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Pro-tips for getting the most from your Android phone in the backcountry.
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Kevin Burton
(burtonator) - F

Locale: norcal
Pro-tips for getting the most from your Android phone in the backcountry. on 05/18/2013 21:11:46 MDT Print View

So you're bringing your android phone with you backpacking.

I imagine you're bringing it for pictures, video, and music.

But there's a LOT more you can do with it.

First. Get an SD card if you can. The best Android device right now for backpacking (IMO) is the Samsung Galaxy S3 or S4... they support external batteries and SD cards. Don't worry about charging your device. Just pack in 1-2 extra batteries.

- Podcasts. These are basically radio stations but cached offline so you can listen to then anytime. I use dogcatcher. It's not perfect but ok. (side note.. I'm one of the inventors of RSS which powers podcasts... so there's that:) Dogcatcher can write to your SD card.

- Evernote. I just found this out but you can tell evernote to pre-download all your notebooks so they're ready when you need it.

- ... it's a task tracking system. If you create a task it will re-sync with the cloud when you come back online.

- Backcountry Navigator. GPS maps... it works ok... costs about $50 when you ad maps. My GPS keeps having problems but it might be my device. The software is a bit difficult to use though.

- Kindle. Supports offline books. If you install the Kindle software on your mac or PC you can "print" to kindle. It works REALLY well documents you want to read when you're in the woods. Pro tip. you can invert the colors on Kindle books so they have a black background and on AMOLED displays this burns less power.

- Wiki Encyclopedia Offline. It's a full version of Wikipedia but without the pics. It takes up about 2GB. This has actually came in handy before to lookup various facts or information that I didn't know ahead of time.

- KnotsGuide... handy pics of how to tie some knots :-P

- Audible - audio books. There are some really good ones.

I mostly don't use my phone except when I"m in camp. When it's 4AM and too cold to get out of bed reading a good book is really helpful.

Derrick White
(miku) - MLife

Locale: Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada
Galaxy SII on 05/19/2013 08:32:08 MDT Print View

I carry an older Galaxy S2 for no purpose but for use with my InReach.

I initially downloaded BackCountry and other navigation software but found using the GPS on the smartphone destroys battery life. I now use it exclusively to connect to my InReach via bluetooth. The installed Inreach Map software, which is quite good, loads the InReach GPS data, and allows me to send and receive text messages.

I carry 2 spare batteries which last about 5 days each (15 days in total). I have uninstalled all software and turned off all services which are non-essential, including disconnecting it from a data network and turning off the GPS.

My trips tend to be to very remote areas and sometimes up to 3 weeks duration. To use the device for other purposes such as taking photos, video, music, ebooks, etc, compromises the battery life needed for the more important purposes of telling home at least once a day "I'm now at this location and I am okay!"

I wish I could use it for more purposes, for example voice dictation, so I could leave a note pad behind, but the batteries just can't make it.

That's my experience.


Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Pro-tips for getting the most from your Android phone in the backcountry. on 05/19/2013 08:49:01 MDT Print View

Try Gaia GPS.

I don't do electronics in the backcountry, but have heard good things about Gaia. Developed by Andrew Johnson, who is a BPL member, all around good guy.

I would not call a podcast a radio station. It's just a prerecorded program.

Edited by kthompson on 05/19/2013 08:50:06 MDT.

Kevin Burton
(burtonator) - F

Locale: norcal
Re: Galaxy SII on 05/19/2013 10:00:09 MDT Print View

I keep doing the math and if you're going out for 3 weeks and need battery the whole time a solar panel may be your best bet.

They're a BIT more weight but you can keep your device charged AND take pictures.

Derrick White
(miku) - MLife

Locale: Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada
Solar on 05/19/2013 10:25:55 MDT Print View

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for the solar suggestion but I am in the north (Labrador - Canada) and my hiking is usually in river beds surrounded by dense woods. For the weight\power benefit another battery would make more sense. Our weather is also very wet and not infrequently grey.

