Electronic Aids for Mountain Exploration
by John Town
- Altimeter Watches
- Dedicated GPS units
- Tablets and Phones
- Putting it all together
- GPS alone
- Map, Compass and GPS
- Integrated Navigation System
- Maps and Satellite Photos
- Mobile Phones
- Handheld Radios
- Satellite Phones
- GPS Trackers/Emergency Beacons
- Disposable Batteries
- Rechargeable Li-ion batteries
- Power Packs
- Solar Chargers
In the last few years, a number of impressive advances in technology, together with an unintended consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union, have combined to transform the business of mountain exploration:
Satellite Communications The launch of hundreds of satellites, often operating in constellations of scores of units has made possible:
- 3 dimensional imaging of most of the earth’s surface, to a horizontal resolution of a few meters (Landsat  and Spot ).
- Voice and data communication from almost anywhere on the earth’s surface (Iridium , Thuraya , Inmarsat  and other systems).
- Pinpointing one’s location to within a few meters almost anywhere on the earth’s surface (Global Positioning System  and GLONASS).
Mobile Hardware The following two developments have been crucial:
- Appearance of affordable handheld GPS devices (Garmin, Satmap).
- Appearance of large screen portable smartphones and tablets combining GPS with advanced mapping and navigation software (Apple, HTC, Samsung , iPad ).
Mapping Technical advances in terms of satellite imaging, smartphones and GPS would have meant little without:
- The appearance in the public domain of the Soviet Union’s library of military maps in the early 1990s, making detailed high quality maps of many mountain areas available to climbers for the first time.
- Free access to worldwide high resolution satellite images and 3D topographic models (Google maps  Google earth ).
Knowing where you are, identifying what you can see and the route you must follow are crucial to reaching your objective in unexplored country. The following devices and systems hold the key to discovering and climbing new peaks.
Pros Very light, cheap, reliable, no batteries to run out
Cons Limited use without a map, no location info, requires experience/training
A compass is, of course, a magnetic rather than an electronic aid, but it squeezes itself in here as the oldest navigational tool still in use and the most well understood by those advising the uninitiated – their advice is that, if you take only one thing, take a compass and know how to use it.
That’s probably still good advice, perhaps because climbing and descending high mountains is rarely a precise navigational exercise - if the job is to descend from a high peak, and you have checked out the orientation of the various ridges either beforehand, or while you are climbing in clear visibility, a compass will do just fine to help you down in cloud or worse.
In other circumstances, more precise navigation is more easily and accurately done using GPS devices.
Pros Light, reliable, easy to use, battery life not usually an issue.
Cons Altitude needs to be reset regularly, limits to accuracy because of variations in pressure and errors in reference points, limited utility of any compass and GPS features
Like a compass, altimeter watches are light enough to take anywhere and vital in judging your rate of climb and where you might have got to. To keep them accurate, they need to be reset regularly at known reference points of known altitudes such as camps or geographical features.
In doing this, bear in mind, that the map often lies, and that while the overall topography may be more or less accurately portrayed, contours and spot heights may be out by significant margins. The best method may be to set reference heights by using two GPS units with the maximum number of satellites informing their reading.
Dedicated GPS Units
Pros Basic models light and relatively cheap
Excellent battery life, some can use disposable batteries
Uploadable maps for Europe and N America
Can upload custom maps
Expensive models can include cameras/compasses/altimeters
Cons Poor screen size and resolution
Garmin eTrex 20 142gm 176 x 220 2.2” £120
Garmin Oregon 650 210gm 240 x 400 3.0” £380
Satmap Active 12 228gm 320 x 480 3.5” £425
Power: AA Batteries or rechargeable Li-ion battery.
GPS (Global Positioning System) units uses a constellation of 32 satellites operating in medium earth orbit. GPS units measure the time taken for the different microwave signals from up to 12 of these satellites to calculate the precise distance from each one. By further calculating the intersection of all the arcs involved, the unit then tells you your position and altitude, to within a few meters in ideal circumstances. The signals travel of the order of 12,000 miles and the GPS unit is capable of measuring their travel time to an accuracy of better than a millionth of a second.
