Backpacking with your iPhone
July 13, 2012 4:00 PM   Subscribe

How to use your iPhone GPS for backpacking including reviews on most of the relevant GPS, topo, and navigation related apps available for the iPhone.
posted by stp123 (31 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
All of those Apps do seem useful to a hiker - but honestly, if I went hiking with a friend, and he was sitting by the camp-fire at night playing Angry Birds on his iPhone - I don't think I would ever hike with him again.

For me, the very reason to hike is to leave the damn iPhones behind.
posted by Flood at 4:25 PM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Eeeeeeh, I always get a bit Curmudgeon when people want to use something so delicate as an iPhone for what could be a life-or-death tool. I'd be scared I'd break/lose/run out of batteries - and then what?

At least a GPS-only device is made with a bit of rough-and-tumble in mind, rather than a priority in cold, industrial design and sexiness.

It's also an expensive piece of kit. I'm not sure everyone that has an iPhone can actually afford the damn thing.

I'm going against the fairly swift tide of change here. I understand.
posted by alex_skazat at 4:26 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Eeeeeeh, I always get a bit Curmudgeon when people want to use something so delicate as an iPhone for what could be a life-or-death tool.

Well, if you don't have a compass and map, and the skills to use them, I don't care what else you have, you shouldn't be out there.
posted by eriko at 4:32 PM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've gotten in to mushroom hunting this past year and my phone (Droid, though) is my most indispensable tool.

I use the BackCountry Navigator app to download topo maps before heading out. Different mushrooms -- in the Sierra, anyway -- like different elevations and flora, and I use the maps to pinpoint likely spots that might be just a bit further from the road than the average picker wants to venture. (Logging roads, ftw!) I mark every location I check with a waypoint that includes information on the boom and bust. Some mushrooms come back year after year, so now I have my own spots.

I love it as a tool and as a keeper of more information than my head can keep track of. The one downside is battery life, but I keep my phone charging in the car.

All that said, I'd never rely on my Droid on a backpacking trip, because the battery would be dead before the second morning -- and sooner if I was using GPS.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:35 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm curious, would this really work as a GPS anywhere in the world? I tried this past Christmas to do just that with my Android phone and the GPS wouldn't function in the UK because GPS uses the clock and it refused to believe it was in a TimeZone that was not in the US. Seems like a carrier locked feature. So if you have a US iPhone would you have to unlock it?
posted by MrBobaFett at 4:46 PM on July 13, 2012

I've taken my iPhone on a few backpacking trips in the Sierras (to use as an MP3 player, in airplane mode), and I never have reception once I get a few miles away from the trailhead. Dedicated GPS units made for the backcountry often have trouble getting signal. Also, as mentioned above, the battery would die really quickly as it searches for signal.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 4:58 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

My wife and i just got back from doing some alpine hiking and backpack camping. We used GAIA GPS as the article suggests, and it worked pretty damn well.

Not that we got lost or anything, but we were able to track distance from our various destination points and identify surrounding peaks and stuff. All very accurate and simple to use and didn't drain the battery much at all since we turned off our phones whenever we weren't using it.
posted by striatic at 5:02 PM on July 13, 2012

1) Buy a map of the area
2) Buy a compass
3) Know where you are, where you're going, and where you're gonna be.
4) Keep the iPhone in a waterproof container in your pack and leave it there.
posted by bondcliff at 5:03 PM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've been doing this for about a year now. If you're interested, you can take a look at the maps generated by my iPhone integrating with Google Maps in the various trail reports here. {self link}
posted by netbros at 5:09 PM on July 13, 2012

No. Absolutely not. No devices on my hikes. That's a huge part of the overall point of it.
posted by parki at 5:40 PM on July 13, 2012

I like to hike with my android.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:44 PM on July 13, 2012

I'm curious, would this really work as a GPS anywhere in the world? I tried this past Christmas to do just that with my Android phone and the GPS wouldn't function in the UK because GPS uses the clock and it refused to believe it was in a TimeZone that was not in the US. Seems like a carrier locked feature. So if you have a US iPhone would you have to unlock it?

