Hiking with Tech: Making the Most of a Smartphone in the Backcountry, Part 1

Airplane Mode enabled on two Android Smartphones... as you can see GPS / Location is still available.
Airplane Mode enabled on two Android Smartphones. Look closely, GPS / Location Services are still available.  Click to Enlarge.

A five part series on fully utilizing technology while hiking.

Part 1: Intro
Part 2: Device and Service Selection
Part 3: Navigation, Apps & Prep
Part 4: Photography, Shooting & Editing
Part 5: Power Management

The importance of multi-use items is one of the main mantras of experienced lightweight backpackers; they strive to take gear pieces that have as many uses as possible. This practice effectively reduces total pack weight through the process of eliminating other items. Perhaps the single best multi-use backpacking item to have come down the trail in the last 10 years did not come from The North Face or MSR, and it’s not available at REI or MEC.

During the last few years of hiking I’ve found my cell phone to be an invaluable asset. A modern smartphone is packed with multi-use capability and has the potential to be the most versatile item a hiker could carry into the backcountry – a high tech Swiss Army Knife if you will. Unfortunately, most people use only a fraction of the functionality of their smartphone – either in the backcountry or in everyday life.

In this series we’ll cover phone selection as well as how this single device can replace multiple pieces of equipment.

Before we get to that, let’s first address some very common misconceptions related to smartphone use while backpacking:

“I won’t have a signal for cellular service. A smartphone is practically useless without a cellular connection.”

The first sentence is true – you likely won’t have a signal. However, you don’t have to be a technology luddite to acknowledge that temporarily unplugging from the network while enjoying nature is a great idea.

The second sentence however is not true – in fact the device should be more welcome (by you, and certainly by your fellow hikers) precisely because it is no longer capable of bidirectional communications. Most of the concealed internal antennas in your phone – the ones for voice / data communications and WiFi for example – can be disabled by activating Airplane Mode (aka Flight Mode), without impacting one of the more useful hardware components – which happens to be simplex hardware (single direction communication) – the GPS. This nuance of smartphone technology, when combined with the ability to cache data to the device (downloading maps beforehand) can make it perfect for backcountry use. There is of course an obvious advantage to “missing” Instagram posts of what city bound co-workers are ordering at a restaurant for supper, but activation of Airplane Mode also has a positive side effect on battery life… which brings us to the next point.

The BQ Aquaris X5 Plus. A new smartphone that packs a unique, powerful punch for navigation in the backcountry.
The BQ Aquaris X5 Plus.
A new smartphone that packs a unique, powerful punch for navigation in the backcountry.

My battery won’t last – it’ll be dead in no time.”

As mentioned above, when you activate Airplane Mode, you shut down the internal radio antennas responsible for voice and data communications – power hungry little buggers that are constantly looking for a signal to send and receive info. Once these antennas are disabled (Airplane Mode ON) battery life increases dramatically. Expect to get at least twice as long – likely even more – when starting out with a fully charged device. Couple that with powering off overnight and perhaps a spare battery and many users can easily have a few days of usage.

If I take my phone backpacking, it will break or get wet.”

The fact is, smartphones are pretty durable – if you drop it in the city, there’s a good chance it’ll hit something hard…. not quite as likely in the forest. Realistically, water is the most likely enemy of an electronic device while hiking. Smartphones are increasingly becoming water (and dust) resistant, but until that’s the case for yours, you can replicate that characteristic very easily with an old favorite item of many backpackers – something that you’re likely already carrying – the ZipLock Bag.

Those are some responses to reasons often cited to not take a smartphone while backpacking, but what are some compelling reasons to want to take one?

We’ll get into that in future installments…

Before that, we have to back up a bit… coming soon, Part 2: Phone Selection.