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Backpacking In The Age Of Smartphones

Marissa Ortega-Welch

Smartphones are making the wilderness easier to access, but no longer a place to escape and unplug.

Our stories are made to be heard. Please listen if you can.

When I meet Kevin Mann at a rustic hikers' resort and campground along the Pacific Crest Trail, he’s charging his phone. And his satellite device. And his power bank.

“We’ll unplug everything and we’ll be ready to go in like five minutes,” he tells me.

I’m tagging along today with Kevin and his hiking partner, Lori Getzlaff, as they walk north from Mammoth toward Yosemite. They spent the night at this popular rest stop for people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. There are showers, a restaurant, and maybe most crucially, a power outlet. “You just have a rat’s nest of wires, everybody charging their stuff,” Kevin says.

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
Kevin Mann unplugs his phone charger from the makeshift charging station outside the Reds Meadow Resort and Campground bathhouse. Kevin says, when the resort is busy, the power strip is a tangle of wires from hikers charging their devices.

Last year, Kevin hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail, from San Diego County to the Canadian border. This year, he’s hiking shorter sections. Kevin, 63, is from the Bay Area and grew up backpacking. He’s retired now from a career at IBM.

We leave the resort and hike to our first trail junction, but the signs don’t tell us which way is the Pacific Crest Trail. “I’m going to go ahead and open up our app and see if we can get a location,” Kevin says. He pulls out his phone, which has an app with maps of all two thousand plus miles of the trail. “Here you can see, that’s where we are and we need to go to the right.”

This is like Google Maps for hiking. On Kevin's phone screen, instead of a road, there’s a trail. There are dropped pins along the trail with different symbols to indicate water sources and places to camp.

“For example, I’ll pick this one here,” Kevin says. He clicks one of the waypoints and a window opens up with detailed descriptions of that spot. “In 4.2 miles, the middle fork of the San Joaquin River, there’s a campsite there. Where the trail meets a big river, there’s almost always a campsite.” 

Without these apps, you would hike to where the trail meets the river and hope there was a place to camp. If there wasn’t, you’d look for somewhere else to sleep. With these apps, you can figure out exactly how far away the next campsite is. You can even read comments about it from other hikers.

For this particular campsite, the latest comments are from two weeks ago. The comments read like a review: “Firepit, log seating, a river to fall asleep to. Ten out of ten.” Another hiker’s comments aren't so enthusiastic: “It’s a place to sleep.”

“These are just like you’d see on Yelp,” Kevin says.

This is backpacking in the age of smartphones.

Here’s the list of technology that people like Kevin are carrying: there’s the smartphone, with a built-in flashlight, compass, and camera. Some hikers bring a separate camera or GoPro. Since most of the trail is still outside of cell service range, many hikers carry a satellite device that allows them to send texts to their loved ones and signal for help in an emergency. To charge all these devices, hikers carry external batteries or solar chargers.

On the smartphone itself, hikers can download apps that have not just maps of the trail, but information about trail conditions, updated daily by other hikers, like how much snow there is on a mountain pass or if a bridge across a river is out and hikers will need to wade across it. “All that information is on the apps and it's not on maps,” Kevin says.

These apps are especially helpful for longer hikes like the Pacific Crest Trail where speed is important. Hikers have to clock fifteen or twenty miles a day if they want to complete the trail before winter and don't have time to look around for a campsite or the best place to cross a creek. 

I'm a backpacker myself and I've noticed how common smartphones have become on the trail in the past few years, especially along the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. When I pass a hiker going the other direction and we stop for the customary exchange of information -- if there any good campsites up ahead or if there's a stretch of the hike with no water to drink -- instead of pulling out a map to point to, people pull out their phones. I see people sitting on logs checking their phones or even walking with them in hand.

It's easy to understand why. Smartphones are now like digital Swiss Army knives with everything you need to survive in the wilderness in one tool that fits in your pocket. 

But there’s one key difference in my mind. A Swiss Army knife is a bunch of tools. If you lose it, you can improvise. Find a sharp rock or cut something with your teeth.

