UL Gear: Electronics

Hey! This time I want to talk about electronics you use while being on a trail. In this post I want to cover 3 items: headlamp, GPS and another luxury item – a book. Well, book is not really electronics but most of hikers use ebook readers while in-camp, so I’ll consider this as electronics.

Heavy
First, let’s start with a simple set of heavyweight items. First-time hiker will probably take the following:

  1. Paperback book
  2. GPS with color maps like Garmin GPSMAP 62
  3. Standard popular headlamp like Petzl Tikka XP2 running on 3 AAA’s.
  4. Spare batteries for the above electronics.

A Dance with Dragons bookGarmin GPSMAP 62Petzl Tikka XP2AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

So, let’s measure weight of this set. Small paperback book averages at 10 oz (~300 grams). Garmin GPSMAP 62 weigh 260 grams with batteries. Petzl Tikka Xp Headlamp weighs 88 grams with batteries. Now add to this extra batteries: 1 standard (Energizer) AA battery weigh 24 grams and you need a pair for GPS. Petzl Tikka takes 3 AAA’s, standard AAA weigh 11 grams, so it’s 33 grams for the all three. Now taking it all together will result in: 300 + 260 + 88 + 24*2 + 33 = 729 gram (1.6 lb)!

Lighter

A more lightweight version of the above set could be achieved by replacing a paperback book with light eBook reader like the Amazon Kindle. Simplest version weight is 170 gram. You may also switch that heavy GPS to a lighter model like Garmin eTrex 30/20/10.  Any of these models weigh 142 grams.

Amazon kindle Garmin eTrex 10 Petzl Tikka XP2AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
This will bring the total weight for all items to: 170 + 142 + 88 +24*2 + 33 = 481 gram (1 pound) which is an acceptable option. However, we are talking UL here right?

Optimize your technique

Some UL folks will exclude items like GPS and book from their gear list. However I find GPS quite helpful in heavily treed area or when there are no visible/easily recognizable terrain features available to align map. It could also help in fog. In these situations GPS can help and even save your life. Having said that, GPS in my opinion is really only for situations when you cannot navigate with anything else (sense of direction, compass, map&compass…). The issue with E-Ink eBook readers like kindle is that you need light to read it (there are no back-illumination in E-Ink screens) this will waste even more power and in prolonged (>week) hikes could result in additional set of spare batteries (33 grams). While I do own Petzl Tikka XP2 headlamp and I think it’s a good lamp,  headlamp with 3 AAA’s is a no go for hiking because you need to change all three batteries at once resulting in carrying more extra batteries and hence more weight. There are plenty of options available so I know we can do better in this regard. Another aspect to consider is having all your electronics run on same battery type. This will give you following benefits:

  1. you can reuse same battery in any of your electronic devices as needed,
  2. having unified energy source for all of your electronics allows you to consider batteries as regular consumables like food and fuel and simplifies planning, i.e. you can plan your consuming in batteries per days.

Lightest

An UL set version:

  1. (Samsung Yepp MT-Y6) AA-battery MP3 player loaded with audio books – 50 grams including headphones
  2. (Holux M-241) AA-battery GPS – 39 grams
  3. (Zebralight H52) AA-battery headlamp – 38 grams including headlamp and housing (yes, without headband – more on this later in this post)
  4. Batteries: 2xAA (Energizer Ultimate Lithium) 14 grams each.

Samsung Yepp MT-6 Holux M-241 Holux M-241 Energizer Ultimate Lithium AA Energizer Ultimate Lithium AA

First let’s check the weight of this set: 50 + 39 + 38 + 2×14 = 155 grams (5.5 oz). For all of your electronics! Now let me explain how this could actually work for you.

MP3 player.
While trying several options I found that used Samsung Yepp MT-6 with 1GB is best suited to my needs. You can easily grab one used on eBay for $20-$30.  Since this model is quite old (released in 2005) it doesn’t have too much room, 3 models available: 256MB, 512MB and 1GB, however for audio books you don’t need too much. I have the 512MB and the 1GB versions and mostly use 512MB. Among other features it has radio and recorder which could be also usable. It doesn’t require light to “read” books and if you put the headphones into your cooking pot you get some cool loud effect so that more than one hiker can listen to the book.

GPS reciever.
Holux M-241 is not designed to be used as GPS for navigation. Actually it’s a GPS logger. However it has an LCD screen which gives you Lat/Long coordinates and altitude. This tiny logger is very sensitive. So what you going to do with coordinates on LCD screen without a MAP??? Hmm… But you already have a map! Your paper map is all you need. The only thing that could be missing here is Lat/Long grid on your paper map. For almost all my hiking trips I print maps from GoogleEarth where Lat/Long grid presents (if you click CTRL+L). You can also draw Lat/Long grid on your map. Takes no more than 15 minutes. So really you don’t need a GPS with map displayed on its screen. What you really need from a GPS is just the coordinates. Think that you reuse your paper map and this is really conforms to UL nature.

Headlamp

Me wearing ZebraLight H52w on a Velcro closure of my running cap

Me wearing ZebraLight H52w on a Velcro closure of my running cap

Zebralight makes some really awesome lights. They are functional, have everything you need and waterproof. I use a H52w with neutral white led, 80 degree spill and 12 degree spot allowing me to see far ahead and some close area as well. As you probably noted I don’t use the headband that comes with this light, instead I use my running baseball cap’s Velcro closure to hold the light housing. I take my cap anyway, it’s very comfortable to wear (in my opinion it’s more comfortable than stretchy headbands) and it’s multiuse! When it is sunny I use it with brim turned towards and when I need the light I reverse the cap and insert the light into housing. The Zebralight housing is always there, it’s so light and comfortable you cannot even notice it’s there on your cap. You can even leave the light in the housing, so that when you switch from sunny/night modes you don’t need to stop! There is a drawback though. I tested this system with hooded rain jacket. Well, when you don’t need the light and want to use brim of your cap, it’s OK. The “night” mode is also fine, the brim just goes in parallel to your neck and doesn’t bothers you. But if you do some night hiking while raining this could be uncomfortable because you cannot use the brim and the light at the same time.

