Subscribe Contribute Advertise Facebook Twitter Instagram Forums Newsletter
Why you shouldn’t use Smart Phones for Backcountry Navigation
Display Avatars Sort By:
eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
Why you shouldn’t use Smart Phones for Backcountry Navigation on 05/24/2011 23:05:58 MDT Print View

http://blog.oplopanax.ca/2011/05/why-you-shouldnt-use-smart-phones-for.html

author is SAR ...

Why you shouldn’t use Smart Phones for Backcountry Navigation
Smart phones are everywhere. By “Smart Phone” I’m referring to any mobile phone that has additional functions, but specifically for the purposes of this article a smart phone is any phone that has a GPS or A-GPS function. My assertion is that you should almost never use a smart phone in the backcountry as a navigation tool.

Firstly, I am going to leave aside all considerations of accuracy, time to calculate your position (get a fix), accuracy of map data and other things that are comparable in function and performance to other single purpose navigation devices. If you’re going to nit pick about performance, you can easily find a flaw in any GPS unit. In particular, flaws in the accuracy of the map data are well known and are common to every unit out there. Let’s assume that smart phones are in general about as good as any GPS with regard to basic function.

So why shouldn’t you use them for navigation?

Primary Function
The primary function of a phone in the backcountry should be always to call for help if help is needed.

Any use of the phone that could possibly impede your ability to call for help when you need to, whether it be for you or for another party, should be avoided at all costs. There are some common sense exceptions to this rule which I will go into a little later.

Why am I so hard and fast on this rule? Before the common use of mobile phones, people would be reported missing when they failed to return home in the evening. This would mean that a SAR team would usually be called out at midnight or 1 AM to begin a search, which could be several hours after the subjects became lost, or worse, injured. The team would search all night and usually either locate the subject during the evening or early the next morning once a helicopter could get into the air.

With the advent of cellular phones, many times people call for help immediately. If the person is lost, they can describe their route, and the scenery, and can sometimes be guided back to a trail without the SAR team even looking for them. If the subject is hurt, the team can react knowing the general area, and the type of injury. This saves time and lives by allowing the SAR team to react quicker. Now some of our searches and rescues are over mere hours after the incident occurs.

The mobile phone is the most useful way to get help when you need it, and can be considered a standard safety device to take with you on a hike; easily as important to a modern hiker as a map or compass (but not a replacement)

Issues

Battery Life
The most important reason not to use a phone as a navigation device is to preserve battery life. Smart phones are notorious battery hogs, and rarely get more than one day of use out of a single charge. Using the the GPS increases CPU load, keeps the screen on, and activates the GPS receiver. In addition, most mobile navigation software makes use of online maps such as Google maps, so the data connection also needs to be on to access the internet. this clearly drains the battery faster.

One possible exception to the battery life issue is if you have a spare battery. Most people do not, and it is well known that the most popular smart phone brand has no way for the user to replace the battery without voiding the warranty. There are special cellphone charging devices that can extend the life of your smart phone battery, but their weight and expense tells me that you would be better of buying a single-purpose wilderness GPS instead.

If the phone must be used consider turning off all unnecessary functions such as Bluetooth, and if possible mobile data (although as sated above, most software needs mobile data for the maps).

Ruggedness
Smart phones are also notoriously easy to damage. They are not waterproof, hard to use with gloves, and cold weather decreases battery performance. Taking them out all the time to consult them for your position just increases the chance that they will be damaged by water, cold or other environmental factors.

Finding your position
SAR teams can use your phone to help find your position. The first and simplest way we do this is by talking to you. At night we can ask what you can see, and teams approaching you can use flares to figure out where you are in relation to them. In the daytime we can ask if you can hear the helicopter searching for you. We can also give you advice on how to stay warm, and how to be easier to find.

The second, more advanced way is that the cellular network, under certain circumstances, can tell us your position by asking the phone to send it. This is not an easy task because it involves asking the police to get the phone company to get the position. It`s also not reliable because some of this function depends on the position of the phone relative to the closest towers, and if reception is bad it could also take a long time. However, it is possible, and it is sometimes extremely accurate.

The final, and most unlikely method of being found is that the light from the phone`s screen can sometimes be seen by a helicopter flying at night. Do not rely on this because most helicopters can`t fly over wilderness areas at night, and a fire would make a much better light anyway.

Exceptions
There are always common sense exceptions. These are important.

If you are calling for help and you don`t have a regular GPS, then use the smart phone to find your location and tell the operator.

This should be obvious, but there have been at least two searches I have been on when a lost subject actually had a real GPS but neglected to tell the 911 operator, or any SAR managers. the search went on for many house before he brought it up.
If you`re just need to make a choice between two trails, or something simple like which way is north, then use the Smart Phone.

