UL Gear First Impressions: W2H0 Solar Panel

Portable Solar Panels like those from Goal Zero or Anker may seem like a good idea for extended backpacking trips until the weight of the device is carefully considered. This issue is simple… for about the same weight as the lightest of their Solar Panel offerings I can carry 2 Anker PowerCore 10,000’s – enough power for well over a week – and not have to fiddle with something dangling from my pack.

20180519_143039_HDR-01The idea of supplemental power is still enticing. While prepping for a trip with 7 days between re-supply, I tested the W2H0 Solar Panel (weight 2.4 oz / 68 gram) on a recent shakedown hike to see if supplemental solar power in the ultra-light style can be a reality.

To store the collected energy, the battery I used (more on that logic below) was the Anker PowerCore 10,000. This in my estimation is currently the gold standard for backpacking applications. At just 6.3 oz / 180 grams and a claimed 10,000 mAh capacity, in a tested real-world scenario it charges my LG G6 (3,300 mAh) approximately 2.75 times. For when I have AC available, charging is relatively quick with a input of 2A. Output is 2.4A, although a slightly heavier high output model is available. Besides being relatively light, the PowerCore 10,000 is reliable, compact, durable and inexpensive.

The Shakedown Hike:
– Duration was about 8 daylight hours.
– Conditions were 90% Sunny, 10% Overcast.
– The path was mostly tree covered, but the pack / panel was exposed to direct sunlight when possible.

Real World Panel Use:
– The panel dangled from my pack using elastic bands and a Nite Ize Mini S-Biner (total additional weight of 5 multi-use grams)
– It was positioned to be convenient, so as not to limit access / use of the pack.
– The USB Cable (weight n/a, already carried) was secured to the panel with an elastic band, to prevent it coming unplugged during any required bushwhacking.
– At the start of the day, the panel was plugged in to the fully depleted Anker PowerCore 10,000.

Real World Target Device Use:
– An LG G6 was used in Airplane Mode for photos, video and GPS positioning. Starting fully charged, this device was at 82% upon reaching camp, where it was powered down.
– An LG X-Power was used in Airplane Mode to generate a GPS track. This is also the backup device. Starting fully charged, this device was at 98% upon reaching camp, where it was powered down.

The stored energy in the Anker PowerCore 10,000 was able to charge both powered off phones to 100%, with power to spare. Since the PowerCore 10,000 has a typical simple 4 light LED indicator to show capacity, I wanted to know how much more juice was really in there. I depleted the LG G6 to 50%. The remaining charge took the powered-off phone back to 82%. I estimate this additional energy to be more than adequate to charge my flashlight / headlamp, the NiteCore Tip, or power my super small USB LED light at night in the shelter, as required.

By it’s very nature, a device like a solar panel cannot be relied upon to power critical devices in the field. I’ve determined however that this panel, at this size, weight and price will have a permanent home dangling from my backpack when I do extended hikes.

Product: W2H0 Solar Panel
Weight: 2.4 oz, 68 grams
Durability: Good
Price: ~ $12, eBay.ca

Additional Notes:
Many phones now display the annoyingly non-configurable characteristic of “Screen on when power is connected”. This makes charging the phone directly from the panel problematic, especially when power is generated sporadically by the panel, such as when walking in the forest. The solution is to charge an external battery, which in turn can be used to charge other USB capable items. Perhaps a better alternative, particularly for the user with no other USB rechargeable devices, is to charge the phone “directly”. This has the added benefits of no additional external battery weight and will minimize energy loss during transfer. This behaviour can be modified directly and by force with software like the Xposed Framework (Android only AFAIK).

This product ships from China. As such, it can take many weeks or even months to arrive in North America. Plan accordingly.

This product was purchased with the author’s own funds. The vendor is not aware of this review in any way.

Cold Hiking: Traction


There are a wide variety of devices that one can attach to their footwear to improve traction when hiking in the winter or at higher elevation. Unfortunately, there seems to be a significant amount of confusion regarding terminology – you never know quite what you’ll see when you tell someone “be sure to bring traction!”

Ice Cleats – for around town use
Ice Cleats are very basic traction devices that add several small, sharp pieces of protruding metal to your sole. I’d classify the very common and well-know products from Yaktrax and Stabilicers as Ice Cleats. Once the snow and ice hits, these are easy to find and widely available – even in smaller centers – retailers often have them on a POS display right at the checkout.


This classification of device is best used in the city. In terms of suitability for hiking, they’re certainly better than nothing. They’ll help with traction on flat / level surfaces, but not much else. You’ll be disappointed – and possibly bruised – if you use just a pair of Ice Cleats as your primary traction aid while snow or ice hiking.

Since there are such a wide assortment of styles in this category, weights range widely from from 3oz to 24oz. Generally, most come in somewhere around 10oz.


Spikes – best for on-trail hiking
More aggressive than Ice Cleats, Spikes such as those from Kahtoola or Hillsound are a combination of a rubber and chain harness combined with metal spikes that protrude from your sole by at least 3/8” (slightly more than the thickness of a pencil) or more. They are perhaps best thought of as tire chains for your feet. The metal spikes will easily penetrate snow, and will even penetrate hard ice – usually enough for traction on low to medium inclines. They’re not as easy to find as Ice Cleats, as they tend to have a more specific, extreme use – they can be found at outdoor retailers and sporting goods stores. Confusingly, these are often referred to as Trail or Walking Crampons – a technically incorrect phrase, as proper C1 rated walking crampons cannot be worn on flexible shoes.