I don't understand what you're meaning here. I'm Canadian but currently in the USA (in a different timezone then my home) and my GPS works perfectly on Android. In fact, I switched from iPhone to Android because in my experience the GPS was more accurate. Standing on the streets of LA, my iPhone's GPS was off by a block or two more often then not. Might have been a defective unit, but Apple said there was nothing wrong with it. This was two years back--maybe they've improved. I've been happy with my switch.

I use GPS software every day on my phone during my runs and hikes.
posted by dobbs at 5:51 PM on July 13, 2012

I keep hearing about people who travelled into backwoods areas and were led seriously astray by their GPSs. That would make me nervous.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:57 PM on July 13, 2012

They are nice for mapping bike rides, however.
posted by gottabefunky at 6:02 PM on July 13, 2012

Not trying to be that guy, but I am kind of surprised at the vitriol aimed at cell-phone based GPS. I am not an apologist for the technology, per se, but it seems like a no-brainer. If you already have a phone, why the hell wouldn't you bring it? It is small, unobtrusive and can be turned on and off at will. It can save your life in many ways depending on the situation. This romanticism for the map and compass and other "old school" methodologies is understandable (no one loves paper more than I) and useful, but let's be candid and admit that a compass is technology just as an iPhone is technology. Modern maps are the result of satellite data gathering. Technology can be useful and it can be abused. I can see the curled lips of old-school sailors and trappers when "map" and "compass" are mentioned. What, are the stars not enough for you? Pansy! And while we're at it, what's with your computer-designed, petroleum-based tent fabric? Why the hell do you have a -30 degree sleeping bag? And what about those high-performance, waterproof hiking boots made half-way around the world out of space-age materials? * Sniff * Is that sunscreen you are wearing? And are those photochromic, shatter-proof lenses on those sunglasses of yours? And what the.... freeze dried food! In my day we'd stalk, kill and clean a caribou with our bare hands using a knife fashioned from materials we found on our path! Why don't you wimps leave your namby-pamby technology home and REALLY rough it for once? Doughy sods.

/snarky sarcastic git
posted by FrankBlack at 6:04 PM on July 13, 2012 [19 favorites]

FrankBlack beat me to it. Not every hike is meant to be a near death experience, some of us just go for a hike and since we got the phone with us anyway, well, why not use it?
posted by nostrada at 6:09 PM on July 13, 2012

The problem some people is have is that they know themselves, or the people they are travelling with, and the phone would not be used just as a GPS.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:11 PM on July 13, 2012

And if they want to listen to mp3s out on a hike, I'll shake my head just a little bit, smile, wave and move on. No need to lecture them about the sounds of nature.
posted by nostrada at 6:14 PM on July 13, 2012

I've not taken my iPhone backpacking, but I always used to take along my running gps (a relatively early Garmin Forerunner 201). It doesn't have any sort of basemap. If the hike was short, I might have enough battery power to record a track. If not, I could still turn it on to get elevation and position, which could easily be plotted on the map. If I was really organized, I'd have a few key waypoints programmed in advance. All in all, great fun and not a distraction from the trip.
posted by sfred at 6:14 PM on July 13, 2012

Yeah, I find I need my phone to call home when I get off the trail and don't want to leave it in the car at the trailhead anyways.

The GPS functionality is useful as a companion to the map and compass to check exactly where I am on a hike segment. When you're in forests with complex micro-terrain, a map and compass can be useless at times.

It also acts as a useful backup flashlight, first aid reference, faun & flora guide, and can save carrying optional map scales and coverage.
posted by stp123 at 6:17 PM on July 13, 2012

I keep hearing about people who travelled into backwoods areas and were led seriously astray by their GPSs.

It means they failed at map. Part of the problem is map-following screens -- you blindly trust them.

GPS can be incredibly useful without a map function, if it tells you where you are and you then plot that on your map. But you need to know the limits of the system -- if you're in a place where you don't have much sky visibility, your fix precision drops. A 50m off point could put you on the wrong side of the ridge.

