Four Reasons the iPhone Fails as a Backcountry Navigation Device

I recently downloaded iTopoMaps for my iPhone and then set out on an overnight backpacking trip to test its navigation capabilities. Here's why it's great, plus four reasons why it totally failed.

The potential is awesome.

For $7.99, iTopoMaps provides you with access to every USGS topographic map for the entire country at 1:24,000 scale. The app accesses them from a remote server via WiFi or cellular connection, or you can download desired quads directly to your phone for offline use. iTopoMaps then uses the phone's GPS to accurately pinpoint your location on the relevant map.

You can use the app to obtain your GPS coordinate in lat/long or UTM and can adjust the settings to your desired datum as well. You can mark a waypoint, name it easily with the phone's touchscreen keypad, add any relevant notes, and even snap a picture with your phone of the location to attach to the waypoint for future reference.

In general, it works pretty well when you're loading maps via WiFi or cellular connection, though it can take a few seconds for the maps to fully load, and up to a minute to download a quad to your phone for offline use. Without exception, it accurately fixed my location almost instantly. Then I took it on my hike.

The reality is not so great.

Here are four reasons why this app—and the iPhone in general—proved to be a very poor substitute for a paper map and backcountry GPS unit.

1) Battery Life: I fully charged my iPhone 4S the night before I headed out and used it only a handful of times to make a few pre-hike phone calls, check my location a few times, and mark a couple of waypoints. By the next morning it was almost completely drained, and soon ran out of juice entirely. And so it became an utterly useless little black brick for the rest of the trip.

I suspect this extremely poor battery performance may have been the result of leaving the app open when I clicked off the phone, which perhaps kept the GPS running in the background. (GPS receivers are notorious battery hogs.) But regardless, it illustrated the pitfalls of relying on any battery-powered device in the backcountry.

Dedicated handheld GPS receivers have a much longer battery life, plus most run on standard AA batteries for easy field replacement. You can also purchase various accessories for the iPhone with additional battery life. But no matter what, there is always the potential for batteries to drain and render any electronic device useless. Maps and compasses, in contrast, are delightful analog devices that don't require batteries. Ever.

2) Screen Size: The screen on a phone is small, especially compared to a paper map. This makes it difficult to get a big-picture sense of the larger terrain or region. Instead of being able to look at the whole area in one sheet, you have to repeatedly scroll around and zoom in and out.

3) Rain: It rained steadily the entire first day of my hike. As a result, I was reluctant to pull out my phone and expose it to the moisture and elements. I would have had no qualms about pulling out a backcountry GPS unit in such conditions, or referencing a waterproof map. I don't know what the water-resistant qualities are of the iPhone, but I wasn't interested in testing them out either. (I could have invested in a fully waterproof case for the phone for such conditions, I suppose.)

4) App Failure: Before I headed out, I downloaded the relevant topo maps for my hike. When I turned it on, the app almost instantly brought up the downloaded map for my area and accurately pinpointed my location within a second or two. Very cool and useful. But when I attempted to zoom in or out, it crashed. Repeatedly and consistently. Not very cool or useful. Total fail.

According to the iTopoMaps website, when the latest version of the app was released "a bug was also introduced and just caught. The app may crash when offline and panning outside the cached area. A bug fix is already on the way! Sorry for the inconvenience." Yes, very inconvenient and another illustration of the perils of this high-fangled technology.

My Takeaway

So here's my takeaway from the experience. The potential of this technology is phenomenal. Reliability, durability, and battery life will almost certainly improve with time. If you already have a smart phone, the incremental cost is negligible compared to purchasing a separate GPS unit and a library of paper maps. I have little doubt that this sort of technology will become a backcountry standard for many hikers within the next decade or so. Just not yet.

For now, I will stick with a good paper map and compass for all of my adventures. And even 10 years from now, when this technology has radically improved, I will still carry a good paper map and compass with me at all times. Because no matter how good electronics get, they always have the potential to fail when you need them most.

For more on navigation:
Show Me the Way: How to Choose a Compass (2012)
How to Navigate by the Sun: A Simple Trick (2010)
How to Estimate Trail Distance (2010)
Next Generation USGS Maps (2010)
The GPS Shrink-Down: How small can receivers get? (2010)

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

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