There’s been quite a lot of criticism recently, from various quarters, about hill walkers relying on mobile phones for navigation and then getting into trouble and having to be rescued. As I recently wrote an article on using your smartphone on the hills, I thought it may be worthwhile looking at some of the criticism in more detail and putting forward another viewpoint.
Some of the articles I’ve seen are listed below, have a look and see what you think:
Grough Mag: Mountain rescuer: ‘GPS phones only any use for urban walks’
BMC Website: Smartphone apps: handle with care
MCofS Website: The use of GPS devices and smart phones as navigation aids
This final article is actually a bit more balanced than the others and offers some practical, real-world advice.
First of all, let me summarise the negative comments highlighted in these articles and we’ll try and address them one at a time:
- “The use of GPS on phones should be restricted to urban walking and not relied on in the hills where they invariably fail through lack of reception and poor battery life”.
- “Many smartphones now have built-in GPS receivers and can get a fix from the GPS satellites, but the rudimentary mapping that comes with them as standard is not suitable for hillwalking navigation. Away from roads and main features, the fells are likely to be represented as just empty green space, giving no idea of steep gradients and other hazards, and rights of way”.
- “Using the GPS functions on a smartphone drain batteries significantly faster than when using the phone only”.
- “Hills and mountain regions often have no mobile phone signal or very poor coverage”.
- “A handheld GPS system has several advantages over a smartphone. If you removed the antenna from a phone you’d see that it’s a third of the size of one from a GPS handset. The information you’re getting on a smartphone can take longer and may not be as accurate as it is on an outdoors GPS. You can also get handsets with big buttons that are easier to use in bad weather than a touch-screen.”
- “An outdoor GPS is also much more robust than a smartphone which is vulnerable to getting wet or being dropped. Cold temperatures can affect the performance of a smartphone battery. And having a GPS function turned on drinks batteries”.
These criticisms can be broken down into seven main objections:
- Poor battery life
- Unreliable or non-existent phone signal reception
- Poor mapping software and poor maps
- Inferior quality GPS receiver hardware
- Difficult to use with gloves
- Not weather proof
- Fragile if dropped
Poor battery life
The major thrust of my previous article on the subject was about preserving battery life of your smartphone when out on the hills. Have a look here if you want a refresher.
These techniques should significantly extend the battery life of your phone. As well as using these methods, I also carry two spare batteries, one in my pocket (in a ziplock baggie in my zip pocket) and another one in my pack. In that way if I get separated from my pack I still have a spare on my person.
iPhone users don’t have the luxury of carrying spare batteries, so they need to consider methods of keeping the phone charged during their time on the hills. There are literally hundreds of solutions out there, including solar chargers and huge battery extenders that will give you multiple full charges of the iPhone.
With a little careful management of the battery it is possible to get many days use of your smartphone on the hills.
Cold weather battery life
In cold weather your battery life will degrade and the level of degradation depends on the type of batteries you are using. Typical AA batteries use a substance called NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) which suffers badly from the cold. Most smartphones on the other hand use Li-ion (Lithium Ion) technology and this has a much better performance lifecycle in cold weather conditions. There are comparative studies on the web – I did a quick search and found two or three – and these show that Li-ion batteries, although they do degrade slightly will last much better than traditional AA batteries. So in some respects, your smartphone is going to perform better, battery-wise, that a handheld GPS that uses AA cells.
If you are concerned about cold weather battery performance there are a couple of simple ways to relieve the problem. Firstly, carry your spare batteries in your pocket, this will help to keep them warm – better still carry them in an inside pocket, next to your skin.
My smartphone lives inside my breast pocket, next to my body, so is generally quite warm (I sweat a lot when walking and this probably keeps the phone quite toasty). It comes out when I need to check my position, under normal conditions I’ll be looking at the paper map and following the route I’ve printed on there.
If you want to go to the next step, do what I do, which is keep them in a pocket along with a handwarmer inside it. A couple of years ago I bought a huge box of “Little Hotties handwarmers”, these are palm sized sachets that heat up when exposed to air. You take them out of their plastic wrapping and shake them, a couple of minutes later you have a warm bag which you can slip inside a glove or pocket. They last about 4 or 5 hours and are utterly fantastic!!
Unreliable or non-existent phone signal reception
This is mostly a myth – or possibly dis-information or ignorance. It is certainly application dependent.
Modern Android and Apple smartphones do not require a mobile phone signal to activate their GPS devices. They do not need a mobile phone signal to gain a satellite lock or maintain it.
They typically use a system called aGPS (Assisted GPS) – which uses a mobile phone signal to increase the speed with which a satellite lock can be obtained – it is an aid to getting a signal, not a requirement.
