The Ultimate Guide to Thru-Hiking Electronics
We all dream of unplugging on trail, spending time in the trees and away from technology. That is, until we want to take a picture, figure out where our next water source is, or call a shuttle into town. Like it or not, technology has crept its way into thru-hiking just like it has the rest of our lives. Most hikers now use their phones to navigate, document their treks, and call for emergency help when things go south.
When assembling a packing list, getting the right cables and wall chargers isn’t on the top of many people’s to-do list. A frighteningly large number of factors can influence the weight, efficiency, and performance of your whole electronic system. With endless options and opinions, its hard to cut through the noise and figure out what you really need.
Hence the existence of this guide: here you’ll find (mostly) everything you need to know to design a thru-hiking electronics system that works for you.
The devices being used on trail (phones, headlamps, etc.) are the core of your electronics packing list and will largely determine which battery banks, chargers, and cables are appropriate. This is the best place to start figuring out your electronics system.
It’s undoubtedly standard to carry a smartphone during a thru-hike. For most hikers, it is pivotal for navigation, documentation, and resupply logistics. With how advanced and reliable smartphones have become, these devices have become one-stop shops, and all other electronics have strong arguments for being left behind (besides a headlamp, of course).
Most people will simply carry whatever phone they already have into a thru-hike. If you are looking for an upgrade or always looking for the best of the best, there are a few key considerations.
Photography: First, camera quality is a distinguishing feature between different models and brands of smartphones. Buying an older or budget model is going to give significantly worse image quality. While smartphone image quality is plateauing in the high end models, there is still catching up to do in the middle of the market.
Size: Second, screen size is a surprisingly pivotal part of smartphone selection. “Plus” sized phone models often come with a better array of cameras and allow you to see more context on a digital map. The unfortunate drawback that often goes overlooked is portability. Most hulk-sized models won’t fit in sewn-in hipbelt or shoulder strap pockets. Athletic shorts also have chronically undersized side pockets. Carefully consider where you are going to store devices that need to be accessible during the day.
Other considerations: In my opinion, battery capacity and weight are minor considerations. Bigger phones have bigger batteries but consume more power, so functional runtime tends to be similar. For similar sized screens, the weight between brands is usually comparable and can’t be made a key consideration over more fundamental things like operating system and camera quality for all but the most dedicated ultralight zealots.
Charging: Apple is being forced to incorporate the USB-C charging standard thanks to European Union regulations. As an Android user, I have been all USB-C for years anyways and look forward to the one cable to rule them all. I highly recommend getting your phone system onto this connector type; it makes life a lot easier.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are an increasingly common backcountry electronic device. Whether for personal anxiety, worried family at home, or those prone to backcountry medical emergencies, this group of devices has worked its way into many packing lists.
While the level of service varies, at a minimum, PLBs will send a one-way emergency message to a command center, which will be relayed to a local SAR group. Many models now include other handy features like preset non-emergency messages, two-way messaging, and navigation.
Expect devices in this category to run several hundred dollars and have a monthly or annual service contract as an ongoing cost. Most will weigh between three and eight ounces, depending on screen size and physical buttons.
You may have heard that the new iPhone has an SOS feature similar to a PLB. While it works most of the time, its not as reliable as a dedicated device yet. I still carry an inReach, but check with me in five years and that may no longer be the case.
Handheld GPSs are dedicated backcountry navigation devices. They are typically very rugged and waterproof and have strong location accuracy. This device category has passed its popularity peak, however, with smartphones largely filling the role. Smartphone GPS apps can connect to more satellites, have a variety of interactable maps to choose from, and can load a nearly infinite number of waypoints.
There are a few large PLBs that can play double duty as a handheld navigator, but I personally don’t see any advantage for three-season backpacking and won’t recommend any units here. If you are worried about navigational backup, carry a waterproof map and learn how to use it.
Headlamps are the one backcountry electronic pretty much everyone can agree is an absolute essential. The technology here took a huge step forward with LEDs, and again with lithium rechargeable batteries.
