I remember life before mobile phones (and I’m not that old!) and I also remember that the dream for me as a sci-fi loving teenager was the idea of a fully functional, responsive and light computer. Now I have it: the smartphone. It is funny (though not surprising) to think how easily we got hooked on mobile devices, especially since they became truly capable and light smartphones. Personally, I no longer know anyone that doesn’t carry a phone – though I was one of those odd ones who protested for a few years by not carrying a mobile – I am now a pretty heavy user of my smartphone.
It is not surprising that smartphones are also heavily used in our outdoor adventures: they are light, hold so much information and are really easy to use. The biggest problem with smartphones (for now) is that they will stop working at some point when you are outdoors, especially in a critical moment when you really need their ability (like navigation, sunset times, weather forecast or the end of a good book that you are reading on a stormy night in your tent). I do use my smartphone as part of my navigation arsenal, but it is mainly as a backup. Beyond navigation, it offers so much today, that I see it more as a multitool than just one item.
Beyond the strong hardware that phones have today, it is the amazing array of highly functional apps that really make the smartphone such an amazing device, even outdoors. Apps for navigation (on line and off line), GPS boosting, satellite phone booster (with a sat comm device), reading apps, high definition cameras and editing tools – so many things that can be done with a phone. When I take my phone outdoors it has five main functions:
- Communication – both as a regular phone and as a satellite device with my Delorme inReach SE. Rarely will I also be on social media while outdoors but I do have a business so checking emails at times is important
- Navigation – a backup tool for accessing a wider range of stored maps and off line navigation apps as part of my modern navigation bundle
- Camera – with 13mp camera and some nifty apps to help my very poor photography skills, this is another way to capture memories and show you some great pictures on this site. Now combined with better lenses and a shutter remote
- Weather and travel information – when reception is available I try and get updates on weather with dedicated mountain apps and travel information if relevant for that day
- Entertainment and writing – for me this is usually just reading, but I find that the smartphone is not actually a great reading device so I use a dedicated eReader for that. I also use my phone to take notes, write reminders or record ideas (audio) when they come up as a quick way not to lose them
The list above covers pretty much all the functions that my multitool smartphone performs for me and is also in order of importance – a mobile phone is first and foremost a communication device for me, especially to be in touch with my family.
My smartphone of choice is the Samsung Galaxy S4; I bought it second hand (refurbished) a couple of years back and have been slowly and carefully adding one crack at a time to the screen – that is the problem with active people. Despite the phone being fragile, I have found that it works well for my needs and with a good, bulky, strong case it is pretty robust for outdoors use. I won’t be going into which smartphone to buy and why, just how I use mine outdoors.
The first and foremost function of a smartphone is for communication – either via voice or text base. I have a wife and two kids (2 years and a week old) who I love and want to make sure they are all right, so calling to hear their voices is a must. With a young family, it is not just about getting in touch for emotional needs, but also practical – if my wife needs me at home due to some issue with the kids I must be able to drop it all and return home at a moment’s notice. The other side of that communication need is my safety – both in case of a real emergency as I usually hike solo and also to reassure my wife that all is well and there are no problems.
Another aspect of my communication needs are my businesses, as I am now self employed, so checking in every so often to make sure everything is running smoothly and return emails as needed is vital.
All of the above is well and good when you are in central urban areas (and even then there are issues), but when you are out in the backcountry or up in the hills, reception is as good as gone. Patchy service or low reception areas are very common, especially in the more remote areas where we actually go hiking. To deal with this issue I have chosen to add a satellite communication device to my set of electronics, allowing for emergency broadcasting, limited text messaging and some data download; I use a Delorme inReach SE two-way satellite communicator.
When I’m hiking over short days I just leave my phone on and talk to my family as needed. On longer trips, the phone is on plane mode (see below: Battery life) and so have no communication abilities, but when I’m hiking “in the zone” I’m rarely in the mood for a conversation anyway. When passing what might be a possible reception area I tend to turn off the plane mode to try and call and/or receive messages and emails. If I am lucky enough to get a signal, I will download all I need and turn the plane mode back on, read all the important stuff, reply and turn off the plane mode at the next possible location. This is by all means not a perfect method, but I get my communication needs met on as little battery as possible.