This classification of device is most suited to hiking. If you’re thinking a pair of Spikes may be good for a little extra traction around town… that’s likely overkill – they’d tear apart any type of indoor flooring, and would be damaged and dulled quickly on hard outdoor city surfaces like asphalt or concrete.

From 11oz & up. Generally 13oz to 20oz.

Crampons – for technical climbing
More aggressive than Spikes, Crampons are used in technical climbing or mountaineering applications with ratings from basic (C1) to aggressive (C3). Crampons have large protruding front points that can be kicked in to hard snow and a very rigid but adjustable bottom frame that can support your body weight when dug in on inclines. A variety of products from Grivel, Black Diamond and Petzl would fall into this category.


These are well suited to climbing, but it’s generally uncomfortable to walk while wearing them and are overkill for on-trail snow or ice hiking. If you’re thinking your hike may require crampons, then your “hike” is perhaps not a hike – you’ll likely need actual climbing equipment (ropes / harness, ice axe, etc.) and, more importantly, the training for proper use.

From 28oz up to a few lbs.

Hiking with Tech: Making the Most of a Smartphone in the Backcountry, Part 3

A five part series on fully utilizing technology while hiking.

Showing available layers (downloadable maps) in Canada Topo Maps; 4 vector based options for caching + two satellite for online only (copyright restricted) use. Note that Google imagery can be cached directly in the Google Maps App.
Showing available layers (downloadable maps) in Canada Topo Maps; 4 vector based options up top for caching + two satellite for online-only-copyright-restricted-use on bottom. Note however that Google imagery can be cached directly in the Google Maps App, And don’t write Bing off… some of it’s images are quite crisp (MS is actually still good for something!) Click to enlarge.

Part 1: Intro
Part 2: Device and Service Selection
Part 3: Part 3: Navigation, Apps & Prep
– Real World Use in the Great Outdoors
– App Types

Part 4: Photography, Shooting & Editing
Part 5: Power Management

The GPS hardware in a modern flagship smartphone is no different than that found in a consumer grade GPS. But for any new technology – in this case a smartphone – to disrupt and displace products in an existing category – like handheld GPS devices – the entrant technology must bring something new to the table.

In any situation where smartphone technology is impacting and disrupting an existing market, one of the secret weapons always in it’s arsenal is rapid, innovative and widely practiced software development.

As a user wanting to more fully utilize their smartphone while hiking, you’ll find an amazing variety of high quality, easy to use, low cost apps from which you can pick. Gone are the days of reading a manual and conforming to the nuances of an archaic proprietary user interface as you’d find on many GPS devices. Instead, hit your device’s app store – you can quickly try half-a-dozen options until you find one that works in a way that makes the most sense to you.

When the massive, open scale of mobile app development is combined with the value proposition to the end user – IE. instant delivery of low cost software – it’s difficult, if not impossible for any existing technology and it’s players to keep pace. In this part of the series covering Navigation, those names are Garmin and Magellan. In the next part of this series – Photography, Shooting & Editing – you’ll see the same story play out, with only the company names changing.

But first, an important caveat…

As is the case with any electronic device, smartphones are prone to failure. If you’re hiking off trail and heading into the backcountry, you need a map and compass – they have a reliability factor that no electronic device will ever match. Fortunately, there are apps that can simplify the process of getting those hard copies.

An example of a device-specific waterproof protective case for a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. While not exactly the case, I've essentially given my phone an aftermarket IP rating.
An example of a device-specific waterproof protective case for a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. While not exactly the case (no pun intended), I’ve essentially given my phone an aftermarket IP rating – unfortunately it makes the device stock battery dependent.

We’ll discuss a variety of apps that can aid in Navigation below, but if you’re not currently using your smartphone in this way, the general concept and getting up-to-speed is very simple:

→ @ Home: Select an App. Test and learn how to use it.
→ @ Home: In your App, cache (download) maps for the area in which you’ll be hiking.
→ → On the day of your hike, start with a fully charged device.
→ → Turn on Airplane (aka Flight) Mode.
→ → Launch and Hit Record in your App.
→ → Hike!
→ → When you reach camp, Stop / Save / Power Down.
→ → Repeat the process the next morning.
→ @ Home: Share your hike online!

Real World Use in the Great Outdoors.

While there is a category of software below that allows effective use of a smartphone as a direct replacement for a dedicated GPS, in real world use – specifically during inclement weather – this concept falls apart rapidly. In extreme cold, wind or precipitation you’ll quickly find that a touch-screen smartphone – more so than any other type of device – can be difficult to use. The two most common problems while backpacking are related to use in Cold or Wet Weather.

Cold Weather
When temperatures drop to the point where your hands need to be protected, it’s not practical to remove gloves / mittens each time you need to check your device. To address this, in recent years special gloves designed for use with touch sensitive smartphone screens have become popular.

A generic size dry bag. This may be a slightly better, more durable and heavier option than a ZipLock. YMMV.
A generic size dry bag. This may be a slightly better, more durable and heavier option than a ZipLock. YMMV.

There are also some specialized gloves, such as those used by mechanics, that work particularly well with touch-screen devices – they can be used in combination with an inner layer to form a very versatile system for backpacking.

