It’s not exactly new technology, but the best new piece of electronic backpacking equipment I picked up last summer was an Amazon Kindle eReader. Despite the fact that it only serves one purpose, and can easily be replaced by my iPhone with the Kindle app, the Kindle fit into a very valuable niche for certain trips.
The reason I bought the Kindle was for the NOLS courses I was working on– each NOLS course often brings several books into the field for natural history, science, leadership, and history curriculum, and most of the NOLS curriculum is available in Kindle format. Rather than carrying a large, heavy stack of books into the backcountry for two weeks at a time, I packed a 5.9 oz Kindle, with a 0.7 oz home-made cushioned case (the newer version of the basic Kindle weighs about 1 ounce more than my older version, which I bought refurbished from Amazon for about $70).
On those NOLS courses, I left my iPhone at home and only brought the Kindle. Why? Mainly because I wanted no possible connection to the outside world during the courses, so the iPhone would have been an inappropriate accessory. But there are also some benefits to reading books on the Kindle over the Kindle App on the iPhone. First, the battery in the Kindle lasts seemingly forever– I read about an hour or two each day for 15 days, and still had three days worth of charge in the Kindle when I returned from the field. To get that kind of battery life from the iPhone, even in airplane mode, I would have had to carry spare batteries or a solar charger, which means more weight and stuff to manage. Also, the unlit screen in the Kindle is much easier on the eyes than reading a back-lit screen in the dark. Anyone who spends way too much time at a computer (like me!) knows that it can burn your eyes over time. Reading something more like a book feels like a vacation for your retinas.
For a long-term wilderness excursion like a NOLS course, the Kindle makes a lot of sense. But would I bring the Kindle on a personal backpacking trip? That depends on how much time I think I’ll spend at camp, how long I’ll be away from wall outlets, and how much time I have to relax. If I’m trying to go as light as possible and hike fast, I’ll leave the Kindle at home, since I probably won’t be reading very much in camp. If I’m going for a more relaxed hike and want to hang out in camp for a few hours each night, or if I might get holed up in camp during bad weather for a day or two, the Kindle is a very light and efficient way to access a lot of reading material without any worries about battery life or weight.
I’ve ended up using the Kindle at home more than on the trail by now, but I’ll admit that I’m beginning to enjoy having the small, convenient alternative to a full-sized book even at home where space isn’t as much of an issue. It certainly beats reading books on a lit screen, which is hard on the eyes. And I’ll definitely be bringing this thing on every NOLS course I teach from now on.