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Beginner Skills

How to Save Phone Battery Life in the Backcountry

Many backpackers depend on their phones as cameras, GPS devices, e-readers, and more. Keep yours running for longer with this advice.

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Originally published on Gaia GPS

Smartphones are an excellent alternative to conventional GPS devices because they are lightweight and compact, and their large screens are ideal for viewing detailed topographic maps while using an app like Gaia GPS.

But, if you use a phone to navigate in the wild, you need to consider ways to conserve battery power so you don’t end up with a dead phone halfway through your hike. The tips in this post will allow most people to get several days, or even longer, of use from their phone in the backcountry. Having said that, it’s important to note that even if you’ve mastered battery conservation, you still must bring along a compass and paper map and the skills to use them. It only takes one unfortunate drop to leave you with a busted phone.

Download Offline Maps Before You Go

Downloading maps for offline use before you leave home is an essential step that allows you to use the app with your phone in airplane mode or in a location without cell coverage. With the maps downloaded on your phone, you’ll be able to use all of the functionality that Gaia GPS provides, even in the most remote of locations, far away from any cell tower. Learn how to download maps for offline use here.

Use Airplane Mode

After you’ve downloaded the maps to your phone, put your phone into airplane mode before you head out on your trek. This simple change will make a big difference in how long your battery lasts. Airplane mode will stop your phone from constantly trying to establish a network connection when you’re in an area with poor or no cell coverage. Airplane mode will not automatically disable WI-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity. Manually turn off those features in settings in your phone to save even more battery.

There’s a common misunderstanding out there that when your phone is in airplane mode, you won’t be able to use apps that rely on GPS. However, because your phone can still communicate with GPS satellites while in airplane mode, Gaia GPS works just as well on airplane mode as when you are connected to Wi-Fi or cell service, so long as you’ve downloaded maps ahead of time.

Avoid Exposing Your Phone to Extreme Temperatures

Both hot and cold temperatures can have a dramatic effect on battery life, so it’s important to take steps to avoid extremes. Apple says that iPhones are designed to work well in temperatures between 32°F and 95°F, with the ideal range being 62°F to 72°F. If you’re going out backcountry skiing, you’ll have to find ways to keep your phone warm. Conversely, if you’re headed out hiking in the hot desert, you’ll need to keep your phone cool.

How to keep your phone warm: In below-freezing temps, use your body heat to help keep the phone warm. Keep your phone stashed in a pocket close to your body rather than in an exterior pocket or in your backpack. For extra warmth on especially chilly days, try keeping a small disposable handwarmer packet in the same pocket as your phone.

hikers taking selfie
Keep your phone ready when you need it. (Photo: Thomas Barwick / DigitalVision via Getty)

If your phone does get really cold, the battery level will plummet and the device may even power down. When this happens, try warming your phone up by placing it close to your body. Once the battery temperature warms, your phone should come back to life. If you need to charge your phone, wait until the battery is warm. Charging your phone while the battery is disabled from the cold will be ineffective and can potentially damage your battery.

How to keep your phone cool: Extreme heat can be tougher to solve for and more dangerous for the device than cold temperature exposure. In fact, high temperatures can permanently damage battery capacity, whereas the effects of cold are only temporary.

Prevent overheating by keeping your phone out of direct sunlight. You can also try removing the phone from its case, as cases tend to trap heat. Storing your phone deep inside the main compartment of your pack, wrapped up in gear and clothing, will typically insulate the phone from damaging heat. This leaves your phone fairly inaccessible, so it’s not a great option if you’re using your phone to navigate.

Shut Down Apps You Don’t Need

Many apps sit dormant when they’re not in use and won’t drain your battery while they sit open in the background. But, some apps keep track of your location and/or refresh content in the background. Force close all the apps you don’t need during your outing to be sure there’s no background activity that will draw down your battery.

If you prefer to keep apps open, limit their ability to refresh in the background to help conserve battery life. To do this with an iPhone go to Settings > General > Background App Refresh, then tap Background App Refresh and select Off. This disables background activity for all apps. If you want to turn it off for individual apps, you can do so on the Background App Refresh menu. With an Android phone, you can restrict individual apps by going to Settings > Battery > More > Battery usage. There, you’ll see a list of apps with the percentage of battery used. For apps with high battery use, tap them and turn Background restriction on.

Customize Location Services

Do not turn off all location services as this will disable your connection with mapping apps like Gaia GPS. But for other, non-location-based that you want open during your trip, like your camera, you can reduce the demand on your battery by turning off location services. Of course, doing so may affect how well an app performs. With your camera, for example, turning off location services means location data won’t be recorded and you won’t be able to see where you took a particular photo. But, for many people, location data on photos is not a must-have feature.

Customize location services with an iPhone by going to Settings > Privacy > Location Services and scroll down to the apps listed as using location services. Go through and select “Never” on those apps you will open during your trip but won’t need location services for. With an Android phone, open your phone’s Settings, then tap “Location services” or “Location access” whichever your phone shows. From this screen you can customize location services for each app.

Lower Screen Brightness

A bright screen is one of the biggest drains on your phone’s battery. Dimming your screen can reduce the impact that your display has on battery life. Here are two ways to do it:

  • Manually adjust the brightness to the dimmest level that still allows you to see your maps. With an iPhone, open the Control Center and drag the slider with the sun symbol up and down or go to Settings > Display & Brightness and drag the slider left or right. With an Android phone, open your phone’s Settings app, then tap Display > Brightness level and move the slider.
  • Turn on auto-brightness, which allows your screen to automatically adapt to the lighting, decreasing the brightness in dim conditions and increasing it in bright conditions. With an iPhone, go to Settings > Accessibility > Display & Text Size and turn Auto-Brightness on. With an Android phone, open your phone’s Settings app, then tap Display > Brightness level and turn on Adaptive brightness.

Consider Turning Your Phone Off When You Don’t Need It

Putting your phone in airplane mode and taking other battery-conserving measures will allow most phones to stay powered for several days without ever turning them off. But, if you really want to get the most out of your battery, then powering the phone down completely can be a wise move. That said, you need to consider how you use your device.

If you will be checking your phone regularly for navigation or to snap photos, then you should leave your phone on, because waking the phone up from sleep mode uses less power than turning the phone off and back on again. But, if you won’t be needing your phone for a few hours or more, such as when you’re hiking on an obvious trail that doesn’t require frequent map check-ins or when you’re sleeping at night, then powering the phone down completely will save battery power in the long run.

Bring a Backup Battery

Despite all your efforts to conserve battery power, it’s still possible that your phone will get low on juice. So, if you’ll be relying on your phone for navigation, you should always have a backup battery pack and the appropriate cable to be able to recharge your device. Our favorite: the Goal Zero Venture 35, which has enough power to recharge an iPhone 13 nearly twice and has IP67 waterproofing.

Joe Pasteris is a freelance writer based in Vermont. When he’s not typing, you can find him climbing, biking, backcountry skiing or building furniture.

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