GPS comes into its own in mountain exploration when the task is to reconcile what you see in front of you with what can be seen on the map or satellite photos. Alternatively, where you can see very little in front of you, you may be using the GPS in conjunction with the map or photos to ensure that you are descending into the right valley or climbing the right mountain.
GPS is available in the form of dedicated units made by firms like Garmin, Satmap or Memory Map but is also built into the higher spec. versions of many smartphones and tablets including the iPad, Galaxy and iPhone, whose screens are bigger and of very much higher resolution.
The more recent versions of the dedicated units provide the facility to purchase and load a variety of maps and can show your position on the map. Garmin provide the facility to download maps you prepare yourself (see Integrated Navigation System) and Satmap will prepare such maps for their device for a price. The relatively poor quality and limited size of the screens make smartphones and tablets a better choice in many respects.
One could advise buying a dedicated GPS with as large a screen as possible but in some ways the best choice is a small, lightweight, rugged unit to complement a tablet or smartphone used lower on the mountain.
Whichever type of unit is used, navigating in unexplored mountains ranges using inadequate maps and ambiguous satellite images is not easy. GPS does not work well in dense forests or on the side of deep gorges or steep mountains. Power management issues and difficult terrain which can block out the sky make it very important to get to know your GPS system in less demanding circumstances before you go.
If you are climbing an unclimbed summit whose height is uncertain then it is probably worth the party carrying not one GPS, but two. The units can be highly accurate in recording summit altitudes and, in the absence of a professional survey, readings from two separate units which come within a few meters of one another may ensure a place in the record books, rather than ones estimate being viewed as idle speculation.
Smartphones and Tablets
Pros Superb rendering of maps and photos on large screens.
Detailed downloadable maps for Europe and N America.
Great for reading and playing music/games
Cons Require protection against water and impacts.
10 inch tablets weigh 0.5 kilo and can be unwieldy.
Difficult to see in bright direct sunlight
Limited battery life
iPhone 6 129gm 1334 x 750 4.7” £540
Galaxy Note 4 176gm 2560 x 1440 5.7” £600
iPad Mini 312gm 2048 x 1536 7.9” £315
iPad Air 478gm 2048 x 1536 9.7” £380
Galaxy Pad S 467gm 2560 x 1600 8.4” £320
Power: Built-in rechargeable Li-ion battery
GPS is built into most smartphones and tablets, where it can be used with a wide variety of mapping and navigation apps to provide an integrated navigation system for use outdoors. The screens are larger than those on dedicated GPS units and have a resolution between 3 and 5 times better. They reveal fine detail in both satellite images and photographs.
Google Maps Satellite Image on iPad
They are also able to receive photos wirelessly from cameras or other smartphones in the field and to exchange data with personal computers, where more powerful software can be used to prepare maps and navigation data before departure.
It is possible to purchase and download a variety of maps of Europe and North America and use these in your integrated navigation system. Where these are not available, other strategies must be used – see ‘Putting it All Together’.
Smartphones and tablets also provide access to online maps and satellite photos through services like Google Earth, Google Maps and Bing but, while great for research beforehand, this all disappears when access to the internet is lost. The key is to capture the relevant images with a computer before setting off and download them to the unit for future use.
It should be noted that some smartphones/tablets use Assisted or A-GPS which requires a mobile phone network to operate and should therefore be avoided. It is used in the cheaper Wi-fi only versions of the iPad.
Putting it All Together
There are three broad way of using GPS to navigate in the mountains:
1 GPS Alone
2 Map, Compass and GPS
3 Integrated Navigation System
There is a quick and dirty method of using a GPS device in the field to plot out your surroundings for future use. As you come upon identifiable features; bridges, huts, sub-peaks, glacier features, most of all your own camps, mark them in the GPS and you will eventually have created your own map, which will help you get up or down in poor visibility. This takes time and application but beats an unplanned 10km diversion or night out.
Map, Compass and GPS
The method used before the advent of large screen devices was, in advance of the expedition, to note the co-ordinates of a range of features on your map or satellite image and load these into a dedicated GPS to create a framework for navigation in the field. Further features, in particular the location of camps, can then be way-marked en route.
