[Mailbag] How Do I Keep My iPhone Charged on the Appalachian Trail?

Because I talk about using technology during my thru-hike in Appalachian Trials, I get the following question quite regularly:

How did you keep your iPhone charged on the Appalachian Trail?

If you do foresee using your smartphone a fair amount (for music, camera, notes, etc.), then like food, you’ll need to ration.  An iPhone won’t hold up to 4-6 days of heavy use under any circumstance.  That said here are some tips on preserving battery life, listed in order of importance:

5 Tips to Maximizing Your iPhone Battery Life on The Appalachian Trail

1)  Leave in Airplane mode.  This is by far and away the most important tip.  Nothing will drain your battery faster than searching for cell and 3G, 4G, LTE.  Going into airplane mode turns off cell, data, wifi, and location services, basically rending your phone as an iPod.  You can do this on the main page in your phone’s Settings.

2)  Avoid exposing your phone to extreme temperatures when possible.  Extreme temperatures are hard on your battery, and because you’ll be sleeping outside when the temperature dips below 30ºF, this will quickly deplete your phone’s lifespan.  In these scenarios, keep with your phone inside your sleeping bag at night (assuming it’s not uncomfortable for you).  Hot temperatures will have the same effect, so avoid leaving your phone in the sun during the day.

3)  Adjust the brightness down.  The brighter your display, the more power is being used.  Adjust the brightness down to the lowest setting where you can still operate your phone.  For the iPhone, this is found in Settings > Brightness & Wallpaper.  You can also enable the “Auto-Brightness” option which will automatically dull your screen during the day, and make brighter at night.

4)  Keep phone locked when not in use.  This is likely common sense for most, but when you’re done using your phone, make a habit of hitting the lock button before putting back into your pocket.  If you want to see your battery disappear, accidentally record a 6 minute video from inside your pocket because you forgot to lock your screen (this exact scenario has happened to me multiple times; not recommended).

5)  Turn your phone off at night.  Or when you’ll be going long periods (at least four hours) without using it.  For those who intend to use their phone as their camera, this will most likely translate to at night only.  If you’re only going to go an hour or two without using your phone, you’re better off leaving it in Airplane Mode.

Solar and Supplemental Chargers

I also get asked about supplemental chargers.  When I thru-hiked in 2011, I carried a solar charger (this model) which required 6 hours of direct sunlight to receive a 50% charge.  On the AT, you can count the number of times you’ll get 6 hours of sunlight on one fingerless hand (it’s called the Green Tunnel for a reason).  BUT the charger worked decently as a spare battery, as you can charge through an outlet.  I say decently because after a couple of days, it would begin to lose its charge (approximately 10-20% per day).  Fortunately the charger is fairly light (< 6 oz).

You can purchase heavier duty solar chargers, as was the case for The Dusty Camel’s PCT thru-hike, which will generate more power faster.  They’re also heavy (~22 oz for two) and expensive (up to $1,400).  Keep in mind: 1) the PCT goes through far fewer towns (and thus fewer opportunities to charge your devices), 2) the duo were filming a documentary (a very awesome documentary at that) that required more electronics than you’ll be using and 3) those guys are crazy.  They love a good challenge more than the average Joe (and certainly more than the average Badger).

Unless you’re making a major motion picture documentary of your hike, I’d highly encourage you to skip such a bulky solar charger.  Eventually the technology for these will become more efficient, cheaper, and lighter, but it’s simply not there yet.

As one of our commenters has brought to our attention – the Suntactics sCharger-5 is a solar charger worth checking out.  The device weighs 8 ounces, you can get a full iPhone charge with only two hours of direct sunlight, and costs $140.  Thanks Dr. Slosh.

Maxboost Charger for iPhone 5

Lastly, and quite possibly the best option for those who foresee heavy smartphone usage is a supplemental charger.  Essentially they’re iPhone cases which also charge your phone with the flip of a switch.  The higher end models are a bit more expensive than the solar chargers, but still provide a better bang for your buck.  Two of the best brands are Mophie and Maxboost.  I especially like these because you can power up your phone and charger simultaneously, which comes in handy when there’s only one available hostel outlet (which will happen).

And always, add your $0.02 in the comments if you know a better alternative to keeping your technology alive on the trail.

A final note: although I am a huge proponent of the “hike your own hike” mentality, I strongly encourage aspiring thru-hikers to use their electronic devices as sparingly as possible while still preserving your sanity.  Make an effort to go long periods without the crutch of your iFriend.  Chances are, your AT thru-hike will be the only opportunity you’ll have to get away from our hyper-plugged in society.  Take advantage of that.  Make a point to connect with your fellow hikers and your surroundings.  It’s a far more rewarding experience.

I encourage you to read the meditation section in Appalachian Trials – or really to pick up any book on meditation prior to embarking on the trail.  I received especial value from the audiobook of A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle.  Although technology is required to consume this, it will expedite the process of reaching a Zen-state when unplugged (at least this was the case for me).

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Comments 5

  • Chris : Feb 18th

    FYI auto brightness will do the opposite of what you say—it’ll make the screen brighter during the day, so you can see it over the glare of the sun, and then will dim it at night, when it’s easier to read a dim screen. Using this can actually result in worse battery life, versus manually setting the display to the lowest usable brightness.

  • Chris : Feb 18th

    Ugh, I hate double commenting, but one obvious tip that seems to get overlooked is to use a separate, more energy-efficient device for some tasks. An iPod nano, for instance, gets 30 hours of music playback on a single charge. While that means one more device that eventually needs a charge, it’s worth it if it means you can keep your phone otherwise turned off 95% of the time and save it for more important uses. A separate camera is a different matter, since they’re heavier, bulkier, and use more power, but if you’re taking a lot of photos and can otherwise spare the inconvenience you’ll probably come out ahead with a dedicated compact camera. Another advantage for the camera, depending on model, is the ability to “recharge” with new/additional batteries, which can, again, be a boon if taking photos is a significant energy drain for you.

  • Gary Mooody : May 2nd

    Hi Zack,,

    I am a 64 yr old guy, good shape, athletic at 5’10” 165lbs and really no major physical problems for long distances.

    Much appreciated if you would provide a bare-bones list of the minimal essential gear I need to solo hike at my age the App Trail for 2-4 months starting late May. I can appreciate the lightest stuff at my age is very important and have no experience. Don’t have a large budget to buy the best gear also. Thanks for any help.

    Gary Moody
    WPB, FL


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