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.

Hiking with Tech: Making the Most of a Smartphone in the Backcountry, Part 2

Update, December 26, 2016: Android Authority is reporting that, in addition to the BQ Aquaris X5 Plus, several devices from the Chinese manufacturer Huawei are now functioning with Galileo. There has also been a list of future supported devices published, on which is one of the featured devices from this article, the LG G5. Note that future supported means absolutely nothing until firmware support is released from the manufacturer – which may never happen.

A five part series on fully utilizing technology while hiking.

The Sony Z3 and Z5. Generations apart, but very similar.
The Sony Z3 and Z5. Generations apart, but very similar.

Part 1: Intro
Part 2: Device and Service Selection
– Lowering Your Monthly Rate
– Non-Subsidized Considerations
– Device Selection
– Comparison Chart

Part 3: Navigation, Apps & Prep
Part 4: Photography, Shooting & Editing
Part 5: Power Management

When it comes to lightweight backpacking, the multi-use functionality of a modern smartphone is practically unmatched by any other single piece of equipment. A carefully selected device can do many things… and do it well:

  • GPS / Map / Fitness Tracker
  • Still / Video Camera
  • MP3 Player / Radio
  • eBook Reader
  • Voice Memo Recorder / Notebook
Could new satellite technology mark the beginning of the end for dedicated PLB devices?

A smartphone can even be used as communication device if you so choose. 🙂

With the rapid development of technology and high level of competition in the market, the utility of a smartphone for backpacking will only increase. Devices such as the BQ Aquaris X5 Plus are already taking advantage of the new capabilities of the advanced European Galileo Satellite System, which offers higher accuracy, redundancy to traditional GPS and two-way communication. The bi-directional capability of Galileo is particularly interesting – if made widely accessible, it could allow future generations of cell phones to replace yet another piece of gear – the emergency PLB (Personal Locator Beacons, such as those offered by Spot or InReach).

In terms of suitability for use while hiking however, not all smartphones are created equal. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at which hardware features make a model best suited to backcountry use.

But first…

Lowering Your Monthly Rate – How to Get the Best Price for Service.

When you begin to consider your cell phone as a useful piece of backpacking equipment that is carefully hand-picked, it’s also a good idea to view your relationship with the carrier from a different perspective. When the carrier is viewed simply as a service provider – nothing more than a data connection to the tower – the consumer is freed from the shackle of selecting from the few handsets they currently have on offer. This opens the possibility of owning any one of the many globally available devices – limited only by the specific technical requirements of your selected carrier’s cellular towers. With the recent entry of Chinese manufactures into the market – bringing high quality, innovative, low cost hardware that is further driving innovation and value throughout the industry – it’s a particularly good time to think of severing the traditional user / carrier relationship.

The LG G5 (left) and G4 (right). A great family of devices that have it all, except IP Ratings.

Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for cellular service despite attempts by the state to correct the situation. In contrast to the US where competition is fierce and pricing is consumer driven – with companies like T-Mobile disrupting the status quo by providing clear value – the Canadian market as a whole still provides little value to consumers. The Canadian carriers devote tremendous effort to assessing pricing in the market, with a strategy to develop a structure that makes it difficult to comparison shop. It’s not uncommon for a user to realize upon careful examination that the “free upgrade” offered by their carrier is nothing more than an attempt to switch them to new, higher pricing.

As a result, purchasing a device outright – independent of the carrier – is becoming a popular consumer response to the slow, ever increasing cost associated with the two year service agreement cycle. The last couple of years have even seen a rise in small third party operations that specialize in switching customers who already own their device to special Bring Your Own Device pricing schemes from more competitive markets like Saskatchewan. When combining this technique of getting the best service rate with doing in-depth research for the handset that best fits their needs, the consumer is able to have an abundance of monthly usage, on a hand-picked device that was selected from a dazzling array of options – all for less than they’d pay by walking into a carrier store, picking from half-a-dozen options, and arranging a traditional two year service agreement with a subsidized device.

If the decision is made to consider non-carrier-offered handsets in your search, it’s still optional to pursue good value for service. Using an approximation for similar service options, you should expect to save anywhere from $600 to $1200 over a two year period on a BYOD plan, with the exact amount depending largely on which handset you elect to buy.

Read more about these BYOD pricing options at CBC.ca.

Consumers turn to booming black market for cheap cellphone deals.

CBC News, May 31, 2016
Black market dealers reveal secret to super cheap cellphone plans.

CBC News, Sept 23, 2016

Non-Subsidized Considerations – Steps to Take if You Own Your Device.

If you’re considering a non-subsidized device that’s not offered by your carrier, you basically need concern yourself with only two additional issues…

Band Compatibility
In the past, determining Band Compatability involved a confusing process of spec hunting and cross checking. Recently, sites like Will My Phone Work.net have simplified the process immensely. Plug in the model name of the device you’re considering, add the carrier you are using, and presto… you get a clear answer as to whether the device will work.