In fact I run my Android phone in “Airplane” mode when I’m out on the hills – this switches off the GPRS/3G system (I do this to reduce battery drain), but still allows the GPS to connect and maintain a signal. I don’t think Apple users have the same luxury – I’m pretty sure that switching to “Airplane” mode on an iPhone also switches off the GPS – just another reason to switch in my opinion.
So the hardware doesn’t need a mobile phone signal, but what about the mapping application?
Poor mapping software and poor maps
As I said, this is application dependent. Apps such as Google Maps normally need to use the phone signal to download the maps for the location you’re in. Let’s be clear here, Google Maps is not suitable for hill navigation – not at all, not even in “Satellite View” – but I use it as an example. There are other apps out there that profess to service the hill walker with a mapping facility, that also need to connect to their central server to download maps.
Make sure that the mapping software you’re using has the ability to store maps off-line, on internal phone memory, or on an internal memory card. Make sure that you’ve downloaded the appropriate maps before you go out and that they are available on the phone. Test this by switching to “Airplane” mode and trying to load the maps. Make sure your route is also loaded and saved and that the whole route is covered by the maps you have on the phone.
When I talk about maps I’m talking about Ordnance Survey quality maps. Maps that show contour lines, public rights of way, streams, roads, summit information and so on – the sorts of maps that you would take into the hills. You wouldn’t take a road atlas into the hills, so make sure your application has appropriate mapping.
There is a cost involved with this of course – Ordnance Survey maps cost money, as do most of their equivalents. The sort of detail hillwalkers need on maps has to be paid for. When selecting your mapping application you need to give thought to how much the maps are going to cost. Also bear in mind that maps are not transferable between mapping applications – so this is a decision you need to get right immediately. Once you’ve invested a couple of hundred quid in detailed mapping you’re probably stuck with the application you first selected.
Inferior quality GPS receiver hardware
I have no hard evidence to gainsay anything other people have said on this subject – the antenna in mobile phones may be much smaller than those found in dedicated handheld GPS devices. But so what?
I’ve been using my smartphone for navigation for several years now – initially it was there as backup to my previous device, but more recently I have come to trust it completely. Experience has shown me that once I’ve got a GPS lock, the position I’m shown on my map is exactly where I am on the ground. Once this has been established dozens of times over many months I come to trust the accuracy of the device. Anecdotal for sure, but experience is everything in my view.
Sometimes, under heavy foliage cover, the signal can waver and my position on the map may appear to be several yards from my actual location – but this is typical of any GPS device, not just smartphones. The next generation of phones will (some already do) include GLONASS support – this is the Russian GPS network and is expected to outperform the current US system. It will be a while before dedicated handheld units make this support available. Smartphones are changing much more rapidly and being released much more frequently than new GPS units.
Difficult to use with gloves
This is true. The screen of your smartphone is almost certainly a “capacitive touch screen” which is a glass panel coated with a transparent conductive material (such as ITO (indium tin oxide)). Your finger, believe it or not, is an electrical conductor and when you touch the screen of the phone, you create a distortion in the screen’s electrostatic field, which enables the phone to translate this into actions. When you wear gloves you are essentially insulating your finger from the electrical conductance of your body and the screen isn’t able to react to the touch.
There are one or two ways around this. The simplest way – if you’re not wearing waterproof gloves – is to wet the end of your finger. I suck the finger I need to use and the tip of the glove gets wet. Water is a great conductor and your finger and the capacitive screen now have a connection. OK, so this isn’t ideal, but it works and its dead simple.
The other, much more effective way, is to either buy gloves with special conductive finger tips like these or to make some yourself using conductive thread.
The thread can be bought online, (eBay has hundreds of suppliers) and a simple bit of sewing will enable you to turn your favourite mountain gloves into smartphone-friendly mountain gloves. Just make sure the thread touches your fingertips inside the glove and is exposed in the right place on the outside of the glove.
The other criticism is that dedicated GPS devices have big chunky buttons, designed to be used with gloves and smartphones don’t. Well this may be true for some GPS devices, but it certainly isn’t the case for all of them. There are as many fiddly little GPS devices as there are smartphones on the market.
If your mapping application on your smartphone has fiddly little buttons that you can’t operate with gloves on then consider getting a small stylus for the device. These work in the same way as your finger and give you much better accuracy of touch. Many new smartphone come with a stylus, but even those that don’t will be able to use one. Buy a couple, they are usually cheap enough, and stick a spare in your pack somewhere.
Not weather proof
Of course they’re not! And anyone who has been caught out in a rain shower while walking round the shops will know that sense of dread as you wonder where to stick your phone to keep it dry. The same thought should enter the head of anyone taking it out onto the hills. If this consideration hasn’t dawned, then there’s no hope at all – there’s no cure for stupid.
A minor industry has grown up around waterproof solutions for iPhones and other smartphones. Aquapac are my personal favourite vendor, but there are dozens of others – eBay is a great source for third party, cheap and cheerful solutions and Amazon have an amazing range of covers and cases.
