From following snow-swept trails to keeping an eye on ever-changing avalanche conditions, navigating with Gaia GPS proves even more useful during winter. But there’s a catch: keeping your phone alive in frigid air can be tricky. If you’ve ever pulled out your phone in freezing temperatures only to discover that the phone’s battery has suddenly and unexpectedly died, you know how frustrating and even dangerous this predicament can be.
Phones and cold weather generally don’t get along too well. Low temperatures can rapidly drain your phone’s battery life, and — as you’ve probably experienced — cause your phone to shut down altogether. Thankfully, you can take tried and true measures to prevent this from happening. Here’s what you need to know to keep your phone alive when the temperature drops.
Why Cold Weather Zaps Phone Battery
As irritating as cold weather battery drain may be, it can easily be explained by science. Most smartphones use lithium-ion batteries. A chemical reaction within the battery sends charged particles through the phone’s circuitry, and this charge powers the phone. Cold temperatures slow this reaction down; charged particles encounter more resistance as they move throughout the battery to charge the phone. As these charged particles get stuck, the battery life plummets.
Unfortunately, scientists don’t entirely understand the delicate balance of chemicals required to keep your phone alive. This is why sometimes it may seem like your phone’s battery indicator lies to you. If exposed to the frosty air, your phone may say it has 50% battery one minute and it’s completely dead the next.
Cold weather affects other parts of your phone, too. LCD screens can grow glitchy and blurry. Onboard sensors can lose accuracy because they’re calibrated to work within a specific temperature range.
How to Prevent Battery Drain
In the backcountry, your phone can serve as an invaluable tool for everything from checking the slope angle to staying on course. Plus, those snowy sunrise photos are not going to take themselves. Keeping your phone alive in cold weather boils down to two tasks, minimize battery use and keeping your phone toasty warm. Here’s how to do both:
Know Before You Go
Look up your device’s operating temperature range. Most smartphones are designed to operate between 32 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature range also applies to the Apple Watch. Many GPS watches can withstand temperates far lower — generally to -4 degrees Fahrenheit. If ambient temperatures or wild chill temperatures drop below your device’s operating range, take steps to insulate it from the cold.
Charge Your Phone Beforehand
Sounds obvious, but don’t forget to charge your phone before you head out the door. That extra cushion will help prevent the battery from draining immediately.
Change Your Phone Settings to Save Battery
Now that your phone is fully charged, you want to use up as little charge as possible while out in the backcountry. A few simple tricks can help preserve battery life:
- Turn off location services in apps other than your navigation tool, such as Gaia GPS.
- Make sure you have closed as many apps as possible.
- Download maps ahead of time so your can operate your phone in airplane mode.
- Keep your phone in low power mode.
You may want to consider not recording a track on these cold outings, since doing so uses battery life as well. Check out even more tips and tricks to save phone battery life in the backcountry.
Turn Your Phone Off
If you’re worried about battery, turn your phone off and keep it in a warm place near your body so that it is ready to power on and use when you need it to.
Consider Investing in a Smart Watch
If you plan on regularly checking your place on the map or reading and sending texts, you can also consider investing in a smart watch. A smart watch lets you navigate and communicate from your wrist, and you will still have your phone as a backup if needed.
Keep Your Phone Close and Covered
The real key to keeping your phone alive in cold weather comes with keeping it warm. Carry your phone in an interior jacket pocket close to your body, and try covering your smartwatch with a glove or jacket sleeve. That way, your body heat will keep the device warm and the garment’s insulation will block out the cold.
Note that a phone can interfere with an avalanche beacon’s ability to find a buried partner, and you should follow these so these precautions to minimize this interference:
- Keep your phone at least eight inches away from your beacon.
- Keep your phone in airplane mode if possible.
- While conducting a search, extend your arm to bring your beacon about one and a half feet away from your electronic devices.
This interference mostly happens when beacons are in search mode. If you are the person your partner is trying to find, you should be fine. But you can keep your phone at least eight inches away from your beacon just to be safe.
Use an Insulating Case
You can go a step further and purchase a thermal case for your phone. The West Slope Case from Cold Case Gear uses aerogel insulation, the same material used to insulate space suits and space shuttles, to provide thermal, physical, and weather protection. An airtight magnetic closure also helps keep the cold weather out and makes the case 100% waterproof down to six feet. To help you out this winter, Gaia GPS users can get 20% off a Cold Case Gear West Slope Case by using the code CCGGAIA at checkout.
Don’t want to shell out the extra bucks for a new case? A beer coozy works as a do-it-yourself alternative. Some people have success with tucking a hand warmer inside the coozy along with their phone.
Use your Phone Wisely and Sparingly
No matter how many measures you take to keep your phone warm while it’s not in use, they won’t do you much good if your phone gets cold while you’re using it. If you need to use your phone, turn your back to the wind and keep your phone tucked close to your body when viewing it in cold weather. Stop moving, and take your phone out for as little time as possible. Looking at your phone while skiing downhill, for example, exposes your phone to wind chill and cools it off much faster than still air.
How to Warm Up Your Phone if it Dies
Once your phone shuts off due to the cold, it will take a little extra time to work again. But there’s no need to worry. Your phone shutting off is simply its defense mechanism against extreme temps. Let your device warm up slowly. A slow thaw will help prevent condensation from building up in the battery, which could cause water damage.
If you really need to use your phone, you can ever so slightly expedite the warming process by placing your phone near (not directly on) a warm surface, such as the dash of your car once you turn the heat on. Do not place your phone in the oven, microwave, or on a hot plate. If you need to send a text or check your location while still in the field, try placing your phone next to your body. Your body heat will help warm your up device.
Finally, do not charge your phone until it has returned to a normal temperature. Charging your phone while it’s ice cold could permanently damage the battery. Warmer temps will usually restore normal battery life anyway.
A good rule of thumb to follow this winter: treat your phone like a part of your body. Make sure it’s protected from snow and moisture, and make sure it stays warm. That way, it’ll be there when you need it.
Michael Charboneau contributed to reporting.