Smartphones in the Backcountry – Part I

GPS, Mapping, Geocaching, Battery Backup, and More

Smartphones… many of us own one and use it on a daily basis. They’re great for accomplishing all the tasks of modern urban existence… texting, tweeting, checking email, taking selfies, taking pictures of latte’s and charcuterie on wooden planks… you know, important stuff. They don’t seem so smart though once you’re off the grid. Don’t despair however. In this post we’ll take a look at some actual useful things you can do with your smartphone outside – even in the backcountry without cell service. This wouldn’t be a complete article without talking about some logistics like device protection, working offline, maximizing battery life, and recharging options, so we’ll talk about all of those too. Settle in with an appropriate beverage; this is going to be a long one…

Overview

Since the subject matter here is a wide cross section, you might choose to let these headings be your guide…

Smartphones vs. Handheld GPS

Working Offline

Maximizing Smartphone Battery Life

Recharging Options

Cases for Improved Durability

What’s Next? A Segue to Part II

Smartphones vs. Handheld GPS

Let’s start with a quick overview of the pros and cons of these gadgets…

A Visual Comparison
A Visual Comparison

  • Durability: Advantage – GPS

    There’s no denying that Smartphones are fragile devices. They don’t like being wet, they don’t like being dropped, they don’t like mud or grime. Although there are some models that offer more protection and durability over their standard counterparts, they’re usually larger and heavier so the decision then becomes “do I want to carry a larger and heavier phone around on a daily basis, just so I can use it outdoors safely?” In contrast handheld GPS units are designed to be used in a variety of tough outdoor conditions. Even when compared with the more robust smartphones most GPS will come out ahead in terms of durability.

  • Accuracy: Advantage – GPS (slight)

    No doubt an important point to consider when relying on a GPS. There have been studies (2009, 2011) done on this subject and the answer is not always straightforward. Variables such as which satellite system(s) you’re using can have great impact. Aside from that, smartphones relie on assisted GPS (use of cell and/or wifi signals) to increase their accuracy. In the backcountry 5-8 meter accuracy should be typical, whereas a handheld GPS unit should be the range of 3 meter accuracy. Either way this should be good enough accuracy for most people, sans the geocaching group possibly.

  • Battery Life: Advantage – GPS (slight)

    It’s not unusual for modern a GPS to get 12-16 hours of operation between battery charges/replacement. Your smartphone might be able to pull that off, but it really depends on the phone, its battery, and how often you’re looking at the screen (which is the largest power draw for a phone). Understanding how to maximize battery life is key (we’ll talk about this later).

  • Screen Quality: Advantage – Hard to call!

    Modern Super AMOLED smartphone screens make photos, videos, and games look amazing – but they look best when be viewed indoors. Even at their brightest setting, smartphone screens tend to wash out under direct sun. The image up top gives a rough idea how the screens compare. On the other hand, smartphone screens have way more real estate and much higher resolution. The other point to note here is that all modern smartphones are now using touchscreens – something that cannot be operated with a gloved hand, unless the glove happens to be smartphone friendly, where most GPS units are using a keypad to operate. So, there are pro’s and con’s on both sides.

  • Operating System Stability: Advantage – GPS

    Most modern tech have pretty good OS’s. With smartphones there is always more going on, and more chance of having crashes or unstable behavior. If you’ve ever dealt with app crashes or having to restart a phone during an activity or outing then you know what this section is all about. GPS units are not perfect, but usually they’re much more reliable from a standpoint of fewer random bugs and crashes occurring.

  • Storage Capacity: Advantage – Smartphone

    You’ll find that GPS devices offer around 4GB of storage at the high end, while smartphones offer around 32GB (or more) on the high end. Even though the phone’s OS may take up 25% of that space, it leaves a lot of room to keep maps stored locally as well as tracks with tons and tons of points. Of course you probably also fill that space with your own junk like music and photos… so just minimize the extraneous crapola and your smartphone should hold more mapping data than you’ll ever need.

  • Features and Flexibility: Advantage – Smartphone

    Although some GPS units now sport decent quality cameras, they can’t compete with smartphones in this area. Smartphones have access to an endless assortment of apps, they can play music, make calls (where service exists), even update blog posts from the trail – and importantly our choice of which mapping/GPS application we use. The cameras in modern smartphones make carrying a point-and-shoot obsolete. There’s not much they can’t do. To be fair to the GPS though, it’s best that it doesn’t do all these things because they’re all things that contribute to battery drain and more complexity for the operating system to deal with.

  • Cost: Advantage – Smartphone

    Since many of us already own a smartphone it’s money already spent. Even for smartphone-challenged people, with a new contract you’re going to be getting your phone for free, or very inexpensive (say, less than $100). A smartphone will need apps to utilize its GPS capabilities and those will range from free to relatively inexpensive (a few bucks usually). A handheld GPS unit will run $300 to upwards of $400.

