Smartphones: love them or hate them, there's no denying their major role in modern life. But what about in the mountain environment? Personally I find my phone convenient in place of a paper map and compass (though you should always carry these too), and more versatile than a dedicated GPS. Apps such as weather forecasts and (for climbers) the Rockfax app offer clear advantages when out in the hills too. But it's important to be aware of the ways modern tech can fail us – and some of those ways really aren't obvious.
I was recently paid a visit by the phone failure fairy, and decided to share my experience here. Before long I'd made a comprehensive list of the ways smartphones can go wrong, and that escalated quickly! Fortunately the incident itself didn't escalate, but as any mountain rescue team will tell you, similar situations often do.
A phone is fine so long as you've got reception - often the case on summits - and if it doesn't malfunction
© Dan Bailey
Surprise failure 1: screen dimming apps
As well as mapping apps, I'm a fan of screen dimmers such as Twilight and f.lux, which turn your laptop, phone, tablet etc. dim and red in the evening. They're supposed to reduce eye strain and help you sleep.
This year brought me the rare treat of skiing down Pen y Fan. In the process of working out where the most fun descent would likely be, I tried to open my phone map, but found I couldn't. For some reason Twilight was stuck in "always on" mode and the screen was incredibly dim. I tried all of the following:
- Use jacket to shade screen from sun – nope
- Use rucsac to shade screen from sun – no good either
- Swipe around a blank screen guessing where the brightness control was – no luck
- Hard reset the phone, using a knife tip to press the recessed switch – resetting allowed me to see the screen, but only until the phone finished booting and Twilight re-engaged, making the phone useless once more.
On a day this bright, my dimmed screen was impossible to read
© Crispin Cooper
After a few minutes of futile efforts, gloves off in a cold wind, I decided to pick a line to ski without the map – I know the mountain fairly well and getting back down wasn't a problem. I did later manage to disable Twilight, but not when I first wanted to.
I can't be sure, but I think this all happened because an accidental pocket press on a notification from the Twilight app had opened its settings, where further presses had wreaked havoc. Screen dimming might be easily solved on a balmy summer day, but in a cold wind with limited gloves-off time, or when dripping sweat onto the screen, or when the battery is already low (also causing the screen to dim) it might be impossible to fix. I have now disabled notifications from Twilight, which will hopefully prevent the same thing recurring, but of course this is only one of many ways a phone can go wrong.
Surprise failure 2: waterproof does not mean useful when wet
My phone is supposed to be waterproof. Having inspected the seals, I won't test it too thoroughly, but at least I don't worry about the odd bit of rain or keeping it in a damp rucsac.
In everyday use, I have discovered that besides my fingers, the following things register as screen presses: (1) drops of rain, (2) drops of sweat, (3) snowflakes. So although the phone may be safe from water damage, actually using it means taking great care to keep the screen dry, and using it in super wet conditions would likely be impossible.
Remember if you drain the battery, you have lost the ability to call rescue as well as losing your map. Some professionals carry an old-school Nokia or similar as it's considered more reliable in an emergency.
Battery life is heavily compromised in the cold
© Dan Bailey
- Battery failure is accelerated when cold. If cold, keep the phone in a pocket next to your body, making sure it stays locked. But that may not be enough: early feedback on this article suggests that almost all winter mountaineers and skiers consider smartphones completely unreliable in cold conditions, especially some of the newer iPhones.
- Check you have enough charge for your plans.
- Carry a spare battery or power pack if you see fit.
- Be aware that poor signal will drain the battery faster.
- Using the screen drains the battery fast, so keep screen use to a minimum. My own phone actually switches on the screen to warn when battery is low, and keeps it on until the warning is dismissed, which is particularly counterproductive!
- Try using flight mode. It will disconnect from the network to prolong battery life, and although GPS fixes will take longer, they will not take much power so long as you can get the GPS to work on a fix while the screen is switched off.