It`s better to use it a little and not get lost, than to steadfastly follow the rule and need to call for help later. On the other hand, if you find yourself needing to use it more and more often, then consider that you`re probably already getting lost, and you should use the phone to call for help before you run out of batteries

In this case it is a judgement call as to whether the phone is more useful for communications or navigation
Recommendations
If you are a hiker, buy a purpose-built wilderness GPS and learn how to use it
Always have a map and compass as well – for when the GPS batteries die!
When hiking, turn off your mobile phone especially if it is a smart phone, to preserve batteries.
Keep the phone dry and, if possible, warm.
If you must use it, use it sparingly, and use your judgement to determine when to call for help.
Summary
If you are a hiker, then you should not use the smart phone as your general navigations device. It should be held in reserve to to call for help and to communicate with SAR if there is a problem. Using the phone runs down the batteries and makes your best chance at calling for help less and less useful. Navigation is best done with a purpose-built wilderness GPS with updated maps. Sparing use of the Smart Phone in an emergency to provide SAR with your position is recommended, as is very occasional use to provide minor guidance.

Even though I stress that the mobile phone is your best chance of calling for help, remember that they need to have a line-of-sight view of a cell tower for them to work, and the distance from that tower is also a factor. There are many areas very close to Vancouver (in particular Buntzen Lake) that have extremely poor or no cellular reception

I recommend these procedures for using smart phones and cell phones because I know they are ubiquitous, so almost all hikers have them. Retaining battery life is the only way of being certain you can make a call if the reception is good enough. I cannot recommend cell phones as a reliable method to call for rescue because of the reception issue.

Stephen B Elder Jr
(selder) - M

Locale: Front range CO
well, maybe... on 05/24/2011 23:14:39 MDT Print View

"The mobile phone is the most useful way to get help when you need it, and can be considered a standard safety device to take with you on a hike; easily as important to a modern hiker as a map or compass (but not a replacement)"

Virtually all of my hiking I get no cell service, but if I forget my watch it still seems to keep time. Otherwise it's a useless brick.

If you DO have service available, not letting the battery go dead from using a GPS funcyion would seem to be a good idea...

Edited by selder on 05/24/2011 23:20:29 MDT.

Ken Charpie
(kencharpie) - MLife

Locale: Western Oregon
Does Not Compute on 05/25/2011 05:58:04 MDT Print View

So I don't understand why we shouldn't use them for GPS navigation, except for the battery life issue. Most of the quote was about how useful a cell phone is in the backcountry for SAR purposes.

I would say that using a smartphone as a phone/gps nav/reference is the perfectly in line with lightweight philosophy. It is a multifunction device that we should take advantage of. The lack of ruggedness is a compromise for not having to carry a standard gps unit. We compromise on ruggedness all the time around here :) There are simple solutions, like having a touchscreen smartphone, which you can manipulate through a thick sealed plastic bag, making it weatherproof.

The only issue I see here is the short life of batteries when used extensively. This can be addressed by being aware of the battery useage pattern of our device and planning it's use appropriately. We can also extend life with some weight penalties: extra batteries, or a recharging device of some kind.

I have just purchased a 7W powerfilm rollable solar panel that I intend to carry on my next multi-day trip (in late June) to see how well this system will perform with moderate gps and reference app usage. The panel should weigh in at <1 lb. I have yet to place it on my scale... bc I am in the process of some modifications :) I'm keeping myself in suspense on the weight until I finish the project. I need to get some time in on it soon.
Powerfilm 7 W Rollable Solar Panel


Another point not mentioned in the article is the availability of a plethora of reference material for smartphones. My smartphone has a copy of the Army Survival Guide, CPR guides, First Aid guides and videos, Medical books, Knot tying guides with pictures... etc. All of this is stored data on my phone, requiring no data connection, just the power to keep the app and my screen running. The phone can replace your journal and can even tag journal posts with your gps coordinates.

There is a simplicity to turning off the phone that draws me to the wilderness: I carry it; but in the past I have almost always had it turned off or in airplane mode while recording a gps track. On this next trip I'm going to experiment and actually see if I can use my phone to enhance my wilderness experience; hence the solar panel test.

I'm going to post more information and pictures of the project in another post once I have finished modifying it to fit my needs. It will be strapped to the back of my pack and hooked directly to my phone for constant charging.

And then I'll also have some post trip uploading and sharing to do with everytrail.com. I'm pretty excited about the community there. There are many interesting hikers and climbers in the Pacific Northwest documenting their trips, climbs, and bike rides in detail. The amount of information is growing quickly and I like the incentives they are offering users to publish authored guides on the site. I guess I should start a separate thread on that, though....