There’s an unbelievable plethora of lights on the market now, but the criteria are pretty simple: output enough light to see in camp. While there is a ginormous rabbit hole to dive into with LED modules, component efficiencies, and dimmable settings, most backpackers are using their lamps minimally to cook or go to the bathroom in the dark. There’s plenty of optional features like high output modes, red lights, battery saver modes, and more.
For me, as long as it outputs 300-400 lumens and weighs under two ounces, I’m pretty much happy. If you have a special use case like night hiking, you should be able to identify the changes you need independently (more light output, robust battery life, etc.).
While there are still plenty of alkaline (AA or AAA type) battery headlamps on the market, the rechargeable lithium category is quickly taking over. I highly recommend lithium batteries as they can be “topped off” from a power bank, have better energy density and cold performance, and don’t require a perpetual spare or hunting down expensive replacements in small towns.
READ NEXT – Best Backpacking Headlamps for Thru-Hiking
Smart watches are a growing category of backcountry accessories, with big names like Apple, Garmin, Suunto, and Coros pushing new models annually. Compared to a regular watch, you get a plethora of handy smartphone integrations and environmental stats.
For the casual on-trail hiker, you won’t be solving any major problems that can’t be solved by a quick glance at a smartphone. Many fitness nuts will still bring along their smartwatch for health statistics. Off-trail hikers may see some extra benefit in models with built in navigational features like compasses or altimeters.
I don’t use one and don’t yet see their necessity, so I will skip recommendations in this category as well. If you plan on bringing one, make sure to bring any specialty charging cables and budget for its power consumption, which varies wildly between models.
READ NEXT – GPS Watches: Which Are Best for Thru-Hiking?
After a few hundred miles, most thru-hikers will break down and start binging podcasts while on the move. Others might enjoy talking to a friend or family member on that glorious section of trail with cell service. Most hikers will end up with a pair of headphones at some point in their hike.
I strongly prefer wired earbuds, even for active use. They are more reliable, cheap, consume less power, and are harder to lose.
While Bluetooth audio has negligible impact on your phone’s battery, Bluetooth headphones consume power on their own too. They are also heavier and increasingly require specialty charging cases with their own integrated batteries. Transferring power from your general battery bank to your charging case to your actual wireless headphone is likely to come with a 50-plus percent efficiency loss as well, robbing you of precious juice.
If you are using wireless earbuds, they likely have a microphone for making calls or recording an audio diary. If they don’t, I suggest a wired model with a microphone. Holding your phone up to your ear while walking, hitching, or with your phone plugged into the wall is mighty annoying.
I don’t emphasize sound quality for a hiking unit. Movement and the ambient sounds around you are going to make it hard to notice the difference, and the price premium is hard to swallow when they take a swim at a river crossing.
Standalone cameras are on their way out for most hikers. Smartphone images have become so good that most people will not appreciate the difference from a larger point-and-shoot or DSLR camera.
While I carried a full-frame mirrorless camera for the first 1500 miles of the CDT, I ditched it the first time I saw my family. It was heavy and clunky to pull out for a quick shot compared to my slender phone. I certainly notice the quality difference, but most people don’t, and I took many more photos using my phone.
If you are a vlogger or hobbyist photographer, you probably already know the pain that comes with camera batteries. Each brand carries multiple battery models, sometimes specific to individual cameras.
While figuring out how to charge them is probably low on your priority list while picking a camera, having a model that can charge directly off the camera’s USB port instead of an external charging device is a nice bit of efficiency.
If you are consuming more than one battery per section, you will likely get better energy density by carrying a larger external bank. Carrying spare camera batteries isn’t a bad move by any means though; the convenience of instantly swapping it out with the dead one is unmatched.
Now that you know which devices you are bringing, it’s time to figure out how to keep them powered. There are a lot of factors here, and figuring out the optimal configuration requires some field experience and trial and error.
