Posted by Mike on

Use your Smartphone to “Connect” with a Trail

Use your Smartphone to “Connect” with a Trail

We hike, partially, to disconnect from the always connected world.  Between computers, cell phones, and Facebook, it seems that our entire lives are one giant reality show, published for public consumption.  So why do I carry a cell phone, always powered on, on the trail with me?  What good is it to find true wilderness, only to pull out an electronic device and stare blankly into a screen?

It “connects” you with the wild.

Now, I don’t mean that you will be able to take a picture of a sycamore, and have the tree tell you all of its information.  That is still up to you to learn and retain.  What I mean is that you can connect with that trail in the future, when you’re no longer out in nature.  Many of us are experts at identifying the “here and now” when we’re in the backcountry.  We can identify trees, look at the lay of the land presented to us and locate water, or select the perfect campsite or stream crossing.

But what about the “There and then”?  How do we remember where that campsite was for the next time we’re in this special place?  Where were we standing when we took a picture of a mountain horizon, and when did we step off on the trail?


Use your cell phone

We all have them.  They’re ubiquitous in today’s world, and are considered as essential as a good knife was two hundred years ago.  They’re our phones, calculators, maps, music players, and calendars, in a little electronic package.

They’re also fragile, expensive, and not exactly waterproof.  So why do I always carry mine, and how do I work around some of these limitations?

In addition to the functions above, my cell phone (an LG G4 as of this writing) is the primary piece of gear I use to remember my trips by.  While I always carry a paper map and compass (and know how to use it!), my phone is the item I reference the most.

Using my favorite app, Backcountry Navigator, I have a topo map, track log, and orienteering abilities that go beyond what any paper map can do.  As I always plan my trips beforehand, I can download the maps to my phone before I leave, and when I get to the trailhead, place my phone into airplane mode, saving battery.

GPS uses a sizable amount of power, and having the cell radio and other devices turned off while hiking gives a decent boost to battery life, as well as keeping the phone QUIET.  If I come across a cool place, or a beautiful view, I can simply click the “add a waypoint” button on the app, and attach a photo right then and there.

Speaking of photos, I’ve ensured that the “location” or “geotagging” setting is turned on.  This lets me view my photos at a later date, and have them placed on a map precisely where they were taken.


Taken at 35.5660308,-83.5653669


If nothing else, use your phone to take pictures.  Even if you don’t use GPS, don’t geotag your photos, and never keep an electronic note, you’ll have pictures to remember your trip by.  Most smartphones have decent cameras on them.  Some of them even allow you to manually set photo parameters that only dedicated cameras used to have.  Almost every single photo on my site was taken with a cell phone.

As far as a recommendation, I personally stick with Android.  Removable batteries are a big plus, as you’ll will see later.

Wear a smartwatch?

A smartwatch is a relatively new addition to my gear list.  I’m even still on the fence with it now.  It’s awful pricey and fragile, and the jury is still out on if it truly can be relied upon as a timekeeping device any longer than a day.  Mine (an LG GWatch Urbane) generally needs to be charged every two days, making it all but useless for anything more than a dayhike.

But, that said, it also extends the battery of my phone that much further.  With a quick glance, all of the information about my trip (distance traveled, elevation gain, speed, etc) is automatically displayed on my watch, and I don’t need to pull my phone out to see it.  I can even say “Note to self” to my magic watch, and it will record via voice-to-text to a note application of my choosing.


Accessories:  Keeping turned on and tuned in while dropped out

As mentioned above, cell phones and other electronics are fragile and expensive, not to mention that they use batteries, and the last I checked, an Elm cares little about providing a USB port for you to charge with.  So there are trade offs and accessories that I carry with me do alleviate some of these frustrations.

The first is a good case for your phone.  This is something you should already have if your phone cost any more than a few bucks.  Most cases excel at protecting the device from scratches and damage from drops, but are lacking in the waterproof department (other than Lifeproof, but they only make covers for a limited range of phones).  So the second accessory is heavy-duty ziploc bags.  This will keep your phone dry, and amazingly, most touchscreens will still work through the plastic.

I also carry an extra battery for my phone, fully charged before I leave.  I’m experienced enough to know that my phone’s battery will last a full day of hiking with GPS on, as long as I’m also in airplane mode, and not taking thousands of pictures.  When I get to camp, generally, the phone is powered down.  I’m not out there to post to Facebook or call my buddies.  My phone is another tool or piece of gear at that point.

But batteries are heavy, so carrying five of them for a week long trip might be a feasible option, but I’d rather have gear that can serve more than one purpose.  I have a Goal Zero solar panel that I can strap to the outside of my pack when I hike.  Rather than use it to keep my phone running throughout the day, I use it to charge the extra battery.  Since it’s under no load, it will charge to full over four or five hours with only the sun.  Once it’s charged, I can use the solar panel to charge my headlamp (a Black Diamond Revolt), or to plug my phone into for a little extra life.

Another dual-use piece of gear is a biolite stove.  I have one, and it does in fact work surprisingly well to charge a battery, using only wood.  I can also cook a meal at the same time, and it burns the wood very cleanly.  The drawback is that it is heavy.  At over two pounds, I could carry ten batteries for my phone and my Emberlit wood stove and still not cross that weight.  I generally only use this in winter, when the sun is low, and I’m constantly melting snow for warm drinks, so “unlimited” clean fuel is a very big plus.

With a little planning, and the right outlook, the phone that pesters you throughout the week to always be connected can also be one of the most valuable tools to help you remember when you should disconnect!