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How To Maximize Your Phone As A Backcountry Tool—Without Reception

Author: Angela Crampton

June 06, 2019

Even if you love turning your phone on airplane mode to enjoy being in natutre, you're probably already bringing your phone on your next hike, climb or backpacking trip—at least for that summit selfie. But did you know you can use it as self-contained GPS unit as well? Your phone has GPS receiving capabilities, which can come in handy if things don't go according to plan. Here are five different ways that your phone’s GPS can be helpful, even if you don’t have, or want, cell service in the backcountry.

You can download maps, including multiple map sources ahead of time.

Did you know you can download maps to your phone before every trip and use your phone as a backup to your map and compass? With a GPS app, you can download multiple map sources—or layers—to your phone, set map overlays and adjust the visibility on top of a base map to get more detail depending on your adventure. Once you’ve downloaded them, you can access them offline when you don’t have cell service.

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Navigation apps normally have various membership levels that let you access different assortments of map layers. You can save money by buying a subscription to a single app, rather than purchasing area-specific topo maps for every place you go. Gaia GPS, for example, offers National Geographic trail maps, international topos, satellite imagery, and weather overlays with its premium membership level.

You can see your location, even when you're offline.

One of the best things about phone GPS technology is that you can use it to navigate even in airplane mode. So whether you're saving battery or you're simply out of the service area, you're never without real-time navigation.

Similar to how Google Maps can point your way through city traffic, navigation apps, like Gaia GPS and Strava, use the same GPS to triangulate where you are even if you don’t have cell phone service, which can come in handy when you’re traveling through whiteout conditions or on snowfields that don’t have a trail to follow.

You can use the built-in GPS to track your route.

From the trailhead, start recording your route. Why? Unlike paper maps, apps and GPS devices allow you to see the route you traveled, what junctions you took, and other routes to get you back to the car. The track feature will help figure out your pace and will let you know if you’re making good time or if you should consider turning around before dark.

You can plan your trip before you leave, and document it as you go.

Most GPS apps let you draw a line along the trails you intend to follow to make it easy to double-check that you’re on-track. You can also set “waypoints” to mark water sources on the map before you set out so you’ll be able to see your position and distance from them as you hike. Waypoints also help you document your trip. Drop photos directly onto the map as you hike, to remind yourself where the views are, or to help you share the trip with a friend later.

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You can share updates or beta with friends.

GPS apps make it easier than ever to leave your itinerary with a friend or family member before you hit the trail. Simply email them the route you created in the app, or the coordinates of the trailhead. And if you get a smidge of service on trail, you can quickly message your friends with your location to let them know you’re on route and schedule. After the trip, save your recorded track and share the link with others who might want to replicate your route.

A note on battery life: As long as you’re using your phone to navigate in airplane mode, you should be able to last at least a whole day in the backcountry tracking your route. Other apps on the phone can run in the background and negatively impact battery life. To maximize your battery life, consider dimming the screen brightness and minimizing the times you pull out your phone to look at it. If you have an older phone or one with short battery life, consider bringing an external battery pack to refresh if you’re on a multi-day trip.

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Angela Crampton

Angela Crampton lives and plays in the PNW. She enjoys skiing, climbing, and traveling while writing and sharing her stories on angelatravels.com. When she’s not adventuring, she volunteers for Washington Alpine Club and SheJumps.