Hit the backcountry this Memorial Day, Android-style

Field-tested apps and tips for using your Android device on the trail, even beyond roaming range.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects, and CNET's "Living off the Grid" series Credentials
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Eric Mack
4 min read

Android gave me the strength to keep going in the Colorado cold. Johanna DeBiase

Another three-day weekend is upon us--time to disconnect, get out into the wilderness, and leave all those gadgets behind. Well, except for your smartphone, of course. These days, for me at least, an Android device is more valuable than a Swiss Army knife, even in backcountry areas where there's no hope of a finding a single bar of roaming service. But you'll need to do a little bit of preparation and hit the Android Market before you go. Here's my list of key tips and apps to turn your Android device into a digital command center for all you long-weekend warriors.

Backcountry Navigator

Get an offline GPS mapping app
Once you're out of range of the nearest tower, you'll find the majority of mapping and GPS apps are worthless. While it's true that GPS will work (in theory) anywhere you've got a wide, clear view of the sky, without a data connection to download map graphics you'll be left with nothing more than a flashing dot on a blank grid. A few mapping programs will allow you to download your maps to your device in advance of your trip.

I recommend Backcountry Navigator Pro, which is one of the most expensive apps I've ever purchased ($9.99 on the Android Market at last check) but also one of the most worthwhile. It allows you to download some great, full-color maps like the real-deal USGS topographic aerials and plot out your route in advance.

This came in very handy on a five-mile snowshoe trek in the Colorado backcountry when I was nearly delirious from a mysterious sickness--later determined to be a mix of a head cold, alcohol, and exhaustion. I pulled up the app and saw we were nearly at our destination, giving me the needed burst of energy to prevent me from collapsing and being eaten by wolves.

Turn your phone into a compass
There are plenty of compass apps out there, but my favorite is Speedview Pro for Android. Another one worth paying for, its display has big, chunky numbers that are easy to read through the worst glare. It tracks your speed, elevation, heading, and distance covered, and it comes in especially handy when you realize you've downloaded the wrong topo maps.

Get the most out of your GPS and battery
There are ways to recharge your batteries even in the middle of nowhere that I cover further down, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't conserve as much as possible. Unless you're willing to commit the ultimate faux pas of taking a call on the trail, this means going into airplane mode, disabling all updating and syncing, or using your phone's ultimate battery saver mode. And don't make the mistake of leaving your GPS on for your entire trip; it's a huge battery suck. Only turn on your phone's GPS when you need to check a heading or one of your preloaded maps.

And a note on your GPS--it does work, it's just a little finicky. If it seems like you're not getting a signal, find a clearing, preferably on high ground, away from tall trees, canyon walls, or anything else that might prevent it from getting a clear, broad view of the sky, and then give it a minute. If you don't have luck, turn off the GPS and try again at the next clearing.

Speedview for Android Code Sector

Charging up in the backcountry
Using my Android only for occasional map and GPS check-ins, as well as several hours of podcasts and audiobooks, I'm able to get three to four days use out of a single charge easily. But if you find yourself needing more juice, there's a few products to consider. Solar chargers are becoming cheaper and smaller, but my favorite is a combination hand-cranked flashlight/radio/charger. Sure, you'll get a workout cranking this puppy for a few minutes, but they're readily available at places like Wal-Mart for less than 20 bucks and they serve several purposes.

Don't leave it all behind
Getting away is great, but I find it's also a time of great inspiration and I want to catch some of those ideas. So I always make sure I've got an easy jotting app like Evernote loaded up. I once scrawled out an entire story using Swype at 4 a.m. in a tent. Time in the wilderness is a great getaway, but when bad weather strikes it can turn into lots of idle time, and that's when it's great to have some audiobooks or podcasts preloaded. CNET's Buzz Out Loud is that much better in the wild.

Finally, you might wonder why you should even consider such advice from me--probably just some city slicker sitting in a Starbucks, right? To assure you that all my methods have been field-tested and approved, I submit the below shot of me as I write this right now. So, charge up, hit the road, and have fun (laptops not required).

Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, Memorial Day weekend, 2011. Johanna DeBiase