- Another option is turning the phone off altogether. Obviously this is the ultimate battery life preserver if you're not using the phone, but when you eventually do need it, it may take a few minutes to boot up and get a GPS fix.
- Many phones have alternative power saving modes – investigate what yours do and figure out what compromises they make. The most effective ones will focus on preventing data sync, for example, disabling incoming emails unless you explicitly check them.
- Make sure you're not activating the phone in your pocket – in particular, accidentally switching on the torch will drain it very fast. Even if you lock your phone with a passcode, it's surprisingly easy to make an emergency call by mistake - ironically this can be easier than it would have been without the passcode. Various locking apps can help, though to be honest I'm disappointed that in 2018 this problem is not entirely solved.
Bugs or crashes are annoying at the best of times, but out on the hill particularly so, as they can render your phone essentially inoperable just when you need it most.
A delayed GPS fix may not always be so obvious as this - always do a sanity check on your position!
© Crispin Cooper
- Delayed GPS fix: many mapping apps will show you in the wrong position (either your last known one, or the phone mast you're using) while they wait for a better GPS fix. If you always double check the phone's output with the terrain around you – which you should - it should be obvious when this is happening. Actually, your navigation skills should be up to using the phone's map without any GPS fix at all.
- Zoom problems: with cached offline maps, accidentally zooming in our out too far can make the map disappear altogether. Assuming you actually have the map for your current location, with a correct GPS fix it's easy enough to zoom in or out until you find the map again. Without the fix, however, you will be zooming around random locations on a blank map of unknown scale: good luck with that. Caching a wide-scale map of the whole country or even world can help prevent this problem, even if you have to switch maps to find your location then switch back again.
- Locking out: activating the phone in your pocket, or clumsy use with gloves/wet screen/wind, will on some phones lead to "too many failed passcode attempts" thus locking you out entirely. Personally I don't use a passcode on my phone, but that's to prevent me making accidental emergency calls (see above).
- Software crash: make sure you know how to hard reset your phone if it freezes. On some models pressing and holding the power button does it, on others it's a case of removing a cover and pressing a recessed switch, or popping the battery out for a moment.
- Out of space: if downloading maps as you go, make sure you have enough storage for them. If relying on an external SD card for storage, make sure your mapping app is actually configured to use it - alas this is sometimes not possible to do at all. New photos and videos will also make a low space situation worse. Ultimately I'd recommend downloading all the maps you need before the adventure starts (see signal failure below).
- Other bugs: as with any equipment, test your apps in a safe environment before relying on them in a dangerous one. One I previously used showed the compass pointing the wrong way when the screen was in landscape mode, for example.
- Screen dimming apps can render a phone useless, as discussed above.
- Automatic updates might break your app. Though I've never had this happen, the only way to be sure of preventing this would be to check the app works before you set out, and either disable automatic updates altogether or restrict them to WiFi networks which you aren't likely to encounter on a mountain.
- Smartphone malware/hackers: yes, these exist; one friend's Bitcoin was stolen by one! It would also be possible for a virus to disable your phone by infecting your user accounts in the cloud. I'm not aware of any such incidents yet, but I wouldn't rule them out entirely.
- Deliberate GPS blocking: GPS signals can be temporarily blocked by the US military. As this is most likely to happen extensively during an invasion, let's hope it remains rare - though local disruption to the GPS service occasionally takes place around military exercises too.
Other hardware failures
- Compass failure: phone compasses often need recalibrating, so learn how to do this (waving the phone around in a figure-of-eight motion usually does the trick). If the phone is mounted on something metal such as a bicycle, the compass may be altogether useless. Phones and avalanche transceivers are known to upset one another if held close together. Be aware that some clothing contains magnets for fasteners, and don't get me started on the number of magnetic phone cases out there!
- Compass inaccuracy: even in the best of conditions, I don't find phone compasses very accurate. It's often better to take 10 paces in the direction you think is correct and check whether the GPS heading deduced from movement agrees with you, or whether the little blue dot has moved the right way.