A number of computer software packages, such as MacGPS Pro, allow you to input the geographical co-ordinates of a scanned version of your map and then generate waypoints/points of interest simply by clicking on the map. These can be uploaded to an attached GPS unit at the press of a button.
The last stage is to print out appropriate sections of the map with the marked waypoints/points of interest, plus any other relevant images and have them laminated to take into the mountains.
Integrated Navigation System
The best solution is one in which one’s position and track is shown directly on the map or satellite photo – as you move, so does your position on the map. To do this the map or satellite photo must be uploaded to the device together with the appropriate geographical co-ordinates. When the map file includes the co-ordinates it is said to be georeferenced.
Georeferenced topographic maps are commercially available for North America, Europe and one or two other areas. They can easily be bought and uploaded to the device of your choice via a number of different smartphone/tablet apps such as Viewranger, Memory Maps or those from Garmin and Satmap.
In other cases, life is more difficult and the following is required:
1 Digitize the map or satellite image (if its is not already in digital form).
2 Convert it to the necessary file format.
3 Georeference the file.
4 Upload it to the device.
There is plenty of guidance on the web but the process is not always straightforward and a bit of trial and error can be required. The software described is produced by individuals or small companies and it varies in maturity and reliability. If you persist, you will be richly rewarded.
The software required depends on the operating system of your computer, the GPS device you wish to use and, for tablets/smartphones, the navigation app you choose to display the information.
Garmin are the only dedicated GPS units for which you can upload custom maps – jpeg image files can be georeferenced using the image overlay feature of Google Earth and then uploaded by saving the map to the unit via USB. More details here.
A range of map image formats can be georeferenced using:
Bitmap Converter (Mac OS X) or
For iPhone/iPad they can then be imported to the app:
For Android they can be imported to the apps:
The Android app
Custom Maps does its own georeferencing on the smartphone/tablet using Google Maps.
For detailed guidance, visit the linked sites.
Used with high resolution satellite images, the results are breathtaking, allowing you to view your position and movement across the ground as if from space.
Maps and Satellite Photos
Obtaining maps of your chosen area is often difficult and, in general, the more research work you put in the more you will get out. The quality of the maps and satellite photos are just as important as the hardware, since they provide the material to allow you to understand what you see in front of you. If it is possible, get your maps in digital form since you will be able to examine and print them out at whatever scale you want. Libraries do not always like you scanning maps for copyright reasons but it is amazing what can be achieved when this is possible.
In some better known mountain areas such as Alaska, Canada and selected areas of the Nepalese Himalaya, and Andes high quality large scale maps are commercially available.
For most of the world this is not the case and the fallback used to be the American ONC and TPC air navigation maps. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, far more accurate 1:200,000, 1:100,000 and occasionally 1:50,000 Soviet Military Maps are now available. Sometimes they can be downloaded from the web for free or at a modest charge from Mapstor and sometimes have to be bought from a commercial supplier such as Eastview Cartographic. The Alpine Club has a full collection of Mapstor’s Soviet digital map sets and also a series of detailed paper maps of the Indian Himalaya.
These maps can then be married with satellite photos to gain a fuller impression of the area. Good satellite photos are either free or expensive. Google Maps and Bing hold a wealth of high resolution images which can be downloaded for personal use off-line. This should serve for most applications but better, higher resolution images can be bought from Spot at commercial rates.
The simplest, if crudest approach for online satellite images is to use a large screen and take a screen shot of the required area. The images often benefit from ‘auto-levels’ or ‘auto-tone’ adjustment or changing the hue, brightness and/or contrast.
Expeditions vary in their need and desire for communications with the outside world and between members. The most obvious requirement is to summon help in an emergency but whether that is a possibility depends very much on the availability of such help, either from outside agencies or other members of the team and the difficulty of the ground involved. It is important to make sure that carrying a radio or satphone does not lead to a false sense of security.
That said, if there is a chance that life may be saved or serious injury avoided by carrying one, or that loved ones may at least know what happened to you, it would be foolish not to consider it.
