These days, nearly everyone heading into the backcountry carries a smartphone in their pocket. These powerful gadgets can, of course, make calls, send texts, and check email when in range, but they also offer many useful features far away from cell towers.
In the backcountry, cell phones have become a go-to navigation tool, an alarm clock for an alpine start up the peak, and the place to conveniently store guide books and favorite maps. Check out these ways you can use your phone in the backcountry even when cell service is nonexistent.
Know Your Location with Gaia GPS Navigation
Paired with a navigation app like Gaia GPS, your smartphone transforms into a powerful, compact navigation tool for backcountry travel — even when you’re out of range for cell service. You don’t need cell connection to pinpoint your exact location on a map, record your track, or find important map features, like water sources and campsites, for the backcountry area you are visiting.
To access maps offline in Gaia GPS, simply download the map by following these steps:
- Select the map source and any layer you want to download, Premium members can access and download multiple maps and layers at one time.
- Navigate to the area that you would like to download.
- Tap the (+) icon at the top of your screen.
- Tap the “Download Maps” button from the menu.
- Tap and drag the dots at the corners of the highlighted rectangle area, and adjust it to cover the area you want to download.
- Tap “Save”
You’ll be able to access the downloaded maps from the Gaia GPS app even when your phone is completely offline and in airplane mode to save your phone’s battery. When you’re out in the field, you can use the app to pinpoint your location on the map, drop waypoints to mark important spots like campsites and trail junctions, record your track and follow it back to retrace your footprints back to the car.
Get Your Bearings with a Compass App
A compass is an essential navigation tool that you use to take a bearing or orient your map so you can identify prominent land features and find your way if you get turned around. iPhones come with a compass app loaded on them, and can be launched from your iPhone’s home screen. Not all Android phones come with a compass, but there are many popular compass apps available for free. You can also pull up the Gaia GPS app to display the bearing for the direction you’re traveling. That said, you should always carry a handheld compass, too, in case your phone battery dies.
Download Guidebooks and Data Sets
Many popular trails and routes have guidebooks or data sets that show mileage and map coordinates for points of interest along the trail. But books are heavy and take up room in your pack. Gone are the days of tearing out the pertinent pages of a guidebook and taking them with you on the trail. Many guidebooks are available electronically and can be downloaded to your phone. If your favorite guidebook isn’t available electronically, you could take photos of the pages that apply to your trip and pull them up on your phone when needed.
Use Your Phone as a Watch for Simple Navigation and Alpine Starts
Many people have ditched the wrist watch in favor of using the clock on their phone to tell time. Knowing the time is important in the backcountry, because it helps you make important decisions such as whether to push on or stop and make camp. Time is also one of the three components of dead reckoning navigation, one of the most basic and useful backcountry travel skills. Dead reckoning involves learning your general position in the filed by using the mathematical formula of distance equals rate of travel multiplied by time. Using your phone clock or a watch on your wrist, you can find out how far you traveled by multiplying the time you were walking by the speed you were walking.
The phone’s clock also has an alarm to wake you from your deep sleep in the woods. Now you might be thinking you won’t need an alarm on your vacation to the backcountry. But an alarm comes in handy for alpine starts, when you need to wake up before the sun rises so that you can get an early start on the trail to tackle big climbs and beat afternoon lightning storms on exposed peaks and alpine passes.
Measure Slope Angles with an Inclinometer App
Backcountry skiers and snowboarders use inclinometers to measure the angles of slopes when assessing avalanche risk. If you don’t already have a dedicated inclinometer, or you’d prefer to use your phone for that task, download an inclinometer app. The Avalanche Inclinometer app (iPhone and Android) is simple to use and features a large display, making it easy to read the slope angle in any weather. The app also displays your elevation and includes a compass.
In addition to inclinometers, Gaia GPS premium members can view the Slope Angle-Shading Overlay to see the subtle changes in slope angle on a topo map. This can be a helpful tool for planning your backcountry trips, but is not a substitute for carrying an inclinometer when backcountry skiing or snowboarding in avalanche terrain.