Carrier SIM Lock
These software restrictions are placed on subsidized devices by carriers to ensure it will work only on their network. Devices bought outright though non-carrier sources should not have a SIM lock, and this will be proudly displayed in the name. Carrier-bought devices can have the lock removed by the carrier, or it can be removed by the user with a code purchased for a small fee from a third party provider.

The Sony Xperia Z5 and the Apple iPhone 6S Plus. The Sony adds Expandable Storage, IP68 Dust / Waterproofing, hardware FM Radio... all at $240 less than the iPhone.
The Sony Xperia Z5 and the Apple iPhone 6S Plus. The Sony adds Expandable Storage, IP68 Dust / Water Resistance and Hardware FM Radio… all at $240 less than the iPhone.

As long as the device is Band Compatible, you’ll be up and running when inserting your SIM. If you don’t immediately get service, reboot the device with your SIM installed – a locked device will give you a “No Service” message upon boot. If you’re considering a previously owned device, it’s best to buy in-person. Confirm that your SIM will fit the device (there are a few different sizes) and test it in the phone before purchasing – if you have a data connection and can make a call, you’re good to go.

Device Selection – Picking the Features You Need.

This is a big subject, and to make it manageable in this article we will compare devices based solely on features that make it best suited for extended active outdoor use. I would suggest that due to fierce competition in the industry, other important specifications that are often considered (processor speed, camera quality, screen quality, compass accuracy) are very near equal in high end smartphones. As such, while we will compare phones based solely on the main features listed below, some importance should also be placed on the specifications of each device as a whole.

Removable Battery;
This allows the user to swap to a new fully charged internal battery in the field. More importantly, extended internal batteries with double capacity can often be found online – giving the phone battery life that rivals most dedicated GPS devices.

Expandable Storage (MicroSD);
A good option for practically unlimited storage space for your GPS Mapping / Navigation app – allowing you to take a tonne of data for your hike. With this MicroSD Card Slot you’ll have abundant storage space to download multiple Map Layers, such as those from NRCan and satellite imagery from Google. Beyond the caching of map data, this feature allows for virtually unlimited shooting of photos and video, as well as storage of ebooks.

Micro SD cards are small, light, cheap and plentiful. Take a spare on longer hikes and never worry about running out of space.
MicroSD cards are small, light, cheap and plentiful. Take a spare on longer hikes and never worry about running out of storage space.

A Barometric Sensor is used in combination with satellite data to obtain a better altitude fix. Apps will work fine without this sensor, but the data will be far less accurate.

IP Rating;
Ingress Protection Ratings define the level of sealing effectiveness for electronic enclosures. The first number indicates how effective the device is protected from dust, and the second number from liquid ingress. For example, Sony phones have generally high ratings in this area with IP68; 6 = resistance to dust & dirt, while 8 indicates liquid / water resistance. Higher numbers are better; for example, the IP57 rated HTC 10 Evo would be slightly less resistant to dust with a 5 rating than a Sony, and also slightly more likely to fail when exposed to water with a 7.

FM Radio;
Hardware – not a streaming app – that allows the device to receive a traditional FM over-the-air radio signal, often using the earbud cable as an antenna. This feature can be hard to find due to carrier pressure (it uses no data – they don’t like that), but it’s sometimes a useful feature to have while hiking in the backcountry, to get a weather report or to check the news (provided a signal can be found).

Retail Price;
An outright purchase, non-subsidized price. This is the amount you pay to own the device from day one, with carrier locks removed.

Comparison Chart – 5 to 6″ Screen Flagships Spec Summary.

It’s also worth saying that it will be difficult – if not impossible – to find a device perfectly suited within these specifications. Some features are in fact diametrically opposed – for example, the main difference between LG and Sony devices for several generations have been Removable Batteries vs. IP Rated Enclosures – take your pick – it’s hard to design both of those particular options into one handset. In this respect the table below tells a story in design limitation.

These are all flagship smartphones that have been released in the last few years. Note that a “previous model year” version has also been included for comparison for some of the brands deemed better suited to backcountry use. These older devices are often as feature-packed as the new models, but are available at significant discounts, either from the major carrier’s value banner (Telus’ value banner is Koodo, for example) or previously owned sources (sometimes even at half the retail price).

The slightly older designs are a good thing to keep in mind while looking for value – although older, they are always a better option than new non-flagship value devices. Companies like Motorola and LG cut features and costs on their value offerings to cover all price points and compete with the army of Chinese manufacturers, and in the process they drop features like MicroSD Card Slots and Barometric Sensors. Previous year flagships are a particularly good option for anyone wanting to take advantage of the black market BYOD plans. When combined with this pricing the combination will become more cost effective than a traditional plan often in less than a year, and becomes even more attractive when theoretically amortized over two or three years.

In terms of features, all these devices are roughly comparable – device size / weight, screen size, battery size – but as can be seen in the table, from the perspective of someone who is interested in active outdoor use, there are some important differences in each manufacturer’s offering.

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.