Edited by kencharpie on 05/25/2011 06:49:07 MDT.

Ken Charpie
(kencharpie) - MLife

Locale: Western Oregon
On the utility of GPS on 05/25/2011 06:03:37 MDT Print View

I have gps tracked my last couple overnight hikes using my smartphone and ended both trips with a decent amount of battery left over. The phone sat in airplane mode in my pack for the most part, except for taking a short video or two.

The utility of a gps track, I've found, is in being able to share trips with other people with tools like this site:
http://www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=1097631

I'm planning on doing more of this right on my smartphone during my next trip, allowing me to capture my thoughts and impressions on the spot, rather than trying to recapture the trip at my pc when I get back to civilization... we'll see how it goes.

For those of us who want gps info, I think this seems to be the ultimate solution rather than something we should never do.

But I guess this is from a hiker's POV, not an SAR. I have a current wilderness first aid certification from WMI: I am very safety minded. But not to the point of not using such a great multipurpose tool that I am going to have to carry in the backcountry anyway.

Edited by kencharpie on 05/25/2011 06:07:50 MDT.

John Jensen
(JohnJ) - F

Locale: Orange County, CA
solar on 05/25/2011 06:14:14 MDT Print View

Not UL, but I've hiked with a guy who enjoyed using a solar charger with his iphone. He seemed to have a set of apps figured out that used the GPS without relying on a data connection. I think that included peak, etc.

Ken Charpie
(kencharpie) - MLife

Locale: Western Oregon
Topo Maps without Data on 05/25/2011 06:18:40 MDT Print View

There are several apps out there now that can download topo maps beforehand, eliminating the need for a data connection during the trip to access them. I like Backcountry Navigator on my Android phone right now, it seems to be working well for my purposes.

Edited by kencharpie on 05/25/2011 06:23:58 MDT.

John Jensen
(JohnJ) - F

Locale: Orange County, CA
diy solar on 05/25/2011 06:31:58 MDT Print View

I follow the "maker" community a bit. They do have some interesting charging projects (MintyBoost being one of the originals). Here is a diy solar project, which claims:

"Using a slightly larger solar cell (6v/250mAh) you can generate enough power to fully charge an iPhone in about 5.5 hours and an iPod Touch in 4 hours."

It sounds like shorter frequent use, or pack-top, could keep a phone topped up.

Joe Clement
(skinewmexico) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
Why you shouldn’t use Smart Phones for Backcountry Navigation on 05/25/2011 08:05:56 MDT Print View

I've always figured that if you get a cell phone signal, you're not really in the backcountry.

Ginger Allman
(gindavall) - F

Locale: Ozarks
Re: Why you shouldn’t use Smart Phones for Backcountry Navigation on 05/25/2011 08:37:30 MDT Print View

Oh heck, we don't have cell coverage for most of our front country, much less the back country. We always take a phone just in case, but it's always a shock when we actually find we have coverage.

Chris Townsend
(Christownsend) - MLife

Locale: Cairngorms National Park
Why you shouldn’t use Smart Phones for Backcountry Navigation on 05/25/2011 08:43:24 MDT Print View

There's nothing wrong with using a smart phone for backcountry navigation if it's used sensibly, which means in conjunction with a map and compass.

The GPS in a smart phone works fine when there is no cell phone signal. I used a smart phone on a thru'hike of the Pacific Northwest Trail last summer and it worked fine in many areas where there was no cell phone signal.

I switch of all functions except the GPS to save battery power and carry a spare battery or batteries (the main reason I rejected the iPhone) plus a mini solar charger. I also don't leave the phone switched on all day. I switch it on when I can't easily find my position on the map, usually when I'm trying to find an overgrown abandoned trail or where to change direction in poor visibility (thick mist, dense forest), and only keep it on until I have the information I need. That way a battery can last several days.

Given that smart phones aren't going away and more and more people will use them in the backcountry I think advice on how to use them for navigation is needed rather than commands not to do so.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Why you shouldn’t use Smart Phones for Backcountry Navigation on 05/25/2011 08:48:27 MDT Print View

Is the GPS better in a Garmin 60CSx or DeLorme PN-60 than on an smart phone?

Better able to locate position when you're in a canyon or wooded area?

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
Re: Why you shouldn’t use Smart Phones for Backcountry Navigation on 05/25/2011 08:51:55 MDT Print View

I just wish Americans would quit calling them cell phones - they are "mobile" phones. The technology behind cellular is for the most part has been left behind.

Yeah, I know, details, details....