Some things you might want to consider are device battery sizes, how many times you will need to recharge each in the field, how long your resupplies are, and how fast you want to get in and out of town.
How To Understand Amps, Volts, and Watts (for the Nerds or Compulsively Obsessed)
Education on electrical engineering is hard to come by, and as a result there are a lot of misnomers and misuses to be found online. If you are looking for an easy answer on “what’s the best power bank,” you can skip this whole section. I won’t be offended.
For the purposes of hiking, there are four basic characteristics to know, Volts (V), Amps (A), Watts (W), and Time (hours/H). Electricity, at a basic level, works a lot like water.
Volts (V) are like water pressure (PSI). Voltage is the pushing power of electricity. Imagine a shower with high water pressure versus a low flow unit. The higher pressure moves more water through the same diameter pipe, meaning more water being dispensed.
Amps (A) is like the size of the pipe. If the pushing pressure (Voltage) is the same, a bigger diameter pipe will move more water than a very skinny pipe.
Watts (W) is the combination of Volts and Amps, and represents the overall rate of movement for electricity. It can be likened to “gallons per minute” and tells you how fast a certain amount of electricity gets from point A (the grid) to point B (your phone or battery bank). The equation is literally (Watts = Volts x Amps), and is a better comparison between devices than Volts or Amps alone.
For example, older devices typically charge at 5V and 2A, meaning a 10W overall charge rate. Newer phones and battery banks are compatible with a wide range of voltages, meaning they may also accept 9V at a 1.1A rate, or still a 10W charge rate. At a basic level, there is no difference between the two, so comparing just Volts or Amps between devices is not going to give you a meaningful picture of your charging rate.
Last is Time, the key to energy capacity. If watts represents flow and are analogous to gallons per minute, we know how fast a bucket might fill up, but not how long it takes to fill or how big the bucket is.
Letting a five-gallon-per-minute shower run for five minutes will get you 25 Gallons of water. Similarly, pouring 5 Watts of power into a battery for 5 Hours will get you 25 Watt-Hours (Wh) of electricity.
Unfortunately, many battery banks and phones list their battery capacity in Amp-Hours (Ah) or milliamp-hours (mAh). This leaves the user to fill in voltage to get a picture of actual capacity.
For example, the popular Nitecore NB10000 power bank is sold as a “10,000 mAh battery bank,” but in the fine print, the battery voltage is 3.85V. This means its actual capacity is 38.5 watt-hours (which we get by using our equation for wattage: 38.5 Wh = 10Ah x 3.85V).
When you go to transfer that bucket of energy to your phone however, it will do so at 5V (or, in some cases, 9 – 18V). When measured at 5V, the energy rating is only 7,700 mAh (38.5Wh / 5V). To get the real capacity of a battery (in a bank or a device), try converting to Wh.
Too Long, Didn’t Read. What’s the Best Power Bank?
If that seems like a bunch of gobbledygook numbers and math, don’t fret. A kindred nerd on Reddit has distilled data from hundreds of power banks into this handy spreadsheet, which gives you an even more complete look with efficiency considerations and energy density (available power per kilogram of battery weight).
The most important number to a hiker should be the energy density, which is readily available in the chart. If you want a bigger bank, look at the “output mAh” for real numbers and pick bigger or smaller as needed.
Another important consideration is charging times, which are also listed. Charging time is more useful than charging wattage, since all batteries will slow the rate of charging as they get closer to full. If you want to avoid the town vortex, having a battery that reaches full quickly can be very important.
Features like “wireless” charging and digital screens are dead weight, and extremely inefficient. You will be throwing away almost half your power bank by using a wireless charger instead of a simple cable.
I personally am very fond of the Nitecore NB10000. It has outstanding energy density, charges quick, provides a USB-C port that can receive and deliver power, and a legacy USB-A port for those electronics that haven’t quite gotten up to the modern era. They are also stupid expensive.
