If you’re old enough, you may remember carrying maps in your car and telling family the phone number of the place you’re going. But who does that these days, when you just have your phone on you at all times? Well, if you’re heading out for a hiking or camping trip, you may need to resurrect some old-school habits.
There are still places without cell coverage
Gone are the days when we shopped for mobile providers by comparing coverage maps. If you stick to cities, it may seem like every place has mobile service, and you can use any smartphone app you like at any time. But get out into a remote area, and you may find your high-speed data connection disappears. Keep going, and your phone may lose any service at all.
Without coverage, your phone may burn through its battery searching for a connection. Once you’ve figured out you’re in such a place:
Put your phone in aeroplane mode (or turn it off entirely)
Plan to text your friends and family back home, rather than relying on messaging apps that require internet. (Old school Twitter users may remember that you can contact the service by texting 40404, and you can send direct messages that way if you like.)
You’ll run down your battery
Besides searching for coverage, using any GPS-enabled apps will eat through battery as well. It’s not that GPS itself requires a lot of power, but most mapping apps will constantly send data back and forth, with your phone notifying a server where you are, and the server sending back maps or other data.
To reduce the drain, try these tips:
Look for an offline mode in any app (especially mapping ones) and download data when you’re in a place with a good connection—ideally at home before you leave.
Turn on “low power” or “battery saver” mode, and turn down your screen’s brightness.
Check which apps are using the most battery, and quit (or even uninstall) anything you don’t need.
Carry an external battery with as much juice as you can carry. Something like this will be able to charge an iPhone about ten times.
iPhone batteries are one of those things that no matter how long they last, it isn't going to be long enough. There's even an entire industry built on selling backup batteries for our smartphones and tablets to keep them going once the battery runs out.
What to do instead
Assume that your battery will die and that you’ll be in a dead coverage zone at the worst possible moment. Look up how to use these archaic technologies (which any experienced outdoorsperson can tell you all about!)
For navigation: A map, ideally printed on waterproof paper, and a compass. (Before you leave, learn how to use them.) Also, know how to read the trail blazes in your area.
For communication: Satellite messenger devices can text people even from the middle of nowhere. Personal locator beacons, for true emergencies, will radio your location to rescue services. REI has a guide to choosing and buying both devices.
For a flashlight: Bring an actual flashlight.
Before you leave on a trip, make sure someone back home knows where you’re going, and make sure that you know their number as well. I’ve been that person trying to make a call from a campground pay phone in the middle of nowhere, so bring change and/or set up a calling card account before you go.