Is a Smartphone all you need?

A smartphone can be used to compliment and backup the functionality of a map, compass, watch and altimeter, but do not be tempted to save the weight by carrying single complex device that is prone to failure.

This month, I am working on student materials for the Staying Found course. I realize that I have just told students that every tool required for the class has an app equivalent on a smartphone. There are compass apps, altimeter apps, map apps, it can be used to tell time and for jotting down notes. As a bonus, it can even be used as a full featured GPS! Doesn't the principle of dual use suggest that a smartphone is the superior solution? I think it makes a great backup solution, but there are too many things to go wrong to trust one with your life.

A magnetic compass is a far simpler device, so there is less to go wrong. It also has the virtue of never running low on battery. There are also features built into a compass, such as a sighting mirror that will likely produce a higher accuracy in measuring a bearing in the field and there is no way to use a smart phone as a protractor to plot and measure bearings on a map. Finally, it would be important to understand exactly how the app on a smartphone actually works. Can it be adjusted for declination, does it use the earth's magnetic field or GPS (or both!) to determine it's orientation? The answer to this may vary from phone to phone and even from app to app on exactly the same phone!

I have occasionally found it convenient to use the compass on my iPhone. This is often when I am asked about identifying a landmark or peak when I already have it in my hand. At the very least you should learn how to set your compass to point to true north. It is, of course, possible to lose your compass or have it break, but when it matters, and I have the choice, I will use a good quality full featured magnetic compass before I use a smartphone.

As for an altimeter, there is an advantage to having both a pressure based and GPS based altimeter available as you can use the second to calibrate the first. Once calibrated at intervals during the day, ongoing comparisons of the two will reveal possible weather changes if a discrepancy starts to develop over the course of the day. Recently, I have come to like having a rugged combination watch/pressure based altimeter on my wrist while hiking in the mountains. I like tracking both of these metrics as the day progresses.

It is important to consider how weather proof and rugged your equipment is. Not only am I hesitant to use my smartphone in the rain and snow, but the touch screen can be difficult to use when it gets wet.

Smartphones can also be used as a map, but I find the size of the screen to be far too small to be of any real use. The only exception to this is when used with the GPS functionality. Here is the one instance where I use my smartphone as my primary GPS, but I consider a GPS to be a backup tool. Over the past couple of years, I have come to believe that smartphones will replace dedicated GPS units as the primary tool of its kind, but that is a whole different discussion!

Finally, smartphones used as a communication device (SMS texting is often available before you are close enough to service for voice) is justification enough to carry one into the mountains, but do not be tempted to leave your maps, compass and altimeter behind to save a few ounces. I think there is a compelling argument to carrying all of these devices. For they can compliment and back each other up in case of failures.



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