Iphone As An Outdoor Device

This post is about how I use my iphone 3GS to plan, execute, and record my outdoor adventures.   I am a big fan of the iphone, and have found it to be useful in many areas of my life. Hiking and Backpacking are no exception.   With a few apps the iphone can give you nice topo maps with your GPS location, ability to record your route, save notes and pictures about your trip, and entertain yourself while camping. 

For short close to home hikes the ihpone is perfect with out additional hardware. However for multiday trips you may want to consider purchasing a couple of accessories to protect the device and extend its battery life. 

One of the major limitations of the iphone as an outdoor device is that it doesn’t have a removable battery.   In addition using the “location services” (iphone terminology for gps) can be a real battery drain.   To overcome this limitation you should take some steps to extend your battery life, and consider an external battery charger to replenish your battery on longer outings.   External batteries come in a few different varieties.  I have one that cost $3 plus shipping on amazon, it just plugs into the iphone port and recharges the battery. There are also solar chargers available.  

Even if you are using an external battery you should take some steps to extend your battery life in the field. 

  • If you are going to be out of cell range, go ahead and disable the 3G network through your iPhone settings function. [Settings > General > Network > turn off “3G”]
  • Disable the WiFi network as well. [Settings > General > Network > turn off “WiFi”] 
  • Set your screen brightness as low as possible [Settings > General > Brightness] 
  • Turn off Bluetooth (if you have this enabled)

Another consideration is that the iphone was not designed to be a rugged outdoor device.  In order to protect your investment, and to ensure you can access your maps in the field, you need to protect your device from moisture.   In most cases I think it is sufficient to keep your phone in a ziplock bag.  This does mean you will have to remove to use it, and the bag can easily be torn.  There are several waterproof / rugidaztion covers available for the iphone.  These range from $10 to over $100.   Several of them will allow you to operate the device while it is in the case.  

If you are a real gearhead and want the ultimate outdoor case Magellan makes a rugged waterproof case that will also enhance your gps signal.  However, at more than $100 I am unconvinced this is worth the money. 


Apps are what make the iphone a powerful outdoor tool.  These are my favorites for use related to hiking / backpacking. 

Accuterra Unlimited
I think the best outdoor app out there is accuterra unlimited.  I have tried a host of GPS apps and this one provides the best maps, and the best features.   For a one time cost you can download high resolution topographic maps for use offline.  This is key when no cell signal is available, and many gps apps don’t provide this.   Accuterra also provides the following key features.
 Import gps tracks from your favorite websites or using wifi.

  •  Record your tracks for viewing and sharing later.  You can save waypoints and pictures to your track as well.
  • Export tracks as kml (google earth) files.  You can then use http://www.gpsvisualizer.com/  to convert these to any common format.   
  • View your current location on a high resolution topo map. 
  •  View points of interest (campgrounds, summits, fishing areas …) on top of the map.

As useful as this app is for navigation, it is electronic, and it is succeptable to failure.  Any prudent outdoorsmen will advise you to always bring along a paper map, and compass, and learn how to use these as a backup. 

NOTE: This app has been sold to another company.  Current users are being asked to register so they can be notified of a new app download.  Not exactly sure what this means for the future of the app.  Hopefully it will be positive  

    Evernote is just a fantastic service for many areas of my life.   It is basically a great way to take notes from any computer or device, and keep them neatly organized in one place.  You can sign up for a free account and download the iphone app from http://www.evernote.com/about/download/iphone/ 

    This is how I use the service to plan and document my adventures. 