Anyhow - if one hasn't turned on their mobile in recent years they might be shocked at how far coverage has happened. Many parks are silently installing towers for the rangers to use. You might just be surprised. And if one is on a ridge in the lower 48 it is often scary how often you can get full coverage.

Chris Townsend
(Christownsend) - MLife

Locale: Cairngorms National Park
Why you shouldn’t use Smart Phones for Backcountry Navigation on 05/25/2011 09:05:09 MDT Print View

Jerry, I tested a group of GPS units including ones from Garmin and Satmap plus ViewRanger on a smart phone and they all worked pretty much the same, including in wooded areas. I've pnly tried two smart phones though. It may be that other smart phones aren't as good.

Sarah, here in Britain they're just called "mobiles". Phone is becoming redundant anywhere as they now do so much more than calls. On the Pacific Northwest Trail I had little reception in Montane, Idaho and eastern Washington but a fair amount of reception in western Washington.

Chris Benson
(roguenode) - F

Locale: Boulder
Re: Re: Why you shouldn’t use Smart Phones for Backcountry Navigation on 05/25/2011 09:26:18 MDT Print View

"Is the GPS better in a Garmin 60CSx or DeLorme PN-60 than on an smart phone?

Better able to locate position when you're in a canyon or wooded area?"

My 60Csx has been more accurate, and less likely to drop signal, than the gps in my phone. The antennae is better, and the sirfstar III chip is probably better than what's in my droid incredible. Not to mention I can use an external antennae with the 60 and leave it in my pack.

As mentioned in the article, one nice plus for handheld gps units is that they are usually tougher than mobile phones.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
hmmmm on 05/25/2011 10:50:06 MDT Print View

on longer full day climbs i will definitely turn off the cell phone ... so that if there is an accident in a known reception area, ill be able to call out ..

remember that not only do you have to make the initial call, but its highly possible you may have to stay on the line for guiding the SAR team in ... and possibly medical advice

Justin Reigle
(jreigle) - F - M

Locale: SF Bay area
Re: Re: Why you shouldn’t use Smart Phones for Backcountry Navigation on 05/25/2011 14:51:41 MDT Print View

I just wish Americans would quit calling them cell phones - they are "mobile" phones. The technology behind cellular is for the most part has been left behind.

Can you elaborate on that? What's been left behind? I'm under the distinct impression that the widely used mobile phones in North America, Europe and Asia (e.g. GSM/UMTS, CDMA, etc...) are indeed using cellular radio networks. So, it would seem to be correct terminology. Or not?

Edited by jreigle on 05/25/2011 14:52:19 MDT.

Matthew Marasco
(BabyMatty) - F

Locale: Western/Central PA, Adirondacks
re: on 05/25/2011 15:27:56 MDT Print View

I use Backcountry Navigator on my Droid X, and have been very happy with it. I've never had an issue with signal acquisition, and absolutely love using a 4.3" touchscreen to navigate. I got some liner gloves with touchscreen-sensitive finger tips that work fairly well. Battery life with GPS on the entire time gets me through a full day including some music playing. I have a bunch of spare batteries ($8 each for OEM batteries on ebay), and usually budget one per day I intend to use GPS.

I do admit though, I have nightmares of dropping the thing in a puddle or stream. I have a silicone case which provides decent impact resistance and covers the buttons, but still leaves openings at the connection points. I would not use it without a paper map and compass to back it up.

Edited by BabyMatty on 05/25/2011 15:28:58 MDT.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Re: re: on 05/25/2011 15:34:01 MDT Print View

I think if used properly, a smartphone can be helpfull. As for chargers, there is a wrist watch style charger coming on the market. It is called the powerstrap and the cost will be around a $50 or so

Ken K
(TheFatBoy) - F

Locale: St. Louis
Re: Re: re: on 05/26/2011 20:31:48 MDT Print View

>> I think if used properly, a smartphone can be helpfull. As for chargers, there is a wrist watch style charger coming on the market. It is called the powerstrap and the cost will be around a $50 or so

I think the Powerstrap is just an extra battery... It may add a day to your total charge, but ultimately, it's not a solution for a week in the wild. If it generated a charge based on movement and stored that charge in a battery for on-demand use, that would be awesome. As it is, I think the marketer just doesn't get it. There are plenty of external battery packs on the market.

Dale South
(dsouth) - M

Locale: Southeast
Re: Smartphone as GPS on 05/27/2011 07:13:38 MDT Print View

As someone posted you can download maps in advance so that you do not need a data connection. On the iPhone you can disable everything but the gps function in effect turning it into a dedicated gps. I am sure the same may be true with other smartphones. I used my iPhone through the 100 mile wilderness in Maine and charged it once at WHL. Still had good charge left when I reached Monson.