, finally upgrading to a basic internet-capable phone only a few years ago. Its camera was fairly basic to say the least. Again, as a professional photographer I of course disregarded the phone’s camera entirely, preferring to instead use my digital SLR. However, just last year I was contacted by a major smartphone manufacturer in order to be their photography ambassador and test out their latest model. I have to say that despite my work using high-end equipment, I had finally found a phone which could shoot both photo and video to a level I was extremely happy with. As a result, when I head off for shorter trips I’m now more than content to leave the bulky DSLR behind and instead rely solely on the new phone. So, if you’re heading off on a hike and can forego that bulky camera bag and accompanying lenses, it will save a great deal of weight and hassle if you take your snaps on your phone instead.
It goes without saying, but thanks to phone cameras also relying on digital technology of course, you can also leave behind all those rolls of film. Only the most die-hard photographers lug film canisters with them on a hike these days anyway. Again, your smartphone handles this pretty well for you, and there’s no developing required afterwards. Yes, I know, I know, it’s just not the same though… just not the same!
Likewise, video recording technology has caught up with smartphones too. Not only can you leave a video camera behind thanks to your phone, but with amazing progress made in the field of in-built stabilisation, you no longer need a heavy tripod either. My latest smartphone does surprisingly well in providing very smooth video motion even when shooting handheld while hiking along rocky tracks. If you’re an avid maker of your own family holiday videos, you can film away to your heart’s content and never run out of storage space thanks to modern smartphones supporting 64 and even 128 gb microSD memory cards. Just make sure to actually spend the time properly organising and processing all that footage when you get home from your European hiking trip!
My very first smartphone never had a very good GPS connection. Even in well-covered, urban areas it just couldn’t quite maintain a constant connection which made for some fairly frustrating and misleading drives around Ireland. Whether it was due to advancements in the phones themselves, or thanks to better satellite and antenna coverage, the situation has now changed completely. These days I’m often shocked to find that I have both coverage and a decent (and accurate!) GPS signal even in some pretty remote parts of the world. I spent a good few years in the Australian Army, so for me a hike pretty much anywhere in Europe never seems that remote. As such, virtually ever major hiking trail here, especially in Western Europe, will see a smartphone’s GPS capabilities prove more than sufficient.
Again, it probably goes without saying thanks to the last point, but most smartphones can now also be used as effective compasses thanks to their in-built GPS. While not functioning in quite the same way as a physical compass in terms of what that allows you to do on a paper map, if you’re hiking on a well-waymarked European trail and want to simplify your packing list, you can probably leave that paper map behind as well. However, as a disclaimer here I must of course point out that it’s still best practice to bring both a map and a compass with you, and not rely solely on your phone’s GPS.
As I said, for safety’s sake I still recommend you bring at least a small, cut-down portion of the relevant part of your map. More importantly, make sure you actually know how to read it and use it properly as well. However, for more experienced outdoorsmen and women, your smartphone is now more than capable of pointing you in the right direction (literally thanks to its inbuilt GPS functioning like a compass). Furthermore, you don’t always need an Internet connection to use your phone’s maps and GPS. There now exist a multitude of offline mapping apps as well, not just those requiring a mobile data Internet connection such as GoogleMaps. Actually, come to think of it, Google does now have the option to save pre-planned routes for later offline usage as well.
Although perhaps not completely obvious at first, it’s now plain to see how far-reaching of an effect smartphones have had on our lives, both at home and abroad. The list no doubt goes on already, and will certainly continue to grow with each major technological advancement in the future. At the end of the day, however, don’t forget to at least practice a bit of self discipline if you’ve developed an all too common smartphone addiction. Keep that phone away in your backpack for hiking sections not requiring any of its useful tools, and breathe in all of that fresh, coastal air while hiking along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, or elsewhere in Europe.
To check out even more items you can leave out, this post is continued in part 2 for further reading.
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