Use Your Phone as an Extra Flashlight
Almost all smartphones come with a flashlight app that’s handy for quick tasks, like looking for something inside your tent or getting out of your tent in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature. The light on your phone is probably not powerful enough to illuminate the trail while hiking, but they are helpful for use around camp and inside your tent at night. Look for third-party apps for fun in-camp features like strobes and different colors.
Document Your Trip With Pictures and Video, Save Photos to your Track
With a smartphone in your pocket, you have access to a high-quality, lightweight camera that you can use to capture photographs and videos on all your backcountry trips. For many people, the default camera app that comes on a phone has everything they need: It should allow you to make exposure adjustments to get the lighting right, choose a focal point to ensure your subject is in focus, select high dynamic range (HDR) mode to capture a range of color and brightness, turn the flash on and off, and add gridlines to help you compose the perfect photo. If you want even greater control, look for a third-party camera app that lets you make shutter speed adjustments, change the ISO, and turn on image stabilization.
You can also use your trip to record points of interest in the Gaia GPS app. When tracking your route with the Gaia GPS app, snap a photo and save it to your saved route in exactly the place you took the photo. To do so, you simply tap the + icon in the top Gaia GPS menu in the iOS or Android app and select “Take Picture” when you want to attach an image. Learn more about how to take and add pictures in iOS and Android.
Create a Journal of your Trip
Many people enjoy bringing a small notebook and pencils into the wilderness to collect their thoughts in the quiet space of nature. But paper and pencils can get trashed when jammed into a pocket of your backpack. Try turning your phone into a travel diary with one of the many travel journal apps offered both free and for subscription. These apps bring a more in-depth solution to documenting your trip, including options to use text, photos, location tracking, and voice recordings to store all your memories and thoughts from a venture into the woods. When you come back to civilization, many travel journals sync your electronic journal to all your devices, so you can edit more freely on a bigger screen. Some journals even let you collaborate with other users to create a complete picture of your trip.
Stay Entertained with Games, Music, and Podcasts
For many people, the backcountry provides a space to “unplug” and get away from seemingly ever-present screens. But if you’re on a long journey and find yourself needing a distraction, try downloading crossword puzzles, games, audiobooks, inspiring outdoor podcasts like the Out and Back podcast by Gaia GPS, and playlists from your favorite music apps. Make sure you download files and/or apps to your phone before leaving home because there’s no guarantee you’ll have cell service out in the boonies. Also, nearby campers and resident wildlife would appreciate you bringing headphones to cut down on noise in the wilderness.
Identify Birds, Stars, and Plants
How many times have you looked at a pretty flower on the side of the trail or a bird chirping in a tree and wished you knew the name of it? Check out these apps, that will help you identify constellations, birds and plants.
To identify stars, try the free SkyView Lite app (iPhone or Android). It uses your phone’s camera to identify objects in the sky, including planets, constellations, distant galaxies, and satellites.
The Audubon Bird Guide app (iPhone or Android) helps you identify birds. Enter what you observe, such as color, size, and length of tail, and it will narrow down the choices for your location. The app offers data packets for offline use, which is essential when you don’t have cell service.
To identify plants and animals on your trek, try the free iNaturalist app (iPhone and Android). Using your phone’s camera, it can recognize many species of plants, animals, and insects. The PlantSnap Plant Identification app (iPhone and Android) is another popular option. Its free version helps you identify flowers, trees, mushrooms, cacti, and more.
Save Your Phone Battery
Relying on your phone for many tasks will wear down its battery. But there are many ways to conserve your phone’s battery while in the backcountry. Try running your phone in airplane mode, dimming the screen, and turning off location services for all the apps except maps and navigational aids, like Gaia GPS. Also, consider toting along a back-up battery or solar charger to juice up your phone on a long trip.
Mary Cochenour contributed to this story.