Wednesday, September 2, 2015

PCT Thru Hike Gear Review - SmartPhone, Applications & Accessories

A phone could be considered a "luxury" item. It is not necessary for a successful through hike. However, almost everyone carries gear that adds to a more satisfying hiking experience. I am no exception. I carried a smartphone and a battery backup for the entire trip.

Apple iPhone 5c with charging cord and wall charger

I used my iPhone every day to take pictures, keep track of the time, to write my blog, to navigate, and to communicate. I can't imagine being without it.

I had one of those thin plastic screen protectors on mine. The screen will definitely get scratched without one. The desert dust gets into everything.

I also used a LifeProof case and recharged my phone every night with a battery backup (see the reviews below). My phone had 32GB of memory, which was adequate for my pictures and my favorite music.

The iPhone 5c uses a unique charging cord. I ended up replacing my cord halfway through my hike. The wire connections were beginning to fail. I would definitely include a new charging cord in one of my resupply boxes about half-way through the hike.

The wall charger is used when plugging into an electrical outlet. I used it to charge both my iPhone and my battery backup. Since this too is an essential piece of equipment, I would include a new one in a resupply box. Make sure the charger will actually charge your phone. I bought a generic charger, but my phone would not charge up using it. I carried the wall charger, charging cord and battery backup in a separate Ziploc bag that I carried in my Sea-to-summit ultra-sil dry sack.

My service provider was Verizon. Cell service in southern and central California was not as good as people who had AT&T. Verizon service was better than AT&T in northern California, Oregon and Washington. I had no service in many remote areas, including the high Sierras and many other wilderness areas which were long distances from cities or major roads. Apps that require cell service will not function at many locations on the trial. There is a summary of cell service entitled Cell Phone Reports, provided by Halfmile Maps.

I carried ear phones for most of my hike, but ended up sending them home because I found I was not listening to my music, podcasts or audio books. Although many listened to music all the time. I preferred to listen to the sounds of the wild instead. The few times that I did listen to music, I placed my phone in my shirt pocket and listened through the iPhone speakers. That way I could hear the music and sounds around me at the same time. I was careful not to annoy others with my music and always turned it off when others were nearby.

I kept my iPhone on "airplane" mode to reserve power. If the phone is left searching for service, it will run down the battery very quickly.

I used my iPhone contacts app to enter phone numbers for trail angels and close friends. Several times there would be signs at trail heads with the name and number for people who will give rides. I entered them in my contacts list, even if I didn't need their help. It was amazing how often the information came in handy when another hiker needed a ride and a phone number. For bigger lists of trail angels, I took a picture of it for easy reference later. For close friends, I learned the hard way that I needed to test the phone number I had been given. One time I tried to call a friend and discovered the number was wrong. From then on, I always sent a quick text message to ensure I had entered the information correctly. And, by sending a text message, it gives you friend your contact information!

My iPhone became my camera. Initially I also carried a Samsung WB350 camera with 21X optical zoom. The camera had built-in Wi-Fi which enabled me to transfer my pictures to my iPhone for upload to my blog. As I headed into the high Sierras, the zoom lens stuck in the open position. I ended up sending the camera home, along with a mini tripod and SticPic. In retrospect, I would not take a separate camera. The iPhone was always handy (since I kept it in my pocket) and the picture quality of the iPhone was adequate for what I needed. My only problem with the iPhone was to keep the lens clean and free from moisture. I used a Q-tip dipped in water to clean the lens, and kept the iPhone is a plastic Ziploc bag when it was raining.

My most used and useful Smartphone applications

Guthook's PCT Guide
I used this every day. It shows water sources, campsites, points of interest, trail junctions, roads, parking areas, resupply locations, and elevation profiles for the trail. The visual interface shows your GPS location relative to the trail, a very helpful tool when trying to find a route that is covered in snow. A simple touch on an upcoming point of interest shows how far ahead or behind it is. This is very useful when deciding to fill up with water or head to the next reliable source. User comments are also available, which helped me determine if a "seasonal" water source was likely still available. The app also includes pictures of most points of interest. It's nice to know what the campsite or water source looks like in advance. The maps and pictures are resident on your phone, so no cell service is necessary while using it. The app costs $5.99 each for Southern California, Central California, Northern California, Oregon and Washington. I bought the entire set for a reduced price of $24.99.

Halfmiles PCT
This application was widely used by many hikers on the trail, and the new version includes information from the official 2015 Halfmile maps and GPS data. The application goes well with the free Halfmile map set. I carried the printed copies of the Halfmile maps, just in case something happened to my electronic guide. In a few instances, I found the information from the Halfmile guide to be more useful than the information from Guthook's guide. For example, when the trail started following a road, the Halfmile guide often stated that the trail joined the road and would follow it for 1.5 miles. The Guthook guide did not give this information. The Halfmile application also listed additional sources for water and campsites that were not included in the Guthook guide. The difference is probably because Halfmile rewalked the trail last year (2014) with new GPS equipment, and noted over 1,000 new waypoints. I used the Halfmile PCT application as a cross-reference to the Guthook application. To me, the visual presentation of locations and waypoints were better represented in the Guthook app. However, I would not go on the trail without this app. The best news? The app is a free download!