I really wish I could use all the potential of the Galaxy, but it just won't work power wise.


Derrick White
(miku) - MLife

Locale: Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada
Gaia on 05/19/2013 10:30:02 MDT Print View


I have bought and used Gaia and like it as a piece of software. The issue is not decent mapping software its the battery drain of the phone's internal GPS. I have also used Iphone and Blackberries and all are alike - GPS sucks the power.

Great for overnights or multiday trips, but not practical for expeditions.


michael adamski
(mikeadamski) - M
S4 vs iPhone review on 05/19/2013 11:29:23 MDT Print View

I'm due for an upgrade and have been lusting after the large screen of the S4. I found this review comparing the S4 to the iPhone to be very informative. Seems fair. Thought I'd share it.

Edit to correct link.

Edited by mikeadamski on 05/19/2013 11:31:49 MDT.

Brian Lewis
(brianle) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
pro-tips ... on 05/19/2013 11:46:30 MDT Print View

"I keep doing the math and if you're going out for 3 weeks and need battery the whole time a solar panel may be your best bet."

Who goes out for 3 weeks at a time without some sort of food resupply? Very few. If you've got some sort of food resupply, then you might also have a battery recharge option too. I've used solar for much of one long trip, and wouldn't do so again, barring special conditions.

I've carried a smartphone on three thru-hikes now and on other backpacking trips, and Android was the OS for two of the long ones. For me, "pro-tips" isn't so much about coming up with a complete list of ways to use the phone and of which applications are best to do that --- such threads have arisen before (search ...) including here on BPL I'm pretty sure. What sprang to my mind was knowing the details to fine-tune things to bring unneeded battery loss down to a minimum. Beyond basics like "turn off any broadcast/receive functions, and learn how to do that in a granular way beyond just the all-or-nothing airplane-mode". I think that getting the most out of your batteries is definitely a "pro" thing, and depends in part I expect on the particular model phone you have, which flavor of Android, whether the phone is rooted or not ... getting this really really right is something I've never dug deeply into, but can get pretty geeky.

Some, though, is just paying attention. For example, if you like to read at night, you can turn the screen brightness down quite a bit when it's literally dark out. Then just before you go to bed, try to remember to turn it back up, because it can be a PITA the next morning in bright sunlight trying to see what part of the screen to poke in order to get the brightness turned back up. And having a dedicated widget for that on the default screen is worth having, btw, in one of the four corners of the device --- so that you can in fact just poke at a known point when you inevitably forget to do this.

Off the top of my head, btw, some app types I don't think were mentioned yet are voice recorder, blutooth keyboard or improved soft keyboard software (either to make journaling easier, as well as just email). Possibly something to compress photos to make it faster (cheaper?) to upload, certainly one or more good file manager option. Putting lots of documents on your phone, so for example, that you can look up the perhaps unguessable process for getting your watch to do something obscure (or to get it out of some obscure mode that you don't know how it got into). A simple "burn battery power to make this a flashlight" is a good thing --- I used to carry a light LED light as backup, but my phone works fine for those infrequent instances when inevitably the time I decide I need to replace headlamp batteries is in the middle of the night. A kindle or similar free and/or paid first aid book is a really good idea. I'm not trying to be complete here, I'm certain there are more.

I guess another type of "pro tip" might be to keep the d#$m thing functioning on a long trip, and there are IMO two aspects to that (apart from battery power). First is dealing with the inevitable bugs. I've owned and carried into the backcountry enough phones now that I think that a person just needs to expect them to be buggy. And to have worked with the phone before going on a long trip to the point where hopefully not too much will bite you badly. The ones that force a reboot are obvious (and still highly annoying), but it's the subtle ones that can sometimes be really bad. In particular for me, one phone I had did wonderful on-camera panorama photo stitching. In some cases I could tell right on the phone that the software had failed to make a good stitch. But later when home I would then find quite a number of what I thought were beautiful shots where things didn't quite line up right, but looked right on a small camera screen in sunlight.