    •  I have created a notebook in evernote for keeping my outdoor notes organized.
    •  I keep a running note of day hikes I would like to do with basic information (distance, location, elevation).   When I run across a new hike I add it to this list so I can quickly scan and pick the best option when planning an outing
    •  I keep a separate running note for overnight backpacking trips I would like to do. This has more detailed information I have found about the area.
    •  If I am planning a bigger trip I use the firefox plugin to “clip” information from the web and save it to evernote.  This allows me to collect a note with all of the information about a particular hike.   If you “favorite” this note before you loose signal it will be accessible offline.   It can include pdfs, pictures, trail description….
    •  When I am on the trail I use evernote to record notes.  If I come across a good potential campsite I can snap a picture, type a quick note, or record a voice note about the site.   The app will automatically apply a geotag to the note so I have the exact location of the site.  I can then add a tag “campsite” to the note for easy searching later.  
    •  I also use evernote to keep checklists for my pack both overnite and day packs.  This ensures I am not out on the trail when I realize I forgot my water filter or a jacket. 

    Everytrail is an app that shares more than just maps.  It provides rich guides that include complete descriptions, and points of interest. The POI’s contain rich media including pictures, video, and audio.  At first blush including audio doesn’t seem like a very big deal.  However, some of the trail guides provide some neat location aware audio tours that really enhance your visit to an area.   The app provides users content in the form of “Guides” and “Trips”.  The guides are moderated, and are a much higher quality than the trips. The app also gives the user the ability to record their trip and use this recording to publish guides / trips to other users.   It comes in a free and paid ($3.99) version.  The free version is basically the same with a few restrictions.  The bigest of which is that you can’t download the maps for offline use. 

    Here is what I like about this app

    • Everytrail provides good tools for createing guides / trips.  This means better quality information for the consumers of these guides & trips.
    • Evertrail incentivizes the creation of guides.  This attracts serious bloggers, and ensures they give good content.
    • The inclusion of audio and Video help bring a trip to life.  
    • The seperation of reviewed guides and trips helps sort out the better content. There is also a raiting system.
    • EveryTrail is owned by tripadvisor which means it is backed by a major company.  I see the potential big things in the future of this product.  

    And what I don’t like

    • There are a lot more trips than guides. Many of these are junk or repeats, so it can be hard to sift through them to find the good ones.  Unfortuantly this is the downside of user driven content and it is found in all apps that follow that model.
    • Topo maps are provided by “open terrain”  I have not used them enough to comment on if they are complete and accurate. 
    • I find the process of downloading maps for use offline confusing.  I should be able to manage it directly from the map page.  Instead you have to turn on the downloading and then “favorite” a trip. 
    • Users have complained about maps disapearing.  Certainly not somthing you want to happen in the back country.  I have not personally experienced this. 

    is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location 

    The iphone app allows you to find geocaches, and download the information needed to find these caches.  It provides some additional fun when you are out on a hike. 

    How many times have you gotten to the payoff of a big hike, and as you stand admiring the view you begin wondering what that mounting or hill over there is?   Peakfinder helps you identify what you see on the horizon by giving you a wireframe sketch of the features with labels.  

    Ebook Readers
    There are several good ones available. Ibook, barnes and noble, and kindle.   I like kindle because there is so much good content available for it.

    What ever reader you choose it will allow you do download a book for use offline.   This allows you to have a wealth of reference information such as

    •  Guide books
    •  Survival guides
    •  Wilderness first aid
    •  Mountaineering guide (freedom of the hills) 

    You can also bring along your favorite novel to read as you lounge around camp. Best of all you bring this library with no additional weight added to your pack. 

    There are many more great apps out there for outdoor use.  I don’t use them nearly as often (or not at all) as the ones listed above.  Some of thes include

    •  IBird Explorer
    •  My Nature Animal Tracks
    •  All Trails  – I do use this app it has a lot of content. The quailty of the content is mixed. 
    •   North Face trail head  – this is a user content driven app.   It does have some local trails that are tough to find information on.  But It also has a lot of “bobs walk around the block” and “Joes commute (testing this” 
    • 14er Weather provides convenient links to weather forecasts for 14,000 ft mountains in Colorado.  

    I hope you enjoyed this article.  If you are using a smartphone for outdoor use please share your experience in the comments.   



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