Over the past couple of years I’ve started to depend more and more on my mobile phone while out walking on the hills. It has been a gradual phasing in of the device as my trust in it has deepened and my initial scepticism has gradually subsided, but I am now using it every time I go out; whether that be a local dog walk around the park, a long day walk or a multi-day backpacking trip.
I’ve always been a technophile and I only started walking properly in 2005, so at that time I used my Windows Mobile PDA in conjunction with Memory Map to create a full featured GPS with OS mapping. Although it didn’t seem like it for a good while, the transition to using my smartphone for the same purpose was an obvious choice.
The fact that the technology just worked and has never let me down meant that I never learned to use a compass, I don’t own one and I’ve never used or felt like I needed one. I know for a fact that that will draw criticism from some quarters, but I’ve now walked several thousand miles across England, Scotland and Wales and my PDA/smartphone GPS has never let me down, not once, not for even a minute. So it continues to be trusted.
I use my smartphone for navigation, almost exclusively now. (I always have a printed route map with me; an OS map printed from Memory Map, but as often as not that stays in the pack and is only there as a backup). As I walk along my route I use the phone as a live map. It lives in my chest pocket and it comes out when I need to check for a change in direction, path selection etc. In most cases I don’t even need to wait for a GPS lock for this, but getting the lock typically takes just a few seconds and it’s always comforting to see where you are as well as where you’re going.
My current smartphone is a Samsung Galaxy S2. I switched from an iPhone 3Gs about 12 months ago and I’ve never looked back, but more on that later. The SGS2 runs the Android operating system; similar in almost every way to the iPhone OS.
For navigation, the phone runs an app called MMTracker, which reads Memory Map QCT files (the OS map files you buy for use with Memory Map on the PC). It then uses the built-in GPS on the phone to place my location on the OS map on screen. This is fairly similar to lots of modern GPS devices, but is much more flexible. I have an Aquapac waterproof case to keep the phone safe if it rains.
One of the major criticisms of using a mobile phone for this sort of activity is battery life. I've seen a lot of postings on walking blogs and forums over the past couple of years about battery life in smartphones being used on the hills. There are of course many reasons for battery drain and the more uses the device is put to, the faster the drain will occur and the less reliable it becomes as a navigational aid.
The problem is that smartphones drain their batteries quickly enough without adding a GPS mapping product into the mix, so what can we do to mitigate this? Here are a few tips I've picked up over the last year or so.
One of the best ways to preserve your battery life is to switch off the phone function, Bluetooth and WiFi. When you're on the hills the network connectivity isn't needed, so that's a no brainer, but the phone function is also pretty much redundant while I'm walking. If I want to make a call I switch the function back on and make a call. At that time I can check for voice mails and text messages. In the very unlikely event that someone has tried to call me, I will call them back. It's important to remember how mobile phones work. A phone regularly checks for the nearest cell tower, it does this less often when it has a good signal, it does this A LOT if it has no signal at all! The result is that in a remote location (like on the hills) a phone without a signal is almost constantly checking for a tower, and this has a dramatic impact on battery life. So if you know you'll have no signal for a few hours, switch the phone function off.
Smartphones tend to have a number off apps installed, many of these are what PC engineers used to call TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident); that is once you've used the app it's in memory and will probably stay there unless you specifically stop it (which is different to just closing it). A good Memory Manager app will help you identify these apps and kill them safely; Android and iPhones are as bad as each other here!
As a result I tend to reboot my phone before I start a walk. This means the phone is as virgin as it can be; as few apps running in the background as possible, as much free memory as possible and as little battery drain as possible.
None of these measures have impacted the phones ability to acquire and maintain a GPS signal. Modern smartphones implement an assisted GPS function that uses the phone signal and WiFi signals to help determine the GPS location. This means they can use location aware services even when you're inside, out of direct line of sight from the GPS satellite network. However, they are not dependent on these services to get a GPS signal. They don't need a phone signal to get a GPS lock or maintain it. Even in Flight Mode my SGS2 can get a GPS lock, unfortunately the iPhone doesn't, in Flight Mode the GPS is switched off on the iPhone.