The other aspect of keeping it working is avoiding physical damage or the like. A nuance to that sometimes is dealing with cold weather, to include maximizing battery life when temps are down around freezing. Hmm, and as an aside to that, let me say that instead of (or in addition to) buying a little conductive thread and stitching it into a light glove finger (so that you can manipulate the screen without removing your glove), an alternative to taking pictures at least --- when it's cold enough out that you really don't want to take off mittens or gloves --- is to get practiced at stabbing the "shoot photo" soft button with your tongue. I've taken many a shot that way.

But to keep the phone from breaking or being lost, and yet having it readily available, something like a neoprene case that attaches to a chest strap works well. I think it's a mistake to carry a smartphone in a waist-belt pocket, unless you're very consistently careful. In really dusty, gritty environments, keep it in a snack-sized ziplock even when no rain is anticipated (and definitely do that when rain IS anticipated). Some touch-screen functions are just not going to work from inside a ziplock, but when it's in GPS mode I can make it work well enough like that.

Whatever carry case you get for it, it's worth the time/effort/money to get one that fits well. Too tight and it's a frustrating fight at a point when that marmot is poised in just a really cute but temporary way that you want to snap a picture fast. Too loose and it can literally fall out.

On a snowshoe day hike last year, my new phone fell out of an old (too large) neoprene case and sunk deep enough into the snow that when I went back to look for it, it wasn't to be found. So now I've got a case that fits the phone well, AND the little optional carry strap attachment point has a very little ring sticking out of the side that I can optionally clip to a neck cord if I feel nervous.

I also put a rubberized and moderately thick "skin" on the phone. This in turn impacts that neoprene case sizing and adds friction in using the case, but definitely soaks up some modest impacts.

The list of "pro-tips" is pretty large, I guess, really. It's also hard to know what others take for granted, and what's new to at least some. For example, the idea of texting when cell coverage is sketchy rather than trying to call. The idea of having something like skype so that you can make calls in trail towns that have no coverage for your carrier but do offer decent wi-fi. Lots of stuff. Some won't seem like "backcountry" issues to everyone, but when you're on a long hiking trip (one or more resupply stops along the way), the various uses all blend together for the one device.

Terry G
(delvxe) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Gaia GPS etc on 05/19/2013 11:49:07 MDT Print View

I have used and really like Gaia GPS for iphone. I am sure it is equally good on android and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

Like Derrick said, battery life is the real issue. I don't think there is a viable phone based solution if you want to keep tracking turned on. I use mine exclusively for route finding, putting down markers, and only occasionally turn on tracking. Used this way, getting a week out of an iphone is easy. I also bring a backup battery if I will be out for more than a few days.

Derrick White
(miku) - MLife

Locale: Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada
No Resupply on 05/20/2013 13:24:03 MDT Print View

>Who goes out for 3 weeks at a time without some sort of food resupply?

Hi Brian,

My 3 week trips have no resupply, and 10-12 days of food is as long as I can support myself with a 50lb pack limit. I am always on rivers and I supplement my food with fish.

My hiking is normally not along trails with trail heads, where town and data networks come into range as I hike. My treks tend to be in straight-ish lines away from civilization and into the backcountry and back out again. 3 batteries last me for the purposes I've given and if I needed more the obvious option is to add another battery. Solar is not practical in my neck of the woods simply because there is so little sunlight and any recharging option weighs more than the number of batteries it would fully recharge.

I carry my smartphone in a waterproof jacket and then store it in an Ortlieb camera case with my camera. The Ortlieb bag is also waterproof.

I have dialed in battery optimization as much as I know how by not only turning things off but uninstalling everything and completely disconnecting the data function except bluetooth for inReach texting to home. The smartphone I use is for this purpose. I have another phone I use in the real world.


Edited by miku on 05/20/2013 13:26:02 MDT.