This is where map skills and a compass come in handy. "Okay, GPS says I'm here, on the south side of the ridge. Compass says I'm looking north, though, and I should be seeing the mountain, and I'm not, so I'm actually on the *north* side of the ridge..."

So, you mark where the GPS thinks you are, draw a circle around it matching the readout precision error, and see at what part in that circle the view you have makes sense with the map. Then you know where you are, and you can then plot a route. You then either terrain follow, or set a bearing and follow it with your compass.

If you cannot read your position directly out of the GPS, along with your altitude and what precision the unit thinks it has, then you either have the wrong unit or you need to read the manual and find out how. Mapping functions look neat, true -- but if you have an actual map, all you want is "where you are."

Plus, the actual map doesn't go black if the battery in the GPS dies. :-)

The real key is knowing how to read a map and match it up with what you are seeing -- that way, if your GPS is wrong (or you forgot to set the declination on your compass and it is off by 20 degrees) you'll know that something isn't correct, because you should see X there, and X is somewhere else.
posted by eriko at 6:18 PM on July 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

I am not an apologist for the technology, per se, but

I agree that technology can be amazing, and might save your life. ELTs (emergency location transmitters) are used by many serious hikers (and dog sledders). It is a satellite transmitter, and does not use cell phone towers. ELTs save lives.

You can also get a smart phone / satellite phone. If you can see the sky, you can stream data with the satellite network. Check you exact location on google earth from anywhere on earth. And this technology is going to get cheaper and cheaper. Satellite phones may yet replace cell phones one day.

Also, the battery problem is a red herring. You can get small, light-weight back-up battery packs, and you can get small solar charger. The small solar panel can be mounted on your pack, and letting you charge as you hike.

Nevertheless, the idea of streaming data to check facebook or playing angry birds - it seems to destroy the soul of why you hike in the wilderness in the first place. We all know that once a smart-phone satellite phones become common, people will be checking facebook as the hike in the wilderness - and that seems terrible.
posted by Flood at 7:03 PM on July 13, 2012

people will be checking facebook as the hike in the wilderness - and that seems terrible.

No it doesn't. If it's terrible to someone, they can not do it. And if it's not terrible to someone, they can do it. No one has to lose. No one has to change. People hike for all sorts of different reasons and have different values and different experiences.

The worst that can happen is that you want to talk to someone you're hiking with and their attention isn't on the same things as yours. I guess it could push you to hike with people you are more philosophically aligned with. But it's not like you wouldn't have had to do that already, before the phone thing, if that kind of conformity of experiences is important to you.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:25 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had great luck with offline tourist maps with my phone's GPS this summer. smart maps
posted by shothotbot at 7:39 PM on July 13, 2012

I've been geocaching and it took me the longest time to reach the geocache on top of Mount Everest. I left a note there with a shoutout to Metafilter, so you can enjoy it when you get there.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:49 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Batteries are OK, but recharging by kinetic energy is the way to go.

I wouldn't rely on it 100%, and have a different, more traditional battery device as a backup, but a good portion of these devices look like a promising solution.

But really, these are a convenience, and are should not be fully trusted. Your app is the far end of a very long chain of technological devices, some of which are in space ferchrissakes, and a problem at any point in the construction in ANY of those devices, that happened now or years in the past (ex. some guy put a tiny, substandard resistor on the board of your phone when it was made and will fail months after your bought it, or some tired programmer put a comma where he should have put a semicolon and the calculation when certain numbers are multiplied ends up telling you your 25km off course, or whatever) will bite you in the ass. They will fail at some point. If you're want to do some serious hiking and aren't comfortable with a map, compass, star positions, and carry an ELT for emergencies, skipping how to master the basics and putting your trust in the iPhone apps is folly.

