Friday, 8 April 2022

Thoughts On Smartphone Navigation In The Hills & A Review Of Three Outdoor Phones

The issue of smartphones for navigation in the hills has reared its controversial head again following a BBC website piece with the title "Hillwalkers warned more than a phone needed to navigate mountains" and containing the statement "Some people do not realise phones will just switch off at cold temperatures, leaving them stranded", which is simply untrue. More sensible was the advice from Mountaineering Scotland safety advisor Ben Gibson recommending not just relying on a phone and advising carrying a map and compass as well plus a power bank.

I've written about navigating with phones a few times before but thought I'd expand my thoughts a little here and also post a review of three smartphones designed for outdoor use that recently appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine.

Perhaps the most important point to make is that smartphones, maps, compasses, and GPS units are just tools and to be useful you need to know how to use them and what their limitations are. They're not magic. Map reading is a skill needed whether your map is on a screen or printed.

Now I've been around so long that when I began hillwalking mobile phones and GPS satellites were the stuff of science fiction. Map and compass were the only options. I learnt to use them and couldn't imagine ever not having them. However those much younger have grown up with mobiles and GPS and undoubtedly can't imagine not having them. Suggesting that the tools they are familiar with shouldn't be used or don't work in the hills and they should stick to the old ones is futile and I suspect makes it likely that all the advice of people who say this will be rejected. I know that's what I would have done. If you know someone is wrong about something why trust them on anything else?

That said, having options is wise. Phones can fail or break, though it's never happened to me and I've been using them for navigation for well over a decade. Printed maps can blow away or tear and if paper can get soaked (I prefer ones on plastic). Both have happened to me in the past. Compasses are not infallible either as I discovered many decades ago, long before GPS let alone smartphones, when I walked off the wrong side of Ben More on the island of Mull, following a compass bearing, and discovered that if there are magnetic rocks around compasses can be 180ยบ out. Much more recently I had a compass suffer reverse polarity so the needle pointed south not north, though not accurately enough to use it safely. Whether you use GPS or map and compass as your main navigation tool if you have both you have a backup in case of failure. Or of course two phone. Or two compasses. 

Teaching people how to use a phone for navigation is the way forward, not telling them it won't work. Often problems with using phones for navigation comes down to a lack of skill and knowledge not the failure of the phone. If all you have on the phone is Google maps you'll probably get lost, as you will if all you have is a printed road map. If you're reliant on a preset route, whether downloaded to a phone or in a printed guidebook, and can't map read then you may have problems if you lose the route. Tools have to be the right ones and you need to know how to use them. 

There are many mapping and hiking apps. I currently use OS Maps. Alex Roddie wrote a useful review of apps for The Great Outdoors recently.

"The battery will run out", is often given as a reason for not using a phone for navigation. If you know how to maximise battery life this should not be so (put it in airplane mode most of the time). Carrying a battery charger is wise too. Also, consider a phone with a big battery or one with a replaceable battery (see my reviews below). 

A myth is that phones won't work for navigation without a phone signal. This isn't true as the phone uses GPS satellite signals to show your position not wifi or 4G/5G. You do need to download the maps so they can be used offline - you probably won't be able to do that in the hills.

Whether printed or digital a map for the hills should have contours and other symbols that, when you know how to read them, shows what the terrain is like. In Britain that means the Ordnance Survey or Harvey maps. I do nearly all my navigation with a map. These days it's usually one on my smartphone, though I do carry a printed one as backup and to look at in camp. 

For planning I use a mixture of screen maps and printed maps. On screen I can draw routes and let the software workout distance and ascents. Printed maps I can spread out over the floor and visualise routes over huge areas, a great way to dream. I  love maps. I can spend hours poring over them, studying landscapes and planning routes. 

I still always carry a compass though it may not be used most days. Because I'm so familiar with using one in poor visibility I sometimes get my position on the phone, note the direction I want to take, and then transfer it to the compass as a bearing. I do keep the compass and phone apart though - close together the phone may cause reverse polarity in the compass. Don't carry them in the same pocket!

