Ok, we’ve drawn you in, and we’ll admit that technically it isn’t ‘free’ – it depends what you’ve got hanging about the house and what mapping apps (if any) you’ve already bought. The idea came to us when we forgot our regular GPS for logging a route, and realised we annoyingly had to use our phone to record the route. No big problem, but at the end of a long day, your phone will be struggling with battery life and you’ll be lucky to have much charge left for any end of walk reporting in you need to complete.
You Will Need:
- One past its best smartphone, but in working order and with a couple of Gb storage.
- Offline Mapping App – Backcountry Navigator, Viewranger, OS Select? Not sure – read our Best Mapping Apps article first.
- Waterproof Case or aLoksac (optional, we didn’t need this as our phone is already weatherproof).
1 We started off by ransacking the house looking for an old Motorola Defy Mini phone, which is ideal as a GPS as it’s waterproof and tiny. It doesn’t have much internal memory, in fact the phone has so little that it fails to update, but had a 2Gb memory card installed. If not, you can probably cadge one of these off someone if you haven’t got one hanging around the back of a drawer. They are tiny Micro SD as a rule, so easily lost! The storage is vital as you need this to store the maps.
1b If you can, you may wish to hack the phone to remove all the bloatware installed by the manufacturer and take full control of the phone. We had an issue getting the Defy Mini recognised and so had to skip this part. NOTE – you’ll need to know how to ‘root’ your phone and be aware that this can ‘brick’ your mobile and render it totally useless!
2 Hopefully, your mobile will fire up and run without a sim card being installed. If not, you can always install a secondary sim card in the phone for backup coverage, on a different provider to your main phone. First thing is to set the wi-fi up, this will allow you to install the software needed! We then had to link our phone with our Google account, which does mean you’ll need to lock the phone just in case you lose it, or you could register a new account. You’ll need to follow a similar procedure with any iPhone, which are so easy and intuitive to use, that any instructions we provide will be superfluous*.
3 Install your mapping software of choice, which was Backcountry Navigator in this instance as we have a full licence. You can buy it on your main phone with Google Play and install it on any of your devices. The only proviso here is that the app needs to run offline! However, the new OS Maps app from the OS really does look like it’ll be the first and only choice in the future (unless you’ll be able to use the maps with software of your choice)
4 Install the maps onto the phone. We had to ensure they were stored onto the SD card.
5 The phone does take a while to find GPS signal (which you’ve enabled right?) but once it did, it worked perfectly in order to log a route on a trail run.
6 Get out on a trail run!
You can add functionality to the phone by installing some sort of hot-spot app which will allow you to use the phone over wi-fi (with some apps allowing calls – e.g. BT SmartTalk). We also enabled Gmail and Twitter just in case. If you really had to, you could connect to the internet by using your smartphone as a hotspot, but that sort of goes against the whole point of doing this in the first place!
An added bonus is that the phone should last longer without a SIM card.
The only limitation is the phone you’ve got hanging about. Our Defy Mini is excellent in size and durability, but as it’s an old phone by now, doesn’t have the brightest screen so we put the brightness up to maximum, and also kept it on for 10 minutes so we didn’t have to continuously unlock it. On an all day walk, we’d be more conservative in our battery use. The GPS also struggled when you went indoors and then came out again – not always locking on to a signal.
*You can guess that we’re Android to the core at Mud and Routes!