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Smartphones on a Thru-hike
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Ryan C
(radio_guy) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Smartphones on a Thru-hike on 07/14/2011 10:03:47 MDT Print View

Most will be thinking "not another smartphone thread!" but hear me out.

I don't have a Topo mapping capable GPS. A cell phone is required. A camera is nice. Internet is useful when near towns/service (Weather, email, BPL..). By the time someone spends $200+ on a mapping GPS that will not be used very much, an iPhone 4 (or Droid) could be had for $200 or less in some situations and be much more multi-use. It consolidates several things into one. A decent portable solar panel weighing less than 8oz means it could be somewhat sustainable. I would probably still carry my Panasonic Lumix for taking awesome pictures though. Like many, I always carry a compass and applicable map and know how to use it.

1. Do any BPLers here have long distance experience with smartphones on the trail?

2. Was it worth it or would you still carry traditional separate electronic gizmos?

3. Any experiences with the Verizon iPhone 4 as a multi-use device?

Bradley Attaway
(AttaboyBrad) - F

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Totally worth it. on 07/14/2011 11:05:58 MDT Print View

I used my iPhone 4 for a weeklong trip. Loved it. See details in other threads at:


I also did a fairly comprehensive review of navigation apps at:

Steven Paris
(saparisor) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Smartphones on a Thru-hike on 07/14/2011 11:17:38 MDT Print View

Another option IF one didn't want to pay for a mobile plan would be to carry a newer-model iTouch that has a camera. The two things you would lose, compared to an iPhone, would be the ability to make calls away from WiFi and GPS.

You would need to find WiFi in towns to upload emails, photos etc and could use Skype to make calls.

While there is no GPS chip in the iTouch, some companies do make cases with GPS chips in them. I don't know if this would be seamless with other GPS iTouch/iPhone apps but you could at least (in theory) use the GPS case/chip to get your coordinates to use with a paper map.

Edit: I have an iPhone 4 and also like it. I'm just getting into topo apps though so I don't have any experience using it as a GPS yet.

Edited by saparisor on 07/14/2011 11:19:20 MDT.

Ryan C
(radio_guy) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
A few more specifics... on 07/14/2011 11:36:55 MDT Print View

Actually, I have had an old Casio mil-spec rugged phone for years with Verizon (awesome phone) and was eligible for upgrade. We are on a family plan and I don't actually use a ton of minutes, usually around 108 per month on average on a shared plan with 1400 minutes. So, I upgraded to the iPhone 4 for $150 and pay $30/mo for 2GB data which I will never come close to using. The cool part: according to Verizon, I can switch back and forth between my old phone and iPhone and add/drop the data plan as needed meaning I will only activate and use the iPhone when travelling or on a thru-hike. All other times, the iPhone becomes an advanced iPod Touch.

There is a week left of the 14 day money back evaluation period. I am debating whether or not to keep the iPhone 4 but think I will.

Art Sandt
(artsandt) - F
iphone and no battery on 07/14/2011 12:37:36 MDT Print View

I want to carry my iPhone, except it has no removable battery. I'm doubtful that a solar charger or even a crank charger would be a practical way to recharge it on the trail, although my only experience with external chargers has been with external iPhone batteries that both stopped working after about a month of use.

I really want to move towards a smartphone/GPS device for the trail because my experience with dedicated GPS units has been bad. This was 5-6 years ago with some Magellan POS that had about 50x50 pixels resolution on a black and green screen and hid topographic lines when you were zoomed out to any remotely usable scale. The thing weighed about 12 ounces, and you had to go through this retardedly complex process (literally 9-10 steps through various menus in the program) with 3rd party software that was NOT made for this device in order to transfer maps onto it. The program had a "transfer maps to device" button, but it did nothing. Well the program became unusable when the CD-ROM got scratched and the GPS unit has been sitting in my junk drawer ever since.

Needless to say, the intuitive interface of the GPS apps I've found for the iPhone, displaying full-color USGS topographic maps downloaded directly through the app have been a godsend to me. Only problem is the battery life on the iPhone sucks and there's no way to swap out the battery on the trail--you have to charge it with something extra, which weighs several times more than what half a dozen extra batteries would have weighed.

Edited by artsandt on 07/14/2011 12:41:10 MDT.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: iphone and no battery on 07/14/2011 12:45:27 MDT Print View

"some Magellan POS"

Now you know why Magellan failed in that marketplace.

Dedicated GPS receivers work fine, as long as you select them carefully.


John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Smartphones on a Thru-hike on 07/14/2011 13:00:54 MDT Print View

The ipod touch camera resolution is nowhere near the iphones.

"That’s 5 megapixels on the iPhone 4 versus less than 1 megapixel on the iPod touch."

Edited by jshann on 07/14/2011 13:17:40 MDT.

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Smartphones on a Thru-hike on 07/14/2011 13:10:50 MDT Print View

I just posted on this topic.

We used iPhone4 (ATT version) for six week backpacking in Turkey. Loved it. Great, no problems. I'll do it again on our next long hike. Read that post, and in particular, read the article that lists the detailed things you need to do to conserve battery life.


Edited by drongobird on 07/14/2011 14:00:11 MDT.

Ryan C
(radio_guy) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
iPhone GPS, camera, and battery on 07/14/2011 13:16:31 MDT Print View

The iPhone camera does have better resolution than the iPod Touch. I wish there were some way to adjust manual camera parameters, such as exposure and shutter speed.