Summing up: good navigational skills are essential in the hills. And the key one is being able to read a map, whether it’s on paper or on a screen. The latest smartphones are efficient GPS units and with good downloaded maps can be used for navigation. Indeed, being able to pinpoint your position on a map on the screen should make it harder to get lost. A battery pack or spare battery should ensure you don't run out of power. And just in case something does goes wrong, carrying a paper map and a compass or a second phone as a back up is wise..

Review of Three Rugged Smartphones
From the left: Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro, Land Rover Explore R, Motorola Defy 

Smartphones are generally fairly fragile creatures, needing care, especially when taken into the hills. For years I kept mine in a protective case, handled it carefully, and kept it away from rain, snow, dust and mud. A cracked screen after I dropped my phone on a long walk – not enough to stop it working but I had to baby it the rest of the walk – had me looking at rugged phones designed for construction sites and other outdoor workplaces. I found plenty of big, heavy, chunky, rubberised clumsy-looking phones. They didn’t look very comfortable to carry or use and the specs were minimal. I didn’t think any could replace my phone for all uses.

Then in 2018 Land Rover launched a phone designed for hillwalking and the outdoors. The Explore looked like a slightly bigger standard phone and had all the features of the rugged phones plus much better specs. I took it on the GR5 trail through the Alps and enjoyed having a phone I didn’t have to treat carefully. When I went back to my standard phone I found I resented needing a case so when I replaced it I looked for a rugged phone and was pleased to discover there were now a number of options as well as the Explore.

Having now been using rugged phones for the last year and a half I can’t imagine going back to a standard one. I love having a phone that doesn’t require looking after. I’m now used to ignoring rain, putting my phone down on snow and mud, and slipping it into a pack or jacket pocket knowing it won’t come to harm if I bang it on something. Dropping it isn’t a worry either, though ironically rugged phones are designed to be non-slip. I like not needing a case too. Without one the rugged phones reviewed here are only slightly heavier and barely any bigger than a standard equivalent phone with one. And if the phone gets dirty you can easily wipe it clean.

There are now quite a few rugged smartphones suited to outdoor use. I’ve compared three that I’ve used extensively here. All of them have excellent waterproof, dustproof, and drop specifications. The cameras are all adequate but no more. The other specs are fine for most uses but they’re not as fast as top-end smartphones (or anything like as expensive). However, for the hills they are superb.


Land Rover Explore R    225 grams        £249.      ***1/2

Pros                   customisable dashboard, cost

Cons                  battery life, screen colour

Size                   160 x 76 x11mm

Weight               225 grams

Operating system Android 9/10

Battery              3100mAh

Memory             64GB, micro-SD slot

Cameras            12 MP f1.8 rear, 8MP front

Rather than an update to 2018’s Land Rover Explore this is a new phone with a different design and software. The durability aspects remain though, and it works in temperatures between -30°C and +65°. The screen is protected by Corning Gorilla glass and can be used with gloves or wet fingers. It’s recessed to give extra protection if dropped. The battery is 3,100 mAh, which Land Rover says is enough for 1.5 days with “medium-to-heavy” use.

Although the Explore R is the same size as the Samsung XCover Pro the display is smaller. It also has a slight yellowish colour tinge. However, I soon forgot about this in use. The display is bright and easily visible in sunshine. The screen works with gloves and wet fingers

For mapping the Explore R comes with the OS Maps app and a free 12-month premium subscription.

Like the first Explore the Explore R has a customisable Dashboard page that can give useful information such as sunrise and sunset times, altitude, and compass direction. Some of the information can only be updated with a phone signal though. Other information uses GPS.

I’ve used the Explore R for over a year in every type of weather without any extra protection and it’s always worked fine. There’s a dull finish to the sides and a rough textured back so it can safely be held in one hand.

I think the big drawback of the Explore R is the battery. It will last the 1.5 days claimed, though it’s easy to shorten that if you’re not careful. For a trip longer than a day a battery pack is essential.


