Hiking with Tech: Making the Most of a Smartphone in the Backcountry, Part 3

A five part series on fully utilizing technology while hiking.

Showing available layers (downloadable maps) in Canada Topo Maps; 4 vector based options for caching + two satellite for online only (copyright restricted) use. Note that Google imagery can be cached directly in the Google Maps App.
Showing available layers (downloadable maps) in Canada Topo Maps; 4 vector based options up top for caching + two satellite for online-only-copyright-restricted-use on bottom. Note however that Google imagery can be cached directly in the Google Maps App, And don’t write Bing off… some of it’s images are quite crisp (MS is actually still good for something!) Click to enlarge.

Part 1: Intro
Part 2: Device and Service Selection
Part 3: Part 3: Navigation, Apps & Prep
– Real World Use in the Great Outdoors
– App Types

Part 4: Photography, Shooting & Editing
Part 5: Power Management

The GPS hardware in a modern flagship smartphone is no different than that found in a consumer grade GPS. But for any new technology – in this case a smartphone – to disrupt and displace products in an existing category – like handheld GPS devices – the entrant technology must bring something new to the table.

In any situation where smartphone technology is impacting and disrupting an existing market, one of the secret weapons always in it’s arsenal is rapid, innovative and widely practiced software development.

As a user wanting to more fully utilize their smartphone while hiking, you’ll find an amazing variety of high quality, easy to use, low cost apps from which you can pick. Gone are the days of reading a manual and conforming to the nuances of an archaic proprietary user interface as you’d find on many GPS devices. Instead, hit your device’s app store – you can quickly try half-a-dozen options until you find one that works in a way that makes the most sense to you.

When the massive, open scale of mobile app development is combined with the value proposition to the end user – IE. instant delivery of low cost software – it’s difficult, if not impossible for any existing technology and it’s players to keep pace. In this part of the series covering Navigation, those names are Garmin and Magellan. In the next part of this series – Photography, Shooting & Editing – you’ll see the same story play out, with only the company names changing.

But first, an important caveat…

As is the case with any electronic device, smartphones are prone to failure. If you’re hiking off trail and heading into the backcountry, you need a map and compass – they have a reliability factor that no electronic device will ever match. Fortunately, there are apps that can simplify the process of getting those hard copies.

An example of a device-specific waterproof protective case for a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. While not exactly the case, I've essentially given my phone an aftermarket IP rating.
An example of a device-specific waterproof protective case for a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. While not exactly the case (no pun intended), I’ve essentially given my phone an aftermarket IP rating – unfortunately it makes the device stock battery dependent.

We’ll discuss a variety of apps that can aid in Navigation below, but if you’re not currently using your smartphone in this way, the general concept and getting up-to-speed is very simple:

→ @ Home: Select an App. Test and learn how to use it.
→ @ Home: In your App, cache (download) maps for the area in which you’ll be hiking.
→ → On the day of your hike, start with a fully charged device.
→ → Turn on Airplane (aka Flight) Mode.
→ → Launch and Hit Record in your App.
→ → Hike!
→ → When you reach camp, Stop / Save / Power Down.
→ → Repeat the process the next morning.
→ @ Home: Share your hike online!

Real World Use in the Great Outdoors.

While there is a category of software below that allows effective use of a smartphone as a direct replacement for a dedicated GPS, in real world use – specifically during inclement weather – this concept falls apart rapidly. In extreme cold, wind or precipitation you’ll quickly find that a touch-screen smartphone – more so than any other type of device – can be difficult to use. The two most common problems while backpacking are related to use in Cold or Wet Weather.

Cold Weather
When temperatures drop to the point where your hands need to be protected, it’s not practical to remove gloves / mittens each time you need to check your device. To address this, in recent years special gloves designed for use with touch sensitive smartphone screens have become popular.

A generic size dry bag. This may be a slightly better, more durable and heavier option than a ZipLock. YMMV.
A generic size dry bag. This may be a slightly better, more durable and heavier option than a ZipLock. YMMV.

There are also some specialized gloves, such as those used by mechanics, that work particularly well with touch-screen devices – they can be used in combination with an inner layer to form a very versatile system for backpacking.

Another area of consideration for real-world use as a replacement for a dedicated GPS is battery life – particularly important in cold weather. This will be covered in detail in Part 5 of the series.