@Art: After playing with Gaia GPS Lite yesterday on a day hike (I'll buy the real version if I keep the iPhone) and reading several forums, I learned that the GPS is disabled in Airplane mode as the GPS is part of the cellular transceiver chip. At least for the Verizon iPhone 4: disable airplane mode, enable location services, and turn off cellular data (3G). The cell phone transceiver will attempt to find the network and will be doing so at higher transmit power levels but the GPS will work. Unfortunately, here in the Midwest we have decent Verizon coverage (3G is iffy sometimes though) and I have not been in an area that has zero cellular coverage to test the GPS "off the grid" yet.

I find that the iPhone 4 draws about 10% of the battery per hour when used as a GPS with WiFi, Bluetooth, and 3G disabled. There has has to be a way to improve this.

My fear is becoming a smartphone robot that does nothing but stare at a 3" computer screen all day. This is all I see when "in town" anymore. I don't want to become that hence the reason I will probably only be activating the iPhone for travelling and long backpacking trips and use my regular phone at other times.

@Bradley: The posts you mention are what started me thinking about a smartphone.

@Amy: I remember reading your earlier posts and referencing the article by Alan. It was more specific for AT&T iPhone 4s with a removable SIM card, something the Verizon version cannot do. Your table comparing the various iPhone GPS apps is awesome! Thanks for your efforts and I'm glad you had a great trip.

Edited by radio_guy on 07/14/2011 13:26:54 MDT.

Bradley Attaway
(AttaboyBrad) - F

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Yank the SIM card on 07/14/2011 13:35:38 MDT Print View

If you yank the SIM card temporarily, you'll be able to use GPS without draining any battery searching for non-existent cell towers in the backcountry. You also won't have to hassle with turning Airplane mode on and off every time you want a GPS lock and don't want to leave the cell antennas running full blast. Provided you don't use an app that leaves the GPS on in the background, you'll use only a couple percent of battery life each day on Standby. Pop it back in when you get close to towns.

EDIT: Forgot you're on Verizon and thus have no SIM. My bad.

Edited by AttaboyBrad on 07/14/2011 13:39:51 MDT.

Ryan C
(radio_guy) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Saving power on the Verizon iPhone 4 on 07/15/2011 00:55:27 MDT Print View

I called Apple iPhone support and addressed some issues regarding the CDMA Verizon iPhone 4.

First, cellular data (3G), WiFi, and Bluetooth can be disabled to save some power. There currently is no way to disable the entire Verizon cellular phone chip without loosing GPS in the process, other than canceling service (thus turning it into an iPod with a better camera and GPS). Not being able to disable all cellular functions means that the iPhone will be transmitting at maximum power to try and establish connection to a network that will not be reached. This drains the battery even worse with no workaround.

Second, there is currently no way to use GPS in Airplane mode as Airplane mode disables the cellular transceiver portion which controls the GPS.

Third, iOS5 may have some updates that somehow allow the GPS to be enabled in Airplane mode while disabling the cellular transceiver from functioning. I think this would be the more ideal solution than draining the battery searching for service with Verizon and pulling the SIM card on the AT&T.

Fourth, close out all apps running in the background. This can save some power.

I inquired about the iPhone 5 but no one knows anything about it.

So to make a long story short: off the grid Verizon iPhone GPS is possible but will drain the battery much quicker than the AT&T version. There is no current workaround.

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
ATT iPhone4 Power Consumption Test Results on 07/15/2011 08:11:57 MDT Print View

I'll incorporate Ryan's info into our article about using iPhone as Backpacking GPS/Mapping device.

Alan and I didn't include info on our battery drain tests in that article. We're working on a longer more thorough treatment, and the info will be in the longer article. Battery drain for ATT iPhone4, with all other battery conservation measures in place:

<0.1% per hour (1-2% per day): SIM Inactive, Phone in Sleep Mode

~0.4% per hour (9-10% per day): SIM Active (signal present), Phone in Sleep Mode

~1.2% per hour (nearly 30% per day!): SIM Active (no signal), Phone in Sleep Mode

~5.0% per hour (~60% for long day hike): SIM Inactive, Gaia or MotionX in tracking mode, Some waypoint creation, and occasional use of other apps including the camera.

In summary: Either phone will work for day hiking. ATT phone will work for backpacking anywhere (either with or without ATT coverage). But to make Verizon phone work for backpacking, you would need to keep the phone in airplane mode and temporarily toggle airplane mode off every time you want to get a gps read. The hassle factor would depend on how often you think you need a read.

Edited by drongobird on 07/15/2011 08:13:27 MDT.

Art Sandt
(artsandt) - F
Re: Re: Smartphones on a Thru-hike on 07/15/2011 11:30:28 MDT Print View

Regarding the pixels in the iPhone camera.... pixels are not everything. They're a marketing point, and if you've got a good camera they let you utilize a good lens better, but the iPhone camera is still a little pinhole lens with a piece of glass over it. Although I have seem some good (and mosterously big in terms of MBs) pictures taken with an iPhone, I would never carry this as my only camera.

Chris Noble
(spokehead) - F
iPhone battery on 07/18/2011 13:08:28 MDT Print View

FWIW, I bought one of these this spring over concerns about battery use, and it was pretty much as advertised -
Provides one full recharge per use; lightweight, and amazingly cheap, even if I don't quite believe that 'list' price.