At about half the price, a simple unit from Anker will get the job done, at the cost of energy density, charging speed, and in most cases, pass through charging.
Sizing Your Battery Bank
To size your battery bank, you need to know how much charging you will be doing in the field. The first thing to do is list all your devices, whether they typically need to be recharged on-trail, and if they do, their battery size.
On a thru-hike, I carry my phone, wired earbuds, a PLB, and a rechargeable headlamp. I only use my inReach to send one check-in message a day. That means it will last multiple weeks and doesn’t need to contribute to battery bank size. I also try not to be up at night and can go multiple weeks without charging my headlamp as well.
That leaves my phone as the only device that needs to be field charged. I know from previous backpacking experience that my phone’s battery will last on its own three days for conservative, low navigational needs/on trail days. If I’m really cranking through podcasts or navigating a lot, that might drop to 1.5 or 2 days.
I refuse to have resupplies longer than six days apart, which means I need anywhere from one to three phone charges in the field (if you leave town with your phone at 100 percent, you get to skip your first charge from your bank). My Pixel 6’s battery has a 17.8WH capacity (easily determined with a Google search), so I need at most 53.4WH of external battery (three charges of 17.8WH). With an actual power capacity of 33.7WH, a single Nitecore NB10000 falls short of my worst case scenario.
Instead of purchasing the double sized NB20000, I use two of the 10k models. This keeps my setup more modular; I can bounce a bank ahead for short sections, charge one at a hostel while walking around town with the other, or charge both at the same time for high speeds.
How Healthy Is Your Phone?
As batteries get older, they lose capacity and efficiency. If your phone is a few years old already and needs abnormally frequent recharges, consider replacing the phone’s battery (or getting a new phone) before stacking on more power banks.
For about $80 and no weight penalty to your bag, you might be able to cut out another costly 10k-sized battery bank and related chargers/cables. Having a healthier phone battery also makes you less dependent on the external bank, which is safer in the case of accidental loss or damage.
In the case of my partner, who has a dated iPhone, replacing her phone’s battery would double how long it can go between charges and take out about 15k mAH of needed external capacity. That means less time charging banks in town, less wall chargers and cables, and less weight in the pack.
Now that your final device is selected and sized, it’s time to figure out your wall charger situation. Every time you get to town, you will need to hunt for outlets to get grid electricity into your devices. Charging fast means you can easily get in and out of town in a day. While on trail though, all your wall chargers are dead weight. Keeping them light and efficient is almost as important as their speed.
To get a sense of how much charging bandwidth you need, add together the input charging rate of all the devices you will typically juice up in town.
For me, I try to walk into town with all my devices full (except the power banks) to reduce the power bandwidth I need at the outlet. If my phone is reasonably topped off from the power bank when I hitch in, I only need to recharge my two Nitecore NB10000s. Each has a power input rate of about 18 Watts (you can easily find this online or labeled on your device).
On occasions where I do need to charge my phone in town, it has a 21W rate. So charging two devices at once, I may need 36 to 39 watts coming out of my wall charger.
Also count the number of ports you need on your wall charger. Since I only plan to charge two devices at once, I typically look for a two-port, 40W charger. Some people might only have just one large power bank to charge and choose a one-port, 40W charger. On the flip side, they might prefer some extra wiggle room to charge their phone and two power banks simultaneously via a three-port, 40 – 60W charger.
Remember that each concurrent device requires additional power bandwidth and an extra cable. Expect to add 2 – 4 ounces of charging equipment for each concurrent device being plugged into the wall. Its a direct trade off between time in town and weight in pack. If you are regularly taking neros and zeros, you can charge devices one after another to reduce your required equipment.
Lastly, try to be considerate to your fellow hikers in busy trail towns and minimize the number of outlets you are taking up. While technically getting two single port, 20W chargers weighs less (1.1 oz each, 2.2 oz total) than the average two-port, 40W charger (at 2.7 oz), you are also taking up more outlets. At a busy hostel or restaurant, those can be at a serious premium.