Wet Weather
In terms of dealing with moisture and smartphone use, there are basically three options – presented below in order of suitability (best listed first). If your device is going to be as useful in the backcountry as this series suggests, one of these solutions has to be tested and implemented before hitting the trail.

Option 1: Select an IP Rated Device (see Part 2, Device and Service Selection for more detail).

Option 2: Get a Weatherproof Enclosure. Ranges from a protective and water-tight case made specifically for your model of phone to a larger generic dry bag. In either case, they’ll most often make the device more difficult to use (to varying degrees), and it’ll likely be a struggle to charge or swap batteries. A necessary but minor sacrifice.

Canada Topo Maps for Android.
Canada Topo Maps for Android. Click to enlarge.

Option 3: Use a ZipLock Bag. A very basic solution and the least desirable option. To use the phone, it will likely have to be removed from the bag – but even if that’s not the case, you’ll end up removing it at some point anyway. After extended use in these conditions, the inside of the bag – and therefore the phone – will begin to get wet.

App Types – How Many Features Do You Need?

Note, December 2016: Both Google and Apple are transitioning their software in the areas of fitness and health as a result of an emphasis on wearable technology. As such, the info and recommended apps below are evolving rapidly.

Standalone GPS Apps
An app like Canada Topo Maps (with a Free and Pro version) or Backcountry Navigator aims to add the functionality of a dedicated consumer grade GPS to a smartphone, but in a prettier, easier to use package. This option most closely resembles using a traditional dedicated GPS, as it can interface nicely with PC / Mac based programs like Garmin BaseCamp, Google Earth or GPSBabel.

Endomondo. Fitness tracking with a nice online compliment.
Endomondo. Fitness tracking with a nice online compliment. Click to enlarge.

If you’ve used a GPS in the past, use of this type of app will come natural – you can:

→ Work with Waypoints, Tracks and Routes.
→ Plan on the device or computer and move your work freely via import / export.
→ Use the app in the field as you would a handheld GPS.

Advantage: Map Layers / Data is often included with the app purchase. This is true to varying degrees, depending on the App: For example, Canada Topo Maps includes several layers (different map versions of an area) that can be cached permanently to the device.

Disadvantage: Limited social integration.

Fitness Tracking Apps
This is perhaps the most common way to use a smartphone to record an activity. The main attribute with this category is there’s always an online component to go with the app. You can create an account on a corresponding web site – often with a subscription required for added features – where you can add, manage and share hikes / workouts.

A simple Fitness Track App is perhaps the best option for those wanting a quick, easy-to-use program that can include data from wearables (heart rate monitors, GPS watches, Fitbit-style devices, etc.). There are literally dozens of apps to choose from:

Google My Tracks
The precursor to all this mess – the venerable My Tracks. Released freely as open source by Google some 9 years ago, it was the only app used by many early adopters. With a staggering 50 million + install base and 4.4 / 5 rating, it was discontinued and folded into Fit by the G. It’s still available for the very determined user.

With general fitness apps like Endomondo and Strava you can record whatever activity you’ve engaged in and later specify a type (hiking, biking, running, skiing, etc.).

There are apps specific to hiking and backpacking, such as AllTrails, which has a strong online component in sharing trail data at AllTrails.com.

There are also a variety of apps dedicated to running, which also work fine for hiking and backpacking (MapMyRun / Hike, Runkeeper, Runtastic).

Advantage: Seamless Social Integration makes it easy to share your hikes and find other trails.

Disadvantage: Weak in planning (mapping, waypointing, etc) compared to a Standalone GPS App.

Hybrid Apps
This is the next generation of app – it doesn’t simply attempt to mimic the functionality of a GPS or provide a quick way to record and share an outing.

Apps like GaiaGPS not only allow GPS style navigation use, but also combine a more powerful online component – beyond what you’ll find with a fitness tracking app such as Endomondo. In the case for GaiaGPS, subscribers can plan via the web – analyze maps, routes, set waypoints and print custom maps – things that may traditionally have been done on a standalone computer using software like BaseCamp. Before, during and after the hike, data from the device and the cloud is seamlessly integrated.

Disadvantage: (GaiaGPS) Lacks multiple map layers for Canada.