BlogTouch Pro
My blog is hosted on Blogger. I started out using the app, BlogPress, but found that it crashed too often, and almost lost five days worth of blogs when it refused to open the files. BlogTouch Pro is easy to use and has never crashed on me. I would write my blog in my Notes application, and then copy it to the BlogTouch Pro app where I would add my pictures. I saved the blog as a "local" file. The local file is resident on my phone. When I had adequate phone service, I would upload the blog. One lesson I learned is that when I create a new blog and have no phone service, I must select the "Offline" function, start the new blog, and then select "options" and check the post status of "Offline". If I left the option set as "Public", when I was finished writing the blog I would often lose my blog because the phone couldn't connect to service. Fortunately, because I always wrote my blog in my "Notes" app, I could just re-paste the information. Another lesson I learned was that I needed a fairly strong phone signal to successfully upload a blog with several pictures. On several occasions, the blog would fail to upload if I had a weak phone signal. Another nice feature is that the app let me read comments on older blogs, and easily let me update existing blogs when I had phone service. The download costs $4.99.

I found that I needed a way to tweak some of my pictures. The problem with taking pictures on the iPhone is that the picture size on the screen is so small that it makes it difficult to evaluate the quality of the picture. I used the "lightbox" feature to import my picture and use the many tools to lighten, darken, sharpen, straighten or crop a picture. The picture can then be saved to the camera roll and I still have the original should I change my mind about the edited picture. The download costs $.99.

This was a cool app that allowed me to place an annotation or title on a picture. I kept a file of all of the important dates for birthdays of family and friends. I could annotate a photo with "Happy Birthday" and add it to my blog. The learning curve is easy too. Just type in a title, move it around on the picture, resize the text if necessary. The program allows multiple titles in different sizes, colors and transparencies. The download costs $1.99.

Web Albums by Pixite
This is a great little app for backing up my photos. You need to have a Google account because the program backs up your photos to your online album.  You can access all of your online photos, view them in a slide show, and manage the albums from your phone. When I got to town, I found a place that had Wi-Fi access. The program automatically uploads full-size copies of all of your photos on your Camera Roll. The only drawback is that it will only backup 1,000 photos to a single album on the web. If you have more photos than that, you need to upload them to a new album or move some of the existing photographs from the "auto upload" album to another album.  This app gave me peace of mind should anything happen to my iPhone while on the trail. It only costs $1.99 and is well worth it.

Adobe Acrobat Reader
I stored files on my iPhone as a resource while on the trail. These included photographs of instructional guides for using my battery backup and headlamp, lists of extra gear left at home, text files for Giardia symptoms, photo of my long distance hiking permit, my resupply plan, the PCT town guide, guide for using my digital camera and the Double Tap Hikes PCT section summaries. The Double Tap summaries had good information on "Permits & Timing, Special Gear & Clothing, Resupplying Strategies, Resupply Box Labels, Water Sources, Camping, Lodging, Meetup Spots, and Detours." I often would read them in the evening to refresh my memory regarding the upcoming sections of the trail. I found I was frequently referring to my resupply plan, to make sure I knew when my next resupply town was, and to be sure that I knew how to get there. It is amazing how easy it is to forget the details of the resupply plan! The download is free.

Google Drive
This app allowed me to save the latest water report from the Pacific Crest Trail Water Report web page. The file is saved to my iPhone, which could be accessed when I didn't have phone service. I would re-download the most current file every time I had phone service. The availability of water along the trail often determined how far I could hike each day, where I would cook my food or camp. It also meant the difference between carrying a heavy load of water or carrying less water with the knowledge that the next reliable source of water was close by. The water report is updated as hikers walk the trail and report on water sources. The app download is free.

I loved this guide! It covered the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to the Oregon-Washington border. It was organized by trail section. It has lots of information on botany, geology, history, wildfires, and mountaineering. I often read the summaries in the evening and then looked for the amazing sights as I passed along the trail. I wish it included a section for Washington, but perhaps that will come in a future release. The program also has a good map set, and shows many side trails and identifies lakes and mountains that many of the other electronic apps do not. The download is free!

I like the Kindle app, even though I didn't read that much while on the trail. I had several books downloaded to my iPhone and even had an audio book. However, I often referred to the book, "The Pacific Crest Trail", by Brian Johnson. The author has hiked the trail three times and has compiled a wealth of information that is useful to the beginning hiker. Half of the book is devoted to an overview of the trail - the geology, weather, plants and wildlife, planning, preparation and equipment. The second half of the book goes into details, including maps of the trail, town information and much more. The Kindle edition of "The Pacific Crest Trail" is available on Amazon for $13.49. One more benefit of the Kindle application is that it can also be used to open the PCT water report, if you don't use the Adobe Reader. The app download is free.