Another area of consideration for real-world use as a replacement for a dedicated GPS is battery life – particularly important in cold weather. This will be covered in detail in Part 5 of the series.

Wet Weather
In terms of dealing with moisture and smartphone use, there are basically three options – presented below in order of suitability (best listed first). If your device is going to be as useful in the backcountry as this series suggests, one of these solutions has to be tested and implemented before hitting the trail.

Option 1: Select an IP Rated Device (see Part 2, Device and Service Selection for more detail).

Option 2: Get a Weatherproof Enclosure. Ranges from a protective and water-tight case made specifically for your model of phone to a larger generic dry bag. In either case, they’ll most often make the device more difficult to use (to varying degrees), and it’ll likely be a struggle to charge or swap batteries. A necessary but minor sacrifice.

Canada Topo Maps for Android.
Canada Topo Maps for Android. Click to enlarge.

Option 3: Use a ZipLock Bag. A very basic solution and the least desirable option. To use the phone, it will likely have to be removed from the bag – but even if that’s not the case, you’ll end up removing it at some point anyway. After extended use in these conditions, the inside of the bag – and therefore the phone – will begin to get wet.

App Types – How Many Features Do You Need?

Note, December 2016: Both Google and Apple are transitioning their software in the areas of fitness and health as a result of an emphasis on wearable technology. As such, the info and recommended apps below are evolving rapidly.

Standalone GPS Apps
An app like Canada Topo Maps (with a Free and Pro version) or Backcountry Navigator aims to add the functionality of a dedicated consumer grade GPS to a smartphone, but in a prettier, easier to use package. This option most closely resembles using a traditional dedicated GPS, as it can interface nicely with PC / Mac based programs like Garmin BaseCamp, Google Earth or GPSBabel.

Endomondo. Fitness tracking with a nice online compliment.
Endomondo. Fitness tracking with a nice online compliment. Click to enlarge.

If you’ve used a GPS in the past, use of this type of app will come natural – you can:

→ Work with Waypoints, Tracks and Routes.
→ Plan on the device or computer and move your work freely via import / export.
→ Use the app in the field as you would a handheld GPS.

Advantage: Map Layers / Data is often included with the app purchase. This is true to varying degrees, depending on the App: For example, Canada Topo Maps includes several layers (different map versions of an area) that can be cached permanently to the device.

Disadvantage: Limited social integration.

Fitness Tracking Apps
This is perhaps the most common way to use a smartphone to record an activity. The main attribute with this category is there’s always an online component to go with the app. You can create an account on a corresponding web site – often with a subscription required for added features – where you can add, manage and share hikes / workouts.

A simple Fitness Track App is perhaps the best option for those wanting a quick, easy-to-use program that can include data from wearables (heart rate monitors, GPS watches, Fitbit-style devices, etc.). There are literally dozens of apps to choose from:

Google My Tracks
The precursor to all this mess – the venerable My Tracks. Released freely as open source by Google some 9 years ago, it was the only app used by many early adopters. With a staggering 50 million + install base and 4.4 / 5 rating, it was discontinued and folded into Fit by the G. It’s still available for the very determined user.

With general fitness apps like Endomondo and Strava you can record whatever activity you’ve engaged in and later specify a type (hiking, biking, running, skiing, etc.).

There are apps specific to hiking and backpacking, such as AllTrails, which has a strong online component in sharing trail data at AllTrails.com.

There are also a variety of apps dedicated to running, which also work fine for hiking and backpacking (MapMyRun / Hike, Runkeeper, Runtastic).

Advantage: Seamless Social Integration makes it easy to share your hikes and find other trails.

Disadvantage: Weak in planning (mapping, waypointing, etc) compared to a Standalone GPS App.

Hybrid Apps
This is the next generation of app – it doesn’t simply attempt to mimic the functionality of a GPS or provide a quick way to record and share an outing.

Apps like GaiaGPS not only allow GPS style navigation use, but also combine a more powerful online component – beyond what you’ll find with a fitness tracking app such as Endomondo. In the case for GaiaGPS, subscribers can plan via the web – analyze maps, routes, set waypoints and print custom maps – things that may traditionally have been done on a standalone computer using software like BaseCamp. Before, during and after the hike, data from the device and the cloud is seamlessly integrated.

Disadvantage: (GaiaGPS) Lacks multiple map layers for Canada.

Hiking with Tech: Making the Most of a Smartphone in the Backcountry, Part 2

Update, December 26, 2016: Android Authority is reporting that, in addition to the BQ Aquaris X5 Plus, several devices from the Chinese manufacturer Huawei are now functioning with Galileo. There has also been a list of future supported devices published, on which is one of the featured devices from this article, the LG G5. Note that future supported means absolutely nothing until firmware support is released from the manufacturer – which may never happen.

A five part series on fully utilizing technology while hiking.

The Sony Z3 and Z5. Generations apart, but very similar.
The Sony Z3 and Z5. Generations apart, but very similar.

Part 1: Intro
Part 2: Device and Service Selection
– Lowering Your Monthly Rate
– Non-Subsidized Considerations
– Device Selection
– Comparison Chart

Part 3: Navigation, Apps & Prep
Part 4: Photography, Shooting & Editing
Part 5: Power Management

When it comes to lightweight backpacking, the multi-use functionality of a modern smartphone is practically unmatched by any other single piece of equipment. A carefully selected device can do many things… and do it well:

  • GPS / Map / Fitness Tracker
  • Still / Video Camera
  • MP3 Player / Radio
  • eBook Reader
  • Voice Memo Recorder / Notebook
Could new satellite technology mark the beginning of the end for dedicated PLB devices?

