Smartphones on the Trail: All Your Mountain Biking Electronics in One Package

Some people denounce the smartphone as a technological leash forever tying those who own them to the world of digital screens and the internet. I, on the other hand, choose to think of my smartphone as the ultimate liberation from the burden of mountain biking electronics.

(Note: In this article, I may say “iPhone” frequently, simply because I own an iPhone, when in reality most smartphones can fulfill these same functions.)

Once upon a time before I owned an iPhone, packing up and hitting the trail was an ordeal. In addition to gathering the standard gear, such as bike, helmet, water, tools, etc., I also had to grab the various electronics I’d need. I rode with a minimum of cell phone (for emergencies), point-and-shoot camera (to document the experience for Singletracks), and a GPS unit (so I didn’t get lost, to record statistics, and to create maps for Singletracks). In addition, I’d often carry an iPod for long endurance rides (4+ hours), GoPro camera to record video, and a light when riding at night.

All of these (plus an mp3 player, not pictured) vs. one of these.

Once you start adding all of these things up… that’s a lot of expensive electronics to be toting around! It’s also a lot of things to remember (or forget) to pack, make sure are fully charged, and worry about getting broken in a crash. Plus, for those who are gram counters, all of those different electronics add a lot of weight.

Enter the iPhone.

I bought my first-ever smartphone with some Christmas money this past December. Suddenly, I was packing remarkably few electronics. In fact, on most of my rides, the sole battery-powered device that I carry in my pack is my iPhone.

Using an iPhone completely eliminates the need to carry the first four devices on the list: it is, first and foremost, a phone; I quickly realized that my 4S takes better-quality photographs than my point and shoot camera; the GPS capabilities are remarkably accurate (with the right app); and it can, of course, play music.

Obviously, if you’re night riding you’ll still need a helmet lamp, and despite having tested a video case for my phone, the GoPro (or Contour) is still unrivaled for on-bike video.

Nowadays with my iPhone, I feel free from the oppression of mountain bike electronics! While I used to get irritated at having to pack so many gadgets, now I just throw my phone into my pack, which I carry with me all day regardless of what I’m doing. I don’t even have to worry about making sure my battery is fully charged: just plug it in to the car on the way to the trailhead, and I am good to go!

Several people on the forums have recently been contemplating the pros/cons of buying a smartphone versus buying a GPS unit. Sure, a GPS unit might have better battery life and is a little more accurate than a smartphone, but can it function as your phone, camera, mp3 player, and a mini internet browser, among other things, as well? I think not.

Your Turn: What electronics do you carry with you on the mountain bike trail?

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This entry was posted in GPS for MTB, Hors Categorie and tagged , , by Greg Heil. Bookmark the permalink.

About Greg Heil

My name is Greg Heil, and I am the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com. I've been mountain biking seriously since 2005, and I love to travel and ride new trails. My travels have taken me across the United States multiple times. To date (November 2013), I have ridden hundreds of different trails in 18 different states, and am adding more singletrack to my trail resume every year! I enjoy all types of mountain biking, from ultra endurance cross country all the way up to chair lift-accessed downhill runs.

45 thoughts on “Smartphones on the Trail: All Your Mountain Biking Electronics in One Package

  1. At the moment, it is just my smartphone for data logging, photos, and maps when I’m not sure where I am. I’m not doing any truly epic rides, so battery life has not been an issue. I always make sure I have 100% (or close to it) at the start of each ride.

    For those going longer distances and durations, there are some nice blue tooth connectable GPS receivers to help extend battery life of the smartphone. GPS tends to eat up a lot of power, compared to running an app and blue tooth. Holux has some nice options available that connect nicely with MyTracks, an app I use for tracking my rides.

    Don’t forget the ability of the smartphone to connect to blue tooth heart rate monitors to complete the workout package. The Zephyr HxM unit pairs nicely with MyTracks and provides a whole other level of data points for workout rides.

  2. To me one of the most exciting things about smartphones on the trail is data collection! I love cataloging the trails I ride–pics, videos, mapping–and a smartphone has the potential to do all these things and upload in real time.

    Trail navigation is a big plus too, my phone has gotten me out of a jam on the trail on more than one occasion.

  3. I also recently went from toting around a backpack full of electronics to having just my Android smartphone. And I must say, it was the best decision ive made in a long time. Especially now with the highly accurate apps such as Strava and Map My Ride.

  4. There is another option if you don’t want to spend the money for the data plan. An iPod Touch can do GPS without the data plan with an add-on from Garmin. It takes the same photos and obviously is an iPod. The only con is it isn’t a phone. I have a crappy flip phone and plan on making this my next electronics purchase. No $30 data plan every month. I’m good with the flip phone. It breaks I spend $30 once to replace it.

    • A couple of other good points about using an iPod with GPS or an old inactive iphone are:
      1. You don’t burn you primary phone’s battery so it is there when you need it
      2. You do need to plan ahead and download maps of where you plan to ride while connected to WiFi (such as with Motion-X)
      3. There are multiple mounts and accessories for iPods/iPhones (I personally love the Topeak DryBag on my stem)
      4. There are multiple excellent GPS apps (Motion-X, Mountainbike Pro, etc.) so you have choices.