Motorola Defy         235g   £279      ****1/2        £279       Best Buy

Overall Rating       ****1/2

Likes                       large screen, powerful battery life, cost

Dislikes                   nothing

Size                        170 x 78 x 11mm

Weight                     235 grams

Operating system     Android 10

Battery                    5000 mAh

Memory                   64GB, micro SD slot

Cameras                  48MP f1.8 main, 8MP front

Cost                        £279

The Defy is the biggest phone reviewed yet only weighs a few grams more than the others. The sides and back have a raised, ribbed pattern for a secure grip that’s the best of the three phones. The temperature operating range is -25° to 55°C. The recessed screen is Corning Gorilla glass for protection.

Other than the standard Google apps there’s no preinstalled software so you need to download mapping and other outdoor apps.

The big plus of the Defy is the massive 5000 mAh battery. Using the phone to record my route, check my position on the map occasionally, take a dozen and more photos, send a few texts, and even upload images to social media when there’s a signal the battery lasts two days. With careful use I can make that three.

The Defy arrived for testing at the end of last summer and I’ve used it through the autumn and winter without any problems and without treating it carefully. It’s worked fine in rain and in snow and in temperatures well below freezing. The screen is bright in any light and works with wet fingers and gloves. I like the large size but those with smaller hands may find it a bit more difficult to hold.

The big battery and large screen make this my Best Buy of the three phones, especially as the cost is quite low.


Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro     232g    £469  ****     Recommended

Overall Rating       ****

Likes                       replaceable battery

Dislikes                   quite expensive

Size                        160 x 76 x 10mm

Weight                     232 grams

Operating system     Android 10

Battery                   4050 mAh

Memory                  64GB, micro SD slot

Cameras                 25mp f1.7 wide angle & 8mp ultra-wide angle rear, 13mp front  

The Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro is the most expensive phone reviewed. It does have a better camera than the others and a fairly powerful battery that lasts well. The big plus point though is that the battery is replaceable. This has two advantages. The first is that a spare battery only weighs 76 grams, far less than a battery pack of the same capacity. The second is that if the battery runs out you can just replace it and continue using the phone straight away rather than having to attach it to a battery pack. The battery itself lasts me two days with reasonably careful use.

To change the battery the rear of the phone has to be removed. I was concerned this might be a weak point but after over a year’s use it’s as waterproof and dustproof as ever.

The XCover Pro is designed for construction sites and dusty and dirty workplaces rather than the hills and there are no mapping or other apps and a few features that aren’t really relevant for the outdoors. However, it is very tough and comes with three years guaranteed software and security updates (the other phones have two years).

The phone has a roughened back and matt finish rather than shiny sides to give a secure grip. The size is just right for me to use comfortably in one hand. The screen is only slightly recessed and fills more of the front of the phone than the screens on the other phones. Again, I thought this might be a weak point but so far it’s been fine.


  1. That's a very good article. If we are honest there's been way too much of an anti-technology narrative from some with an interest in the outdoors for too long and it's time to move on and embrace satellite navigations like other countries did years ago. I would also add that what3words is a great app to use most of the emergency services use it now and it integrates well with navigation apps such as

  2. Most rescue services hate W3W. It is very useful in countries that dont have standard mapping available, but in the UK it is just another potential source of miscommunication. I regularly teach hiking leaders in other countries, where GPS navigation is the only option because maps are not available or even illegal! So we use a phone app such as Fatmap, Gaia, or whatever has maps with a contour layer. We print out an A4 image of the day's trip and can use this to navigate without the moving location arrow. I've found that people pick up navigation very fast this way (much quicker than learning just analogue). I think this is a good way to get people started even where printed maps are available, progressing from a good starting point onto map and compass. The trick is to use the location arrow as a tool but have backup plans for when or if its not working.

    1. That's an interesting comment. Thanks. For just finding your position I think OS Locate is the app to use in the UK.

  3. We switch to and from the phone app to the printout. Soon people become pretty good with both.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Before I comment further, is the article you reference the one dated 6 April updated 7 April?

  6. hi Chris,
    Regarding your review of rugged phones: any phone can be made rugged by putting it inside a bombproof case (Lifeproof or Otterbox for instance). Even fingerprint sensor and face recognition keep functioning. The weight of the phone increases by some 60g.

    1. Thanks. I used to have a similar case. I prefer a phone that doesn't need one but with non-rugged phones I certainly recommend one.