A smartphone can even be used as communication device if you so choose. 🙂

With the rapid development of technology and high level of competition in the market, the utility of a smartphone for backpacking will only increase. Devices such as the BQ Aquaris X5 Plus are already taking advantage of the new capabilities of the advanced European Galileo Satellite System, which offers higher accuracy, redundancy to traditional GPS and two-way communication. The bi-directional capability of Galileo is particularly interesting – if made widely accessible, it could allow future generations of cell phones to replace yet another piece of gear – the emergency PLB (Personal Locator Beacons, such as those offered by Spot or InReach).

In terms of suitability for use while hiking however, not all smartphones are created equal. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at which hardware features make a model best suited to backcountry use.

But first…

Lowering Your Monthly Rate – How to Get the Best Price for Service.

When you begin to consider your cell phone as a useful piece of backpacking equipment that is carefully hand-picked, it’s also a good idea to view your relationship with the carrier from a different perspective. When the carrier is viewed simply as a service provider – nothing more than a data connection to the tower – the consumer is freed from the shackle of selecting from the few handsets they currently have on offer. This opens the possibility of owning any one of the many globally available devices – limited only by the specific technical requirements of your selected carrier’s cellular towers. With the recent entry of Chinese manufactures into the market – bringing high quality, innovative, low cost hardware that is further driving innovation and value throughout the industry – it’s a particularly good time to think of severing the traditional user / carrier relationship.

The LG G5 (left) and G4 (right). A great family of devices that have it all, except IP Ratings.

Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for cellular service despite attempts by the state to correct the situation. In contrast to the US where competition is fierce and pricing is consumer driven – with companies like T-Mobile disrupting the status quo by providing clear value – the Canadian market as a whole still provides little value to consumers. The Canadian carriers devote tremendous effort to assessing pricing in the market, with a strategy to develop a structure that makes it difficult to comparison shop. It’s not uncommon for a user to realize upon careful examination that the “free upgrade” offered by their carrier is nothing more than an attempt to switch them to new, higher pricing.

As a result, purchasing a device outright – independent of the carrier – is becoming a popular consumer response to the slow, ever increasing cost associated with the two year service agreement cycle. The last couple of years have even seen a rise in small third party operations that specialize in switching customers who already own their device to special Bring Your Own Device pricing schemes from more competitive markets like Saskatchewan. When combining this technique of getting the best service rate with doing in-depth research for the handset that best fits their needs, the consumer is able to have an abundance of monthly usage, on a hand-picked device that was selected from a dazzling array of options – all for less than they’d pay by walking into a carrier store, picking from half-a-dozen options, and arranging a traditional two year service agreement with a subsidized device.

If the decision is made to consider non-carrier-offered handsets in your search, it’s still optional to pursue good value for service. Using an approximation for similar service options, you should expect to save anywhere from $600 to $1200 over a two year period on a BYOD plan, with the exact amount depending largely on which handset you elect to buy.

Read more about these BYOD pricing options at CBC.ca.

Consumers turn to booming black market for cheap cellphone deals.

CBC News, May 31, 2016
Black market dealers reveal secret to super cheap cellphone plans.

CBC News, Sept 23, 2016

Non-Subsidized Considerations – Steps to Take if You Own Your Device.

If you’re considering a non-subsidized device that’s not offered by your carrier, you basically need concern yourself with only two additional issues…

Band Compatibility
In the past, determining Band Compatability involved a confusing process of spec hunting and cross checking. Recently, sites like Will My Phone Work.net have simplified the process immensely. Plug in the model name of the device you’re considering, add the carrier you are using, and presto… you get a clear answer as to whether the device will work.

Carrier SIM Lock
These software restrictions are placed on subsidized devices by carriers to ensure it will work only on their network. Devices bought outright though non-carrier sources should not have a SIM lock, and this will be proudly displayed in the name. Carrier-bought devices can have the lock removed by the carrier, or it can be removed by the user with a code purchased for a small fee from a third party provider.

The Sony Xperia Z5 and the Apple iPhone 6S Plus. The Sony adds Expandable Storage, IP68 Dust / Waterproofing, hardware FM Radio... all at $240 less than the iPhone.
The Sony Xperia Z5 and the Apple iPhone 6S Plus. The Sony adds Expandable Storage, IP68 Dust / Water Resistance and Hardware FM Radio… all at $240 less than the iPhone.

As long as the device is Band Compatible, you’ll be up and running when inserting your SIM. If you don’t immediately get service, reboot the device with your SIM installed – a locked device will give you a “No Service” message upon boot. If you’re considering a previously owned device, it’s best to buy in-person. Confirm that your SIM will fit the device (there are a few different sizes) and test it in the phone before purchasing – if you have a data connection and can make a call, you’re good to go.

Device Selection – Picking the Features You Need.

This is a big subject, and to make it manageable in this article we will compare devices based solely on features that make it best suited for extended active outdoor use. I would suggest that due to fierce competition in the industry, other important specifications that are often considered (processor speed, camera quality, screen quality, compass accuracy) are very near equal in high end smartphones. As such, while we will compare phones based solely on the main features listed below, some importance should also be placed on the specifications of each device as a whole.