  5. Am slowly catching up with the phone stuff. I will be the old guy standing there using that compass app-
    Still carry my favorite camera because its still takes the shots I like. But am curious if anyone has used the new contour camera that has the capability of using a smart phone to view the video’s ?

  6. OMG! Sometimes I wish those were the only things that I have to lug around. Because of weight I do not carry a hydration pack anymore, only water bottles. I do have a Big Mouth saddle bag for the small stuff. I always bring my cell phone, and sometimes my car’s gps when I am going to a new large trail system that I have never been to before.

    However, I sometimes have to bring my padded camera backpack (pro camera, flashes, batteries, memory, cables, lens filters, and a bunch of extra lenses). That is way too heavy to wear while riding. I tried that and quickly gave up. That is when I put on the rear rack on my bike to bungy strap the backpack to it.

  7. I recently bought an android smartphone and it is wonderful, I still can record my trails with Sports-Tracker and/or Endomondo with no data plan. And I just started using the app OruxMaps, a free app that works like a GPS, you can collect data, record your trips, add waypoints at the time, save your trips and continue them after a while if you want, this spanish guys made an excellent job. You can follow a recorded or created track and set alarms for the waypoints and a virtual wide path to not get lost. It is excellent, and it has no cost!
    So, now I just carry my smartphone with me, and it is enough.

  8. I mount my GoPro to my seatpost (facing backwards) for video capture and a smartphone to take still photos and track GPS. Someday I would like to hire a sherpa to carry my gear and water – hope I can keep up with him!

  9. I guess I did things a little backwards, although I used to use a phone to take some pretty decent pictures at the trails, and last year I invested in a smart phone which I was able to track my rides with pretty well. To be honest, I’ve compared tracks on the much more accurate Garmin 500 that I recently picked up and the two just don’t compare for mapping. I ride the same route pretty regularly at one of the local trail systems and one day I recorded both with my Garmin 500 and my Android powered smart phone, a Motorola Razr, and the quality of data logging doesn’t even compare. Not only that, but when you’re on a 2+ hour ride logging data with your phone it’s a serious drain on your battery. Sure, the instant gratification of looking at the data instantly can be nice, but I find I prefer carrying a GPS enabled computer, camera, etc etc, although I’ve recently only been leaving the nicer point and shoot camera in my vehicle when I ride. Another thing is that several places I ride get zero reception, so at that point the phone is nearly useless on its own.

    • Yeah a dedicated unit will definitely be more accurate, but it is worth noting that some phones and some apps are better at recording GPS data than others. Also, even if you don’t have cell service, you can still collect accurate GPS data.

  10. I’d love to mount my I-Phone on my bars, but after a massive get-off at 2am at 24 Hours of Georgia, which wiped out my bar mounted Magicshine light, there’s no way I’m subjecting anything to that sort of potential demise ever! Throwing the phone in my pack allows me to record routes/times/elevations etc so I can see it all later, and I don’t really need to see all that in front of me while I’m riding.
    Cheers
    Barry

  11. I was just curious what photo apps might be best for uploading pics to websites or for syncing with a PC. I have an I phone which i love but the pics always seem to go to one file when syncing.

  12. It is definitely great being able to consolidate a number of devices into your smart phone. I use my Droid to track my climb/descent, average speed, duration, and distance. Also I’ll take pictures with my phone and upload them sometimes when I’m cooling off back at the trail head. But there needs to be some moderation in how much and what we use on the trail. Granted I used to listen to music while riding back in VA, but here in Colorado, I’ve come across too many rattle snakes on the climb, that I need all my senses to know of trail hazards. Now that I don’t listen to music, I’ve been able to take in more of my environment! Listening to the sound of me and my bike crushing trail or the local wildlife near by like soaring eagles/hawks. It definitely gets over the top when I come across someone talking on their cell while on the trail. We are out there to enjoy nature, talk to your buddy when you get back to the car. I don’t want to hear about your night at the bar while I’m waiting to pass you. I’m there to conquer gravity, not keep up on gossip or FB.

  13. I do all the GPS with the phone. The only extra device I bring on the trail with me is a pretty good camera and case with the belt loop on the chest strap from my Lobo. GPS doesn’t seem to kill the battery too fast as long as the screen is off but playing mp3s burns it up, so some times bring mp3 player, but not for the woods.

  14. Take just my Droid Bionic. I love it. I always listen to music when riding(very low)…its great having some background noise. I take pics and use the navi too.

  15. Thanks for another great article Greg. I have long consider going with the IPhone for the trail, but I have yet to do so for a couple of reasons. One concern relates to the GPS. It is my understanding that the GPS system in the smart phones require connection to your cell phone system to relay data. So if you are out of coverage, then you no longer have an active GPS. It does not communicate directly with satellites as a regular GPS does. Is this your understanding? And what is your experience with this in the mountainous regions in the West or in Georgia? Has this affected your mapping?

