Have you ever wondered how useful your smart phone could be outside of your usual urban environment? Smart phones are like SUVs – even though a lot of people have them, most users don't try them off road to see what they're really capable of.
With increasingly good tower coverage and more and more phones offering full wireless capabilities, it's pretty amazing what you can do with nothing but your smart phone in the middle of the woods.
Good Electrons' good friends Eric Cinowalt and Jennifer Smart hiked the Pacific Crest Trail last season for a full five months with a Blackberry Curve 8310. With their Blackberry, Jen and Eric were able to keep their friends and loved ones updated on their travels via phone calls, emails, and regular journal updates to Postholer.com, a hiking journal site that is dedicated to sharing information between “all folks who are awed and inspired by the natural world.”
Jen and Eric did some comparison shopping before settling on the 8130, which they bought specifically for the PCT. They wanted a device with a QWERTY keyboard, since documenting their journey was one of the main focuses of the trip. The iPhone, with it's easily mucked up touch screen, wasn't the ideal interface for trail-dirty hands. The Blackerry came with everything they needed, except for a choice web browser that would work well with Postholer.com. A quick download of Opera Mini, a free browser available from Opera.com, and they were ready to go.
How did you keep your Blackberry charged while you were on the trail? Did you ever have it die on you? Before leaving on the trip we tried several trickle charge devices but none worked with our phone. At that point we ordered a few extra cell batteries. We carried one extra with us and would charge them when we went into trail towns. Generally, we would leave the phone off during the day and only turn it on to take a photo or type a journal. Usually, one battery would have no problem lasting the week in between resupply points but occasionally we would use both. It also charges with and connects to computers via a mini USB which is very common/versatile.
Other than updating your journal, how often did you use it? It was great to have the capability to make calls. This was key because we had to call Jen's parents with details about upcoming resuppy packages. They were sending our food resupplies via USPS to each trail town. It was great having the phone in trail towns because sometimes other hikers had to search out public computers. We were lucky to have Internet access at our fingertips where we could send emails and update our journal. Text messaging was great especially for communicating with other PCT hikers. It was a good way to communicate about events on the trail or things to watch out for.
What was the longest amount of time you were out of range? So far, the most remote area we walked through was the Sierra Nevada Mountains where you hike 250 miles without crossing a single road. Probably the longest we went without cell service was one week.
Would you/did you feel safe relying on it in an emergency? We felt safe relying on it in an emergency. We really had great service with AT&T throughout the entire trail. The best two service providers for the Pacific Crest Trail area are AT&T and Verizon.
How did you keep yourBlackberry protected from the elements while you were hiking? We bought a Body Glove hard case to protect the phone from wear and tear. The case just snaps on and has a plastic piece that covers the screen. The phone still looks virtually brand new. Hiking long distances means that you try to go as light as possible. The extra weight of the case was well worth the protection it provided. To protect the phone from water, we used the ultimate ultralight tool, a Ziploc bag. In total, the phone and the charger weighed in at 8 ounces.
How did you become involved with Postholer? was it difficult to keep updated? We found Postholer when we started doing research for the Pacific Crest Trail. It provides a great forum in which hikers can interface about upcoming trips, gear questions and current trail conditions. It is a free journal site whose focus is journaling hiking trips. We signed up,tried posting a few journals and liked its simplicity and lack of advertising. At times, we had to push ourselves to keep the journal going but it was well worth it. We would go directly to the site, copy a previously written journal from our phone and post it. Uploading photos could take a long time depending on the strength of the cell signal. But the text of the journals had no problem posting quickly. Overall, it was easy to post and navigate the Postholer site.
Were you happy with your device? We are happy with our BlackBerry. Our original plan was to sell it after finishing the trail but we still continue to use it.
Due to circumstances beyond their control, Jen and Eric didn't get to finish the PCT in 2009. The plan to attack the last 250 miles this year, with their same Blackberry 8130 at their side. Even though they know that mobile service might be quite limited in the northern Washington area, they plan to document the final portion of their trip on their Postholer journal, which you can read here.