On paper it would appear that the handheld GPS units have an edge over the smartphones, but is that really the case? It depends. There’s no doubt that a GPS will get the job done, and in the backcountry it will always be as good as, if not better than a smartphone. There are compromises to be made either way, but phones can get the job done. The rest of this article is going to focus on the smartphones, so if you’re not sure check it out and see if the murky waters become a little more clearish…

Working Offline

One of the first things anyone thinks about when talking about smartphones is cell coverage. Without a network, smartphones are crippled.

FALSE!
False?

Alright, fine… so you can’t listen to streaming radio in the backcountry, text photos of your butt to your bros, or call your significant other – but if you plan ahead you can solve these pressing issues and more! For example, just download some music onto your phone before you go (if you must have tunes), instead of texting your butt-photos, just spontaneously moon your buddies at the campfire, and bring that significant other along so you don’t have to call to tell them how awesome your trip is!

I know what you really want to know though. Yes, you can use your navigation apps offline too. All you need is the ability to see some GPS satellites from where you’re at, and you’ll be good to go. The planning ahead part is important though. Just like you don’t show up at the trailhead and hope to find a map there, you don’t leave home before downloading the relevant map quadrants and/or tracks to your phone. How to do this is very dependent on the application, but any app worth its salt will have this capability. We’ll look at how to do so using Backcountry Navigator a little later. Geocaching apps also offer the ability to download cache data so you have access to everything, including the all important hints if you need to cheat a little.

The only adverse affect being offline will have on your app use is when it comes time to share, upload, or update something to an online source. For example, if you track a hike or run with Strava (or insert your running app here), you won’t be able to synchronize it until you are back on the grid. If you find a geocache you won’t be able to sign the digital log book until later. If you’re having a great time you won’t be able to update Facebook… what ever will your friends think!?! Don’t sweat it. You can do all the important stuff regardless of where you are.

Maximizing Smartphone Battery Life

Smartphones are power hungry devices. While GPS is running they’ll drain down even faster. Here are a few hints to help you maximize your battery life. You may be really surprised at the results!

  • Keep the screen OFF

    Duh. The screen eats up more battery life than anything, especially when you’re running at full brightness which you’ll likely be doing if you’re outside. Keep it off and only check as you need to.

  • Use Airplane Mode

    This will disable your cell and wifi “radios” (the transmitter/receiver business in the phone) while allowing you to still use your GPS. The upside is your phone is now not constantly hunting for networks it can connect to. Ok iPhone users here it comes… this won’t work for you and it’s a big deal! For some reason Apple doesn’t let you use your GPS while in airplane mode, and as far as I understand the issue there is no way to disable cell and/or wifi radios without also disabling your GPS. As of iOS 8.3 you can now use your GPS while in airplane mode! Rejoice! (Thanks to my buddy Ken T. for pointing this out). For those who are on iOS 8.2 or lower, apparently this is a work around that involves setting up a pin for your sim card, then not entering it when prompted. You can investigate this if you feel like runnnig the risk of locking yourself out of your phone. Yikes!

  • Disable Bluetooth

    Bluetooth may still be active even if you’re running in airplane mode. You shouldn’t need it while you’re out trekking around, so disable it to save some juice.

  • Minimize GPS Usage

    If you’re recording your tracks, then you’ll have to leave the GPS on but depending on the app you’re using you may be able to change the polling frequency. This is simply how often the device contacts the satellites to get a fix on your location. Longer time between making contact means less battery power used, but also less accurate results. You may want to experiment with this around the neighborhood. If you’re just following a track and want to check your position every so often, you shouldn’t need to keep the GPS running. Backcountry Navigator has an option to “Keep GPS On”, and if unchecked it will not leave it running until you ask the app for your position. A handy feature.

  • Use Power Saving Mode

    In addition to the above suggestions, your phone may have separate power saving modes. Some limit things like background data and the amount of juice the CPU can use when it’s crunching numbers. Making use of these is a good idea since you shouldn’t be doing anything too data or processor intensive out in the woods.

  • Kill Background Apps

    Usually there’s some way to see which apps are running, and to turn off those that you don’t need. If you’ve done everything else above, there’s probably not much those apps can do anyway – but they may still use some processor resources which equates to battery drain.

  • Limit Photos and Videos

    It’s nice to be able to shoot photo and video with your phone, but in this case your phone is your navigational tool. Photos, and especially videos, use power for both the screen and the processor, so if you plan to take quite a few or want to shoot some videos you should probably consider bringing along a dedicated camera instead. It’s all about priorities.

  • Recharge if Needed

    See the next section for some expanded thoughts on recharging your phone.

Recharging Options

If you’re out for more than a day, or even just a long day on the trail, you’ll be dealing with low batteries at some point. So what are your options?