The important part of communication is being in touch with my wife on longer and more remote trips. To solve this, a smartphone is just not useful and requires the addition of a satellite-based device to allow communication even in areas where service is just not available. This is where the smartphone fails and we need another device to maintain contact with loved ones.
Last, there is the need to transmit a signal in case of an emergency (usually known as a SOS signal). There are many apps out there that claim to offer this service, but most are based on the assumption that you have a signal, which we know is unlikely. The one app that dominates this function is Uepaa! – 24h Safety (Android and iOS) – it is a free and subscription app that can also send an SOS using other users’ phones (it bounces off the app users’ phones). The free version is pretty sufficient and the premium offers those added features that a solo hiker will need. I haven’t used the app much as I have the inReach that offers the same function and I’m already paying for that.
As you will probably be taking your phone with you outdoors, it can be a great communication device as long as you don’t rely solely on it when in deep backcountry.
This is the most controversial function that a smartphone can perform outdoors. There are many warnings (and proof) about an array of idiots (no other way to put it) who were navigating outdoors using their phone and Google maps, until one or both failed and they needed rescue. Smartphones are not yet in a place where they can be the only means of navigation, but they can be of great assistance and support if using dedicated navigation apps that allow for offline map access.
Smartphones can be of great assistance and support if using dedicated navigation apps that allow for offline map access
Which app to use is very much a personal preference, but the most popular are:
- Viewranger – the app I personally use – free to use and have a great site to plan routes. You can buy and download a huge range of maps for all the OS maps, USGS (1:24k) and topo maps for most of Europe and more. Works great offline and is pretty forgiving on the battery (in plane mode), and is very easy to use for tracking.
- AllTrails – an extremely popular app and site (especially in the USA) that is based on OpenStreetMap. You can use it for free or do some real editing and planning with the premium version including downloading offline maps and printing.
- Trimble Outdoors (USA only) – a beautiful app that also allows you to print maps, create 3D routes and more. Sadly, it is a USA app only.
- Memory-Map – offer a wide range of maps and a phone+computer software to do all the map work you need and then work with them offline on your smartphone. Can be a bit slow to update at times.
- Locus Map – a new app from the Czech Republic that uses the open data maps for offline vector mapping, focusing mainly on Europe.
The list above is just a taste and I wish I could say I have tried all the apps out there to give some real input on what to choose, but that would mean that I spend ALL my time outdoors. I suggest playing with each of the apps mentioned above to find what suits you and your needs. If you tend to explore areas rather than trails or routes, look for apps that offer map bundles rather than a customized map purchase.
Using apps is not just to see maps, but also to keep track of your progress and your location. All the phones in the past decade or so have accurate GPS chips built in, though they can still be slow to react. The navigation apps above use the locating ability of your phone to mark your location on the offline maps you have downloaded, giving you a live location at all times (requires turning on the GPS location function on your phone). This is very handy but I personally prefer using a GPS watch for more agile navigation with my printed map.
Another way I use my smartphone is by utilizing maps I have already made using OS Maps. Before printing my customized maps, I save them as images and as PDF files, so I make sure to upload those to my phone to have more maps in more scales if I need them. For my upcoming Cape Wrath Trail trip I’m making my own maps, so I made a whole set of 1:50000 and 1:25000 scale maps in PDF, which I can access any time while on the move for more detail without the need for an app. This, of course, is a bit limited as the zoom functions are not as responsive as an app’s, but it is still much cheaper than buying all the maps (in both scales) for the whole route. Another downside to the homemade maps is that you do not get the live location tools that the apps offer, so you really need to know where you are!
Once again, the navigation function is just for back up to support your map and compass navigation and not to replace it. With the right apps and having the right offline maps, it can work very well and this is where the smartphone really shines, especially when combined with the built in GPS that allows for very visual tracking of your route.