If you lose your phone, you don’t just lose your tool because the phone is telling you where you are, which way to go, or how to safely cross a creek. It’s doing the thinking for you. That's why we call them smartphones, right? 

Kevin doesn’t even carry a paper map with him. I asked him what would happen if his phone breaks. “My hiking partner also has a phone!” he laughs.

The app developers and land managers urge hikers to have a back-up plan in case their phones fail. Kevin grew up hiking with maps and says he still takes them on shorter trips. But for a younger generation, map reading might become a lost art. 

"It's pretty hard to resist" 

We make it to the campsite by the river that Kevin found on the app this morning. It’s a big flat area that could probably fit about six tents. Kevin pulls out his phone again.

Because hikers are using the same apps, they tend to all get funneled to the same campsites. The Pacific Crest Trail Association, a non-profit conservation and advocacy group, wants to know if the apps are steering hikers to inadequate campsites, sites that are too close to the trail or near a creek or sensitive habitat. Kevin is collecting data on campsites for the Association while he hikes. (And yes, he is using yet another app to collect this data.)

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
Hikers can download apps to their smartphones that have maps of the trail and information updated daily by hikers about where to camp, where to find water, and how to cross creeks safely.

He talks me through the data he collects: is the campsite visible from the trail? How close is it to water? Is there a suitable place far enough from water to dig a cat hole (hiker lingo for going to the bathroom)? 

The Pacific Crest Trail Association is collecting data on campsites up and down the trail, from California to Washington. They plan to share the data with the different land agencies that the trail passes through. If the land managers deem a site inadequate, the Association may ask the app developers to remove the site from the app.

This site today is far enough from the river and the trail and has adequate places to pitch tents without impacting the vegetation. It passes the test.

What’s interesting to me about Kevin is that he uses these hiking apps but he’s also helping to mitigate some of their negative impacts. 

By now I’m sure you’ve realized: I’m a little bit biased here. I relish the chance to disconnect from my phone while I’m in the wilderness. But as smartphones become more and more common on the trail, I’m starting to feel like I’m swimming against the tide. And I wonder if, as technology develops and cell service expands, hikers will be able to make phone calls from everywhere on the trail and backpacking will no longer mean disconnecting. I ask Kevin what he thinks about that.

“Yeah that’s not going to be great,” he concedes. But he says, “It’s pretty hard to resist” the ability to stay connected with loved ones while you’re hiking. It’s a comfort and also sometimes, a safety issue.

"Takes the 'search' out of Search and Rescue"

About sixty trail miles in the mountains to the north, the Mono County Search and Rescue team is staging for a rescue operation. A team of volunteers gathers at the trailhead. Search and Rescue Coordinator John Pelichowski debriefs them on the situation and the team heads out on the trail, taking first aid kits and a stretcher with them. Meanwhile, a CHP helicopter from Fresno lands in the meadow near the trailhead. The hope is that the helicopter will be able to fly up to the lake where the injured hiker is and evacuate him so that he doesn’t need to be carried out by the volunteers.

Last night, John got a phone call from a mother in Fresno. Her adult son was backpacking in the wilderness just over the northern border of Yosemite. He tripped and badly injured his ankle. “The interesting thing about it was the way it was reported,” John tells me. The son didn’t have a phone or satellite device with him, but he came across some other campers who did. Those campers used their satellite device to text a friend, who in turn texted the injured hiker’s mom. She, in turn, called John. 

Because so many people now hike with their smartphones and these satellite devices, people can get a hold of John and tell him exactly where the injured person is. “That kind of takes the 'search' out of 'search and rescue,'” John says. “For us, that's awesome.”

John can learn exactly what happened and how his team should respond. Do they need to bring a stretcher to carry this person out? Do they need to come immediately, even if it’s in the dark? Or they can wait until morning? Phones and satellite devices connect him directly with the hiker to get all this info. 

John says, when cell phones work in the backcountry, “They work phenomenally. But if you have somebody that over relies on their cell phone, then it can be very detrimental.”

That's because, John says, sometimes people allow their cell phones to lead them into dangerous situations, or at least situations that they perceive are too dangerous.

