Thursday, June 13, 2013

Electronics for the Backcountry

 Lightweight Kit of Backcountry Electronics

“Never trust anything that uses a battery,” is an old backcountry mantra. Today, however, electronics are lighter, more useful and more reliable. While electronics will never replace good judgment, experience and skill, their utility can’t be ignored.

Global Positioning Systems, headlamps, and both cellular and satellite phones can increase the safety and success of wilderness adventures. Coupled with advances in portable solar panels, rechargeable batteries, and the 5 Volt USB as a nearly universal power port, backcountry electronics have entered a new age. 

There’s a lot of expensive gizmos out there, however, and navigating through them can be overwhelming and costly. Below I discuss what I’m currently using or considering getting. These choices are based on my own experiences, frustrations, successes and failures in developing a functional and lightweight kit of electronics for the backcountry.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS)

As discussed in GPS for Wilderness Navigation, Global Positioning Systems are useful aids when orienteering. GPS’s are, however, battery hogs. Typically I get 20 hours out of a handheld unit and 10 hours out of a GPS wristwatch.  Recently I’ve been experimenting with the 2.5-ounce Garmin Forerunner 910XT  ($450) wristwatch GPS and eying the 3-ounce Garmin Fenix ($400). Previously, limited battery life and inability to recharge wristwatch GPS units in the field had been a deal breaker. But with a Brunton Solaris 4 and/or Brunton Resync Power Pack I can now recharge them in the backcountry, extending their battery life indefinitely.

The interface of a wristwatch GPS with my Apple Macbook Pro and digital mapping programs continues to be problematic and manually entering waypoints tedious. Hopefully, in the future these units will become more useful for navigation by being compatible with Macs and programs like NationalGeographic Topo! Personally I’m more interested in my location than my heart rate.

In the meantime I often use my dependable 3-ounce GarminForetrex 301 (Mac compatible) that’s powered by three AAA batteries. Rechargeable AAA’s can be revived in the backcountry with the Resync or Solaris through the USB compatible Brunton Glacier 320 Headlamp that’s also powered by rechargeable AAAs. Carrying an additional bulky AAA battery charger is unnecessary I just recharge my headlamp then swap the batteries out with my Foretrex GPS. The Foretrex is lightweight (3-ounces) and relatively affordable ($150).


The bright and powerful Brunton Glacier 320 Headlamp is powered by 3 rechargeable AAAs that can be revived with either a Resync Power Pack or solar panel. The Resync has the needed USB adaptor for the Brunton Headlamp hidden in a back compartment. At $180 the Glacier 320 Headlamp is not inexpensive (4-ounces) compared to my $30 Petzl Zipka Headlamp (3-ounces). Yet the rechargeable Glacier can be utilized (as previously discussed) to recharge AAA batteries for other devices. Additionally, the Glacier with 150 Lumens is amazingly bright compared to my Zipka, which produces only 17 Lumens.


Any iPhone owner can testify to what amazing devices they are. Within a cell network they can be a life-saving communications tool. Even when outside of a cell network, the 4.5-ounce iPhone is capable of a multitude of handy applications including photography, navigation, or simply remembering what day of the week it is. Needless to say, iPhones can be charged from a USB power port. Prices start at $200.

photo by

Since the iPhone 3G, Apple has included a real GPS satellite receiver that does not rely on triangulating only from cell towers. When outside of cell networks power can be conserved by going to settings and activating “Airplane Mode” that will stop the phone from uselessly searching for cells. Even better, turn it off and enjoy being in the wilderness and “unplugged” until it’s needed.

I don’t have my own Iridium Satellite Phone, but often wish I did. Fortunately several of my friends and employers do.  I’m hooked. When in the hinterlands I’ve found Iridium a highly reliable two-way global commutations tool.

The 9-ounce Iridium Extreme is dust, shock, and water-resistant.  The Iridium Extreme can be recharged in the field through a USB connection to either a solar panel or a Resync Power Pack. Hopefully in the future the current $1,500 purchase prices will come down. Service rates vary but typically service cost around $1 a minute.

