*For recommended smartphone apps, visit our app page.
**Photography is a big subject so we devoted an entire page to choosing a camera for a thru-hike.
Assuming you have an Android or iPhone, the best smartphone to take on your thru-hike is the one you already own — unless you have a Galaxy Note 7 — yikes! No phone will work better or worse on the PCT, and their weight differences are minuscule, so take the one you already have.
One caveat is that if you are still using an older phone, like the iPhone 3, that doesn't run the latest operating system, you won't be able to use many of the apps we discuss on the app page.
The other caveat is that manufacturers are making more waterproof phones, saving you the added weight of a waterproof case or the hassle of keeping it in a Ziploc. If you need or want to upgrade your phone before your hike begins, invest in a waterproof model. Of course a waterproof case is a lot cheaper than a new phone, and some recommendations are at the bottom of this page.
Why Bring a Smartphone?
Our editor Mike began his first thru-hiked of the AT in March 2007, three months before the release of the very first iPhone. Needless to say he didn't carry a smartphone and even regular cell phones were a rare sight on the Trail back then. Even now, a cell phone is not essential to a successful and enjoyable thru-hike, so why bother?
First, social expectations have changed since 2007. Mike's family and friends knew he was on the Trail and accepted he would be incommunicado for a while. Today, family and friends expect to be able to reach you, even during your hike. Second, since you will already be carrying a phone to appease folks back home, why not use one of the excellent navigation apps out there that eliminate the need for maps and the databook.
Cell Phones Do Not Equal Safety
To reiterate what is on the emergencies page: carrying a cell phone is no guarantee of safety. People like to bring phones into the wilderness because it makes them feel safe. But having a phone creates a false sense of security and leads to risk taking. Paradoxically, cell phones make people less safe. By believing cell phones are a safety net, people take dangerous leaps.
Most days on a PCT thru-hike you cannot get a cell signal. And the places where you would likely encounter trouble and need to call someone — the most isolated and remote places — are also the places with no cell reception.
We are big readers here at thruhikethepct.com, so much so that we created a list of books to read during a PCT thru-hike that will enrich your experience of Trail's landscapes and people.
A single paperback book averages a half-pound or more. The Kindle phone app is a good option to eliminate a book's weight, but as we discuss on our PCT book recommendation page, regular reading will drain the battery and either leave you without navigation and communication or force you to carry an external USB battery (see below). Many people also do not like reading on the small back-lit screens of phones for very long. For heavy readers like ourselves, these are real problems.
The greatest benefit of using an ereader over the Kindle phone app is battery savings. Regardless of brand or model, a reader with e-ink (as opposed to tablets like the iPad) lasts months without needing recharging, even with regular use. Read long into the night, every night, without carrying an extra battery. Indulge your reading habit without risking your navigation and communication.
Regardless of brand or model, ereaders tend to weigh about the same. The Kindle Oasis is currently the lightest at 4.6 ounces, while the heaviest, Kindle Paperwhite, weighs in at 7.2 ounces, a differences of just 2.6 ounces. (The difference in price however, is enormous.)
No ereader is waterproof or dust proof and their relatively equal weights and battery lives means there are no features that make one model better suited to a thru-hike than another. For these reasons we do not recommend one ereader over another. While Amazon dominates the ereader market with its various Kindles, other options are out there like Kobo and Nook.
Sat phones and tracking devices are not common on the country's most developed National Scenic Trails: the PCT, AT, and Florida Trail. Our opinion is that they are only really necessary in truly remote environments like Alaska, not a heavily trafficked trails like the PCT. (Some National Scenic Trails are more like lines on a map than actual trails, and these devices might be needed on them too.) Whether you choose to carry such a device is up to you and your family, and so we thought it best to include an overview of the best units for backpacking. Adventure Alan has a much more detailed and technical article on his website for those looking for additional information.
SPOT Satellite Messenger
This stripped-down, simplified satellite device has just 3 functions:
That's all it does. It's waterproof, durable, weighs 4.8 ounces, and uses AA batteries that need changing very infrequently. It is also the least expensive of such devices on the market, though the service requires an annual subscription. It is basically a nervous parent pacification device. Press the "OK" button when you get to camp every night and let them know you are still alive even when you don't have a cell signal. There is no way to know whether your signal went through, however, which is the SPOT's biggest weakness.
In an actual emergency, it isn't as functional as the DeLorme inReach (described below), but for most people and most travel in the US, it is sufficient. It is also significantly cheaper than the inReach.
DeLorme inReach SE
The inReach SE is much more complex compared to the minimalist SPOT, though it is not a true sat phone because you cannot make calls. You can send and receive text messages and like the SPOT you can track your hike or trigger an SOS in an emergency. Unlike the SPOT, you receive confirmation messages or your SOS were received. During an actual emergency you can have a two-way conversation with the search and rescue dispatch center until help arrives.