With most devices now USB-C or USB-C compatible (by way of a USB-C to Apple Lightning Cable, or a micro adapter), I highly recommend all your wall charger ports being USB-C. It’s the way of the future.
I always evaluate how good a charger is by its watts per ounce. The current gold standard is the Anker 511 (Nano Pro 20W) at 20W for 1.1 oz. Most larger devices are going to deliver 20W for 1.3 to 1.6oz.
Unfortunately, its hard to determine if a company has put an accurate weight into a site like Amazon, or it may be in a uselessly imprecise format like kilograms. The best way to verify is to check hiking forums like Reddit Ultralight or Backpacking Light. Most units that list new “GaN” technology are likely to pack a bigger punch for their weight than those without.
Cables and Adapters
By this point you should know all your devices, power banks, and wall chargers. Now, its time to connect them all together. I try to keep my cable setup as efficient as possible. That means if I only need to charge two devices at once, I only want to have two cables. I don’t want cables that only connect to one specific device if I can avoid it.
Most of my devices are USB-C based, including my wall charger, so I tend to use cables that are USB-C on both ends. For legacy devices that still use micro USB (such as my old-style Nitecore NU25 that just won’t quit), I buy cheap microadapters. They are lighter than cables and prevent tangles of long, delicate cords.
For iPhone users still stuck on the lighting port, I highly recommend a USB-C to lightning cable instead of a USB-A to lightning. They can charge faster and keep you compatible with an all-USB-C system.
If you have other weird devices (like an odd magnetic watch charger, legacy flip phone, or specialty camera charger), see if you can find a USB-C version of its cable. If not, you might want to choose a wall charger with at least one USB-A or charge off your powerbank, which likely has it as well.
With the new European Union law mandating USB-C as the universal charging standard for most small devices, prioritizing that port format is future proofing.
When choosing cables, it pays dividends to buy a better cable. I pretty much stick with OEM or Anker, hoping to avoid incorrect wiring or mid trip short outs common in the cheap brands found on amazon.
Having a long cable is undoubtedly useful for letting you use a device while its plugged in, but they are also proportionally heavy. On the CDT, I used two one-foot cables to do all my charging. I was so frustrated trying to plan my next section or order replacement shoes while the phone was plugged in.
For my next hike, I am moving to one one-foot cable and one three-foot cable. Expect an all USB-C, one-foot cable to weigh about 0.4 oz and a three-footer to weigh 0.9 – 1.0 oz. If you want to really ball out with something longer, increase the weight proportionally.
Many cables list their max power rate now. Cables with USB-A are officially limited to 12W, although there are needlessly complicated exceptions to that. While sub-20W USB-C cables exist, you will save almost no weight. Do some future proofing and buy 100W max cables. Once you pass that threshold, weight will increase dramatically.
For hiking purposes, don’t worry about data speed (USB 2.0 vs 3.0 vs 3.2, etc). As long as the power moves, you shouldn’t have any urgent needs to move big files.
Anker 643 cable (3ft, 100W max, 0.9 oz)
Anker Powerline III (1ft, 60W max, 0.4 oz)
USB-C to Micro USB Adapter (0.1 oz)
USB-A to USB-C Adapter (0.1 oz)
Apple USB-C to Lightning Cable
Putting It All Together
Putting all these devices together, my electronics kit weighs in under two pounds. If needed, I have the flexibility to charge both my battery banks in a little over two hours, just enough time to eat a town meal, go to the grocery, and maybe have a quick shower before I’m on my way.
It’s also modular enough that I can easily ditch a power bank for some weight savings or add another bank/cable/wall charger for just 6.9 oz. For me, this is a great balance of weight and time in town, and I don’t imagine changing much until battery technology gets a lot better.
Hikers with more devices or more phone time on trail are going to pay the price in heavier equipment, but for some, that is a worthwhile tradeoff.
Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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