Keep your Phone Battery from Dying in Cold Weather

As winter is finally starting to kick in, batteries are starting to die out.

There is nothing more frustrating – and dangerous – than having your phone die while in the backcountry. I’ve done several multiday backcountry ski traverses in freezing weather, and managed to keep my phone alive for navigation and photos. Here are some tips to help save your battery.

Plan Ahead / Charge Ahead

A full battery starts with planning ahead. Make sure your battery is fully charged before starting out. If you have a long drive to the trail head, bring a cable and keep your phone plugged in and charging while you drive. If you don’t have a dedicated phone charger outlet, you can buy one to use in the 12 volt outlet. I am always shooting for a 100% battery before I start my trip.

Okay, first off. I can’t believe how dirty my car console is! I swear I just cleaned it! It’s amazing what a good flash will pick up. Second, even though my vehicle is a 2015, I still had to purchase the 12 volt adapter to charge my phone. The Auxiliary USB outlets allow me to play music, but do not charge.

Keep Phone Warm

The number one reason phone batteries die is from the cold. This means it’s essential that you keep your phone as warm as possible. I always travel with my phone next to my chest, in an inside, insulated pocket. This is not only the warmest spot on my body, but it keeps the phone handy for repeated navigation checks and photos.

On a recent day ski trip, my husband and I had vastly different battery life outcomes, despite having the exact same phone. We were both tracking, navigating and taking photos. The temperature was anywhere from -10 to -20. My phone kept it’s full power, while his died at the half way point at Lake Annette. The difference? My phone was kept warm in my inside pocket. His phone was on his pant leg.

It was a freezing cold and clear night, allowing the hoar frost to build. With no sun and an inversion in Paradise Valley, we froze our buns off in -18 to -20 temps. This photo shows Mike’s leg pocket where he kept the phone. It died by the time we got to Lake Annette. Mine stayed alive with about 75% battery power.

If you don’t have an insulated, inside pocket, then insulate your phone another way. My friend carries a child’s mitten, and keeps her phone tucked inside that. You can also use a hand warmer packet near your phone.

If you are using a GPS watch, ensure you also keep it covered and warm as much as possible. Keep it warm under your cuff, and away from the elements.

Phone Settings

Here are some things you can physically do to your phone to save battery power.

Airplane Mode

This is the number one thing you can do to save battery power in summer or winter. Before I start, I always switch my phone to airplane mode. When you leave cell range, your phone will continually search for a signal. This take a lot energy and will drain your battery over time.

I can switch to Airplane Mode and turn down the brightness from the pull down menu on the Samsung. Apple and other phones have the same features.

Airplane mode will not affect your navigation or tracking apps, because these work on the GPS network, which is not affected by Airplane mode. Also, your phone is a GPS receiver, not a transceiver. It takes way less energy to receive than it does to send.

The satellite communicators like Spot and InReach are receivers and transceivers, which make it possible for search and rescue to pinpoint your exact location. These do not use cell service, only GPS.

Download Maps in Advance

Using Airplane mode and being away from cell towers means you have to download your base maps in advance. If the base map is not downloaded, the navigation app will place you correctly, but it will be on a blank screen.

I use the Gaia GPS app for navigation. As part of my planning process at home, I download the area I will be travelling. I can create my route in advance and download it, or I can download GPS tracks for that route.

Background Apps

Ensure all background apps are off. These are the hidden apps that can drain your battery in everyday life, but will really sap your battery in cold weather. Most phones will have some sort of utility that seeks out and shuts down these background apps.

Screen brightness

Simply by turning down how bright your screen is can save you some power. For a day trip, this might not be a big deal, but for a multiday ski traverse or backpack, every little bit helps.

Power Save Mode

When battery life is getting desperate, I switch to power save mode. This can give me anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours worth of battery life, depending on how low my battery is.

By switching to Maximum power savings mode, I can add 15 hours to my battery. The downside is that tracking will be non-existent, and photos might be low resolution / pixelated. Still, in an emergency, some battery power is better than a good photo.

Please be aware that this will mess up your tracking. Instead of a steady breadcrumb trail, the phone will only take a snapshot of your route periodically, causing big straight lines across the terrain. Not ideal if your tracks are important.

Turn Off the Phone

Sometimes the simplest solution is the best. If you know where you’re going, or if you’re in a good spot, then turn off your phone. You can always turn it back on when you really need it. It’s better to have some battery power just in case, than to completely run down your battery and have no back-up.

Share the Load

When travelling in a group, it’s important that everyone has their role clearly defined. This also includes who is doing what with their phones. For example, not everyone needs to track. If one person’s phone is dedicated to tracking, then another phone can be used for navigation, while someone else will be appointed the official photographer. Between everyone, it’s possible to maintain battery power on all the phones.

This is a very familiar pose. We’ve done a few traverse with this same group, and we’ve settled into a nice load sharing. Mike in the middle is checking the navigation on his phone, while Brian (left) has a Garmin watch. Callum on the right has memorized the route, and I’ve got the paper route description and map.

