Using your iPhone in the Backcountry

obligatory pretty picture

As long as you take a few precautions and understand its limitations, your iPhone can be a fantastic companion on your backcountry adventures. Most of this same advice applies to the iPad, but I have found most people are not willing to take an iPad into the wilderness.

Protect Your Electronics from Water

First and foremost, you must protect your iPhone from water at all costs. Anyone reading this is probably considering hiking to a waterfall, so you know there will be plenty of chances to drop your phone. Here are a few simple tricks to help you keep it safe.

iPhone in a ziploc

If you take only one thing away from this article, it should be this: you can use your iPhone through a ziploc bag. Go try it. Pretty awesome, huh?

When you take your iPhone into the woods, drop it into a ziploc bag, zip it up, and put it in a safe pocket. A pocket that closes securely is best, like a zipper, velcro or button up pocket. You still don't want it falling out, even while it is protected by the ziploc bag.

I also carry a separate Sea to Summit Dry Bag at all times. If it starts to really pour rain I can always put my phone, camera and wallet in the dry bag and not worry about them.

Download Offline Maps

Now that your iPhone is protected from water you need to take one quick step to make sure it has the offline maps for where you are going.

Open the Waterfalls of WNC app and find the waterfall you are planning to see. Tap the marker on the map or the blue arrow in search to go straight to it.

Tap the maps tab. If there is no button here, you are done. Maps have already been downloaded for the area. Otherwise, tap the button and the maps will download for this waterfall and the surrounding area. If you are headed somewhere that has a lot of waterfalls, like Panthertown Valley, you only need to download the maps from one of the falls.

Conserve Battery Life

Finally you head out into the woods, well prepared for rain and having downloaded your maps ahead of time. How do you keep your iPhone battery from dying in the backcountry? If you are in an area that has absolutely no cell phone service you should turn on airplane mode.

Airplane Mode

When there is no cell phone service your phone will continually search for a signal, which drains the battery extremely quickly. In these cases you should put your iPhone in airplane mode. If you have already downloaded offline maps for the area you don't need data service to look at the maps. You will still be able to use the app just as you would a standard map, plus you can zoom in and out to control the level of detail. The GPS does not work in airplane mode, which means you won't get the little blue dot that shows you your current location. If you need to check your location just take your phone out of airplane mode, check your current location, and then place it back in airplane mode. iOS7 makes it easy to access airplane mode from the lock screen, so this has become my preferred method of using the app in most backcountry areas. Your iPhone also has several settings that can help you conserve battery life.

Turn Off Wi-Fi

You are unlikely to find any wireless hot spots in the wilderness so you can turn Wi-Fi off. The iPhone will likely give you a message about location accuracy being improved by Wi-Fi, but this is only true when there is a Wi-Fi signal available.

You can turn off Wi-Fi at the top of the Settings app.

Turn Off Bluetooth

You probably will not be using any bluetooth accessories out in the woods so I recommend you turn this off as well.

You can turn off Bluetooth at the top of the Settings app.

Turn Off Background Updates For Apps

Some apps can wake up from the background and fetch data from the network. This helps them stay up to date, but it also uses battery power. In the backcountry, where you may have poor or no reception, this can quickly drain your battery. In particular the Facebook iPhone app is known to use excessive battery power due to background updates.

To disable background updates, go to Settings->General->Background Updates.

Dim the Screen

Your iPhone's screen is the most power hungry hardware on the device, especially for Retina devices. Dimming it can greatly prolong your iPhone's battery life. This is also why the guidebooks have a black user interface. Dark pixels don't use as much battery power as bright pixels.

To dim your screen, go to "Brightness & Wallpaper" in the Settings app.

Turn off 3G

In some wilderness areas you may find that you do not have 3G coverage but you still have connectivity on an older network. In this case you can turn off 3G in the Settings app to conserve battery life.

Turn off Cellular data

I waited years for Apple to finally allow this. You can now turn off the cellular network without turning off the GPS. If you have downloaded offline maps ahead of time this can prolong your battery life.

To turn off cellular data go to the Settings app under General->Cellular.

The Last Resort: Turn Your Phone Off

Hopefully if you reach this point you are not relying on your phone as a primary means of navigation. But if you are low on battery power and you don't need constant direction from your device, turn it off. You can easily stretch your battery out over a week long backpacking trip if you only check it occasionally.

Rayovac 2 hour charger

The Backup Plan: 2 hour charger

I recently discovered this Rayovac 2 hour power accessory and have made it part of my every day hiking gear. I bought one for around $10 at my local grocery store on a whim and intentionally discharged my battery fully on a camping trip in Panthertown Valley. In the morning I plugged the unit into my phone and after a few minutes it booted up. I didn't want to use my entire charge so I only charged my phone for twenty minutes but it reached 26% charge in that time. These chargers are light, cheap, and they have a replaceable battery. I highly recommend you add one to your hiking kit. You can get them at Amazon.

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