Over the past 10 or so years, backpacking gear has evolved. A lot. Formerly fringe or new-to-market technologies have since proliferated and gone mainstream. Even the National Park service is offering online reservations. Hallelujah! In case you haven’t been keeping up with all of the advancements in gear, what follows is a quick overview of my picks for the three most important backpacking tech updates worth getting caught up on.
#3 -Dyneema - This ultra durable, ultralight weight, waterproof fabric is now commonly used in tents, tarps, shelters, backpacks, and dry bags. It is unequivocally and indisputably the overall best performance option available for any non-apparel, textile-based outdoor gear. Compared to the usual suspects like silicone-impregnated nylon (SilNy) and polyester (SilPoly), Dyneema tents, tarps, and shelters are lighter, do not absorb any water, do not stretch or sag ever, and maintain tension and waterproofness better and for longer. Dyneema backpacks offer waterproof protection without the need for a pack cover or liner, and are lighter weight than the competition. Dyneema dry bags are strong, waterproof, and often weigh less than an ounce.
While Dyneema was available to hikers in the aughts under the name Cuben Fiber, it wasn’t until recently that it found mainstream adoption. You can now even find Dyneema gear sold at REI! The only downside to this near-revolutionary fabric is the price tag. Dyneema is expensive to manufacture, complicated to design with, and highly sought after, so get ready for sticker shock. But if your budget allows for it, upgrading to Dyneema is a great investment. You can find many of Hammock Gear’s most technologically advanced products made in Dyneema, such as tarps, hammock shelters, and dry bags.
#2 - Satellite Communicators - These small, battery operated devices allow hikers to communicate with civilization, while completely off of the cellular/data grid, no service necessary. Compared to old school SatPhones of the past, modern satcoms are smarter, smaller, sleeker, lighter, and more user friendly. Depending on the type of device and plan you decide on, your satcom may allow you to do some or all of the following: trigger a search and rescue operation to your exact location, text message anyone in the world, send pre-written updates to a list of contacts, bluetooth to your smartphone to borrow the big screen for its user interface, or even message another backcountry traveler on their satcom device.
The implications for backcountry safety are somewhat mind boggling. Think about it! A majority of outdoor disaster stories in the media, both fictional or real events, could have been mitigated had our intrepid adventurer been carrying a satcom device. If everyone carried satcoms, we virtually wouldn’t have to worry about death from starvation or dehydration, getting separated from our group, getting dangerously lost, or becoming stranded due to injury. I highly recommend traveling with a satellite communicator device, it’s the single best way to convert money into backcountry safety.
#1 - Smartphone GPS Apps - Ten years ago, GPS devices were expensive, bulky, and felt technologically equivalent to a Game Boy™. Today, GPS technology takes up no additional weight or volume to carry, because it’s run through our smartphones, which we bring everywhere anyway. GPS apps, such as Gaia, are very affordable, highly functional, and extremely user friendly. As such, I believe they’re the biggest tech update to backpacking gear over the last decade. To use a GPS app, all that’s required is a small up front app purchase or annual plan, and that users remember to download the map of where they’re going in advance of the trip. Once that’s done, you can navigate backcountry trails, without any connection to cell/data service.
Navigation is easy, and the user interface is reminiscent of Google Maps. An arrow pointer shows the direction you face, and pinpoints you on a high resolution topographic map showing trails and terrain, while following your exact placement as you move about the backcountry. GPS signal is excellent almost all of the time, and rarely ever does it fail to find your exact location. This tech is totally reliable, and so user friendly that it has usurped paper maps as my primary form of navigation. While I still bring paper maps for redundancy, I put less and less stock in old school navigation systems every single year. Phone batteries can die, screens can break, so a backup is still important. But the need for redundancy is not a new downside; paper maps can fail too. I’ve seen them blow away in wind gusts, get left at camp sites, or become soggy or ruined by rain. To sum it all up - GPS apps are amazing, make backcountry navigation simple and attainable, and all hikers should be using them. You won’t look back, I promise.
While some argue that technology has no place in the wilderness, I welcome it. Change is one of the only constants, and those who can adapt and keep up will benefit. Every year, the gear we take into the hills is lighter, stronger, better, and makes us safer. Dyneema, satcom devices, and smartphone GPS embody those traits and deliver serious improvements to the backcountry experience. How will the next ten years improve our gear? Hard to say, but I welcome the change with open arms and a willingness to experiment. Happy trails!