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Peregrine News

Your Smartphone in the Mountains

Posted by Joseph Anderson

Is it any surprise that the most essential piece of mountain navigation equipment out there has become your smart phone?  I know there are still quite a few people that have yet to make the leap into the modern era, maybe you’ve decided that you’re Garmin Etrex has never let you down, so why make the jump?  Fine, that’s perfectly respectable but just know that while you tinker with your astrolabe the rest of us are going to download apps like GAIA, Topo maps+ or the Garmin app and relish the luxuries of the 21st century.  Personally I use GAIA.  But whatever app you decide to use it’s an incredible tool that not only makes route finding quicker and easier but our toolbox for route planning and sharing has been revolutionized.  But that is not exactly why I am bringing this up today.  I’m most interested in discussing that while the majority of mountain travelers are enjoying this new era of wilderness navigation and information sharing there’s one key piece that is not being discussed all that much:  Your smart phone is not a piece of outdoor equipment.

So there you are.  You’ve been eyeing those steep couloirs to ski for a decade now from a far away road.  All that preparation, dreaming about those steep chutes and now Finally you’re approaching the top of one of them following a two day hump into the backcountry via a complex series of ridge lines and plateaus.  The conditions are perfect with the exception of those pesky clouds that are hanging around the ridge tops.  And pesky they are, they’ve been there for days providing you with about 20 feet visibility when you’re lucky.  You aren’t worried at all, you pull out your trusty smart phone to see what your progress is and assess what terrain features you have to contend with next to find the entrance to your coveted ski run.  Damn, you’re out of batteries.  No extra batteries. No back up.  You can’t retrace your tracks because there’s been just enough wind and snowfall to fill them in.  You can hit your Spot location device but nobody can fly in these types of conditions and it will take days for a rescue party to come in.  Now you panic because you know that in two days the weather is suppose to turn for the worse, you are suppose to ski out today, you have enough food for that and that’s it.  What does that mean? Well, if these clouds refuse to lift it just means you’re screwed.  

So how and why are we finding people in this progressively common situation?  There are a few things going on here.  The first is while the proliferation in technology is delivering tools not previously available it’s also convincing a new demographic to head out into increasingly advanced terrain.  That demographic is what can be most simply described as unskilled.  The second reason is what I have mentioned before and that is worth re-iterating:  Our most sophisticated piece of mountain equipment is not actually made for the mountains.  If it gets wet it can relatively easilty be destroyed forever, if it gets dropped it can be destroyed forever, if it gets too cold it crashes if it gets too hot it crashes.  These smart things are incredibly fragile, but the good news is that this is not really a problem.  Why? because we didn’t loose a technology, we gained a new one.  That is exactly how we need to consider this new piece of technology.  To best take advantage of this enticing new toy you need to honestly be able to recognize that your life is not actually a video game. Once you establish this quintissential grasp on reality here is a list that will keep you out of shits creek:

Map and compass:  Batteries not included. No these tools are not outdated, neither is common sense.  They're just harder to come by these days.  Don’t know how to use these foundational tools?  Than you fit nicely into that category of unskilled.  There is no shame in being unskilled unless of course you unwittingly put yourself in a situation like I described above.  Hard copy topo maps are so easy to possess now so no excuses are good ones here. Go to caltopo.com and print yourself off a PDF topo map of where ever you are heading.   It’s almost as easy as down loading the maps on your phone.  If you don't have a hard copy don't go.

Altimeter:  Get an altimeter watch.  It uses Barametric Pressure to judge altitude instead of triangulation.  GPS uses Triangulation so in steeper terrain it is not as accurate.  Do not use a GPS watch.  They are always out of batteries.  In fact I have yet to see one hold batteries for more than a couple of hours.

InReach:  An InReach location device is great for just in case rescues.  The important thing is that they have a GPS device that will at least give you your UTM coordinates.  It’s also a piece of outdoor equipment:  It won’t burn through batteries and it can take a beating.  I know you’re not planning on ever using your location device for a rescue, nor should you ever count on it.  But it’s good to have.

How to take care of your Smart Phone in the Mountains:  Now that we have established that smart phones are a good addition to your navigational tool box as well as a dangerous crutch or excuse for lack of skills and experience here are ways to take care of your smart phone on a backcountry adventure:

  • Keep your phone and all apps updated.  This seems obvious to most Millennial and younger generations, but for the rest of us the struggle is real.
  • Bring a 4x battery charger.  Yes 4 is the magic number for multi-day trips.  But at least get a single.
  • LifeProof case.  Now you can drop it.  Phew.
  • Conserve Batteries: Put phone on low power mode.  The GPS works like normal when phone is in low power.  Recording a track on your route finding app burns through batteries.  Use that function sparingly.  Keep all apps closed, dim the lights on your phone, take pictures and video but don’t browse through them while in the field unless you have to.
  • Phoozies:  Two of them.  One for battery pack and one for the phone.  Phoozies insulate from cold or heat.  They are not practical however when using your phone for navigation.  
  • In cold conditions store the phone on or close to your body.  In temperatures in the 40s or below your phone will most likely go from a well charged phone down to 0 in a matter of minutes.  Store your phone with your in your sleeping bag overnight.  If your phone dies due to cold you can most likely keep it on your base layer for a while to heat it and it will power back up.
  • Smart phone gloves.  Black Diamond makes a great light weight smart phone sensitive glove.  Honestly, I just take my glove off because these don't work that well unless conditions are perfect. 
  • Rest assured that when your phone does die, and it will at some point, you have:  Map, compass, altimeter, InReach or at least a backup GPS built for mountain environments.