In practice, radios and satphones are used on expeditions principally for logistical purposes and for passing important news – transport can be summoned or cancelled, uncooperative soldiers reassured by superiors, medical advice sought from a UK doctor or election results passed on.
Internet access via satphone is difficult and expensive but text and email are not and are increasingly used to update friends and sponsors. Battery constraints and call costs mean that social use of expedition satphones can be strictly policed and what remains of the sanctity of the wild preserved.
Pros Work in the strangest places
Great for reading and playing music/games
iPhone and Galaxy can be turned into Thuraya satphone
Cons Don’t work in most strange places
It is always worth taking your mobile as they can be a lot more useful than you may think. Wherever there are people there are mobile phone masts and it is not unknown to get a signal at base camps in Tibet or even on the summit. That said, once you get way beyond habitation or deep in the mountains, forget it.
IC-F3002 270/330gm £155
Motorola P165 335gm £160
Power: Removable rechargeable Li-ion battery
Range can exceed 20km
Great for coordinating the movement of people and vehicles.
Cons Line of sight only, scheduled calls can be a nuisance
Need a license for UK operation
Handheld VHF/UHF ‘walkie-talkie’ radios allow climbing parties to talk with base camp, or with other climbing parties, providing there is line of sight or near line of sight between them. On the walk or drive-in radios can be invaluable in coordinating the movement of disparate elements of the expedition.
They first saw use in the 1940s and are now used for a wide range of commercial and military applications. In the UK the use of the most suitable units for expedition use is restricted to licensed commercial and emergency service applications, but the units themselves can be freely bought and sold. They can usually be used without problems on expeditions abroad providing you do not draw their use to the attention of the authorities.
VHF/UHF radios operate on line of sight - transmissions can ‘bend’ over or round minor geographical features, but cannot pass through big mountains. Radio communications are thus very useful but can not be relied upon. They are used extensively for communicating with Base Camp on established routes on big mountains but their use is more hit and miss where parties travel more widely and move between different valleys. They work better when parties are high in the mountains as there is less to get in the way. Under such circumstances commercial units may have a range of up to 20km.
They are easy to use, especially if some elementary protocols are adopted, and local staff swiftly become adept in their use.
Modern commercial units are relatively lightweight and most easily bought from a specialist dealer. Cheaper ‘leisure’ walkie-talkies are more widely available and can be used without license in the UK but these have very limited power, range and durability and are probably best avoided.
Satellite Phones - Voice
Motorola 9505 Motorola 9555
Motorola 9555 266gm £792
Motorola 9505 374gm £100-300 used
Thuraya XT 193gm £540
Thuraya Satsleeve 193gm* £498
Pre-paid SIM: Iridium 50 mins/3month validity £99
Thuraya 20 mins/24 month validity* £36
50 min top-up* £60
Power: Removable rechargeable Li-ion battery
Pros The only way to talk to the outside world.
Invaluable in case of emergencies and changes of plan.
Cons Very expensive
Limited data speeds
Not conducive to the wilderness experience
Satellite phones enable you to connect to the international phone network by satellite wherever you are, providing the phone can ‘see’ the appropriate satellite in the sky above the user. They can also provide limited access to the internet and email. They are expensive to buy and use but can be a godsend in a wide variety of situations.
The three main systems most relevant to climbing expeditions are:
Iridium is the only mobile system with worldwide coverage. It uses a constellation of 66 satellites, at least one of which is always overhead. Unfortunately it has the least friendly operating system, slowest data speeds and the cheaper older phones are much bigger than the most recent (375gm vs 266/247gm). That said, once you have taken the trouble to learn its ways, it is a solid and reliable system and if you want to buy a single phone to use worldwide, this is the one to get.
The Thuraya system uses two geostationary satellites covering different areas of the planet. Phones weigh 180/193gm. Thuraya provides service for most of Eurasia, Australia and parts of Africa. The system is easier to use and provides higher data speeds than Iridium.
Inmarsat, a marine communications specialist whose satellites cover 90% of the globe, have recently introduced the Isatphone Pro and Isatphone 2. The former is somewhat larger than the latest Iridium or Thuraya phones at 279gm, but is very reasonably priced.
