3 Reasons I’m Thru-Hiking Without My Phone

“You’re bringing your phone, right?”

It’s one of the most common questions a relative, friend, or some combination of the two will ask during ‘the talk’–when I explain to them once and for all what exactly I’m doing in the woods starting in March. (Also near the top of that FAQ list: “Aren’t you worried about bears?”) I instinctively want to say no. Most people bring one, but something about that seems intrinsically wrong (for me, of course–hike your own hike absolutely!). Until recently, though, I couldn’t really justify that feeling. I couldn’t quite put into words that intangible draw to leave my digital technology behind. I ended up sounding like a stubborn technophobe. But I’m not at all someone who hates new technology. In fact, in the backpacking world, the latest stuff can be pretty great. Which brings me to my first point:

1. Not All Technology Is the Same

If you don’t like technology, forget about ultralight, for one thing. The “lightweight but durable” packs and tents people have or the “waterproof but breathable” rain gear–it’s as much ‘technology’ as the latest Android is.

It’s just a different kind of technology.

Advanced backpacking gear is produced specifically for the trail. It forms a technical world of its own out there in the woods–one smelling like Coleman fuel and Dr. Bronners, where everything compresses down to a fifth of its operating size. Ironically, hi-tech equipment itself is part of the separation from modern life. Cuben fiber, for all its molecular complexity, distinguishes a thru-hiker’s life from his desk job in the industrialized world more than it links him closer. Yes, phones can have trail-specific uses too–calling a shuttle from the mountaintop, checking the weather forecast, etc.–but they are inherently multi-use, a bridge to the normal world. Compare that to lightweight canister stoves, which are highly specialized for those nights in the woods. Phones, for me, drive a wedge through the crucial wall that separates normal life from trail life. 

I suppose my thinking is influenced a little by the Jewish tradition of Shabbat. This one day of the week is special, distinct from the other six days. The Torah forbids any kind of work on Shabbat, candles are lit the night before, and the prayer service is altered in dozens of ways to reflect the uniqueness of the day. No one will ever fully know why this is, but the mandated rest–and the temporarily altered lifestyle that comes with it–at least makes the rest of life a whole lot more bearable. On a broader level, we need periodic retreat from the stress and activity of the modern world, and that’s what time in the woods can provide us with–complete with its own set of objects and routines. I could never attain that vital withdrawal if I still used my phone.

But then my family, friends, etc. would counter with things like, “So keep it off at the bottom of your pack, just in case of emergency.” How could I argue with that? Saying I wanted to get away from addictive screens was not enough. Then something clicked.

2. Appreciation Through Deprivation

As I was looking through Awol’s AT guide, I happened to notice that just after the Smokies, there’s a little place just off the trail called Standing Bear Farm. They offer, among other amenities for weary hikers, a phone for general use. Suddenly an image flashed through my head. I’m emerging from days of windy cold at high elevations, grueling climbs and knee-crushing descents, everything the forbidding power of the Great Smoky Mountains could throw at me; and behold, a small white farmhouse! I stumble towards the door, put down my sopping pack, and grab the phone to tell my family I’ve made it through. There would be no object at that moment to channel my proud exhaustion like a house phone through which to gasp my achievement to my family. And at no other time in my life will I have been so grateful to be able to finally talk to people I love. Because for the 6 or so days beforehand, nothing I carried with me gave me that option.

I realized that’s what’s so infatuating about the idea of going completely phone-free. It’s not just that I don’t have to look at a screen all the time–I can indeed solve that one by keeping the device off in my pack. It’s that there’s actually no option to communicate with those back home, none–just like there’s no way to take a hot shower or eat a truly well-cooked meal in the backcountry. It’s the chance to deprive myself of yet another modern luxury–all the better to fully take in its luxuriousness when I stop in town again. (I suppose there is always the chance of borrowing another hiker’s phone, so it’s not absolute deprivation–but it is as close as I can get.)

I need time away from my phone so I can see it with new, more appreciative eyes. The capability these phones have–to let us talk to people halfway around the world, to tell us the weather for the next 5 days, store hundreds of photos, documents of text–is so easy to forget. ‘Smartphones’ is just a name now; I’ve forgotten how smart they really are. Living completely without their convenience, though–that way, I can soon remember why they’re special. By leaving the phone at home, I not only “rest” from the modern world and its routines–I deprive myself from modern luxury, to enhance my enjoyment of it when I get back.

There’s still their quite fair point that a mobile phone gives me an easy way out if I’m hurt badly. If there’s reception, which there is often enough, I can call an emergency number or even a friend on the trail if anything goes wrong. Why would I want to deny myself that common-sense measure of safety?

3. In Search of Risk

Honestly, it’s because I’m thirsting for just a little bit of risk in my life. When I start out in two weeks, I’m going to appreciate the slight thrill of knowing that, for once, it would be a problem if something went wrong. Yeah, if I fall and hurt myself, maybe I won’t be able to get help right away. There’s no quick touch-screen tap out of this one. It’s how some people will do free-climbs up rock faces–no ropes. They can’t afford to fall. Tight-rope walking with no net is similarly exciting, because it’s uncertain! You don’t know it’s all going to turn out ok. Walking at most a few dozen miles from the nearest road with no instant communicating device is nowhere near as dangerous, though it does have its share of potential risks. And I’m eager to bear them. I guess it’s another way of separating myself out from my normal privileged Western life, where I’m pretty much safe at all times. There are layers upon layers of safety nets to catch me. Out under the green tunnel, for a change, I’m up against something vaguely ‘unsafe.’

It’s but a poor sampling of the danger that stoked our fiery self-defense instinct in the thousands of dark, dangerous years of our species. But still, what a miracle civilization will seem when I get back.

Our creations here on earth should amaze us. And if they don’t, we need to take a dip back into darkness until they do. I’d have a hard time doing that amidst the glare from the LCD display.

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Comments 4

  • Alyssa : Feb 26th

    I think you’re romanticizing what it will be like to not have a phone, to be honest… Though I respect your choice and HYOH and all that, of course! I’m just a section hiker at this point but I often hear about thrus texting each other in town to make plans, catch up for meals, share rides, etc.
    Best of luck on your adventure though!

    • Ronen Schatsky : Feb 26th

      I’m a serial romanticizer so that could be true. What better time to find out one way or another?

  • Dave Howie : Feb 26th

    Takes guts. I salute you and admire you, my young friend. Maybe I’ll see you on the trail. I leave Springer on Wednesday. Best to you.

  • John Bodnar : Feb 28th

    Good Luck Ronen. I agree you may be romanticizing the absence of a phone to some extent, but it’s your choice. And, you can count on someone else with a phone being around if an emergency develops. Of course, that thought does take some of the romance away But, you will be doing something challenging, and that is more important than whether or not you have a phone with you. You will be up there in the scenery that many other people only see from the roadside. You should love it. Take care, Granddad.


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