For those who absolutely need to be online, check out the Iridium Access Point, that combined with an Iridium Satellite Phone creates a hotspot for an iPhone or other Wi-Fi compatible device. But be warned, the Access Point transfers data at only 2.4 kbps, meaning data transfer is slow and therefore expensive. The Iridium Access Point weights 6 ounces and costs $150.

SPOT recently introduced a 7-ounce satellite phone with global coverage that costs only $500. Equally appealing are SPOT’s reasonable monthly service rates that are as low as 25¢ a minute. The Global Phone can be charged in the field with a Brunton Solaris 12 that has 12V cigarette power port. Unfortunately, the spot SPOT Global Phone cannot be recharged with a USB cable. I have yet to use this phone and am interested in hearing from anyone who has experience with it.

I have not carried a SPOT or similar device but they are popular and worth consideration. The limiting factor for me is the lack of two-way communication. In the event of an emergency or rescue I believe two-way communication critical. I would rather invest (both weight and dollars) in a satellite phone. The SPOT Messenger, however, is lightweight (4-ounces) and affordable ($120). The SPOT Messenger can send (but not receive) text messages, GPS coordinates, and/or an SOS. The Messenger relies on three AAA batteries that cannot be recharged directly with a power pack or solar panel.

In recent years there’ve been many false alarms and abuses by irresponsible individuals with one-way satellite transmitters. The resulting Search and Rescues operations are expensive and often put others at risk.  In a wilderness setting self-rescue, when possible, is always preferable. Please use these devices wisely.

Water Purification

I have tried many water treatment methods including: purifiers, pills, and iodine. They all seem to have limitations. Pills either require a long waiting period, or like iodine, taste funny. Filters are heavy, labor intensive, and often clog.

Recently on an expedition Mongolia I used a SteriPEN that harnesses ultraviolet (UV) light to purify water. I chose the SteriPEN Freedom, among other models, for its compactness, lightweight (less than 3-ounces) and ability to be recharged with a USB cable and the Brunton Resync. The standard USB adaptor that comes with the Resync is all that is needed. The SteriPEN Freedom cost around $120.

Treating a half  littler of water with the Freedom SteriPEN takes less than a minute and there’s no funky flavor. The only concern is its effectiveness for treating cold and icy water an issue for any water treatment method. Additionally, when traveling, the SteriPEN is invaluable for treating questionable water in towns and cities.


For the last several years I've captured all my images (both stills and video) with a Nikon Coolpix AW 100. Not only does the camera shoot 1080 HD video and high-resolution 16-megapixel photos, the AW100 is water, dust, shock, and freeze proof.  It also contains a built in GPS for geo-referencing images and a 5X optical zoom lens. The Coolpix AW 100 weighs 6.5 ounces and costs $300.

Unfortunately, the AW100’s battery cannot be charged directly with a USB cable the battery needs to be removed and placed in a separate charger. Fortunately, the $25 after-market Gomadic Portable External Battery Charger for the AW 100 that weighs only 4 ounces includes a USB power cable.

Regardless of recharging capabilities, I always carry several fully charged spare camera batteries as well as a spare 32GB SD Card.


When waiting out bad weather nothing is better then a good book with my 6-ounce Kindle I have 680 of them. The Kindle is easy to read and can be easily recharged with the Resync. Like my Freedom SteriPEN, the stock USB adaptor that comes with the Brunton Resync Power Pack makes it easy to recharge. One charge can provide a month’s worth of reading.

The new iPad Mini weighs only 11 ounces and is handy for surfing the net and catching up on email. My wife and I carried an iPad when skiing the Haute Route where Wi-Fi is available at many of the huts. All iPads come stock with USB power cables.


On shorter adventures lasting one or two days, I typically charge all my devices before I leave civilization. On longer expeditions and backcountry excursions, it becomes impractical to carry enough extra batteries to power all my electronics.

Power Pack

On backcountry trips lasting 3 to 7 days I bring a Brunton Resync Power Pack. Encased in a rugged water resistant shell the power pack carries enough juice to recharge all my USB compatible devices. The 10-ounce power pack costs $168 and can be charged with either a 5 volt USB (using a solar panel or a standard wall outlet and a USB adaptor) or 12 volt DC (using a solar panel or vehicle power port with a USB adaptor).