  7. It's the one I linked to at the start of the post.

  8. Sound advice Chris but one thing you didn't mention is that touchscreens can be useless in the rain when your finger slides over them and nothing happens. My gps has push buttons which have never failed in this way.

  9. Thanks. I missed the link since it's not the normal light blue colour.

    1. The oddities of the internet. I just checked - on my PC the link is light blue but on my smartphone it's pale grey.Both in Firefox.

  10. Many of Mountain Leaders & Instructors are not anti-tech as has been suggested. That generalisation is unhelpful, just as it is to say 'digital navigation is bad', as well before we had Smartphones, the handheld GPS, was widely used to help field researchers plot their study areas, alpine ski leaders mark their exit point from a glacier when heading up to a hut or moving onto rocky terrain and, of course, sailors & kayakers could use GPS to confirm their position along coastline etc.
    I think I'm right in understanding that the Ambassador for Harvey Maps, the former Head of Centre at Glenmore Lodge, is an advocate for digital mapping in the correct context and with appropriate training.
    So, the issue is not the handheld device alone; it's the way folk are now using them.
    As with most of our daily interaction with devices like smartphones, we scroll around and frequently skim what we are reading: translate this to a digital map and there's significant opportunity for the user to expect the device to do the navigating for them.
    In fact, we need to consider digital map navigation in the context of all our interaction with digital information - here's one comment from Maryanne Wolf (you can read her authority in the quote). She writes, "The sheer volume of emails, articles and DMs leads to a “defense strategy,” Wolf said: skimming. You are missing words. You are missing clues. You are missing your ability to put your background information to work in the most productive way,” said Wolf, director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice at the University of California at Los Angeles."
    Apply this skimming to digital navigation and we can see the serious potential for big errors.
    Of course, the printed map user can create their own errors too, so the important issue for recreational and professional users alike is how we learn to use the device as an aid and not 'the' navigational tool. We have to learn to avoid the multiple distractions which our screens can provide (data on how far and how fast we are moving along with other algorithm based data about Calories used etc.). For those who have read this far, I fully appreciate that there is far more to the issue than any binary approach of 'good' / 'bad' and it deserves a reader-friendly article which I'd be happy to help create. Stay smiling folks...

  11. Thanks everybody for your comments. This is clearly a topic of great interest!

  12. I think there are a couple of further considerations on phones and software, which is updates. Those can be both good and bad things.
    Quite a few phones suffer from makers who will not offer updates to their operating systems, so its OK for the first year or so, then gets increasingly questionable from a security point of view thereafter. If only using it for "offline saved mapping" this isn't a big deal so long as the mapping software works.
    And that brings me to the other, worse, side. Which is software app providers changing things. It used to be "use View Ranger" (which was a good app, I used it), but that has been withdrawn from use and alternatives had to be found. The OS' own app has been a mixed experience for me.
    ( I agree about using OS-Locate to get grid-references on a phone - simple, does one thing, just works, can't get confused about what it is presenting in big print).

    Net for me, after a fair bit of thinking hard about buying a robust "outdoor proof" phone, I decided to stick with the older approach of dedicated GPS (Garmin), with both the OS 1:50,000 maps plus the "talky toaster" maps derived from various public domain sources (which often show details not on OS maps). Cost came to broadly similar sum. Upside of the GPS is that it will still be the same device and user-interface for the life of the device (my previous Garmin did about a dozen years). Downside is that I'm still carrying a phone as well in a pack as a communication device.

    1. Thanks Nigel. Security updates are important. As I said in the piece the Samsung has three years guaranteed updates, the two other phones have two years, which seems to be the standard. With apps following ViewRanger being absorbed into Outdoor Active I've changed to the OS app, which does everything I need.

  13. Hi Chris, Great article and interesting comments. One point about phone hardware is that some (including the Motorola Defy) do not have an in-built compass (magnetometer) and thus certain navigation and augmented reality apps don’t work fully. I agree that if you use GPS and normal compass in combination in the way you describe then it’s not crucial for navigation but it might be important for some.

    1. Hi Peter, good point. The specs for the Defy list an eCompass and I certainly get compass directions with OS maps and OS Locate.