Removable Battery;
This allows the user to swap to a new fully charged internal battery in the field. More importantly, extended internal batteries with double capacity can often be found online – giving the phone battery life that rivals most dedicated GPS devices.

Expandable Storage (MicroSD);
A good option for practically unlimited storage space for your GPS Mapping / Navigation app – allowing you to take a tonne of data for your hike. With this MicroSD Card Slot you’ll have abundant storage space to download multiple Map Layers, such as those from NRCan and satellite imagery from Google. Beyond the caching of map data, this feature allows for virtually unlimited shooting of photos and video, as well as storage of ebooks.

Micro SD cards are small, light, cheap and plentiful. Take a spare on longer hikes and never worry about running out of space.
MicroSD cards are small, light, cheap and plentiful. Take a spare on longer hikes and never worry about running out of storage space.

A Barometric Sensor is used in combination with satellite data to obtain a better altitude fix. Apps will work fine without this sensor, but the data will be far less accurate.

IP Rating;
Ingress Protection Ratings define the level of sealing effectiveness for electronic enclosures. The first number indicates how effective the device is protected from dust, and the second number from liquid ingress. For example, Sony phones have generally high ratings in this area with IP68; 6 = resistance to dust & dirt, while 8 indicates liquid / water resistance. Higher numbers are better; for example, the IP57 rated HTC 10 Evo would be slightly less resistant to dust with a 5 rating than a Sony, and also slightly more likely to fail when exposed to water with a 7.

FM Radio;
Hardware – not a streaming app – that allows the device to receive a traditional FM over-the-air radio signal, often using the earbud cable as an antenna. This feature can be hard to find due to carrier pressure (it uses no data – they don’t like that), but it’s sometimes a useful feature to have while hiking in the backcountry, to get a weather report or to check the news (provided a signal can be found).

Retail Price;
An outright purchase, non-subsidized price. This is the amount you pay to own the device from day one, with carrier locks removed.

Comparison Chart – 5 to 6″ Screen Flagships Spec Summary.

It’s also worth saying that it will be difficult – if not impossible – to find a device perfectly suited within these specifications. Some features are in fact diametrically opposed – for example, the main difference between LG and Sony devices for several generations have been Removable Batteries vs. IP Rated Enclosures – take your pick – it’s hard to design both of those particular options into one handset. In this respect the table below tells a story in design limitation.

These are all flagship smartphones that have been released in the last few years. Note that a “previous model year” version has also been included for comparison for some of the brands deemed better suited to backcountry use. These older devices are often as feature-packed as the new models, but are available at significant discounts, either from the major carrier’s value banner (Telus’ value banner is Koodo, for example) or previously owned sources (sometimes even at half the retail price).

The slightly older designs are a good thing to keep in mind while looking for value – although older, they are always a better option than new non-flagship value devices. Companies like Motorola and LG cut features and costs on their value offerings to cover all price points and compete with the army of Chinese manufacturers, and in the process they drop features like MicroSD Card Slots and Barometric Sensors. Previous year flagships are a particularly good option for anyone wanting to take advantage of the black market BYOD plans. When combined with this pricing the combination will become more cost effective than a traditional plan often in less than a year, and becomes even more attractive when theoretically amortized over two or three years.

In terms of features, all these devices are roughly comparable – device size / weight, screen size, battery size – but as can be seen in the table, from the perspective of someone who is interested in active outdoor use, there are some important differences in each manufacturer’s offering.

Hiking with Tech: Making the Most of a Smartphone in the Backcountry, Part 1

Airplane Mode enabled on two Android Smartphones... as you can see GPS / Location is still available.
Airplane Mode enabled on two Android Smartphones. Look closely, GPS / Location Services are still available.  Click to Enlarge.

A five part series on fully utilizing technology while hiking.

Part 1: Intro
Part 2: Device and Service Selection
Part 3: Navigation, Apps & Prep
Part 4: Photography, Shooting & Editing
Part 5: Power Management

The importance of multi-use items is one of the main mantras of experienced lightweight backpackers; they strive to take gear pieces that have as many uses as possible. This practice effectively reduces total pack weight through the process of eliminating other items. Perhaps the single best multi-use backpacking item to have come down the trail in the last 10 years did not come from The North Face or MSR, and it’s not available at REI or MEC.

During the last few years of hiking I’ve found my cell phone to be an invaluable asset. A modern smartphone is packed with multi-use capability and has the potential to be the most versatile item a hiker could carry into the backcountry – a high tech Swiss Army Knife if you will. Unfortunately, most people use only a fraction of the functionality of their smartphone – either in the backcountry or in everyday life.

In this series we’ll cover phone selection as well as how this single device can replace multiple pieces of equipment.

Before we get to that, let’s first address some very common misconceptions related to smartphone use while backpacking:

“I won’t have a signal for cellular service. A smartphone is practically useless without a cellular connection.”

The first sentence is true – you likely won’t have a signal. However, you don’t have to be a technology luddite to acknowledge that temporarily unplugging from the network while enjoying nature is a great idea.