  • Solar Charger

    In theory, solar charging makes a lot of sense. My experience thus far has been mediocre. Reading other peoples’ experiences tells the tale of hit and miss success with solar charging. If you are packing light then you’ll be using a charger with small panels and that will dictate that you’ll need optimal conditions, more or less, to get a good charge. Carrying solar panels isn’t a bad idea, but relying on them as your sole source of power may not be wise.

  • Battery Pack

    Battery packs can be charged up at home and pack enough punch to recharge your device one or more times (depending on the capacity of the pack) and can be a good option for shorter multi-day trips. An upside to using a battery pack is, you can charge your device anytime. It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining or not. The downside is, once the pack is discharged, that’s it. For longer trips you’ll need a way to recharge your battery pack, most likely a solar charger. The question is, will you have enough charging time and good light to keep the juice flowing? Hopefully…

  • Extra Batteries

    Not a whole lot different from carrying a backup battery – however! Being able to recharge is not something that all devices can do. For example, only some of the newer GPS units support charging via micro-USB. Of course just about all smartphones do. However if your device does not, then you’ll need a separate charger that can charge your device’s battery while being powered by your backup battery (or solar charger) and this is getting convoluted, or you simply need a backup battery(s) for your device.

  • A Little of Everything

    This is probably the best approach once you start taking battery powered things into the wilderness. Since many devices use AA batteries using a charging system such as the Goal Zero Guide 10 might be the best solution. The Guide 10, and similar products, use a “battery pack” which takes AA batteries as it’s power source. It can recharge a device via USB or micro-USB cable. In turn, it is compatible with Goal Zero’s solar panels and can charge AA/AAA batteries as well. This provides a way to both carry extra batteries for devices which use AA/AAA, recharge devices that accept charging via a USB port, and recharge AA/AAA batteries via solar. The only downside is, now you’re carrying quite a bit to keep up with your power needs… but such is life when you’re committed to using electronics on your adventures.

    Guide 10+ Power Supply
    Guide 10+ Power Supply

Cases for Improved Durability

Let’s just get this out of the way – handheld GPS units are far and above smartphones when it comes to durability, so if the environment and conditions will be exceedingly rough, you way want to reconsider taking along your smartphone, period. Otherwise, if you think that you can do a decent job of protecting it from the elements and tend to take good care of your gear you should be able to pull this off.

Newer generation phones (around gen 5 and up) offer some measure of water resistance. Don’t confuse that with “I can expose my phone to hours of rain”… more like an occasional splash, or even a few seconds of being underwater should be ok, but ideally you’ll want to add another measure of protection with a case. Dusty environments can be just as bad as wet ones and a good case will keep the dust out too. This is not an endorsement of either of the following two cases, because I don’t have enough experience with them to do that, but they seem to be a notch above most of the inexpensive cases in terms of performance and user satisfaction. You may want to consider the Lifeproof frē and the Otterbox Preserver cases. No solution is perfect when it comes to phone cases and you need to research features such as, port accessibility, weather or not the phone’s calling features can be used with the case in place (etc…)

Lifeproof fre Case
Lifeproof fre Case

What’s Next? A Segue to Part II

So far things aren’t looking entirely bleak hopefully. We know our phones can and will work out there, we just have to be prepared to deal with them accordingly. The next part of this series will be discussion on various apps that will be of interest. These including mapping, geocaching, activity tracking, and more. After that we’ll wrap up by taking a look at three different software tools you can use to plan your trips in advance, and get the relevant data onto your phone. Part II is now published, so head over and check it out when you have a chance. Hike It. Like It.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy. Follow on Strava

9 Comments

  1. Bennett
    August 12, 2015
    Reply

    Everything is very open with a precise description of the challenges.
    It was really informative. Your site is extremely helpful.
    Thank you for sharing!

    Bennett

  2. Kevin
    May 24, 2015
    Reply

    I just got back from a trip where I used my iPhone’s GPS in airplane mode quite extensively. No problem whatsoever.

    • May 24, 2015
      Reply

      Hey Kevin, thanks for the info! Can you tell me which iPhone you have and what version of iOS you’re running?

      • Kevin
        May 24, 2015
        Reply

        iPhone 6, iOS 8.3. But it’s worked for me on previous iPhones and software versions too.

        • May 25, 2015
          Reply

          Thanks for checking it out Kevin. My friend Ken just directed me to this post on BPL… timely info. Apparently this was just changed in the iOS 8.3 update. I’m not sure how you were able to do it with previous iOS versions, but I have seen a few random reports of people using their GPS while in airplane mode. Perhaps a bug?

          I confirmed that GPS will NOT work on an iPhone 5S running iOS 8.1 while in airplane mode.

          Here is the official word from Apple:
          https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204234

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