Your Smartphone: Torch in the Dark or Digital Pacifier?

Every time I approach the issue of phone use on the trail I get a little queasy. What happens in my brain is the mental equivalent of a tennis match. I imagine readers turning their heads in unison as I volley the pros and cons of our digital devices back and forth until I become existentially nauseous and turn my mind towards a more palatable subject. I’ll spare you that experience. Instead, I’ll share what I believe to be the truth of the matter, that the issue is not so much with the devices themselves (though the devices exacerbate the issue) but with something a whole level deeper: information vs. intuition. Peeling back the technological skin to look at the problem (and it is a problem) from a more fundamental vantage has helped me understand what we risk sacrificing as smartphones become a ubiquitous feature of trail life.

Via Christian Widell

Society in Our Pockets

During my 2018 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail I had what I consider to be a very limited-use relationship with my phone. This meant the phone was off whenever I was in motion. At night I would turn it on to read my e-book and set my alarm for the next morning. My other big rule was internet-in-town-only. I wasn’t perfect, but for the most part I stuck to my guns. Going into my hike I figured that even with my digital parameters set where they were I’d be considered soft. So I was surprised to find that I was, in fact, an outlier. This shock was compounded every time a hiker commented on how surprised they were that I didn’t use my phone, or when one guy exclaimed with wide-eyed dependency, “You have to get Guthook’s.”

What I find unsettling is how quickly phones on the trail have shifted from tools of convenience to tools of necessity. As if hiking without one would be an act of self-flagellation. Now, whenever I go down this road I have to admit my own societal indulgences. I spent more time haunting the aisles of grocery stores during my 18 weeks on trail than I did the entire year previous. A week without a shower and things would start to get hairy. The AT’s slogan would be better put: “A footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness… sort of.”

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that smartphones are more of a distraction and a burden than a flotation device. I didn’t set my digital limits to punish myself. I did it to maximize the impact of the AT’s challenges and beauties, serendipities and boredom, and struggles and joys on my psyche. A thru-hike is an arduous, time-consuming, expensive, and wholly inconvenient endeavor. Why would I want to short myself on an experience often described as “life-defining?” I could listen to podcasts on my zero days. Phones are society in our pockets, and society was exactly what I was hiking to get a break from, for a little while anyway.

I expect a lot of pushback here from hikers who find themselves able to enjoy their hiking experience with their phones, and from many for whom phones actually enhance their hike. I obviously cannot object to someone who says listening to Lore while hiking in the woods makes for them a deeper, more meaningful hiking experience, but I also witnessed a disturbing trend on the trail: A high level of anxiety and unhealthy comparisons brought on by info-binging and social media, a phenomenon that reflects the very same digitally induced problems we face off the trail. For me, unpacking this problem meant clearing the phone off the table and looking at the issue from the inside out.

Information vs. Intuition

If you enter “information definition” into your Google search bar, here’s what you’ll get: Facts provided or learned about something or someone.

And for intuition: The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.

I think the best way to understand the difference between these two concepts is outside vs. inside. Information that enters our brain from outside sources to hopefully produce understanding, and intuition that springs forth from our brains as something that is already understood.

OK, so what’s the point? The point is that I believe that human beings are incredibly intuitive creatures, and that our ability to take information and transform it into intuition over time is one of our most fundamental, awesome abilities. I also believe that learning to get in touch with our more intuitive selves is one of the most empowering feelings a person can experience. A thru-hike provides the potential for such an experience.

Problem is, we have become so dependent on constant information that we’ve stopped the process of transforming it into intuition almost completely. I notice this happening in every facet of modern western life, but no more do its effects stand out than on the minds of today’s hikers.

Here’s an example any thru-hiker will get. One evening in a shelter, I and another thru-hiker were chatting with a section hiker. She couldn’t believe how we were able to leave the shelter before sunrise without stumbling off the trail and getting hopelessly lost in the woods, especially given the fresh fall leaves obscuring the visible path. I hadn’t really given it any thought. In the early morning we just packed up and took off. Navigating the trail had become second nature to me. I would quickly switch into autopilot and could hike till sunup without paying attention to blazes. After some thought, I was able to rationalize that I could just feel where the trail was, I didn’t need to think about it. I probably did occasionally check for blazes, but even those no longer registered in my brain. I saw them, logged them, and kept on hiking without consciously realizing it.

Anyone who owns a car can relate to the experience of switching into autopilot mode, especially if you’re driving the same route every day. Suddenly you’re in your driveway. You obeyed traffic signals and stopped for the school bus, but you barely remember giving it any thought. Kind of freaky. This is what I’m talking about with intuition. You don’t think, you just do.

Now, going into autopilot while driving home from work doesn’t sound so awesome, but intuition works in many ways. I’d argue that the beauty of an intuitive experience is related to the beauty of what you are doing, which is why I’m OK with using a GPS to help me navigate when I’m going grocery shopping for my mom, but I’m much less inclined to do so when I’m taking a no-holds-barred road trip across the country.

For me, the potential beauty of intuition is captured well in an experience I had while hiking through North Carolina. Coming up over a ridge line I saw to my left a sign that read Rocky Bald. Immediately, with no thought required, I took the short, steep path that led beyond some trees and opened up to one of my most memorable viewpoints. Clouds had compressed into the valleys so that it looked as if someone had pushed pause on a mad, frothy ocean. The early-morning sun was shockingly bright and it warmed my skin in the cool autumn air.

In short, booyah.