The second sentence however is not true – in fact the device should be more welcome (by you, and certainly by your fellow hikers) precisely because it is no longer capable of bidirectional communications. Most of the concealed internal antennas in your phone – the ones for voice / data communications and WiFi for example – can be disabled by activating Airplane Mode (aka Flight Mode), without impacting one of the more useful hardware components – which happens to be simplex hardware (single direction communication) – the GPS. This nuance of smartphone technology, when combined with the ability to cache data to the device (downloading maps beforehand) can make it perfect for backcountry use. There is of course an obvious advantage to “missing” Instagram posts of what city bound co-workers are ordering at a restaurant for supper, but activation of Airplane Mode also has a positive side effect on battery life… which brings us to the next point.

The BQ Aquaris X5 Plus. A new smartphone that packs a unique, powerful punch for navigation in the backcountry.
The BQ Aquaris X5 Plus.
A new smartphone that packs a unique, powerful punch for navigation in the backcountry.

My battery won’t last – it’ll be dead in no time.”

As mentioned above, when you activate Airplane Mode, you shut down the internal radio antennas responsible for voice and data communications – power hungry little buggers that are constantly looking for a signal to send and receive info. Once these antennas are disabled (Airplane Mode ON) battery life increases dramatically. Expect to get at least twice as long – likely even more – when starting out with a fully charged device. Couple that with powering off overnight and perhaps a spare battery and many users can easily have a few days of usage.

If I take my phone backpacking, it will break or get wet.”

The fact is, smartphones are pretty durable – if you drop it in the city, there’s a good chance it’ll hit something hard…. not quite as likely in the forest. Realistically, water is the most likely enemy of an electronic device while hiking. Smartphones are increasingly becoming water (and dust) resistant, but until that’s the case for yours, you can replicate that characteristic very easily with an old favorite item of many backpackers – something that you’re likely already carrying – the ZipLock Bag.

Those are some responses to reasons often cited to not take a smartphone while backpacking, but what are some compelling reasons to want to take one?

We’ll get into that in future installments…

Before that, we have to back up a bit… coming soon, Part 2: Phone Selection.

Knowing Knots, or Not

Check out the Adjustable Guyline Hitch @ Paul Kirtley's site
Check out the Adjustable Guyline Hitch @ Paul Kirtley’s site
When a day hiker transitions to backpacking, there are a few areas that are commonly neglected. Before embarking on an initial overnight trip, most hikers know to try firing up their stove and test the comfort of new footwear or a fully loaded pack – these things are obvious.

There are a couple of other aspects that are more commonly overlooked however. Water Treatment is one, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Another is working with Knots.

Knowing how to use cordage to get something done – set up a tent, tie a ridgeline, bundle gear – is the type of skill that, once learned, will immediately:

  • Save Weight
  • Increase Flexibility
  • …and serve you for years to come

For a knot to be useful in a backpacking application, it has to be:

  • Simple to Remember and Tie
  • Strong
  • Quick Release

For years I’ve had a slowly but constantly evolving YouTube playlist to which I’d refer: to direct people to or use to brush up on my own skills. Generally, this is the type of thing for which visuals shine, but YouTube being what it is… I’ve never found a single video that quickly and concisely shows a useful collection of knots. There are hundreds of videos – everyone seems to have an odd collection of favorites – but most either get into too-difficult knots, or ones that look nice but realistically would never be used in the field.

This post has been many years coming. Perhaps the oldest thing on my TO-DO list has been to record a my own video of favorite, most used knots. It’s the type of video that is best shot in the field, but unfortunately, I’ve never quite gotten around to it – perhaps because I’m often in a hurry or hiking solo.

While trying to figure out how to work the camera for my own recording (or ideally, recruit a camera person), I reviewed and updated my playlist. During that process – low and behold – I’ve got it chopped to two main videos! Very concise, and very worth the time.

Andrew Skurka’s video (first insert, or view on YouTube) is almost perfect – he covers useful guyline-type knots that are extremely simple and versatile.

One knot Andrew didn’t mention was the Adjustable Guyline Hitch – one of the most useful knots I use. Fortunately, it’s covered by Paul Kirtley (second insert, or view on YouTube).

The area in which most backpackers will first use knots is for Guylines – which are for the tie-out point on a tent or other lighter weight shelter. This is a great place to start, as many of these knots can be used directly or adapted to other common backcountry situations such as for use with a ridgeline, a clothesline, a bear bag, etc..

My own list has evolved over the years, but it currently looks like this:

Those cover the basics. Some other concepts worth noting are very simple. Effectively hanking cord can save time, or adding an extremely simple knot (such as the Prusik) to your repertoire can dramatically increase the utility of knots you already know.

This final video (third insert, or view on YouTube) gives a great example of how one knot leads to another. This starts with the MarlinSpike Hitch (big with hammock users) and expands on that concept to make it useful in other applications.

From the ECT to the ALT via the AWR (Part 2)

It was just a few months ago that I stood in the rain at Cappahayden – melancholy at the end – waiting for a lift home to St. John’s (see Part 1 of this story). However, it wasn’t from that vantage point that the vision for a longer hike became clear.

20161121_153559_richtonehdr2Within a few days of completing my end-to-end hike, I was looking for more. I’d enjoyed the ECT, but had always known that, at least for me, it was too short of an “end-to-end” trek to be satisfying and considered a proper thru hike.

While working on GPS Waypointing – in what I considered to be a totally separate area through the Avalon Wilderness Reserve (AWR) – the idea of a loop trail connecting both ends of the ECT was taking shape. There was a few more weeks of consideration – thinking about how much road walking would be required – before these thoughts of another long hiking route were unshakable.

