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Minimalist Outdoor Phone Cases or Not?

iPhone 6 with a lightweight shock absobing case and temperated glass screen protector
iPhone 6 with a lightweight shock absorbing case and tempered glass screen protector

Smartphones and apps have evolved to the point where they’ve eclipsed GPS receivers and become indispensable backcountry tools that combine navigation, weather forecasting, communication, tracking, a notepad, camera, book reader, music player, and entertainment functions all in one highly portable, rechargeable and lightweight unit. The only advantage that GPS units have anymore over them is a hardened and water-resistant/waterproof case that protects the device from adverse environmental conditions.

While there are many protective smartphone cases available today, the jury is still out on how much case you need for hiking and backpacking adventures.

Does a phone case need to:

  • Protect the screen from scratches?
  • Protect the screen from shattering?
  • Protect the phone from bending?
  • Provide a better grip on the phone?
  • Protect the phone from accidental drops?
  • Protect the phone for an hour under water after accidental immersion?
  • Protect the phone from a few rain drops?
  • Have a water damage warranty?
  • Include a battery capable of recharging your phone?
  • Fit in your pocket?
  • Have a built-in tripod?
  • Need to weigh less than the phone itself?

Or are some of these functions overkill, adding way to much complexity and weight to your phone and turning it into another brick like a GPS receiver?

Minimalist Smartphone Phone Case

I’ve taken a minimalist approach to protecting my iPhone 6 focusing on protecting the screen from scratches and accidental drops only. I don’t think I need any more protection than that.

Lander Powell Case and Maxboost Glass Screen Protector
Lander Powell Case and Maxboost Glass Screen Protector

My “phone case” has two components:

  • $35 Lander Powell phone case that fits around the back and sides of my iPhone 6, with a raised side bezel to protect against impacts when I drop it.
  • $8 Maxboost glass screen protector that sticks to the screen of my phone to protect it from scratches, but doesn’t cover the home button or muffle the microphone

My iPhone 6 weighs 133 grams, but the Lander case only weighs 31 grams and the Maxboost screen protector weighs just 2 grams more, bringing the total up to 166 grams or 5.8 ounces. That’s not bad at all for such a multi-function item that can still fit easily into my pants pockets.

Most of the time, my phone lives deep in my pack with my wallet and car keys. However, I’m sure other hikers and backpackers use their smartphones differently from me and have other phone case needs.

If that’s the case with you, how did you decide on the current smartphone case you have and what features do you feel are important?

Disclosure: Lander provided Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) with a Powell Phone case for review.  Mr Werner purchased the Maxboost screen protector with his own funds. 

Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored gear reviews, articles, and hiking guides.

Updated 2017.

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  1. I have a glass screen protector but don’t bother with a case on my Droid phone. The phone is designed to be water and shock resistant For hiking and biking I found, and love, the Timbuk2 Shagg Bag accessory case to protect and carry my phone, strapped to my backpack shoulder strap where it is oh so accessible for quick photos.

  2. Magpul iPhone 4 Executive Field Case, $5 and works great!

  3. A tripod built into a phone case? Neat idea, I’ve never seen that before! Standing selfie-stick! lol. I use a Speck case on my 6S. Lightweight and very minimal and it slides into my pocket very easily. Provides good drop protection. I’m generally pretty easy on my electronics, so I’m not too worried. The only thing I’d be worried about in the woods with my phone for an extended period would be moisture and water. For that I’d probably just stick it in a Loksak.

    What apps do you use for navigation? I’d be curious to see what is popular. Right now I just have the free Galileo and Topo Maps+ installed.

  4. In everyday use, I keep my iPhone6 in a tech21 Evo Mesh case. In my outdoor adventures- hiking, biking, snowshoeing- I’m deathly afraid of the phone getting wet, so I use a Seattle Sports E-Merse Dry Cell Case. The extra layers inherently add additional drop protection on top of the waterproofing.

  5. My current phone is usually deep in my back someplace. But I have my prior gen iPhone 5 in a waterproof Osprey case and use it as a GPS and camera.

  6. My previous phone had some thick rubber case around it and then a hard plastic case around the center of that. The rubber extended in front of the screen a bit so you would really have to drop it in a bad location to cause it damage.
    However it was heavy. And I never dropped my phone. My new phone, LG G4 has a slim case and screen protector, nothing else. Hopefully I wont drop it :)

  7. As an Android guy, I’m jealous of all the cool cases for available for Iphone; there is a vastly better selection for Apple products than anything else.
    I settled for the “Nillkin Fruit Series Smart Wake Up/Sleep Flip PU Leather Case Slim Cover flip case” because it has a solid cover to protect the screen. My keys and knife won’t scratch up the phone when they are rattling around together in my pack.

  8. How about putting the phone simply into a fitting LOKSAK? This is what I do, so I don’t mind if I let it fall into mud or even water. When you’re out in nature, your phone likely won’t fall apart from dropping because the soil is mostly soft (except for rocks…). I get home and squeeze out the phone from the sack completely dry and clean.

