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  1. Computer Skills
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Computers

How to Use an iPhone Outdoors

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:ShortLanguages:

I get twitchy whenever my iPhone is more than a few feet away. It’s in my pocket all day, I sleep with it resting beside my head—I really need a girlfriend—and even when I head off sailing, camping, hiking or skiing, it’s with me. 

Sure, I might have no phone reception, a pair of thick gloves on, and be in the middle of the sea, 30 miles from land, but my trusty iPhone is there by my side.

If, like me, you love the outdoors but can’t handle being separated from your phone, there’s only one thing to do: make it into a useful outdoors device.

While I’ll focus on the iPhone in this tutorial, everything I say holds true for the iPad too. In fact, if you’re prepared to carry one, they’re an even better device to have on outdoor trips.

Load it Up With Useful Apps

At times it feels like there are millions of apps in the App Store, it’s not surprising, that a few of them are designed for hikers, campers, skiers, and everyone else who goes outside. 

Before you head away from good cell reception, make sure you load your iPhone up with all the apps you need. There’s no point trying to download them in the backcountry.

What apps you use depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing. In general, some sort of GPS navigation app and a weather app are the best place to start.

Hiking

The gold standard in smartphone GPS apps is Gaia GPS. It has high resolution topographical maps for most of the world. You can download different sections for use offline use, create routes and trails, and accurately track your position. 

It’s everything you need in a complete GPS app. If Gaia’s $20 price tag causes you to balk, MotionX-GPS is a cheaper alternative.

gaia topo
A topographical view of the Wicklow Mountains in Gaia GPS.

Sailing

If you’re heading sailing, you’ll need to get a specific GPS chart app. Most of the major sailing navigation companies, like Navionics, make an iOS app. The apps are normally free, although you’ll have to pay for each region’s chart package. 

If you already have a navigation system installed in your boat, you may get the charts you’ve already bought included.

Weather

For general weather forecasts, I love Dark Sky. It uses weather radar to give you accurate, hyperlocal forecasts. It’ll tell you things like, that it’s going to start raining where you’re standing in thirteen minutes. 

For weather information that’s immediately useful, it’s the best app I’ve found.

Dark Sky and Snow Forecast are great weather apps.

If you’re heading skiing, you need something a bit more specific. The iOS app from Snow Forecast gives you information on snow fall, conditions, wind and temperature. It tells you everything you need to know before putting on your ski boots. 

Protect It

If you’re taking an iPhone out into the world, away from cars and cappuccinos, you’re way more likely to accidentally break it. An iPhone that falls off a coffee table is normally fine, but one that falls into a stream or off a small cliff, doesn’t survive long enough to let you tweet about it.

The first line of defence is not being an idiot. The iPhone 7 is waterproof, but older iPhones aren’t. None of them can take a tumble on to rocks without picking up a shattered screen. If you’re in a precarious situation, put the phone away. 99% of iPhone damage can be stopped with a little sense. 

otterbox
An Otterbox is a sturdy, if pricey, solution.

Even if you’re careful with the iPhone, the odds are it’ll take the occasional splash or fall. Being careful should eliminate the big dunkings and cliff-drops, but a solid case can protect it from everything else. 

You can go all in with something like an Otterbox. They’re bulky and expensive but they will protect an iPhone from most small incidents. Alternatively, you can get by with a smaller case—I use the NGP from Incipio—if you’re more careful.

If you’re heading somewhere really wet like a boat or kayak, a Loksak is the best way to keep everything safe. They’re completely waterproof.

Conserve Power

An iPhone without power in the outdoors is worse than useless: it’s something fragile and expensive you have to carry that adds nothing. It’s really important to make sure it stays running for as long as possible.

If you’re outdoors, put every iPhone in Low Power Mode. I’m not quite sure how it does it, but I’ve found Low Power Mode to almost double how long I can use my iPhone for. Head to Settings > Battery > Low Power Mode to turn it on.

If you’re heading away from cell service, put the iPhone in Airplane Mode. Nothing burns through battery faster, than an iPhone without signal looking for reception.

airplane low power mode
Airplane Mode and Low Power Mode are essential when you're trying to conserve battery.

Conveniently, even in Airplane Mode, GPS still works so you can use the iPhone to navigate.

Low Power Mode and Airplane Mode, as well as being sensible with how you use the iPhone, can easily extend its battery life to 48 hours. 

For a weekend trip or a day hiking, that’s perfect. If you’re heading out for longer, you’ll need to do something about bringing more power.

Although you can get small portable generators, Wes Siler, writing for Outside Online, explains why they’re a massive waste:

For any outdoor activity where you need to bring a little extra power with you, without a vehicle, batteries and battery packs are a superior option to solar panels, stoves, or any other power generator that runs on sun, fire, wind, or water. Batteries are cheaper, lighter, more versatile, and they'll last longer.

Unless you’re going off the grid for an extended period of time, you’re better off bringing an external battery or two. Anything with more than 5000mAh should get your through a few days. 

Don’t Rely On It

An iPhone makes a great tool in the outdoors: it can help you navigate, provide up to date weather reports, and keep you in contact with the rest of the world. You can even use it to take pictures and play music. 

An iPhone is so competent, however, that you need to be careful that you don’t rely on it. One should never be your only navigation gear. Even with all the care and protection, they’re still a lot more fragile than, say, a paper map and actual compass. 

People die in the wilderness every year because they make bad decisions; not having redundant navigation gear is a very very bad decision.

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