    • Hey man, thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      Actually, GPS data collection requires your phone to be in regular on mode, ie it will not run in airplane mode. However, it does communicate directly with GPS satellites and will collect GPS data even if you have no cell service. I know this because most of my trail system doesn’t have cell coverage, lol!

      A related issue is battery life. If you are out of cell coverage, the phone is constantly trying to find a tower so that drains your battery faster. I’ve found that I have significantly more battery life when riding a trail system with good cell coverage.

      But again, cell service does not impact GPS reception. Hope that answers your questions! Let me know if you need any additional information!

      • Thanks Greg. That sounds really good on the GPS. I’ll check into more. However, the battery issue sounds concerning because I do ride a lot in remote conditions. It sounds like you can’t turn off the search (for a tower). Is that right? Or, maybe I should say, you can’t turn off the search without turning off everything, including the GPS. Is that correct? Seems odd and a flaw.

      • To the best of my knowledge, that is correct, however there might be a feature I am unaware of. Still, even in places with low to no signal, I can usually get several hours of GPS out of a full phone charge, so it only really becomes an issue on all-day epics.

        Also, you can buy additional external battery packs for not much money… I’ve been thinking about picking up one of those.

      • Maybe with an iPhone you can’t use the GPS while in Airplane mode but it isn’t that way with Android (mine, at least). When I’m out of range for cell service I put my phone in Airplane mode so that I can have more battery for the GPS. Works fine; last a long time.

      • Haha I guess just one more reason that Android is chipping away at the iphone market! I wonder if you can disable the cell tower search and keep GPS capability with a jailbroken iphone?

        When there’s an iOs 6 jailbreak for the iPhone 4s I’ll let ya’ll know!

    • There is an app for the android that I know you can turn off the data searching for, its called “Data Switch”. You just tap the icon and it will turn off or on the data feature. It only turns off the ability to use internet(3G) and any wireless location, the gps and normal phone calls, and text messaging still works like normal. This has helped me save some battery with my phone in low service areas

  16. I’m definitely behind the tech curve. I don’t have a smartphone so I obviously don’t use it for GPS navigation and our camera finally died a few months ago so I don’t ride with a camera either.

    I do ride with a dedicated GPS unit and with my dumbphone, but that’s it for electronics. I do wish I had a cheap P&S camera though, it’s just not in the cards, atm.

  17. I’ve been trying to use My Tracks to record my rides, and this past weekend has found it to be very inaccurate. The two guys I rode with had bike computers and gps units that recorded between 12-13 miles, where as My Tracks showed over 17 miles. I’m not sure what the issue is here, but does anyone have suggestions of a more accurate app to use for an android phone?

    • I use the Mountain Bike PRO app by Runtastic on the iPhone (more on that later), and while Runtastic doesn’t have a MTB specific app for the Android (yet), they do have a running GPS app. I’d recommend checking that out.

      • It drained the battery crazy fast.
        The home screen is too busy.
        The free version does not allow you to export the track as a GPX.

        That last one is an absolute show stopper.

        I’ve also had a Trimble Outdoors account for years, from back when I had a DeLorme GPS tracker puck. By using their app, it automatically syncs all of those old tracks. And it works great going forward too.

    • It doesn’t make sense that MyTracks would show a track that is that much different. If you really want to know what is going on take a close look at the track. Does it start and end where you expect? Does it stay close to the actual trail, or does it wander all over the place? Can you get a copy of your friend’s tracks and overlay them on your to see if they match up?

      This is pretty simple stuff — the software just records periodic locations into a file. If your phone is delivering reasonably accurate location info and the software is sampling at reasonable intervals then you should get good results. Who knows, maybe your phone is doing better than your friends…

      • No, we checked all of this when we got back to the trailhead from riding. I found a set of recreational walking trails nearby that has been surveyed and posted mile markers laid out. I’m going to use the MyTracks and test it to see if it will be any differences and test the other couple apps that I’ve found just to see how they compare

  18. I am using an HTC Incredible (Android) phone for gps and pics. One thing I learned early on was to use an auxiliary battery for those long rides. I was in Wyoming last year and did a couple of rides that
    lasted about 6+ hours. I keep my phone attached to the shoulder straps of my pack (inside a small zippered camera case). I have a Sony 2000 mAh litium ion battery that weighs in at a whopping 3 ounces. I kept the battery in one of the pockets inside my pack and just run a usb cable to my phone. This kept it powered up all day no problem. The battery is easily charged using a usb connection and with the proper adapter you can charge it through the cigarette lighter in your vehicle.
    My phone has a 8 megapixel camera and a panorama feature that allows me to take great wide scenic shots by stitching together 5 or 6 single shots. And it does it on the fly. What’s not to like?
    Regarding the accuracy of the gps, it seems to rely heavily on the app. My favorite app so far is Map my Ride as it has Auto Pause. But I gotta say I don’t think the accuracy is anything to write home about. I stay with it only because of the auto pause.

  19. Garmin forerunner watch and the GoPro. Phone stays turned off in saddle pouch for emergency. Part of the joy of riding is getting away from the busy world. Gotta love putting pictured and data together to pump up for the next trip out.

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