- Signal failure (data): if using a map streaming app such as Maverick, cache all the maps you need before losing the signal. Be aware that the "Assisted GPS" used on phones will take longer to find your position when off network, and may fail altogether in steep valleys where a purpose built GPS with a bigger aerial might still cope. As mentioned above, poor signal quality will also drain your battery faster.
- Signal failure (calls): when signal is low, texts can get through better than calls. If you're out of signal and wanting to know when it returns, try sending a text to yourself; the eventual beep should mean signal has been found. That said, the smartphones I've owned have been remarkably bad at relocating signal once lost, and often won't do it without a quick switch into flight mode and back, or even a reboot. In the UK you can text 999 in an emergency but only if you pre-register your handset for this service – do it now!
- Physically damaging the phone: take care, don't drop it, and don't sit on it in a pocket. Speaking from experience, don't crush it against the rock in abject terror while soloing Little Chamonix. Get a case if it helps. I've experimented with lanyards as well but personally found them to be more trouble than they are worth.
- Water damage: if it's not waterproof, don't get it wet. Get a waterproof case if it helps.
- Waterproof phone failure: Even if waterproof, a phone may not be usable in the wet (see above).
- Glove problems: Many thinner gloves are supposed to be smartphone-compatible, but they still give you big clumsy fingers which can make the phone hard to use. Some people swear by using their nose for simple tasks like swiping to unlock.
- Wind problems: touchscreens can be surprisingly hard to use in a strong wind, and swiping the screen with any precision at all may be impossible in the strongest winds.
- Goggle/glass problems: Some (but not all) polarized lenses make screens impossible to read – check yours. Rotating the screen 90 degrees may help. If not, non-prescription sunglasses are easily removed to read a display, though it may take a moment for your eyes to adjust to the brightness. Prescription wearers will have greater problems, and if conditions are such that you need goggles, you probably don't want to take them off anyway.
If I have missed anything else you are aware of, please mention it in the forum comments!
It's not down to the phone alone
Considering how long the above list is, you might say it's a wonder that smartphones work in the outdoors at all. You can mitigate for a lot of the issues by carrying multiple phones in the group, but that's still not a catch-all solution. For example if it's raining too heavily to use one phone, it's probably raining too heavily to use any of them. There are reports of people using smart watches to get around some of the issues with bad weather, but having no personal experience with those yet I'm not going to discuss them.
OS mapping, on paper and smartphone
While many of us (myself included) prefer the smartphone as our navigational mainstay, both the BMC and Mountaineering Scotland recommend that you carry a physical map and compass as well as a phone, if only as a failsafe. My recent screen dimming issue is a good example of where a simple paper map backup would have come in handy; and had I been out on less familiar ground, in tougher conditions, then I would have been carrying one. Even more importantly, traditional navigation skills are essential - not only because a paper map is useless without them, but also because you'll need to employ them constantly in interpreting what your phone is showing, which as we've seen can sometimes be outright wrong.
As ever, context is everything: we can all agree that a walk in the local park is safe enough without a map, while Ben Macdui in a white-out would not be. Personally I have explored plenty of places from hills in mid Wales to mountains in back-country Norway without a paper map. In such cases, the key questions - indeed perhaps the only questions of importance - are, "How likely is it that my plan will go wrong?", "What's the back-up plan if it does?" and "Is this good enough?". Writing a generic training article, however, we simply can't know if readers will have enough experience to make that call. So I recommend erring on the safe side, following the advice, and always carrying a paper map and compass in addition to your phone. As this article has shown, smartphones are neither fool proof nor fault-free, but hopefully fore-warned will be fore-armed…
Thanks to all who gave feedback on an earlier version of this article in various forums: much of your advice has been included.
Crispin Cooper has been climbing for 20 years and having outdoor adventures all his life. By day he is an academic making extensive use of GIS (a fancy acronym for maps on computers) and has previously written software for smartphones. He blogs about adventures physical and mental at https://omnisplore.wordpress.com/