Monday, February 16, 2015

This Rugged Case & Fantastic Topo App Let You Replace Your GPS And Camera With Your iPhone

Eliminating unnecessary weight makes a trek easier and a lot more enjoyable. I've written extensively in this space about ways to shed ounces that can save a lot of pounds (iPhone & Topo Maps App Offer Freedom From Garmin Oppression, Hacking The Pioneer Pro Water Filter)

 In my case, I've been able to replace both my GPS and camera with my iPhone.

The retractable tether attached to this Snow Lizard case
allows quick easy use of your iPhone as a camera or GPS.
 Right-click image to enlarge.
This is a total net weight success because I don't like leaving my iPhone at the trailhead and had been carrying it -- turned off -- as dead weight in my pack.

The solution, pictured at left, took a couple of years, new product intros and some MacGyver hacking to be ready for its first test last July (2014).

The test was successful and allows me to replace both my GPS and my camera with my iPhone.

In The Beginning ...

My journey started in 2012 on a summit of Mt. Langley Climbing Mt. Langley: Slow Ascent, Lightning Descent.

I carried both my Garmin and my iPhone 4 loaded with TopoMaps App.

I found that the iPhone got satellite lock faster, held it better in forested areas and was equally accurate as determined by unequivocal landmarks on a paper topo. And it performed flawlessly at 14,000+ feet. The iPhone app had other advantages over the Garmin as described here.

Then, in late December 2012 on a trek to the California Matterhorn, I also found the iPhone GPS performed perfectly at -20 degrees F.

But to eliminate the keeping the iPhone handy while also being waterproof and safe from damage then became the issue.

In Search of WaterPROOF ... (As Opposed to WaterRESISTANT)

Before I could use my iPhone to replace anything, I had to protect it from weather, dirt, fording streams and the rugged demands of things like Class 2 and 3 climbing. And my own clumsiness since I have always been able to sabotage myself with my own two feet.

Early on, I found any number of ways to keep the iPhone dry and safe from dust and mud (Lok-Sak: Passes The Home Drowning Test) but keeping it from getting smashed and broken is another story.

Snow Lizard SLXTREME 5/5S.
 Right-click image to enlarge.

My first purchase was a Mophie case to protect from shock with the added advantage of extended batter life.

But the Mophie was not waterPROOF and the material covering the screen too thin to protect the phone's faceto the extent needed by a trekker who is oh so capable of falling on his face while fording a stream (True story. Silver King Valley, Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, 2012)

Plus, getting the iPhone in and out of the Mophie case was a hassle.

Coupled with this was the fact that there was no wasy way to keep the phone handy for easy consultation with GPS positions.

And while the Garmin had a carabiner, that was still a bit awkward for frequent GPS referencing ...  clip, unclip, clip (rinse, repeat)

The solution to rugged, waterPROOF and convenient started with a new iPhone 5 and the Snow Lizard case pictured above.The SLXTREME 5/5S has a suggested retail price of $149 but I bought mine at Amazon for $99.

In addition to being waterproof to 3 meters (about 6.6 feet), it's easy to get the phone in and out of, and a 2550mAh batterypack. It has a solar cell on one side for trickle charging (see image on right).

The covering of the solar cell is rugged in its own right as attested to a thrashing it got during an intense climb over a steep granite boulder-filled ravine climb in 2014 that left a brand-new pair of boots scarred.

The case also comes with excellent optics so you can get great photos with the iPhone camera ... under water or out. And save more weight by leaving the camera at home unless you are after huge resolution images.

Usability: Some MacGyvering Required

Maximum usability requires that both GPS and camera (now in one unit along with campsite reading material) need to be easily and readily accessible. Security against dropping and breaking/losing the device is also vital.

Snow Lizard case as deployed.
Solar cell oriented to sun.
Right-click image to enlarge.
Carabiners are secure but  not convenient. And like neck straps (convenient) tend to flop around while hiking.

No one needs a bunch of loose gear slapping and thudding ... or getting caught in brush and slamming against rocks.

While still in the inelegant stage, my solution to usability and security (pictured at right) came by combining the Snow Lizard case with a retractable tether.

 Because I am right handed, the tether is  attached to my backpack strap.

Let The MacGyvering Begin

To work properly, the Snow Lizard case had to be attached high on the shoulder strap to keep it clear of the armpit and yet still easy to grasp.

It also has to be secured against flopping around. The short loop of small black bungee cord in the image, above, works well despite its inelegance. It keeps the case secure without obscuring much of the solar cell.

Geer Keeper retractable tether
Right-click image to enlarge.
I bought a "deluxe" Geer Keeper from Amazon for $24.99, but none of the provided attachment mechanisms would work for the vertical strap on my backpack.

However, the snap attached to the top of the Gear Keeper (at left) detaches to provide an attachment point that can be combined with a Tri-Glide adapter from McNett (below).

McNett Tri-Glide adapter
Right-click image to enlarge.

To make this work requires the use of four small zip ties to attach the top of the Gear Keeper to the bottom of the Tri-Glide adapter once it is snapped shut.

Then the top of the Tri-Glide is attached to the backpack's load-lifter strap (below) and snapped shut.

Again, not elegant, but secure and functional.

Four zip ties and a Tri-Glid adapter attached to
backpack load lifter strap. Scratches on Gear Keeper
body from first trek with case.
Right-click image to enlarge.

Attachment point for Snow Lizard case.
The Snow Lizard case comes with an attachment point (right)  and carabiner, but as mentioned above a carabiner reduces easy access to using both the camera and GPS. Using the carabiner also makes everything hang down lower and gets in the way of arm motion.

The Gear Keeper has a split-ring attachment, but that also adds to the "hang-down" problem.

Gear Keeper attached to Snow Lizard case. Photo taken before
first trek.

Right-click image to enlarge.
A medium zip tie replaces the split ring and helps with the hang-down issue.

4 Ways The Snow Lizard Can Be Improved

1. Create a retractable tether that would snap on to the Snow Lizard Case or mount snugly to the carabiner mounting point. Either of those would also improve the hang-down issue.

2. Make a clip that mounts the tether to a backpack strap without the need for dramatic zip tie acrobatics. Use a clip that is secure but can be removed from the strap without excess difficulty.

Attachment point not rugged enough.
3.Strengthen the Snow Lizard case attachment point. The current one is vulnerable to ending/cracking/snapping. While the current attachment point may be suitable for casual activity, it does not seem to be as rugged as the rest of the case.

Belt attachment for Snow Lizard case.

Right-click image to enlarge.

4. Provide a strap-mountable clip for the case. Snow Lizard current offers a belt clip which can be had for $19.99.  (left)

However, other than hysterically re-manufacturing the clip in my workshop, I found that it could not practically be hacked to be mounted on my backpack strap.

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