Do GPS Units, Digital Cameras, and Other Electronic Devices Work in Cold Temperatures?

Yes and no. Yes, the internal electronics will work on most devices, even down into bitter sub-zero temperatures. But no, LCD display screens stop working in the deep freeze, rendering the otherwise functioning device largely useless. This doesn't mean you can't carry and use your electronics on cold-weather winter adventures. It just means that you need to understand their limitations and take a few simple steps to keep them usefully operating.

First off, the electronics. There are no liquids or moving parts inside most of today's portable electronic gadgets, which means there's nothing that can freeze. As a result, the processing capabilities of most electronics are largely unaffected by cold temperatures. (Laptops and other devices with spinning disk drives or other moving parts are another story, but few people carry such things into the bitter cold.)

Now consider the ubiquitous LCD screens, which are dramatically affected by cold temperatures. More formally known as liquid crystal displays, these screens do not actually contain liquids in the traditional sense. But neither are they solids exactly. They exist somewhere in the nether region between the two.

Essentially, the molecules in an LCD screen can move around and rearrange themselves (like a liquid) when an electrical current—and thus a tiny amount of heat—is applied, but maintain an overall fixed structure (like a solid) throughout. (There are some complex physics involved here. If you are really curious, I found this How Stuff Works web site to be the most illuminating.)

Upshot is that when the mercury plummets, the electrical current going through the LCD screen does not generate sufficient energy to overcome the frigid temperatures in the screen and rearrange the molecules to change the display. This effect generally starts to become noticeable around the freezing mark, when you'll notice the screen start to transition more slowly from one image to the next.

As temperatures continue to drop, LCD screens run slower, and slower, and slower...until they cease working all together. The exact temperature when this occurs varies depending on the type of LCD screen and the technology used to create it. The displays on most GPS units, for example, stop working somewhere in the single digits, though they become increasingly useless well before this point due to the glacially slow screen changes. (Garmin specs out its units as functional down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, though I suspect you might have to wait a long, long time to get a usable display image at that temperature.)

So if you're out adventuring in such temperatures, what can you do? First, if the device is pocket-sized (like most GPS units and many of today's digital cameras), simply carry it inside your layers and close enough to your body to stay functionally warm. Pull it out when you need it—and be efficient about using it. You should have several minutes at least before its screen temperature drops to unusable levels.

If the device has been stored cold in your backpack, take the time to warm it up next to your body before turning it on. If you're brave, stick the icy little brick in one of the warmest spots on your body: your armpits or crotch. (Don't place it directly against the skin if the device is extremely cold—single digits or below—or you can cause frostbite.)

If you have a larger electronic device, like an SLR digital camera, you have a couple of options. First, remember that the electronics will still work fine, even if the display screen is not. So you can still shoot pictures if the camera is very cold—you just won't be able to see them or manipulate the digital settings. To keep it warmer, consider placing a chemical heat warmer inside your camera bag. It should ideally be positioned near the camera screen, rather than at the bottom of the carry bag by the lens.

One last note about cold and battery life. Traditional alkaline batteries perform abysmally in the deep cold, with a dramatic drop off in battery life below the freezing mark (we're talking like 10 to 20 percent of the battery life at room temperature). Lithium batteries are more expensive, but perform well in extreme cold, with almost no loss of battery life. (Most rechargeable batteries are lithium-based these days.)

Power on!

“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Labels: ,