Batteries
Ouch, Have you noticed these astonishingly light Lithium batteries? Energizer Ultimate

Energizer Ultimate Lithium 4xPack AA

Energizer Ultimate Lithium 4xPack AA

Lithium AA weigh like regular AAA and gives you more power than regular AA (9 times more according to their ad). 2 batteries is enough for 7 day hike. The point is that you don’t really need your MP3 player while hiking and you don’t need GPS in camp. I would put one battery into Zebralight and the second battery may be used in GPS/MP3 player when needed. Or you can use one battery for all 3 devices and keep another for backup. Both GPS and MP3 have it’s own screen illumination, so to use them you don’t need light. I wouldn’t leave battery in GPS/MP3 because of possible energy leakage. Zebralight state that parasitic drain in their lights is negligible, so keeping one battery in the light is fine. You may want to take another lithium battery for a backup, 14 grams is not a big penalty, so if you think it better for you to be more safe in this regard, go for it.

A word about camera.
As an amateur photographer who takes photography seriously while hiking, I will no doubt take my camera with me. So why I don’t mention camera in electronics? Well, I consider all my photographic gear as a separate gear category. I’m really big on that so that in the past I was taking my heavy DSLR with 2-3 lenses, filters and a ton of other smaller items. Now (a year ago) I switched to a mirrorless Sony Nex 6 which saved me 2.5 kilo (~5.5lb)! I’ll write on this topic in a separated post. Unfortunately finding good camera (I’m not using Point-and-Shoot cameras as you can see) running on AA batteries now is almost impossible. I could think of putting a fake battery into my Nex and use 2-3 AAs externally, but this is cumbersome and could eventually fail while hiking. Also I was looking for battery grips for Nex cameras that accepts AA batteries. But there are none.

Can you go lighter than this?

MP3 Player, GPS and the headlamp in my hand

MP3 Player, GPS and the headlamp in my hand

Well, yes you can. Simply by substituting each of the items with lightest options available:

  • Sansa clip+ or Ipod shuffle MP3 players will save you ~20 grams (weight of AA battery), but will run only 6-7 hours and you cannot replace the battery
  • GPS watch will save ~10 grams, but will be too expensive for me
  • A photonlight with clip will save ~20 grams. Not appropriate for night hiking, however usable for in-camp activities.

So the bottom line is that your SUL set will weigh ~100 grams, but is less versatile and not as functional. If you go SUL, then simply ditch GPS, MP3 player and stick with photonlight only at 14 grams including the clip 🙂

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2 Responses to UL Gear: Electronics

  1. Very nice write-up!

    Two comments – about books and cameras.

    1) I wouldn’t _quite_ equate a book/eReader with an audiobook. These are still somewhat different experiences, and for many people audiobooks will not serve as a good enough replacement for reading. So saying that your MP3 player addresses this need is a bit cheating. 🙂
    BTW, some new eReaders do have an optional backlighting function, akin to those of digital watches.

    2) About cameras – while I understand your passion for real photography and why point-and-shoot are no good for you, but I a simple point-and-shoot might still be a nice thing to have – to complement you existing gear for the “less serious” things, or for someone else in your family to use, and you can easily find reasonably good point-and-shoot cameras running of AA batteries (like some of the Canon Powershot A series).

    • thehikingdad says:

      Well, thanks 🙂

      You are right, audio books are not really the same as eBooks. However for me audio book is a straight substitute for the latter. Maybe for someone it’s a no go. I’m just giving a tip that worked for me.
      Some eBooks do have backlighting, and hence they will burn even more energy. For those trails that pass through villages it may be possible to charge those (BTW, you need to bring charger for them – another extra item and extra weight). However when you’re heading into the wild, you know there are no power sources, so…

      Generally, I can separate hiking into two distinct activities: walking and camping. There are folks who are more camping-oriented, i.e. they spend more time in-camp, bring gear to make camping more comfortable, etc. There are also folks who are in a different “camp”: walkers. These dudes bring less camping gear to save weight as being more efficient (read go faster, farther) while walking is more important for them. To achieve this level of efficiency, in many cases they HAVE TO sacrifice some comfort. For example, they would prefer to take an alcohol stove for cooking instead of canister stove and wait 6 minutes more to boil their cup of water. They will take tarp instead of tent and will adjust it at night for eliminating wind gusts and rain getting under it. All of these require some skills and experience hardly gained through trial-and-failure.

      Now, speaking more specifically, I switched a more convenient way to spend an hour-two in-camp with eBook reader and headlamp to a more lightweight option – audio book. This is still an acceptable option for me and it saves weight too. So in an UltraLight nature this is good solution.

      Many ultralight backpackers use smallish cameras which weigh no more than a 200 gram butter pack you buy at Shufersal for 7.80 NIS. For me getting to the outdoors with that tiny camera is just not a big fun. Photography is huge part of my hiking experience and I absolutely love to play with camera controls and get maybe better shots. It’s just me and my hobby. There is nothing rational about that from general point of view.

      My $0.02

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