Smartphones' Many Uses

Apr 06, 2019

With their many uses in a small package, you’d almost think smartphones were designed specifically with hiking/biking in mind. By taking advantages of their multiple uses, a smartphone can easily be the only electronic device you carry.



Let’s start with the obvious: It’s a phone. You can make calls and send text messages. While you might be interested in disconnecting while you’re on a hike/tour, it’s a good idea to have a phone in case of emergencies, and it’s useful in terms of making any kind of plans along the way. Also, a well-timed phone call, or even a simple text, can go a long way towards combatting homesickness.

Depending on where you go, these features may not be available at all times. If frequent coverage is a priority, you might consider switching carriers, and if traveling overseas, you might want to do some research and see what the best options are. An entire article could be written on the subject, but as a rule of thumb, Verizon has the best coverage in the United States (particularly in small towns), and T-Mobile has lots of international partners, as well as some of the most reasonable options for international plans.



Internet Access

Like with phones, many hikers/bikers prefer to take the opportunity not to check up on Facebook every day, but the utility of having instant access to nearly all the information on the planet can hardly be understated.

Things you might want to look up include:

  • Does the next town have a grocery store/outfitter/cafe?

  • When is everything open?

  • Are there any CouchSurfing/WarmShowers hosts nearby?

  • What’s the weather forecast?

  • How do you say “gloves” in Spanish?

  • How far away is ____________?

  • Where’s the next water source?

  • Is there a burn ban in this area?

  • What does poison oak look like?

  • How do you treat a snakebite?




While not as useful as a head lamp, the flashlight on a smartphone might be just enough to keep you from needing another light source. It’s not hands-free, and not even as handy as a small flashlight, but it’s one less thing in your pack. In some circumstances, you can find something against which to prop up your phone, or a way to set it on an upper ledge so you have something like a spotlight or overhead light.




Phone cameras have come a long way, to the point that the best phone cameras are almost as good as any digital point-and-shoot camera. Compared to a dedicated camera, some of the cons include a poor flash, limited options for varying light conditions, and an inability to zoom. However, you’re probably not going to use flash often on a hiking/biking trip, and most of your photos will have outdoor lighting, which most phones handle fairly well.

Obviously, if you take photography seriously, you’ll want to bring a dedicated camera. But for the average hiker/biker that wants reasonably good pictures of their adventure, a smartphone is easy to use and does the trick.




Almost everyone with a smartphone realizes it can be used as a GPS device, but some people may not realize the GPS features still work even when the phone is in airplane mode. GPS only listens, while the phone and data signals both send and receive data. Airplane mode shuts off phone, data, and bluetooth, but not GPS! Furthermore, GPS talks to satellites, which are always available. Phone and data signals rely on towers, which means you might be outside of their coverage.

Probably the most obvious, and also the most practical use for GPS, is being able to locate yourself. The most popular mapping apps (like Google Maps) require a data connection to download maps on-the-fly, but there are dozens of lesser-known apps that can store map information offline, meaning you don’t need a data signal at all and can leave the phone in airplane mode. A few apps also allow you to display a GPX file, essentially a route, and it can even be color-coded by elevation.

Here at PackJournal, our favorite offline mapping app is MyTrails, which has both a free and a paid version, priced at 2 Euros. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Download the app

  2. Select “Maps -> Create Offline”, then choose all the options for your map. You can control the area it covers, the level of detail (more area and detail will take up more space on your phone and take longer to download), and you can choose from dozens of different map sources, depending on what information and display works best for you.

  3. Create a route by using a GPS tracking site like Strava or MapMyFitness

  4. Save the route and export as GPX file.

  5. Move the GPX file into your “MyTrails” folder on your phone, then open “Tracks” within the MyTrails app and add the route you want

At this point, you should have both a map and a route saved to your phone, and both will display offline, along with a “you are here” marker.



Fitness Tracking

Smartphones can almost entirely replace bike computers and pedometers. Also thanks to the GPS capability, your phone can be used to track your daily activity, including distance, speed, time, elevation gain, heart rate, calories burned, and almost any metric imaginable. Strava and MapMyFitness are popular options for this purpose. Some people are more data-driven than others, but almost everyone would at least like to know how far they went today.

In years past, a full day of GPS tracking would drain almost a full charge on a phone’s battery. Recently, it appears that improvements have been made in efficiency in this area, and a full day now costs about 50% of a typical phone’s full charge.




We’ve covered this at length in another article, but a smartphone is one of the better ways to keep a journal. Lots of apps allow you to write and save journals offline, then simply upload them later.

Paper journals have appeal, but if you ever want to post them anywhere, you’re going to have to retype them. By saving journals digitally, it’s a lot easier to copy and share them. Typing, even with your thumbs, is usually faster than writing by hand. And, of course, one less thing.




While not a crucial function, it’s good to have entertainment with you.

One of the nice things about listening to music is it barely has an effect on your phone’s battery (by far, the biggest drain on phone batteries is the screen). Some hikers/bikers always listen to music, some prefer not to, and others might save music for those days they need a simple pick-me-up. No matter what kind of hiker/biker you are, nearly everyone likes music at least a little, and it’s good to have some tunes on hand.

Because of its stronger battery drain, watching movies/videos is something you probably won’t be able to make a habit of. And you certainly shouldn’t do it while you’re hiking/biking. But for zero days or lonely evenings, particularly when you have access to an electric outlet, it can be a good way to relax and pass the time.




Like movies, gaming is something you probably won’t be able to do frequently. For the most part, you want to save your phone’s battery for more essential functions. Also like movies, a half-hour of playing an old favorite can be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to comfort and mental state. Best saved for times when an electric outlet is nearby.



There are other electronics you might consider bringing, like a bike computer, a higher-quality camera, or a head lamp, but all of those are wants, not needs. By paring down your electronics to a single device (and a single charger!), you can lighten your load, save on space, and generally simplify your daily routine.


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