When I hiked 40 days on the Pacific Crest Trail only 9 short years ago, in 2005, I didn't carry a cell phone. I had a perfectly good cell phone at home, but didn't want to use it while hiking. When I went into a town to resupply, I called my family from a pay phone. That seems positively Neanderthal now.
In more recent years I've carried my phone on all long hikes. Primarily I have used it to call home before and after the hike. While in the backcountry, I have occasionally used a GPS app to pinpoint my location. Sometimes I listen to a book, or a little music. Last summer I soothed my nerves listening to Beethoven while huddled under a tarp in a raging midnight lightning storm.
But I have reached a tipping point. Phones and tablets are so powerful, so pervasive, that they will soon become standard for all sorts of tasks in the backcountry. Fear of relying on electronics in the wilderness will continue to fall away. It's time to say goodbye to maps, compass, books, notepads - even cameras. A modern phone can and will do it all. Most people still carry a lot of paper, and few rely solely on electronics. Those days are over.
I can hear some of my best friends screaming now.
Always carry a physical map and compass! Phones break!
They are not made for difficult environments!
That is mostly true. But that attitude will soon seem quaint. Perhaps when on a long solo trip standard maps and a compass might be a good idea. But for most trips, if I'm traveling with a partner, and we both have a phone with similar capabilities, that's all the backup I need. I'm ready to ditch the analog stuff.
Cameras and camera apps on phones are already more than good enough for most backpackers and hikers. You can add lenses or carry a super light tripod if you like. And they will only get better. Except for a small percentage of serious photographers, cameras will soon be done for backpacking, as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.
You need maps? All the topo maps you want for the United States are free to download on your phone. Great mapping apps are a dime a dozen. You want to record your voice, or interview a friend, or capture the sound of frogs croaking in a lake. No problem. But the kicker - what has made phones capable of supporting long trips is cheap, reliable solar power and battery storage. It's easy now to have infinite battery life by carrying a small solar panel on your pack. Throw in a weatherproof case and you've got a reliable system that serves multiple purposes, and will continue to get better at a breakneck pace.
We face the same challenge using these devices in the backcountry as we do each day at home. They should enhance and simplify. If they take over the experience, we're doing it wrong.
Regardless, the party is over for paper. You don't need a pen. Compass - nope. GPS device, forget it. Camera? Don't need it.
Last weekend we went to see the winter feeding grounds of the Sandhill Crane. The Cranes gather in huge numbers at Whitewater Draw, about two hours southeast of Tucson. For much of the winter there are 20000 to 30000 Cranes in residence. They spend the night in the shallow lakes and mud flats and leave each morning at sunrise to feed on the grasslands to the north. Every morning about 1030 AM they return. From 1030 to about 1230 they arrive in waves and congregate in huge groups. Occasionally a large group will take off en masse, with many thousands of birds taking to the air simultaneously. For anyone in Arizona in the winter, it's a trip worth taking. It's a natural display of grandeur that is rare to see in today's world. I have been on a sort of high for the past 24 hours, in a weird, neolithic sense.
I was taking photos of the birds but soon realized that video was going to work best for capturing some of the feel of the birds arriving after their morning feeding. I shot the all the video handheld, and was so flabbergasted by what I was seeing that I lost quite a few good shots and had to put the camera down. Still, it came out OK. It would have been difficult not to get some good footage.