I love using a dedicated camera as I find that it is more responsive, both technically and in how I use it and have a bigger sensor than any smartphone, but I do have my phone with me at all times. Over the years I have learned the hard way that the only camera I can own is a “tough” one, so I stopped trying take and get the high end options outdoors with me. The benefit of having my camera’s smartphone is having a bit more flexibility in photography, even in at times I need to accept less than great pictures quality.
My photography skills are sub par compared to pretty much everyone I know (though my wife’s are even worse!) so my only way to get good pictures when hiking is opting for the “automated shooting”: taking as many pictures as I can and hoping that 1% are ok…. Having both my camera and my phone means that I can have more chance of getting a decent picture.
What I like about a camera in my phone is the ability to use a remote: I got a shutter remote that allows me to take pictures in a more timely way, especially as my camera is old (most new cameras do come with a remote or an option for one). I also added a few more things to my case to allow my phone to be a slightly better photography tool:
- A clasp for a tripod – you can get dedicated holders for smartphones to mount on tripods, but I just glued a clasp that fits into my gorilla pod, which means it is as easy to fit on as my camera
- a housing for extra lenses – lenses are the weakest part of a smartphone camera, so additional lenses make a difference. I glued the housing to my hard case for easy lens fitting on the go
With a bit of DIY on my phone’s outdoors hard case, I managed to upgrade the quality of pictures I take and the ease of use. Despite the fact that a camera phone will never be a match for a good quality dedicated camera, it is better than not taking pictures and better than a standard point and shoot from just 2 years ago!
Weather and travel information
Smartphones have useful tools to increase efficiency and reduce risk by knowing weather, sunset and sunrise time and live public transport (if used) times. I live in the UK so will focus on a few apps I use for that:
- Weather 1 – Met Weather app – includes mountain weather forecast for up to 7 days. Nice and free app, but the Met are a bit off at times
- Weather 2 – Mountain Weather UK – a new app that costs £4 but offers cross information and 5 day weather forecasts for mountain regions and national parks. You can read a full review here
- Sunset/sun rise – Viewranger or my GPS watch, both provide great information so I have no need for a dedicated app
- Travel – National Rail app – I usually take trains to trail heads or for most of my journeys. Useful app though it is not very exciting!
The apps above are only useful with cellphone signal, so do not rely on any last minute updates in the mountains. These are for planning or checking at the last minute before leaving. Dedicated apps can provide focused information that saves time to solve a specific problem (next train, sunrise tomorrow etc) and the smartphone works great here.
Entertainment and writing
For entertainment I know many people like playing games on their smartphones, but I personally never warmed to it, so for me entertainment means reading an ebook, engaging in social media (which I find funny) and writing/recording brainstorming ideas.
I have used my phone for reading, but I find the screen’s glare and small display are very unsatisfying for a good reading experience. Reading apps are also very battery hungry and tend to drain the phone quickly to keep the back light on the screen for easy reading. When I’m on longer trips (more than 2 days) I just bring a dedicated eReader so I can read more easily. The weight of an eReader is slightly offset by the reduced battery use of the phone and it is vital for solo trips in the winter where the camping breaks are long (especially when the weather is terrible).
When I’m walking I often get really good, developed and elaborate ideas that I feel I need to put on paper, but I struggle to write while walking. The obvious reason is that I’m too busy walking, but also the fact that my handwriting is even worse when I’m walking and the weather is usually doing its best to prevent me from writing on a piece of paper. Using a smartphone for writing makes it slightly easier to make notes on the go (if the trail is easy), or, if the walking is harder, just record a note to your self using the microphone in the headphones that you probably carry anyway. This is a very effective way not to lose ideas and it doesn’t require much effort. I use the built in recording app that came with my phone to record short instructions/ideas for myself.
The smartphone is almost the ultimate entertainment device for light and fast hikers, but for the sake of battery life and easier reading I prefer taking an eReader as well.