“We quite frequently get the ‘I'm tired’ phone call or ‘I didn't realize how far this was’ phone call,’” he says. John has to assess if the people are calling to request a rescue are actually in an emergency; if they're not, he tells them they'll need to walk out the same way they came in. “It’s a delicate phone call.”

“I think people have grown accustomed to being connected to one another. It's almost a security blanket,” he says. In our day-to-day lives, we’ve become accustomed to having everything we need just a smartphone touch away. “Then when you get out into the wilderness, and you look down at your phone and realize you do not have a cell connection, I think it causes a little bit of panic.”

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
The Mono County Search and Rescue Team talk with the CHP helicopter pilots from Fresno who evacuated an injured hiker from the Hoover Wilderness Area, north of Yosemite.

The helicopter pilots calls John on the radio. They were able to pick up the hiker. The pilots land the helicopter back in the meadow and the two paramedics on the team assess the hiker’s injuries. The hiker is shaken up but ultimately he’s going to be fine. John offers to call him an ambulance to the nearest hospital for further treatment.

“I’m glad those hikers came across you," John tells him. “I’m glad they were able to get some information out.” Finding someone with a satellite device who could directly call Search and Rescue possibly saved this hiker a day or two of being stuck in the backcountry with an injury. He got lucky.

“You can have all the cell phone battery in the world and a cell phone connection, John says, "And it could be in the middle of a nasty spring storm and you can call me but we might not be able to get there. Mother Nature is still in charge. It’s still wilderness.”

"That's just not how nature works" 

The whole idea of going into the wilderness is to disconnect and get away from our human-centric world. At least, that’s how it was spelled out in The Wilderness Act.

I spoke with Diana PietraSanta, public services staff officer for the Inyo National Forest, between Mt. Whitney and Yosemite. It’s actually part of Diana’s job to think about how technology is changing hikers' experience of wilderness. 

The Wilderness Act of 1964 gave Congress the ability to designate areas where “man and his influence does not remain.” This is land set aside and protected. No roads, no cars, no houses. The idea is that these are areas where natural processes can occur and humans can visit but aren’t permanent inhabitants. Hikers have this motto, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

But this Act was created more than fifty years ago, with cars and chainsaws in mind. A lot of new technology has developed since then, like mountain bikes, hang gliders, and drones. Land managers like Diana have had to decide whether or not to allow each of these things in the wilderness.

“We had this conversation 25 years ago, 30 years ago, in the Forest Service, when cell phones first came into existence,” Diana says, back when very few people had them and service range was limited. Land managers debated as to whether cell phones should be permitted in wilderness areas. “That discussion is long gone," she says. "Now it's how to manage it.”

Diana hiked on the Pacific Crest Trail just a few weeks before I speak with her, and she tells me that she saw many hikers walking with their heads down looking at their phones. She worries that the trail apps are “basically telling [hikers] what they should experience” and that the trips then become “a pretty scripted itinerary and a pretty scripted experience.”

It’s an experience that Diana thinks doesn’t really match up with the goals that the Wilderness Act promotes like naturalness and solitude.

On the other hand, getting to go backpacking in the wilderness or just be out in nature is a tremendous privilege. Diana says, there are ways that smartphone technology and the internet, in general, is helping more people get outdoors. She says hiking apps can give confidence to people to go on a hike that they wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable doing, which is a positive.

This question about whether or not to use smartphones to navigate the wilderness is connected to bigger questions about how we’re already letting smartphones change the way we navigate the whole world.

“I think that there is a propensity in modern society that you have every single piece of information,” Diana says. “People have an expectation that everything's just going to go perfectly if they have enough information and somebody else tells them what to do. That's just not how nature works. In reality, it's actually a pretty good experience to try to get up something and figure out: you can't do it,” she says. It’s actually an experience she thinks should not be missed.

With climate change, there’s no place that can escape the impact of human technology, not even wilderness. And now with smartphones, it seems like there’s no place where we can truly escape from our technological devices either.

I personally will still be out on the trail with my paper map. I’m holding out on using any hiking apps for now. I will admit, though, that I bought a satellite device so I can call Search and Rescue in an emergency. I’m a little bit more connected now and I wonder if it’s a slippery slope. 

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