2017 E5 walk: Phone

I don’t want to say my phone was my most important piece of equipment — what about my tent? my backpack? my shoes? — but it was critical.

Being an Apple user, and this being early 2017, my two main choices were an iPhone 7 or an iPhone SE. I thought the advantage of the SE was that it would be smaller and lighter than the 7, at the cost of shorter battery life and a worse camera. But then I started thinking about waterproofing it — the 7 was waterproof, but the SE wasn’t — and with a waterproof case, its bulk and weight would have ended up equaling or possibly exceeding the 7 … but with shorter battery life and a worse camera. So, iPhone 7 it was.1

I left my phone’s normal SIM (which identifies the phone to the cellular network) at home; the first thing I did when I reached Paris was to get a local prepaid one.

I also switched the phone’s interface to French, as a way of forcing me to learn at least a little bit. (I tried to use the French keyboard, too, but it went against decades of muscle memory, and I gave up on that pretty quickly.)

I charged the phone whenever I was in a location with an outlet — some campsites had them available (sometimes for a nominal fee), but sometimes I needed to wait several days between charges. I also carried a big battery which I used to keep the phone charged between those times; only once did I ever start thinking about whether it had enough charge to keep the phone alive. By the end of the trip, I was in the habit of keeping the phone in its low-power mode at all times; this way, I never had to think about the phone’s charge over the course of the day.

As I walked, I posted photos on a special-purpose Instagram account, @sben_walks, which were cross-posted to a corresponding @sben_walks Twitter account; I very occasionally posted directly to that Twitter account. Otherwise, I stayed off social media, and I unlinked my other accounts (I have quite a few) from the corresponding apps.

Beyond unlinking from social media, I also deleted a bunch of apps — my RSS reader, the New York Times app, podcast app, &c. I specifically wanted to disconnect from the news and the broader world; the walk wouldn’t have been right if I’d been just reading the same old news.

I did install one app specifically for the trip: “OutDoors GPS France — IGN Maps”, awkwardly named but providing access to high-quality IGN hiking maps.2 (The IGN is the rough equivalent of the USGS. I did not want to carry paper maps around with me.) I wouldn’t say the app was especially good — among other things, it had a habit of throwing away the maps and trying to reload them in the least-convenient times, like when I was in a narrow valley with no cellular signal.3 I eventually got in the habit of taking screenshots of my map at the beginning of the day, and deleting the screenshots at the end, as a kind of precautionary backup measure.

(The trails in real life didn’t always follow the exact routes shown on the maps, but this is just an occupational hazard when walking: Routes change on the ground for any number of reasons, temporarily or permanently, and it’s rarely a good idea to follow the map if it differs.)

I also found Google Maps useful for finding various kinds of businesses (boulangeries, supermarkets, pharmacies, &c.). I’m sure there were businesses missing at various points, but it rarely if ever identified a shop that no longer existed, nor did it ever give me bad directions to an address (unlike Apple Maps4).

Concerned about battery life, I did not keep a minute-by-minute GPS route of my walk, though I really wanted to. I did set up a script to get my location and the current time, and append them to a GPX file on my web site, which then updated a map. I ran this script whenever I left the trail at the end of the day, and whenever I changed trails (e.g. from the GR 34 to the GR 37). Zoomed out to the length of my walk, it gave a good sense of progress.5

In addition to being my map, my phone was my camera, as I implied above. Of course it wasn’t as good as a DSLR, but on the other hand, I didn’t have to deal with slinging a bulky camera and worrying about fragile lenses and transferring photos and keeping more batteries charged &c.

I also used it for research, of course. Since I didn’t start with a good sense of my hiking speed, I didn’t make any campsite or room reservations ahead of time, searching for well-located sites or rooms a day or two before (at most). (After doing it for the better part of two months, I can comfortably say that I don’t recommend this method.)

Most importantly, I was able to stay in touch with Meghan and the kids at home. I’d expected that we would speak and/or videochat far more than we actually did; I didn’t have a good internet connection very often. Meghan and I did text regularly, first thing in the morning (as she was going to bed) and later in the afternoon as I was approaching or settling in to that night’s resting place (as she was getting up and starting her day). I also stayed in touch with the Dude pretty well, but the Bambina and I didn’t talk or text directly very often.

  1. At the time of my walk, I still had a first-generation Apple Watch, which would not have been worth the trouble to bring. (For that matter, I doubt that I would bring the latest-generation watch if I were to walk today.) I considered other special-purpose GPS watches and fitness trackers and the like, and dismissed them for similar reasons. ↩︎

  2. Of course they show precise hiking trail routes, and topography and the like. At their most-detailed level, they also show individual buildings in villages, and tiny local landmarks like calvaires. ↩︎

  3. It’s quite possible the app has improved since then; I obviously haven’t had any reason to use it recently. ↩︎

  4. Recall this was back in 2017, when Apple Maps was fine in urban parts of the United States but not dependable beyond that; I’m sure it’s gotten better since then. But after it misdirected me twice in the first few days, I relegated it to a fallback option at best, and then with a healthy dose of skepticism. ↩︎

  5. Alas, the API of the map service changed, breaking the map on the site. I haven’t spent the time to get it working again. ↩︎