Battery life of a smartphone is by far the biggest issue we have when considering whether to rely on one. Mobile phones have been notorious for running out of battery in the most crucial of times and even with the newest of phones, with bigger batteries, it is unavoidable. Most smartphones today will have a 2500-3000 mAh size battery, which is huge in terms of low power operation; the problem is their battery hungry apps.
The main reason smartphones run out of batteries so quickly is not the actual running of programs and processes, but the fact that all the active apps (and services) need to check signal updates regularly. For example: your email software is sending a signal to your network every few minutes to check if you have new mail, your weather app is sending a signal every few minutes to display the latest weather report, and so on. Those frequent communications are the reason that your phone loses juice so quickly – and the more the apps (and mail accounts), the quicker that happens.
The best way to avoid this drainage of battery life is to prevent the phone from sending any form of data based signals (network data, wifi, bluetooth etc) – this can be achieved by using the “plane mode” on your phone. The idea of plane mode is that you will be able to use your device while still on the plane to avoid disruption of the plane’s operation (though this is a lot of nonsense). Using this mode while hiking means that we disable all signals but the GPS’s (which needs to be set to “on”) and by doing so we have, essentially, a GPS-dedicated computer.
Another problem with battery drainage is cold weather: low temperatures reduce the efficiency of lithium and the batteries hold less power – keep the smartphone and spare power warm and protected, especially at night. I just wrap the electronics in a dry bag and put it under my pillow in the sleeping bag.
Even on plane mode, I have found that with tracking my progress and checking navigation progress occasionally, my phone’s battery lasts a day and a half at most, especially if used for reading too. On short trips (1-2 days) I just carry a fully charged spare battery for my phone: the lightest form of more battery power. For long weekend trips I usually take a powerbank that has 4800 mAh (weighs 87g) and for long trips, I use a 9600 mAh powerbank (169g), giving me several days of cellphone use without needing a power source.
If conditions permit, using a solar charger is a great way of recharging your smartphone (and all electronics), but in the UK this has proved useless.
The second problem with smartphones is how delicate they are – drop a phone enough times and it will break soon enough, from cracked screens to all together ruined. Smartphones are also not waterproof, which makes using them in the UK (or any wet place) practically as dangerous as dropping them off a cliff.
Luckily, with the huge array of cases for any kind of phone, it is not a problem to protect your phone from most things, making it a fairly robust item and practically waterproof with the right case. I use a big burly case I got a few years back by accident (for my dad) that I don’t remember its name, but it has a combination of metal case and rubber inserts and it has protected my phone many times. The case is not waterproof but a plain old ziplock-style bag is all I use for water protection and I have had no problem with that at all.
I do also like to take a small screwdriver to get the phone out of its case at night, making it easier to use in the tent and also helping to keep the condensation out of it.
Final view on the smartphone outdoors
As a whole, smartphones are a great tool for outdoors enthusiasts as long as they are used correctly and in the right context:
- Communication: not the best of tool in the backcountry, but great when combined with a satellite communicator
- Navigation: requires the right app and downloaded maps, but a great secondary tool to support a map and compass setup (and skills!)
- Photography: provides great results, especially if combined with the right accessories
- Extra information: only useful in the planning stage or at the last minute before leaving
- Entertainment: perfect tool for light and fast entertainment in the confines of your tent
- Writing/recording: enables easy recording to avoid lost ideas when you get your best ones!
Main drawbacks and fixes:
- Battery life is short – plane mode and keeping batteries warm will increase battery life
- Fragile – a combination of a robust case and waterproof case protects the phone
- Limited service – supplement with a secondary satellite communication device (basic one)
I will continue to take my smartphone to the hills, despite the cautious warnings, mainly because although I know that it will not save my life or take me from point A to point B, it can increase my comfort and confidence when outdoors. Hopefully it is not far into the future that we will see phones that incorporate more of the needs of the outdoors enthusiast, but until then, just use your smartphone carefully.