Image: Marvin Lau

I Broke My Phone Biking 180 Miles Alone in Europe

Without being able to reliably use GPS, I felt lost.

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Oct 23 2017, 1:00pm

Image: Marvin Lau

This story is part of OUTER LIMITS, a Motherboard series about people, technology, and going outside. Let us be your guide.


This summer I decided to bike from Vienna to Budapest, a place I'd never been. Unfortunately, I forgot that once I hit the Slovakian border, my Austrian SIM card would stop working and all my carefully curated Google Maps directions would disappear. To make matters worse, on my first day out, I smashed my phone so the app worked only sporadically.

The trek made me realize just how inexperienced I am at navigating the outdoors with traditional maps and street signs. Without being able to use my phone reliably, I felt lost.

The whole one-way solo trip took four days. I covered 300 kilometers following the Danube Cycle Path, a bike trail that follows the Danube River through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and beyond, give or take a few wrong turns into forests and some freeway riding. I made it all the way to Budapest and only seriously considered giving up once, about halfway when I hit Győr, Hungary. At that point I'd spent the last nine hours on my bike, had finished all my water a few hours before, and had just illegally cycled on a very busy motorway for 14 km.

The first two days with a broken phone were kind of scary: I was trying to adjust to a new way of getting around. At first I took screenshots of the entire route, a few kilometers at a time, and would stop every 20 minutes to check my phone. That quickly grew tiring. I didn't have the foresight to purchase an analog map before I left so I just followed trail signs, and when I came across a mall or a Tesco with Wi-Fi, sometimes I'd stop in and check on where I was.

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I'm not going to lie, I cried so much during this trip. I cried because I feared getting lost, or run over, or just plain stuck. I'd leave every morning before 7:30 AM to avoid being a woman who is cycling in the dark in a foreign country. One time I was still out at 7 PM and I could barely keep my lid on as the Sun began to set. Thankfully, that night I stayed with some lovely people whose hospitality calmed me down.

This experience got me interested in figuring out how other people my age, a generation that can't really remember life without GPS-equipped smartphones, navigate this sort of connectivity anxiety. So I put out a feeler on Facebook asking for experiences.

Sherry Li at the Leeds Festival. Image: Sherry Li

My friend Sherry Li, 20, told me about losing her phone in a cab in Beijing. She was on her way to the airport to catch a flight to England to go to Leeds Festival and then travel to London from there. "It was a pretty bad day," she said.

Although Li had her laptop, she was still going to have to find her way around a foreign country and a music festival without a phone. She wound up writing down all her travel instructions on a piece of paper and relying on physical city maps.

"It was really weird but kind of freeing," she said. "I never felt like I was in a rush."

When Li got to London, still without a phone, she got used to asking other people for directions instead of walking around with her face buried in her phone's GPS. Li went for five days like that. She took some precautions: To ensure that her Snapchat streaks weren't lost while she was phoneless, she got a friend to keep them going.

"The last day she forgot and she messed up my longest streak with someone," Li said. "It's like, 'You literally had one job.'"

Sebastian Back in Denmark. Image: Bine Bach Damsgård

My friend Sebastian Back, 22, also lost his phone while he was overseas.

Back spent the first half of this year in Europe, living as an exchange student in Aarhus, Denmark. He told me about the time he took a rideshare to Skagen with a musician who was playing a show in town. Skagen is famous for having a point where the Baltic and North Seas meet. Back's plan was to walk from his hostel along the coast and up to the end of the peninsula.

"I was playing in the water and being a child," he said. "Hopping around."

Once Back had reached his destination and saw the two seas meet, he decided to walk back and follow the sunset. The walk turned into a bit of a jog and, eventually, he came across a pond, "with a bunch of weird birds."

"Later I found out that this was a very dangerous area," he said. "Really easy to get lost in."

As night started to fall, Back realized he needed to get back. So he checked his phone one last time, planning a path, then put it in his coat before he started to run. When Back reached into his jacket about 100 meters later, his phone was no longer there. He spent a few frantic minutes scouring the ground and retracing his steps, but eventually gave up.

"I had this massive old-school paper map that you had to fluff out."

Following lights from the town, he started walking and eventually reached the hostel. He'd go without a phone for a total of about three weeks before his parents sent him a used one.

When Back first lost his phone, he felt anxious, "almost pathetically scared," he told me. But those feelings slowly dissipated. "It's nice to remove yourself from the world not immediately around you. It's a lesson in faith in yourself."

"I would lose my phone all over again," he admitted.

Salmaan in the Lushoto District in Tanzania. Photo: Francis Lucas

Sometimes, even if you don't lose your phone, you still have no way to use it on the road. This was my friend Salmaan Farooqui's experience when he travelled through Africa this past summer, from Cairo to Cape Town—a three month trip—using mainly public transportation.

"Minibuses are the main way of [getting] around and there are no websites for that," the 20-year-old said. "There's no way of knowing too much about it until I got there, that's why it's sort of a navigational challenge. That was the fun part."

Farooqui also drove through Namibia and put his map-reading skills to the test. "I had this massive old-school paper map that you had to fluff out. You had to park at the side of the road and your entire window would just be the map basically," he said. "I'd never really paid attention to a road map before."

Farooqui said that driving in Namibia could be a bit "scary." He could be driving for an entire 24 hours without seeing any other cars.

"There was one instance where I had to sleep on the side of the road because it would get dark and you can't drive at night there," he said. "The hardest thing was measuring how long getting to places would take."

Overall, Farooqui said that he was happy using a physical map and communicating with locals to get around, rather than looking at a screen the whole time.

"It's really a life skill, to be able to get around without just staring at your phone," he said. "If you're not using Google Maps then you're forced to pay attention to your surroundings and that's a better way to experience what's going on around you."

As for me, I'm definitely happy to have my Google Maps back. But I'd seriously consider leaving it in my pack next time I head out on the trail.

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