This is an old topic, but I was very late to the Smartphone party, particularly as a backcountry navigation tool. Many of my professional guiding peers had been using them for years. I had all sorts of reasons to justify my resistance and to continue with the dreaded Garmin GPS experience. I have now changed. In this very short blog I am going to recommend a very specific model of phone that serves me very very well (I am sure there are others) and an app which suits that phone. Plus, I'll recommend an online mapping platform. None of this is supported by kickback or deals. I pay full price for everything.

backcountry trip plan

Can anyone guess the location of this very rough trip navigation plan? Over the years I have built up a good database of trips saved in a spreadsheet.

Moving on...

My professional backcountry guiding and personal ski touring has me operating in Japan, New Zealand, and Canada. Both JP and NZ have very good quality paper maps that make detailed navigation with limited visability relativley easy. But... in Canada.... the commercially available printed paper maps are poor. So you have to make your own, and that quickly leads to using Smartphones as a platform to view those maps if you do not have access to a printer while on the road.

And so it was my demaning trips to Canada's often unfamiliar backcountry the forced me to find the best mapping and nav solutions using a new Smartphone. 

First, my chosen phone for backcountry use: the relatively old Motorola Z Play. Not a particularly common or popular phone. Besides being pretty cheap, it has a huge battery life, which is all I really wanted. In "tech spec" terms, the battery is 3510mAh, whatever that means. But it has a bigger battery than nearly all phones, sometimes by a large margin (check yours). In practical use terms, it means I can get out of bed at 6am and unplug my fully charged phone, switch it to airplane mode at the trailhead at 8am, turn on GPS and my navigation app, track my ski tour path all day for 9 hours using GPS, use it in my hand in the cold many times to check my nav in a white out, take photos etc etc. I carry my phone in the back pocket of my ski pants. When I return to the car at the end of a long ski tour at -10C, the remaining battery is typically between 80-85%.  Beat that! In normal use at home, I often go 2 days without even plugging it in.

On a multi-day hut or a tent trip - so long as I kept the phone warm at night and in airplane mode - I could easily go 3 days of similar usage without a charge and still have battery to spare. But it gets better... The Moto Z Play comes with an uncommon design feature that allows a second 3490mAh battery to be instantly attached to the back of the phone via a magnetic connecting interface (see above image). That almost doubles the phone's standard very long battery life in a few seconds. The magic magnetic battery is thinner and lighter than the standalone phone, which is already thin and light, despite having a large screen. No plugs or cables or bulky reserve batteries or special cases. Just magnets. Mega hint! Recalibrate your phone compass when you attach or remove the magnetic battery!!! It is a simple 30 second process that you should do all the time anyway.

Some other specialized phones may seem suitable, but personally I don't like the super chunky outdoor rugged "milspec" phones. They are heavy and bulky. And I don't use a waterproof life-case for my phone either - I'm ski touring, which is actually pretty gentle on electronic gear in most weather conditions, so long as you carry in a pocket that is not exposed to moisture.

If long-lasting battery power in a slim and light phone with a larger screen is all that matters in your world, you can research it for yourself: www.motorola.com/us/products/moto-mods/moto-turbopower-pack-battery.

Added bonus: two sim card slots for two countries. I have both Japan and NZ sim cards in my phone.

Canada topo map

^British Columbia in caltopo.com

This leads me to backcountry navigation apps for Smartphones. After careful evaluation on my Android OS phone and lots of testing, I chose to use Backcountry Navigator GPS and ditched the popular choice, Gaia.

Everyone talks about Gaia. That's because Gaia is pretty good on an iPhone, and because Gaia put more money into marketing and an active help community. Gaia also has an ok online trip planning and map managing platform that syncs with your phone via the Cloud, which is a benefit. As an integrated package it works well and I can see why it is a popular iPhone solution. However, Gaia on an Android OS phone is not nearly as good as it is on an iPhone, almost a different app!  Compared to Gaia, the best GPS and navigation app for Android phones is Backcountry Navigator.

There are numerous usability features I do not like about Gaia for Android v.s the better Backcountry Navigator GPS for Android. But the big deal breaker for me is that on the Android version of the Gaia app, you can't even choose if the app will display grid or magnetic bearings on screen. 

For the record, I speak in grid bearings, and I set all my electronic GPS devices to give grid bearings, and then manually make a bezel adjustment for magnetic declination on my traditional compass. That way I can take a grid bearing from a paper map or electronic map in the field and use them directly in my "old fashioned compass" with no mental declination calculation required. Hint: get a traditional compass which allows declination adjustment (and change it when you change locations.)

NZ topo map caltopo

^New zealand in caltopo.com

Summary:

  • Moto Z Play phone for huge battery life in a thin and relatively light standard "street-style phone". Instant doubling of battery life via matching magnetic battery. Downside: unpopular phone that will probably be soon discontinued.
  • Backcountry Navigator for Android: I paid for the $15 full version of the app. I've heard a dramatically updated XE version is coming soon, and that it integrates with a cloud based trip planning platform. I hope they build on their great but old app, not degrade it.
  • caltopo.com. Best online mapping and trip planning platform available, despite being a bit interface clunky. Using it I can create the best maps I have seen for Canada (the bar is pretty low), and I can use New Zealand LINZ maps. And with a bit of custom-source trickery with layers, can use Japan's excellent GSI maps with hillshading. I pay for an annual subscription which gives functionality benefits, and allows some integration with the BC Navigator phone app. It also integrates with Google Earth really well, once you work out how. This is most valuable in places that have high quality summer and winter Google Earth images of glaciated terrain.
  • If you care, my traditional compass is a Sunnto MC-2, which is balanced for north and south hemispheres, has a declination adjustment, and a built in clinometer. And, a mirror, so you can see who's to blame when you get lost :)

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Aug 17, 2018 By damian