The extra features, more powerful transmitter, and LCD screen means the inReach consumes a lot of power. You will need to carry a USB battery backup. A month-to-month subscription service is also required.
External USB Power Supplies
To recharge your devices between town visits, use a high-capacity USB battery, like the 5.4 ounce EasyAcc 6000mAh or 4.8 ounce Anker Astro 6700mAh. A quality model with a mAh over 5000 can charge a smartphone, ereader, or GPS device at least two times.
There are lots of USB batteries out there and the market changes constantly so we don't recommend specific models (though the two mentioned above are very good). The key feature to look for, besides weight, is a battery's mAh, which stands for milliamp hour, a unit of measure for electric power over time. The larger the mAh number, the greater the battery's capacity and the longer its life.
Basically, you want the lightest battery with the biggest mAh number you can find. Detail oriented techies might try find out how many mAh it takes to charge each one of their devices, add those numbers together, and multiply the total by two to find their target USB battery capacity. But don't get hung up on that number and convince yourself to carry a heavy battery. At the moment units over 10,000 mAh tend to weigh a half-pound or more, and realistically you won't need to fully charge every device between town stops. 6000 mAh is sufficient for most people.
Don't bother — they are heavier, more fuss, and more expensive than a USB battery. Unless you will be beyond the reach of civilization for weeks or months at a time, like a scientist doing field work in the Amazon or a sailor crossing the Atlantic, a solar panel like this one is neither practical nor necessary. On a PCT thru-hike you will be going into town once a week to pick up groceries, where there will be ample opportunities to charge devices. And if you follow our smartphone battery conservation advice (at the bottom of this page and on the maps and navigation page) your phone will last 5-10 days between charges.
Rain isn't an issue for PCT hikers like it is on the Appalachian Trail. Nevertheless, cell phones, ereaders, external batteries, cables, and other small electronic items need to be protected from dust, dirt, snow, sweat, and even the occasional rain shower.
The best option to protect your small miscellaneous items is a pint or quart Ziploc freezer bag. For an ereader, use a one-gallon freezer bag. Freezer bags are thicker and more durable than sandwich bags so they're less likely to puncture or tear when you are stuffing your backpack. They weigh an insignificant 5 grams or so and you probably have one in your kitchen already.
The Loksak company makes a number of products, the most relevant of which for thru-hikers carrying a cell phone is the aLOKSAK, a kind of super-duper Ziploc. You can still operate a touch screen through the thick 6-mil plastic and Loksak touts the double-zip opening as being hermetically sealed. We're skeptical about that last claim, but based on our experience it is absolutely waterproof and basically indestructible. They are of course more expensive than a Ziploc, but not unreasonably priced, and unlike hardbody cases like Lifeproof (see below) they fit any phone. Bigger versions are available to protect ereaders.
The company markets the aLOKSAK as a way to turn your cell phone into an underwater camera, but that is actually the bag's worst feature. The bag is not crystal clear and distorts the image significantly. If you take lots of pictures with your phone, you will want to take the phone out of the bag, which undermines its purpose. A hard case is a better choice for constant photo takers.
Waterproof Phone Cases
The primary reason to choose a hard case over a Ziploc or aLOKSAK is the improved image quality of photographs. The drawbacks are additional weight, added cost, and the fact that cases are tailored to specific phones. If and when you upgrade your phone the case becomes useless.
LifeProof's Fre cases are light-weight completely waterproof cases available for the Galaxy S5, S6, and S7, all iPhone models from the iPhone 5, and the Google Pixel phones.
Cell phones have four different radios — cellular, GPS, Bluetooth, and wifi. You will likely never use the Bluetooth or wifi features during your thru-hike and much of the time you will not receive a cellular signal either. However, if you leave your phone on all day, it will keep searching for a cell signal and kill the battery. Keeping the GPS radio on all the time will also shorten the battery life. You will typically go 7-10 days without an opportunity to recharge, so it's best to keep your phone off or in airplane mode to conserve battery life and only turn it on briefly when you need to determine your location.
Basic Tips for Battery Conservation
If your phone is powered on, but asleep — aka ready for use, but not actually in use — it still uses a lot of power and this background use will drain the battery in a few days even if you don’t take pictures, look at maps, etc. To prevent this do the following:
While hiking you can expect between 5 to 10 days of battery life if you take occasional photos, use the GPS function moderately, and follow the tips above. If you tend to take lots of pictures, have the habit of checking your location often, reference nature field guides, journal on your phone, or use the Kindle app at night, it would be wise to bring a spare battery or external battery.