Solar Panels

On expeditions or extended backcountry excursions lasting a week or more I pack a Brunton Solar Panel.  The 6-ounce SOLARIS 4 is compact, comes with a USB power port, and costs $260. During the day I use the solar panel to charge a power pack. I often strap the solar panel on the outside of my backpack and run the wire to my Reysnc Power Pack that’s stored safely inside the pack.

On expeditions involving more electronics and greater power needs I use the 11-ounce Brunton Solaris 12 ($432) or the even larger 28-ounce Solaris 26 ($655). Both come with a 12 V Cigarette Power Port that can power devices like the SPOT Global Phone. For USB compatible devices a USB adaptor is required.


When charging devices from a vehicle or a 12 V solar panel (such as the Solaris 12 or 26) an adaptor that converts 12 V Cigarette power ports to 5 V USB is needed. Some of these adaptors cost as little as a $1.90.

For recharging USB compatible devices from a standard 120 V wall outlet a simple wall adaptor is required. Some are as inexpensive as $6.99.

When traveling internationally a variety of wall outlets can be encountered and quiver of adaptors is required for recharging USB compatible devices. One simple solution is the $30 Travel Smart All-in-One Adaptor that has a USB port.

Amy and Fryxell, Buckskin Gulch 

Weekend Warrior

This 1.3-pound kit is typical of what I use when on backcountry adventures lasting less than 3 days such as hiking Buckskin Gulch or packrafting the Jarbidge-Bruneau.

Garmin Forerunner 910XT GPS            2.5 
Petzl Zipka Headlamp                            3    
Apple iPhone                                          4.5 
SteriPEN Freedom                                 
Nikon Coolpix AW 100                           6.5
Spare camera batteries (2)                    1.5  
Total ounces                                         21.0

Extended Backcountry

This 2.5-pound kit is suited for slightly longer trips including packrafting in the Bob Marshall Wilderness or skiing across Absaroka Mountain Range.

GarminForetrex 301 GPS                   3
Brunton Glacier 320 Headlamp            4
Apple iPhone                                         4.5
SteriPENFreedom                               3
Nikon Coolpix AW 100                         6.5
Spare camera batteries (2)                  1.5
Gomadic Battery Charger                    4
Kindle                                                    6
Brunton Resync Power Pack              10   
Total ounces                                         39.5


For extended adventures into remote places like Antarctica or Mongolia I typically carry the following 3.3-pound kit.

Garmin Forerunner 910X                    3
Brunton Glacier 320 Headlamp             4
Iridium Extreme Satellite Phone            9
SteriPEN Freedom                                3
Nikon Coolpix AW 100                          6.5
Spare camera batteries (2)                   1.5
Gomadic Battery Charger                     4
Kindle                                                     6
Brunton Resync Power Pack              10
Brunton SOLARIS 4                              6    
Total ounces                                        53.0


  1. Superb wrap-up, Forrest!

    It's great news that the new Iriduium 9575 can be charged via USB. Makes things a lot easier! Also the Brunton headlamp with battery chanrging option is very interesting.

    I'm little skeptic with the SPOT Messenger (which by the way usses 3 x AAA, not 2 x AA) and their new sat phone. They're cheap but the price is the Globalstar network that doesn't offer coverage as good as Iridium (expecially on high latitudes). That said, Yellowbrick satellite messenger ( is worth checking: cheaper than satphone but still on Iridium network, built-in battery with USB charging and best of all: it offers two-way communication (over text). It also shows your current coordinates on the display. Works very well in my experience. More expensive than SPOT but you get what you pay for.

    1. Thanks for information on the SPOT. I corrected the battery information. I will check out the Yellowbrick.

    2. No problem. Guess the AAA batteries would make sense in your system: same batteries in headlamp and GPS as well. I'm trying to go all AA so little problematic for me.

      PS. Some rugged Olympus cameras charge directly from USB but I haven't been too happy with the quality of the photos.

    3. AAA batteries can be converted to AA with a simple and inexpensive adaptor -

  2. Check out the Delorme inReach. 2 way satellite texting through Iridium sats. It worked well for us in Patagonia.

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