Google Maps
Although this app only works if you have cell service, I found it helpful when in a new town to check out where I was in relation to the services I needed. Often I could see where stores were located on the map, and I could find out how to get there. It was also helpful when doing a road walk. When I left Big Lake Youth Camp, I walked down the road and needed to take another road to get to the trail. The roads where shown on Google Maps, so I could check my progress to make sure I didn't make any wrong turns. The application is a free download!

I used the iPhone built-in Notes application for all of my blogging. I opened a new note, put the title of my blog at the top, and entered the day and date on the line below. I was able to use the predictive word feature to more quickly type my blog. When done, I would copy the information into my BlogTouch Pro application. If something went wrong, I would always have the Notes file for reference. I also used Notes to keep track of my shopping list when I did my resupply, a list of my extra gear at home (so I would know what was available), and a list of family birthdays and events (so I wouldn't forget). It is a great little application for the forgetful hiker!

Weather Underground
I used the weather underground application to view the current forecast. Although you need a phone connection, the forecast was the most accurate. It uses a network of 100,000+ personal weather stations to provide an accurate view of upcoming weather, including temperatures, rainfall estimates, and an understandable summary. In addition, it provided a good look-ahead, with fairly accurate forecasts. I always checked the forecast when in town or when I could get cell service. The download is free.

LifeProof Case with headphone adapter cord

If you are going to take a phone on the trail, you MUST have a protective case. While hiking in the desert and on many of the trails through Oregon and southern Washington, the trail is dusty. I mean, really dusty. The dust gets into everything. In addition, there are lots of opportunities for dropping your phone into water, or simply dropping it on the rocks. It will happen and it does.

I bought the LifeProof case for my iPhone 5c. The case can be submerged in water and protects the phone from a drop of over six feet. They provide an instructional video which shows how the case is installed and removed. The case adds less than an ounce to the weight of the iPhone.

I had only two issues with mine.

First, to listen to music with head phones, I had to remove the tethered jack cover and screw in an adapter cord. The cord sticks out from the case, making it inconvenient to carry. It just didn't feel right in my pocket. I ended sending the adapter cord home when I realized that I wasn't listening to music.

Second, the dust will eventually get on the outside camera lens of the case. Occasionally I forgot to clean it, making for a blurry picture. It was easy to clean with a Q-tip and a bit of water. The same thing happened with the self-portrait lens cover. It was recessed into the case, and was much more difficult to clean. In addition, the dust and lint would collect in the microphone slot. Several times my caller could not hear what I was saying due to all the built-up dirt. I cleaned it out using a toothpick.

I also wrote my email address on the outside of the case with a black permanent marker. If I ever lost the phone, someone finding it would have a way to contact me. Fortunately, I never lost it, but I heard of several other hikers who lost theirs.

The case costs just under $80, but will save your phone. I would not carry a phone on the trail without one.


Powerpack with charging cord

The New Trent Powerpack with charging cord weighs a whopping 11.4 ounces. Ouch! However, I was willing to carry it because it made blogging and communication in the wilderness possible.

I used the New Trent model NT350T which has a capacity of 13,500mAh. It will recharge an iPhone five times (from a completely discharged battery). I never fully discharged my phone battery, so I suspect it would keep mine charged for over ten days on the trail. It has two USB charging ports. One with 2.1-Amp (for charging a tablet) and one with 1-Amp (for charging a phone). There is a mini-USB port for recharging the power pack with the supplied charging cord. The unit does not come with an Apple cable, but I already had one of those with my iPhone wall charger.

When on the trail, I would charge my iPhone every night. I could work on my blog while the phone was recharging. One lesson learned the hard way was to keep the power pack in a Ziploc bag when not in use. One evening I was cowboy camping, and I fell asleep while the unit was charging my phone. When I awoke in the morning, there had been a heavy dew, and everything was damp, including my power pack. When I went to top off the charge on my phone, I found out that the power pack had discharged overnight due to the wet condition. Fortunately, I was headed into town the next day and was able to recharge it. I never left it plugged in overnight again.

The power pack takes about eleven hours to recharge from a fully discharged state. When in town, the first thing I did was to plug in the power pack. After three days on the trail, it would take several hours to fully charge. I also found that I needed to make sure the unit was charging when plugged in. One time I plugged it in, and the indicator light showed it was fully charged. Fortunately, I unplugged it and plugged it in again, and noticed it started charging. I don't know if this is a bug in the way it operates, but it would have been awful to think it was fully charged with it wasn't.

I saw several people on the trail who used solar chargers. Some were very happy with them. I didn't want to keep my phone or battery backup tethered to a solar charger. And, I heard that often the phone would not charge if the solar charger lost sunlight in a shady section of the trail. I was completely satisfied with recharging my battery pack in town. It worked well for me.

There are newer power packs on the market now. A hiker named "River" showed me a newer version of the New Trent power pack while we were in Etna. I would look for one with a large capacity. Less weight, however, would be a big plus!

I would definitely take this one again (or a newer version) since it was reliable and kept my iPhone charged.

More reviews are coming soon! 

It's amazing how long it takes to capture all my thoughts on gear.
Hopefully some of the links are helpful too.

2015 PCT Through Hiker
Started April 16, Finished August 20

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