Satellite Phones – Data/Internet
Pros Easy to send text and emails
Cons Internet use requires additional expensive equipment and is slow
Some expeditions have a need to upload reports and/or download weather reports and other information. It is possible to send tweets or short emails from handsets without additional cost. Thuraya provide better handheld data speeds than Iridium or Inmarsat (9.6kbs vs 2.4kbs), providing you are within its area of coverage.
For internet access, a larger and heavier console unit is required, at a cost of £1,500 upwards. These are more normally seen on board boats or vehicles and will allow data speeds of up to 444-492kbs using Inmarsat BGAN, Thuraya IP or Iridium Openport. For comparison, a normal domestic broadband connection would deliver at least 2,000kbs.
Spot Satellite GPS Messenger
Spot Satellite GPS Messenger 114gm £112
Subscription – from £108 per annum
Power: AAA Lithium Batteries
Pros Can sends a distress call and location to the outside world.
Can record your track and sends it to the outside world.
Can send automatic emails saying all is OK.
Excellent battery life.
Cons No textual or graphical display of location (or anything else)
Outgoing messages have to wait for satellite availability.
Significant annual subscription cost.
The Spot Satellite GPS Messenger is a small GPS device which can transmit your location and an indication of whether you are OK or need help via satellite and email to friends and/or emergency services via the GEOS International Emergency Response Center.
It can also issue a series of location messages which can be used by others to track your progress using Google Maps. It has no screen and can not give you your location. The system covers most of the earth but, frustratingly, not Nepal, West Tibet or Antarctica.
While the Spot Messenger/Tracker only allows you to send a standard email of your choosing to predetermined individuals to say you are OK. Spot Connect connects to a smartphone and allows you to type and send emails up to 41 characters. These could be progress reports or an accident report for the emergency services. It can not receive emails.
The device costs a little more than the standard messenger and the annual service costs is the same.
(The Club has recently bought 2 of these devices and they are available for hire. Rates to be advised.)
This is a small device, about half the size and weight of a satellite phone. It performs several functions which are:
1) Emergency beacon and locator
2) Tracking device
3) Simple GPS with way points
5) Text messenger
While many of the functions (GPS and Messenger especially) are not very sophisticated, it is the combination of the functions in a single device that make it interesting. I used the unit extensively for over three months, first in Nepal and then in Antarctica. Although I did not test the emergency beacon, I did use all the other functions.
As a tracking device the inReach works well. You can set it up to record your track and way points which are displayed on a simple map on the device. These are synced to the web and on the Mapshare page the device can be followed by folks back home. The Mapshare page also allows people to send emails to the inReach. All these messages are restricted to 160 characters, about the same size as Twitter messages. I found this size to be an advantage. It keeps things simple. The message service also works with cell phone SMS service, and from the UK the cost to send messages to the inReach device was the same as a UK national text message.
When connected by Bluetooth to a smart phone the device was able to access all the contact addresses on the phone, and of course the typing of messages on a phone is much smoother. The downside of the Bluetooth connection was the heavier drain on the battery. Without the smart phone the message system was still surprisingly good, better than most satellite phones, and then the battery life was excellent. While tracking (and sending/receiving the occasional message) the battery kept its charge for more than a week. That is considerably better than any GPS device I have used to date.
The GPS functions are quite basic, with conventional way points as well as way points created with each message received or sent. Routes can be set with the way points. The compass functioned well on my device with Magnetic and/or True north as needed. It was simple and easy to navigate to way points from the map page. For navigating by compass see my comment below There were a couple of functional inconsistencies: I haven’t found a way to add multiple way points to the routes page. And there was a gremlin when using the GPS function with the compass, while the ‘heading’ direction was fine, the ‘bearing’ was reversed. Hopefully these will be sorted out in the next software update.
The GPS and tracking functions use the GPS satellite system, and the messages and SOS system uses the Iridium satellites. This means there is world wide communication. The cost is surprisingly reasonable. See the web site for the different plans that are available.
