Android Phone as Hiking Companion

As I mentioned in my first post in this series I just started doing frequent hikes this year. I also just started using a smart phone this year and I’ve found it to be an excellent tool for hiking. There are of course the obvious uses, to call for help or a ride home and sending text messages of the hike progress to the person responsible for calling emergency services when you don’t come back.

The first non-standard use is GPS navigation, for my purposes I found that GPS Essentials is the best choice. It’s a versatile and powerful program so be prepared to spend some time getting up to speed using it. There is a support forum where the author and other users, including myself, are happy to help solve problems. Frequently the problems are due to not easily being able to figure out which of the huge number of features will get you the result you want.

Something to be aware of is the possible lack of accuracy with the GPS and compass sensors. On my LG pulse phone the compass is basically useless it has errors of over 30 degrees at times. The GPS accuracy is excellent when there are no hills, clouds or trees blocking the view of the GPS satellites. However my hiking virtually guarantees poor GPS reception sometimes making the error greater than 150 feet. This brings up one of the first field lessons I learned, a GPS in your pocket can be absolutely horrible, I saw errors of over 300 feet. To avoid that problem I bought a wrist strap to hold the phone. In addition to keeping the GPS readings as accurate as possible it also makes it more convenient for other phone tasks. When I’m out exploring new trails I find the only times I need a compass are when I get to an unexpected intersection (frequent occurrence in SE New England forests). To work around the inaccurate compass I simply walk a few hundred feet on one trail and see how the recorded track compares to my trail map. This has the added benefit of recording the unknown trails direction for adding to my map.

One very important thing to keep in mind when using a smart phone as a hiking companion, electronic devices fail. They run out of power and have other problems that will prevent you from using the GPS. This is why I always carry my trusty old Silva compass and a paper map. I have also added a portable phone charger/emergency LED flashlight to my day hiking gear. It has come in handy a couple times allowing me to finish recording my GPS track instead of turning off the phone to save the power for an emergency call if needed. To keep the whole package small and dust/water resistant I replaced the included USB cable with a 6″ cable and installed a pair of RooKaps.

This reminds me of another important safety tip, set your phone to automatically power off at 10% battery left so that you won’t get stranded due to a dead phone battery.

The other smartphone features I’ve come to rely on are the camera, voice recorder and eBook reader. In addition to taking photos of interesting things seen, I like to take pictures of trail signs and oddly shaped intersections. Those pictures come in handy as I build up my comprehensive forest map. The voice recorder is a great way to take down long notes and record odd natural sounds for later identification. On my very first hike I heard a strange cacophony of sound emanating from many areas of the forest but could not see what critter was making the racket. I eventually tracked it down to some type of frog in vernal pools, when I got home I used the recorded sounds for reference and determined it was the mating calls of Wood Frogs. Voice recorded notes have also been very handy for documenting the appearance of birds I see. I can quickly speak a description of what I see and then later use the recording while searching through my bird identification books. This leads me to the last feature the eBook reader, with some field guides downloaded to the phone I can look up the critter while observing it if I’m not in a hurry or wait and look when I’m taking a rest break.

A final thing I’ve learned the hard way about using my smartphone as a hiking companion. CHECK ALL THE FUNCTIONS BEFORE YOU LEAVE THE HOUSE. On one hike when I went to make some voice notes I got error messages saying the microphone was locked by another application. After trying reboots and other things that came to mind for about 15 minutes I finally gave up and started the hike. When I got home and researched the issue I learned that a recent update to the Google app had set it to take control of the microphone from everything except the telephone app. A simple settings change and I was back in business, if I’d checked it before leaving I would have been able to hike an extra 3/4 mile instead of fumbling round trying to fix the voice recorder.