Why Your Smartphone Is A Great Adventure Tool

Every once in a while at a book signing or during an interview, someone asks me: What’s your favorite piece of outdoor gear? I try for a few seconds to stall and think of something original and interesting, and then I give up and say, You know what, I think the smartphone is probably one of the best pieces of adventure gear we have now. And I pretty much never go on a trip without it.

Before you write me off as some millennial who can’t live a day without staring at a glowing pocket computer, let me refute that right now and say: I am a Gen-Xer who can’t live a day without staring at a glowing pocket computer. I am too old to be a millennial by four years. Let’s just cut the shit and admit that we’re all using our phones to do everything nowadays. And “everything” probably includes our outdoor adventures.

When I say the phone is a great piece of adventure gear, I don’t mean that we can use it to communicate every moment of our day hike or MTB ride or use it to call for a rescue when we get in over our heads because of bad planning or incompetence. I mean that it makes a great off-the-grid tool when it’s offline, in Airplane Mode, not communicating with anyone. I am not an accomplished alpinist or a writer for National Geographic—I’m speaking from the perspective of a weekend warrior, sometimes adventure writer and sometimes filmmaker. These are a few of the ways I utilize my phone in the outdoors:

Navigation: I’m half crusty old guy who loves paper maps in my hands and/or spread out on my kitchen table, and half next-generation GPS embracer. I can’t operate a handheld GPS unit for shit, but every trip I go on where getting lost might be a possibility, I take two types of maps: A paper one (OK, plasticized paper) and a digital one downloaded and viewable offline in an app like Gaia GPS or ViewRanger. I hate looking at 2-inch by 2-inch maps on a phone screen, but I love the ability of a GPS app to pinpoint my location on a USGS topo. Oh, and of course the iPhone also has a compass and altimeter.

Notes: On longer trips, or when something strikes me, I rely heavily on the Notes app in my iPhone. I’ve written parts of magazine stories and entire blogs on my phone while lying on my back in my sleeping bag, and typed countless half-hatched and fully-hatched ideas in the Notes app. I also keep a running note of sketch ideas for my Instagram feed, often just a few words or a description of something I think might be funny (half of them never make it past the idea stage). The Notes sync automatically with the Notes on my laptop, so I don’t even have to email or text the note to myself once I get back to civilization—I just cut and paste the notes into a document and start editing. Also good for when you’re halfway through a trail run and remember you need to stop by the grocery store on your way home and buy eggs (or toilet paper).

Voice Memos: Same as the Notes app on the iPhone, but very useful when you have a great idea you don’t want to forget but you don’t want to type and walk or run. A couple taps of the screen and you’re recording a brain dump that may be something awesome, as well as some huffing and puffing.

Flashlight: I always take a headlamp (or two), but I’ve definitely done my share of nighttime routefinding (and rifling through my car for a piece of gear before sunrise or after sunset) with my phone’s flashlight. The flashlight app sucks huge amounts of your battery, but in a pinch it can save your ass.

Kindle: I’ve never been on one of those expeditions where the team brings a few paperbacks and rips them into lighter-weight sections to share throughout the trip, but I do love reading books in my tent. I use the Kindle app for ebooks, so I always have three or four books I can choose from for some nighttime reading in my sleeping bag (particularly handy during the long fall nights in the desert, when I’m in my sleeping bag before 8 p.m.).

Camera/Video camera: Adventure filmmaking isn’t always about $10,000 cameras and expensive lenses (although people other than myself have created amazing pieces with those things). Your phone, if it was made in the past two years, is probably a pretty rad video camera. I’ve used an iPhone for film festival films and sponsored films, mounting it on a small GorillaPod or handheld gimbal stabilizer. It’s not going to get you the Best Cinematography Award at a festival, but you can take a phone camera to so many places you can’t take a RED Dragon, and capture those authentic moments that make a great adventure story. I’m sure I’m about the thousandth person to encourage aspiring filmmakers to not worry so much about not being able to afford fancy gear—the iPhone shoots 4K, and it’s in your pocket right now. It’s also not too shabby of a still camera. (Note: I only have experience with iPhones, and I know other smartphones have fantastic/better cameras)

Beta: I love guidebooks. Always have, always will. That said, it’s pretty rad to be going rock climbing for the day and have all the route beta you need downloaded on the Mountain Project app. I’ve used my phone to take photos of pages from my guidebooks at home, store photos other people have shared online of the routefinding cruxes of mountaineering and climbing routes, and notes on the location of water sources on desert bikepacking and backpacking routes.