In most cases, just a compass and a reasonably aware brain will direct you to a reasonably safe outcome. Add a map, and it lets you double check your brain and confirm reference points. Oh, and bring multiple compasses, and pack them in different places. I and whomever I am with each take three - a nice military one as my primary, a cheap boy scout one in my pocket, and another in my pack. Lose one and it's just a pain, lose two and you've got more problems than just finding your position/direction. Lose three, and you better already have that ELT in your hand, because if you are lost in the wild without pants, a backpack, and your main compass, you're probably already bleeding or otherwise severely injured (cf. Bill Paxton reference below).

Yeah, I over-prepare a bit when hiking, and I get a little ribbing for taking stuff too seriously, but I've seen and heard too many stories of things going wrong out there to not take the essentials lightly. Nothing kills a fun hike like a growing, nagging exaggerated concern/self doubt after some kind of difficulty/accident, in kind of a Bill Paxton Aliens 'bug hunt' voice, that 'dude, you're totally fucked, man'.

So yeah, anyways, redundancy. Do it. Be a bit of an stickler and pain in the ass about it beforehand, and you don't have to end up being a gigantic, freaking out Bill Paxton out there when things go pear-shaped.
posted by chambers at 10:20 PM on July 13, 2012

Interesting variety of responses here - exactly the reason why I like MetaFilter.
[ though I'm disappointed no one has chimed in with "I'm sitting here getting angrier and angrier by the minute" as the overwrought will do. But I digress. ]

With respect to hiking and the taking of phones or gps units or both, my choice has been just that: a choice. I walked the Camino de Santiago without any of those, but then the trail is known and I did want to separate myself from the world. When I geocache, and that sometimes involves walking miles of trails that aren't that far from home, I take both. I've had situations where I not only got lost, but was close to injuring myself in ways that would have made self-extraction difficult.

For offline maps, tha linked article seems correct, though I note they don't seem to understand the fundamental difference between GSM and CDMA cell networks and the natural advantages of the later with respect to cell tower trilateration when you do have cell connectivity.

The bit about the accuracy of the phone leaving you on the wrong side of the ridge could have just as easily been said about a gps unit as well.

With respect to cost and the question of paying for an iPhone vs. a gps unit: have you priced an fairly full-featured gps unit? In 2007 my Garmin GOSMap 60CSx cost more than I paid for my 2012 iPhone 4S.

With respect to the comments implying that gps time signals on the iPhone might have problems working properly in Europe: blame your phone. GPS uses UTC, not local time zones.

With respect to charging, I agree with the previous poster. At this year's Sensor Expo a number of vendor were displaying energy capture systems that recharged batteries based on heat or motion. I am hopeful this can be applied to phones.

Finally, I am surprised no one has pointed out the other reason to prefer a phone to a standalone gps, number of pockets not withstanding: the standalone gps market is imploding.
posted by grimjeer at 6:38 AM on July 14, 2012

No. Absolutely not. No devices on my hikes. That's a huge part of the overall point of it.

Eh, I just went backpacking and brought my iphone. It was useful for checking the time! (On the way back we had to meet a deadline to catch a ferry.)

And there would have been no question of checking facebook around the campfire, since (a) that drains battery and (b) are you kidding, what kind of reception do you think there is in the wilderness?
posted by kenko at 7:24 AM on July 14, 2012

Also because you probably shouldn't be setting fires in the wilderness, even if you are in an area where it's technically ok.
posted by kenko at 9:21 AM on July 14, 2012

shothotbot: seems like that's only for cities though.

I use Androzic and MapDroyd. MapDroyd uses OpenStreetMap and is free. Androzid needs ozf2/3 maps that are usually proprietary. You can pirate them too.
posted by ysangkok at 11:41 AM on July 14, 2012

On Android there are a few shock-/dust-/waterproof devices which are useful if you mount your phone on an MTB. For planning purposes, some apps (I use MyTrails but there must be others) totally dwarf standalone gps units with bright high resolutions screens, modern UIs, 30+ different maps to choose from, direct access to track databases etc. While riding, the only real advantage the standalone gps units have left is battery life for 6h+ continuous use with the screen on. Extra phone batteries are $5 on ebay though.
posted by Akeem at 3:05 PM on July 15, 2012

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