A case that’s specifically designed for a smartphone will also allow you to use the screen through the case. A case that’s specifically designed for your make of smartphone will also probably have the appropriate configuration to allow you to take photos with the phone’s camera while it’s still in the case. Some allow you to use headphones through the case, while still maintaining that waterproof seal – the range is endless. Google is your friend.
Fragile if dropped
I actually don’t see this as an argument specifically aimed at smartphones – it’s true of absolutely anything you take onto the hills – perhaps not so much the fact that items are fragile, but that you could, at some point during your walk, be robbed of the use of that device; whether through loss, damage or other failure. This is as true for a compass as it is for a smartphone.
I would go further and say that you are more likely to take the effort to look after your relatively expensive (and probably treasured) smartphone than you would with your £15 compass which you can replace at the next village or town.
But, let’s address the point being raised – smartphones are prone to damage and failure by dropping, or being sat on, or being bounced against a rock, or whatever. There is an element of truth to this statement. If you’ve had a smartphone long enough, there’s a reasonably good chance you’ve dropped it or sat on it or bounced it off something – you may even have broken it as a result. The fact that phones are more robust with every generation is neither here nor there – there is a chance you could break them, more chance in fact once they enter a potentially hostile environment like the hills and mountains.
My Aquapac case protects the phone from water – it also makes it float if dropped in a lake or river, thanks to the air trapped inside the waterproof case. This air also acts as a cushion in some instances, giving some small degree of protection from shock. But we can go further.
There are now shock proof cases, ruggedised shells that can go around smartphones, especially the iPhone, which has one of the biggest third party accessory markets of any device. Manufacturers like Otterbox and Griffin are leaders in this space, but there are dozens of other niche vendors offering the same or similar products.
If you don’t want to spend a fortune on a ruggedised case then there is a simpler answer; use a fairly generic smartphone protective case and then put it inside an Aquapac waterproof case. You then have the best of both worlds – rugged and waterproof, and at a relatively low price.
The Aquapac cases have a lanyard attachment, I don’t use mine, as it lives in my chest pocket, but if you wanted that belt and braces approach, you could use the lanyard eyes to loop a boot lace (for example) through the eye and around a secure point on your pack – you’ll never lose it now!
So, there’s a lot of negative press out there about relying on smartphone on the hills and in an ideal world we’d all carry a map and a compass and we’d all know how to use it and we’d all live happily ever after. The simple fact of the matter is though, there’s a whole generation of walkers that haven’t had to learn how to use a compass, never had the opportunity to learn perhaps and are using the technology that’s easily available.
One thing is very clear and there’s one thing I completely agree with all the people and bodies that have spoken out against the use of smartphones as navigation aids on the hills and that’s the ability to read and understand a map – the ability to follow a route (with or without a compass) by using the features displayed on the map and visible around us. Without this skill it doesn’t matter a damn what you use for navigation.
I do not like the scare-mongering that comes along with the warnings though, perhaps highlighted best by the first statement in the summarised list above – the one that is perhaps the most critical – it came from Tom Lockie, who is Secretary of the Ochils MRT and was quoted as saying “The use of GPS on phones should be restricted to urban walking and not relied on in the hills where they invariably fail through lack of reception and poor battery life” by Grough Magazine in this article.
I have a couple of fundamental issues with this statement, not least his use of the word “invariably”. I’m sort of assuming that Mr Lockie doesn’t actually know what the word means (Google dictionary defines it as “In every case or on every occasion; always“). This is patently not the case and such wide exaggeration tends to demean a lot of the other points he makes in his interview with Grough.
The other issue I have with the statement is that it is in complete contradiction to the views of his colleagues in the Kendal MRT who use one of the most well-known digital mapping smartphone apps “Viewranger” and who have been quoted as saying “At Kendal MRT we are finding the more we use ViewRanger the more we like it”. There is no information on how they are using it, but obviously it doesn’t fail them every time they use it on the hills!
The single biggest criticism of those people who have been rescued after relying on a smartphone on the hills is that they didn’t or couldn’t read the maps shown on the device – if indeed the device showed a proper map in the first place.
This is absolutely justified – it’s just as bad as going out on the hills with no map at all and I have no solution for this – as I said before, there is no cure for stupid!
A mountain GPS – whether its on a dedicated, ruggedised handheld device, or incorporated into your smartphone, is not equivalent to the SatNav device in your car. It’s not going to tell you “turn left at the next finger post and follow the wall for 200 yards”. I also can’t imagine any of the folk who have been rescued recently actually expected this, but this seems to be level of stupidity levelled at them.
So in conclusion, make your device as hill-proof as possible, always carry a paper map as a backup and if you really want to feel secure, pack a compass and know how to use it.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.