  9. I use a Magpul case and a ziplock bag in wet weather .

  10. I have an s5 so it’s good for dust and water. I got a screen protector and a case that holds my medical card, license and credit card on the back. A little bit bulky feeling in hand at first but now I am used to it and I don’t miss my wallet.

  11. I wont buy a phone without gorilla glass. Keys, coins and dirt doesn’t scratch it. No screen protectors on any phone, although i do use a phone case, just to protect the corners.

  12. I use the Lifeproof case for my iPhone. Great for backpacking, hiking, hunting, skiing. Have dropped it in a few creeks and is just fine. Waterproof and drop proof. Expensive at 80$ but a year guarantee on it. Love the case and not a lot of additional bulk

  13. I have a very similar setup for my iphone 5. I use a $5 vinyl-type material (I forget the exact name of the material right now, but it is a very popular one) case for the phone and a glass screen protector. I keep a ziploc bag in case I need water protection. I don’t use my phone in or around water…I wait until I am not wading in the babbling brook before I take my phone out to look at it.

    I keep my phone stored in a hipbelt pocket and use it for GPS regularly. I do keep paper maps with me as a back up plan.

  14. I should also comment I am not prone to dropping smart phones. I *have* dropped my iphone 5 in said thin $5 case, but when dropped from belly-height to a hard surface (pavement, concrete, etc), the phone has suffered no damage. It is a risk I am taking, but this method has served me well for the 6+ years I have been using smart phones.


  15. My S3 bit the… well…, it wasn’t dust, when I managed to submerge it three times in two weeks. It fell out of my shirt pocket as I scooped water from a creek, followed by my wife’s Dr Pepper dumping over to allow it to swim in a 23 flavor sea, and I applied the coup de grâce by putting it in a waterproof pocket on my pack during a severe thunderstorm… however, waterproof pockets only work when zipped shut! I reached in to check the GPS after we lost the trail in the storm and it was like reaching into a fish bowl for my phone.

    I bought something similar to a Locksak when I got my S4. I’ve since replaced the S4 with a Galaxy Note 4 that has a protective, but not waterproof, Spigen case. When removed from the case, it fits the Locksak.

  16. Continued from above…

    I made a two day hike last week in rain and fog that didn’t turn into predicted sleet and snow. The first day, I kept the phone in the Locksak. The second day, I put it in the pocket of my shell because I was wanting to take photos of the surreal scenes unfolding in the fog.

    I use BackCountry Navigator Pro, one of the best ten dollar expenditures I’ve ever made. With it, I can download USGS topo maps, satellite imagery and numerous other varieties of maps. My brother used to use some free sources for backpacking but even he, the King of Free Apps, bought BackCountry Navigator Pro.

  17. Protect the phone with SOMETHING, for sure. It’s a $650 mistake I won’t make again. Just like full collision car insurance, you never think it would be you who needs it until you do…

  18. I just looked at my cell phone protector. It’s a DrySak, not a Locksak.

  19. For years, I didn’t have a case on my iPhone. Now I have an official Apple leather case. That provides a bit of protection and some grip. But I always carry my phone in an aLOKSAK. For most trips, the phone is off until I need it.

  20. Five bucks at five below. Wtfayd?

  21. Normally when backpacking, my phone stays in a dry bag so I just leave it in the everyday case. I only use it in camp, usually in the sleeping bag.

    On my Camino, I picked up an unlocked GSM phone and just got a simple $7 silicone case. Since I was taking a lot of pictures with it, it stayed in my shorts pocket unless it was raining, then it went in the rain jacket pocket. It was a smaller smartphone, so it fit easily in pockets. I lucked into a great deal on the phone. It was an Amazon Fire phone that was on sale and came with a year of Amazon Prime. So factoring in the Prime cost, I only needed to be able to sell it for $80 when I was done to recoup my expenses. Got a prepaid Spanish sim card with voice, text, and data for $25, which after selling the phone was my only cost.

  22. I’ve found that my iphone shuts down once the weather gets cold – around 15-20F or so. At which point it is not very useful as a navigation device. Does anyone have any suggestions for keeping a phone warm, aside from stuffing it down my pants? Otherwise I might have to go old school and actually start using a map and compass again…

  23. Doesn’t work when it gets cold, worry about it getting wet, pictures are hard to take, especially in winter with gloves. These are the reason my phone stays in a dry bag and I carry an Olympus TG-4 waterproof camera and a GPS with lithium batteries in winter. The only thing I every use a phone for (except an emergency, which luckily I haven’t had) is to check the weather radar map when thunderstorms are unexpectedly nearby – if you have a signal – you can see if there is a window to make a summit or should turn around below tree line. Did this near Garfield last summer and was able to hit the summit, which is not far from treeline during a 90 minute period when no storms were nearby.

  24. Sony M4 Aqua and forget the case – I use and Olymps TG-4 camera – water proof and shock resistant

  25. Will the lander Powell phone case fit a Samsung 7? Also I am trying to protect it if I drop it while taking pics on a hike

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