Also consider using navigation watches like Apple or Garmin. These can share the navigation load, while leaving your phone free for photos and tracking.

Go Old School

What did we do before phones? We used maps and compasses. These old school tools never run out of battery power. Even in difficult blizzard and near white-out conditions, it’s possible to pick out key landmarks for major navigation decisions. Even when travelling with a fully charged phone, having a back-up paper map is always a good idea.

This photo always makes me laugh! No, it’s not edited or cropped. It was taken on the Bow to Yoho Traverse. This is Day 2 as we approached Mt. Collie heading towards the Guy Hut. It was a near white-out with steadily falling snow. Despite having a phone and Garmin watch for navigation, Mike still chose to examine the map to help plan the best approach. We also had to use a compass point to keep us heading in the right direction. Mike has a tendency to veer right in a white out.

Use Programs Sparingly

When I’m navigating in the winter, it is more important than ever to keep my situational awareness. This means keeping my head up, and continually watching and evaluating the terrain. This is essential for safe winter travel, but it also keeps my phone warm in my pocket for longer periods. I only take out my phone for navigation double-checks, instead of keeping it out for extended time in the cold.

Battery Power Packs

I don’t bring a battery pack for a day trip, but I consider it necessary equipment for a multiday ski trip and backpacks. Based on the recommendation of my techie engineer friend Brian, I bought an Anker battery pack. His recommendation is to buy the most mAh money can buy, in the smallest, lightest container. After 5 days on the Bonnington Traverse tracking and taking photos, I never came close to depleting my Anker charger.

My Anker weighs 177 grams, but it’s worth its weight in gold. The four dots mean it is fully charged. After charging my phone each night on the 5 days of the Bonnington Traverse, I only used one blue dot.

What to do if your phone freezes?

When your phone gets cold, it slows down the entire circuitry. This is why your battery can go from 50% to 0% in a matter of seconds. First off, don’t panic. Your phone is not damaged. Warm it up slowly by keeping it next to your body, or warm it on the dash of your car. Do not use direct heat like an oven or microwave to heat your phone. As the phone warms, you’ll see the battery power rise.

Some phones do better in cold weather than others. I switched from an iPhone to a Samsung because I could not trust the Apple battery in cold weather. Living in Canada, this was a deal breaker. I think the newer iPhones have a bit better battery, but so far the Samsung battery and circuitry has not let me down.

I hope you found this article useful. If you have any tips or tricks that you use to keep your phone’s battery from dying in cold weather, please share them in the comments below.

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Posted in Adventures, Life Hack
18 comments on “Keep your Phone Battery from Dying in Cold Weather
  1. Jim Tuttle says:

    Hi Alison, Merry Christmas and thanks for the posts of your trips that I enjoy reading. When I’m hiking and skiing in cold weather I also keep my cell phone in a zip-lock bag in an inside layer chest pocket. I usually sweat a lot and this keeps my phone dry; there are few things worse than a sweat drenched phone.

    • alisendopf says:

      Hello Jim! I sure missed seeing you this year. I hope all is well and a very Merry Christmas to you too! I missed having the races, but I am thoroughly enjoying Mens Downhill NOT being an ice rink.
      Thank you for the excellent idea! A zip lock bag also protects your phone when it lands in the snow. I’m pretty sure you can still use the touch screen display through the zip lock, right? I will add that to my packing list.
      Take care, and fingers crossed for next year.

  2. Great advice! Since I have this problem, I see you covered all the options 😀 Nicely done. The only thing I haven’t tried yet is to switch from Apple to Samsung 🙂

  3. Great tips! Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  4. Excellent post, Alisen. I have noticed that sometimes we do take our phones for granted. Really good to know about the cold weather and its impact. I had to laugh at the “old school” reference. In the days when I trekked through the bush and ancient mountains and hills here, being able to read a map was a godsend. That being said, whenever we were tested re judging distance up and down hills through alignment with trees and so on without a map, it was not a strong suit. However, a much different story today. I think because of back then, I find myself calculating distances all the time 🤔

    • alisendopf says:

      Hi Sean, Calculating distances is an incredibly useful skill. I took a Backcountry Ski Leadership Course last year and the FIRST thing our guide did was ask us to estimate our distance and elevation from the parking lot BEFORE we looked at any device. Then we used our estimate to place ourselves on the map. Only then were we allowed to check the GPS. It’s amazing how close we were. These “hard” skills are so important. I’m glad to see you keeping them alive. Way to go!!!

  5. Angela says:

    Hi Alisen ! Merry Christmas and all the best to you!
    I’ve nominated you for Travel Challenge. Hope you will find time to participate.
    Please check the link for nomination’s rules:

    https://suitcase4you.wordpress.com/2020/12/24/travel-challenge-day-6/

    Angela

  6. Excellent advice – thanks! Also: I hope you’re enjoying the holiday season with some backcountry adventures!

    • alisendopf says:

      Thank you! I have already been backcountry skiing twice, although very conservative with the avalanche cycle we are currently in. I wish you much love and many adventures in 2021!

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