In conclusion, this is a simple device that serves as an emergency beacon, tracker, GPS and communicator, all at a reasonable cost. The inReach is an excellent if not essential bit of expedition kit for both the Alps (plenty of cell phone black holes there) and the Greater Ranges.
Power has become more of an issue for expeditions as the range of electronic aids mount, with cameras and MP3 players to add to the list of items above. This section looks at the three types of battery used and strategies for making sure the power doesn’t run out
AA and AAA Batteries
Pros Cheap, can take as many as needed
Widely available abroad
Long life (Lithium)
Used by some GPS
Can be used as alternative power source for some SLRs/radios
Cons Not environmentally friendly
Use with radios can reduce range compared to Li-ion
Strategy: Investigate if your device can use AA or AAA batteries instead of rechargeables – take lots and then you won’t run out.
Removal Rechargeable Li-ion Batteries
Pros Can be relatively cheap
Designed specifically for the device in question
Cons Can be expensive
Require custom charger
Proliferation of different types of battery and charger
The rechargeable Li-ion batteries which come with the different types and brands of many devices are all different, which makes carrying spares a bit of a nightmare and leads to a proliferation of chargers.
At best these batteries are cheap enough to carry two or three to maintain power for the whole expedition, but beware of leaving them in the device since they may lose their charge even if not in use.
The batteries can be recharged in the field using a 12V DC vehicle socket or a solar panel.
In some cases, such as some satphones and radios, spare batteries can cost of the order of £60 - £100, so carrying charged up spares may be deemed prohibitively expensive.
Strategy: Take charged spares and top-up at the last mains socket – take care you have all the necessary chargers with you.
Built-in Rechargeable Li-ion Batteries
Designed specifically for device in question
Cons Not replaceable so can’t carry spares
Poor battery life in some cases
Require regular recharging
May require higher voltage for recharge (iPad)
Apple iPhones and iPads are powered in this fashion and battery life is an on-going concern on expeditions. iPads also require a higher voltage than is usual which means that if solar panels are used, they must be compatible.
Strategy: Take as large a power packs as you can, with a couple of small ones to carry above or away from Base Camp. Do not rely on solar panels.
Power Sources - Power Packs
Pros Can be used to provide multiple charges to smartphones/tablets
Easy to use
Cons Lengthy recharge time for more powerful units
Fire risk if short circuited
iPads, mobile phones and other USB devices can be recharged from relatively inexpensive third party rechargeable power packs and, if you can, it is worth taking several of these and charging them all up at the last opportunity.
Power Sources - Solar Panels
Pros Can work well in sunny conditions
Cons Only work with direct sunlight
Can struggle with devices requiring higher voltages
Smaller panels can struggle with some devices
Need to be rotated as the sun moves across the sky
While solar panels can be very helpful, cloudy skies tend to be the default in the mountains, and they should be just one part of a multi-pronged strategy.
- Computers and the internet have hugely enhanced the identification and virtual reconnaissance of mountain areas. The devices covered here allow expeditions to take that information into the mountain arena, compare it with the reality (which is sometimes startlingly different) and discover the key to reaching and climbing their peak.
- Not everybody is filled with joy at the appearance of all this technology. Many are rightly skeptical about how much of a real advantage these devices confer for those who have yet to fall in love with them. Some of them, after all, cost quite a lot money. There is often a great deal of enjoyment to be had from playing with one’s latest gadget on an expedition, but financial considerations alone mean that it is well worth analyzing in a disinterested fashion what the expedition needs, as opposed to what an individual may want.
- If the target peak is in a well explored area, with well documented approaches, there may not be a need for sophisticated mapping and navigation aids. With a small team, moving alpine style, every ounce counts and radios and other devices may bring little benefit.
- On the other hand if you are struggling to identify the mountain and find a way to reach it, you may need all the help you can get. As expedition size grows, a responsibility to maintain an emergency means of contact with the outside world may also start to arise.
- One thing is for sure. The use of these devices and the accompanying software is more complex than advertised and very often they do not work as they should. Sadly, it is necessary to find and read the documentation and to practice if you are to use them effectively in the field. The more sophisticated your system, the more challenging it will be to use.