Looking back at that moment, I can reason why I took that detour. For one, the sky was blue and the sun was slanting in brilliantly. I could see that the path led steeply up, and, though I couldn’t see past the trees, I could tell by the contour of the mountain that a valley was descending in front of me. All of my senses told me that this viewpoint had potential, but it happened without me thinking it through. I just did. The real beauty of the moment, though, was acting on intuition and having it pay off. It’s a lot like sinking a jump shot. You usually know that the ball is going in the moment it leaves your fingertips, and the sensation you get when you hear the crisp sound of the ball popping through the net is like an extension of yourself. It still would have been nice had I followed a guidebook’s instructions to check it out, but it definitely would not have been the same.

Trusting Yourself = Loving Yourself

When I talk about what we risk sacrificing as smartphones become a ubiquitous feature of trail life, know that I am not treading lightly. I’ll be the bad guy here, the devil’s advocate, the grandpa who refuses to get with the times. I’ll say that when it comes to going digital on the trail, less is unequivocally better. I’ll write what I believe to be the truth, even if it pisses people off, because I think that when it comes to smartphone use, we have so little to gain, and so much to lose.

There are dozens of ways in which smartphones are changing the hiking experience, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. What I do see, though, looking at the issue from a fundamental, inside-out perspective, is a net loss. This loss is most evident when we take into consideration our relationship to ourselves.

I picture a runway. When we’re gathering information we’re a little bush plane taxiing along the runway, finding the headwind, gathering speed. A leap of intuition is taking flight.

I’m not suggesting we stop gathering information, but what I see when I witness hikers who rely on a constant flow of information, so much so that they cut short the process of transforming that information into intuition, are people who lack self-trust. This is the biggest sacrifice of all, because trusting ourselves is an essential component of loving ourselves. I’m not willing to give that up to some omnipotent digital force for the sake of convenience.

In the words of a friend: “We’re choosing convenience over beauty. Isn’t that awful?”


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Comments 5

  • Jennifer : Nov 5th

    Wow.. Amazing post… Thank you!

  • Barbara Allen : Nov 5th

    Great post! and I agree with you. People need to podcasts, music, etc to escape boredom but I never was bored on the entire thru hike. I encourage people to take the ear plugs out of their ears and listen to nature.

  • John T : Nov 5th

    I’ll date myself with this post…! I’ve done about 500 miles each in sections on the AT and PCT – the AT was in the pre-cellphone era (yes, folks, they didn’t always exist!). The PCT sections I did solo (and there were WAY fewer long-distance hikers on the trail then than now). The PCT sections were done around the mid-90’s. Cell phones had evolved from the brick-sized monstrosities that started the technology to something not quite so inconvenient – but they were far away from being ‘smart’. Coverage was spotty and, yes, devices like InReach and SPOT hadn’t been invented yet, at least as I recall. So if you got into serious trouble in a remote spot, especially while hiking solo, the solution wasn’t to push a button and wait for the chopper to show up while calling home to let them know of your situation. My spouse wasn’t very keen on the prospect of me taking a bad fall and lying incommunicado on the trail until another hiker happened by, and so insisted I take along my cell phone (such as it was!) on my 100-120 mile section hikes, which I dutifully did. It made her feel better, but the fact was, it was added weight that didn’t have coverage in 95% of the trail areas where I was hiking. Back then, listening to music required something like a Walkman (which has gone the way of the manual typewriter of course). So, my hikes were Thoreau-like back-to-nature things – though I did serious mileage – where my time was spent in contemplation, watching wildlife, and being immersed in the experience. I wrote a journal (very sparse) but now that my two artificial knees prevent long-distance hiking and I get vicarious enjoyment watching thru-hiking Vlogs, it really would have been nice to be able to have a video record of the experience. My journal notes have proved insufficient along with an aging memory on remembering those hikes as clearly as I would like. And I do recall getting ‘lost’ a couple times after wrong turns (or as Daniel Boone reportedly said – not lost but ‘mighty confused’) it sure would have been nice to look at a GPS-enabled device screen. Topographical maps and a compass really used to be an absolute necessity – how quaint! There were no online chat lists that forewarned of a dry spring ahead that the guidebook said was reliable, consequently to be conservative I always carried more water than I really needed – one of the reasons ultralight backpacking was pretty much in its infancy. Back then, ultralight meant making a lot of your own gear a la Ray Jardine style – I opted for more comfort and more weight…probably one of the reasons my knees are now titanium…! It’s certainly been interesting watching the progression of technology and thru-hiking. I don’t know how much I would use a smartphone if I did long sections or a thru-hike now, but I certainly would carry one and have the apps – and have a SPOT or In-Reach easily accessible on the outside of the pack. But I don’t think I would be as addicted to it as the generation that has grown up with smart phones as an integral part of their body, and mind – for better or worse!

  • Beth : Nov 6th

    Great post! I’ve not done a thru hike (yet!), but I’ve sectioned hiked from Georgia through North Carolina. Only used my phone for communication with family, weather reports, and pictures. I needed the disconnect from the constant influx of information. Nothing better than listening to the silence of the woods, or the conversation with fellow hikers. I don’t begrudge those who think differently, but I can say that when I hiked with my college aged son, I wished that he would put his phone down and just experience nature and its beauty.

  • Jeannie Sayers (aka Jane Thorn) : Nov 7th

    I love your post!
    I thruhiked in 1970. Whole different world.
    Intuitive feel for a trail is very real. It is so easy to loose that intuition for things when a convenient tool is at hand instead.
    I do love my iphone as a multiple use tool, but have actually decided to use something like spot for emergency contact instead of bringing it in 2020.
    Thanjs for sharing?


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