Today, the result of that idea is online… check it out. The route for the Avalon Loop Trail is a no-frills affair – it’s defined in GPS data (Cape Race to Portugal Cove) and existing maps (the East Coast Trail from Portugal Cove to Cappahayden). The currently available data covers about 92% of the route, with the remainder to come ASAP.  It is perhaps a rather presumptuous name – for a route that has apparently never been hiked in it’s entirety – but that is arguably the easiest way to get “boots” on the ground and the whole thing established.

A couple of additional things to note on this route:

The ALT Page currently has…: GPS data for the route, info on AWR permits, the perfunctory “requirement” warnings, and most importantly, a live map… so hikers can actually see the thing.

It’s nothing more than this: a suggested route. There are many other options – some for making it shorter, and perhaps even one for making it longer. There is no support system in place or even someone the hiker can contact for more information. If that idea makes the viewer uncomfortable…. they’re perhaps looking at the wrong challenge.

Total estimated length is at 526 km / 327 miles. The variable bit here being the AWR. The total length will be firmed up over the next year.

It’s still a work in progress. GPS tracks have yet to be recorded for Cappahayden to Cape Race – about 40 km. That’s on the to-do list.

GPS, Map and Compass are a good idea for Section 4.2 – the AWR. I’m not a mommy-type – I’m not going to tell any hiker what to bring – but in my estimation people heading into this area without such equipment (and the experience to use it) are asking for trouble.

The ALT is not just more of the ECT. The East Coast Trail is a beautifull, developed, hardened coastal trail that is mapped and supported with maintenance, structures and signage. The ALT has none of that. Part of the ALT is wilderness bushwhacking and route finding – fording large rivers and summiting wind swept hills. Another part has the hiker walking on pedestrian-ready-uber-developed-railbed-paths – weaving by power plants and pizza shops, bakeries and barking dogs. While the ECT is primarily beautiful, the most that can be said for the ALT is that it’s truly a mish-mash of hiking experiences.


From the ECT to the ALT via the AWR (Part 1)

ECTThruHike.com circa Jan 2015.
ECTThruHike.com circa Jan 2015.

This past season I thru hiked the ECT. I’d been hiking the trail for years, but for the last several had been collecting detail that would allow an efficient end-to-end-all-in-one-go trek. Admittedly, the result of that preparation got a little out of hand, but as it turned out the data was not available online. The information was quickly put to use by other hikers.

With previous background in organizing data and web development, I found this an intuitive progression toward collection and distribution. And having grown up using the Internet before it became widely popular, the seed for the idea of freely sharing as much as possible had long ago been planted.

After my thru hike, as I looked closely at other trails in the region, it became clear that there was an amazing disconnect between some great hiking and the terrible representation of those trails online. Text descriptions of a route may have been fine in 1998, but it just doesn’t cut it today. A picture – or in this case a map – is worth a thousand words.

Another feeling that was overwhelmingly present after that hike was that my trail of choice was simply too short. After only a week of walking – just when I started hitting my stride and knocking out some good distances – I reached the end. 300 km had seemed like it was going to be a good haul, but it just wasn’t enough. Of course, in the end it worked out – I had to return to a day job anyway.

To be continued in Part 2….

Proposed: The Avalon Loop Trail – The ALT!

2016-07-19-00-17-45For the last few months I’ve been slowly working on the idea of connecting the East Coast Trail to a south / north route through the Avalon Wilderness Reserve on Newfoundland’s east coast. A few weeks ago I asked for input from anyone who may be familiar with any existing trails in a few problem areas, most specifically the area from Hawke Hills to Topsail Beach. Now I’m happy to say those areas have largely been figured out.

Thanks to Jason Edwards, Ken Hooky and Isaac Edgecombe. And of course special thanks to Aaron O’Brien for his Avalon Wilderness Reserve articles in The Independent.

I’m still very far away from finding the time to hike this route, but I would like to have the non-ECT sections defined (in GPS waypoints and tracks) and available online within a year.

Here’s the break-down:

– East Coast Trail = 314 km
– Unofficial ECT North and South = 54 km
– Proposed Route Cape Race to Topsail Beach = ~200 km

The route is comprised of the East Coast Trail, single track, double track (ATV trails, coastal gravel road), trailway and of course some route finding in the Avalon Wilderness Reserve and south of Holyrood.

And the most important bit for hikers….
If the proposed route works out, there will be under 19 km of asphalt road walking in the 254 km non-ECT section. When combined with the ECT, that brings the total for asphalt road walking in the 570 km to just 11%.


– Proposed Route Total = ~570 km
– Asphalt Road = ~61.5 km
– Percentage Road Walking = 11%

Cold Hiking: Shoulder Season Backpacking Basics

The following text has been shared from ECTThruHike.com.

Backpacking is an activity that is not nearly as popular in the Spring and Fall as it is in the Summer, but in some ways can be more rewarding at these off peak times. Spring and Fall offer a different insight into nature and you won’t have to deal with the abundant crowds and insects brought on by warmer weather.

The biggest challenge in shoulder season backpacking is temperature – nighttime lows can easily dip well under 0 degrees celsius. If you’ve done overnight trips in the Summer, this temperature difference may seem like an insurmountable hurdle – but that’s not at all the case. In fact, many of the skills and equipment pieces used during the warmer months can be easily adapted to three season use. Below are a few tips that make the transition from sleeping outside in the Summer to the Spring and the Fall more bearable.