Another obvious measure is to reduce the brightness of the screen to an absolute minimum usable level. Screen time is one of the biggest single factors of battery drain and brightness is a killer. To reduce the time the screen is on, make sure you reduce the timeout setting as low as possible too, or train yourself to switch the device off when you've finished with it.
As a result of these measures I can get about three days usage out of my SGS2 without it needing a charge. Even if I'm opening the device every few minutes and checking my location and direction, it's still using so little battery for other activities that I get excellent life out of it.
One of the reasons I stopped using the iPhone was the difficulty I had keeping the device charged. I tried several different methods and none of them were particularly effective, lightweight or reliable. With the SGS2 however, I can carry a spare battery and it takes just a few moments to swap them over. Weight for weight I can carry 5 spare SGS2 batteries compared to my charging solution for the iPhone. That's about two weeks worth of phone life.
I long ago stopped using my smartphone for listening to music while walking, or listening to audiobooks; both these activities are now performed by a dedicated iPod device (a 3rd generation Nano). The weight penalty of carrying the iPod is more than compensated by the additional battery life I get from the phone. The battery life of the tiny device is extraordinary as well, I can usually get 20 hours of usage before it needs a charge. If the battery fails it's not impacting anything serious.
I know that some people like to record their routes, in fact I'm one of them. I actually have a record of every single walk I've ever done since early 2006. Recording my tracklog on the smartphone, however, is likely to kill the battery in next to no time. I'd be surprised if I managed to record the track of a full day walk on my smartphone without draining the battery. So I decided to split responsibilities here too. I use the smartphone for what it does best; showing me the map, determining my current position and showing me where to go when I'm in doubt.
I use a device called a GPS datalogger to record my tracklog. The one I selected is a Blumax 4044. It's about the size of a matchbox and weighs 59g. It has two modes of operation; logging and transmitting. In logging mode the device records your track and stores it as a GPX file in its internal memory. In transmit mode it makes the track available via Bluetooth to other devices. There is sufficient internal memory for several hundred miles of track.
I use it exclusively in logging mode. I get about 30 hours usage from the device, which is about 3 days of walking, all on a single standard Nokia phone battery. These batteries are very cheap, very light and easy to change. When I get home I connect the device to my home PC and download the tracklog.
I now I have the best of both worlds; a long life smartphone GPS and a simple, effective tracklog recorder.
I'm an IT consultant by trade and one of the key things that gets drummed into you over the years is Backup. Always have a backup of whatever you hold dear. This is just as true on the hills.
I long ago selected Orange as my mobile phone carrier, based on their excellent coverage on the hills. For a long time I've also carried a spare SIM card, this one on Vodafone. If I really need a signal and Orange don't have one I can slip the spare SIM card into the phone and try Vodafone. If there's a signal to be had in the UK you'll probably get it on one of these two carriers.
More recently I've started carrying an old, but reliable Nokia phone to keep the Vodafone SIM in. It weighs very little, the battery lasts an eternity between charges and as well as providing me with a redundant phone solution I can also use it for text messaging and sending Twitter updates.
Many outdoor bloggers use Twitter, in many innovative and exciting ways and to be able to send Twitter updates while out and about is becoming more important to many of us. The redundant Nokia provides a way of doing this while not draining the battery on my smartphone. Twitter via text message is surprisingly effective. You can post tweets and be notified of responses.
The beauty of the Nokia phone is that it uses the same batteries as the Blumax datalogger, so again a degree of redundancy and dual-purposing.
I may follow this post up with others in the same vein - I have some thoughts on Geotagging for example that may be useful.
You can see Part 2 of this post here: Smartphone on the Hills part 2