First, to quickly gain knowledge beyond the scope of this text, check out Paul Kirtley’s excellent video on Winter Woodland Camping. Paul focuses on Winter in the UK, but the info is applicable and fully adaptable to the shoulder season in Eastern Canada. I usually link to videos at the end of an article, but this one is so great that it deserves mention right at the top – it’s long, but it’s packed with goodness (and there’s even a summary at the end).

In addition to the information in Paul’s video, here are some popular best practices and techniques to extend the usefulness of your gear when the temperature drops.


When backpacking in the shoulder season, don’t take a big puffy jacket. A few layers of lighter clothing – fleece, down – are better than one heavy layer. Your clothing shouldn’t be cotton – check the labels. Be particularly diligent about your base layer clothing (socks, underwear, long johns / thermal underwear, undershirt). These items should never be made of cotton, or even cotton blends. Stick with synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, or natural fibers best suited to the task such as merino wool.

I would estimate that wearing cotton base layer components are among the most common of mistakes made by those new to shoulder season backpacking – this directly relates to comfort and safety.

Unless it’s extremely cold and windy, while hiking you’ll need to wear surprisingly little to stay warm. Generally, you’ll only have a problem keeping warm when you stop or sleep – so as soon as you stop moving, put on an extra layer. You’ll need to be constantly taking clothes off or putting them on during the outing – almost to an annoying degree. Have your favorite pieces readily available in or on your pack at all times.

For more on this topic in relation to the East Coast Trail, see the Footwear and Clothing page.

Sleep Setup (sleeping bag + sleeping pad)

The first rule of thumb for shoulder season camping with any ground based shelter (such as a tent) is: You Need A Sleeping Pad. The best Sleeping Bag in the world will be useless in cold temperatures without a Sleeping Pad. This can be an insulated pad designed for lower temps, complete with an R insulation rating, or one of the thicker inflatable summer pads + space blanket thrown underneath. When combined with a beefier sleeping bag, this can be the “make it or break it” piece of equipment when sleeping on the cold ground.

Before heading out perform this little test with one of your water bottles: fill it with water, close it tight, and check for leaks. Squeeze it and throw it around a bit. If it passes this no-leak test, it’ll be a very welcome addition to your sleep setup on a cold night. Once you’ve reached your camp site and setup, just before you go to bed, heat some water just short of boiling and fill the bottle. Close it tight, and check it again for leaks. If it’s still water tight, throw it in your sleeping bag a few minutes before you get in – not too long before… perhaps just while you go to pee. When you get in your bag, push the bottle down by your feet and move it around during the night to deal with any “cold spots”.

This is the main reason I actually prefer to take a couple of plastic water bottles over a hydration bladder – I wouldn’t trust the seems on a bladder filled with hot water. Water bottles have no seams – they’re also lighter and easier to fill.

For more on this topic in relation to the East Coast Trail, see the Equipment page.

Both a space blanket and a water bottle are excellent examples of multi-use items; you’ve added no weight to your pack, but through creative use of things you already have you’ve dramatically increased your level of comfort.


For more general info on safety while hiking and backpacking on the East Coast Trail, see the Introduction page.

You need assistive traction devices when traveling through the woods in the Winter. In mid to late Fall and early to mid Spring you also need them. Just because you’ve noticed there is no snow in the area in which you live, it doesn’t mean the forest and trails are free of ice and snow. There are a variety of styles – it doesn’t have to be elaborate. If the city is free of snow, lean more toward something that is lightweight and easy on / off as opposed to some huge contraption that is difficult to attach.

I’m the last person in the world who will suggest you carry something in your pack that will not be used – but an assistive traction device should be considered essential in the beginning of Spring and the end of Fall.

Light and Heat
It gets dark early in the shoulder season, and even moreso the closer you get to Winter.

Bring a headlamp. Headlamps are far more useful than flashlights. Test it at home, and if you’re unsure about the installed batteries, either replace them or (a less desirable option on short one night trips) bring some spare batteries. Your headlamp doesn’t have to be terribly large or bright – it’s more important that you’re comfortable wearing it – that it not feel clumsy and “top heavy”.

You may choose to create a fire – prepping for a fire is hard work, but an unintended side effect is that it’s an activity that will generate body heat and keep you warm. Later, the result of your work can provide valuable heat and light.

It’s worth noting that camp fires are actually illegal in some areas. A discussion of whether or not it’s a good idea for the state to limit the public in their connection with nature and basic human instinct is a topic that is beyond the scope of this text. In any case, it’s essential that any activity such as this be kept small and that it follow LNT principles regarding minimizing camp fire impact.

If you think you’ll be cutting wood to prep a fire, bring a saw, not an axe. Unless you work with such equipment on a daily basis, a saw is far safer than an axe. Accidents happen, and an axe gets more dangerous the further you get into the forest. If you’ve not yet included a saw in your kit, garden centers are a great place to find small, foldable pruning saws. Look for one with aggressive bi-directional teeth and a locking mechanism that secures the blade in both closed and open positions.


If your trip in the woods is solo, I urge you to check out Paul’s video. If you’re going with experienced users, don’t be afraid to ask for advice or loaner equipment if you’re lacking just one or two essential pieces – often experienced users have an abundance of gear.