The smartphone is now a critical piece of backpacking gear.
It’s used as a camera, a journal, a book to read…
And sometimes as a telephone!
But outdoor sports are a gritty, dirty business.
There’s dirt, dust, and water. And the impact of clumsy drops.
You need some protection for that $1,000 piece of equipment.
Special Needs for an Active, Outdoor Lifestyle
So we want an iPhone case that can take some hits when you’re rock climbing.
A case that can withstand a dunk in the water on a kayaking trip… a case that’s lightweight for running and hiking.
So a gigantic, heavy, extreme case that can get run over by truck isn’t the answer. We want it to be light and manageable.
Let’s not forget that you’d actually like to use your phone. You want travel pictures, and maybe even to do a little filming. The case shouldn’t be so big that it’s awkward to carry it in your pocket, or slippery to grip with small, clumsy hands.
I like to keep my phone in its case 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our phones travel almost everywhere with us – like to work and to the gym – so I don’t want to have to swap it every weekend for my outdoor trips. Besides, its good to have that extra protection at all times. You never know when you’re going to drop your phone, or spill something on it.
The Best Choice for Backpacking & Thru-Hiking
I first researched the subject of rugged cases when I was preparing for an Arizona Trail thru-hike in 2019. I’d purchased a new iPhone Xs, and wanted a lightweight case that could withstand the rigors of being outside all day, every day.
So weight was also very important to me. I was counting every ounce.
After considering all the options, I settled on a case called the Lifeproof Fre. In the 3 years (almost 4 years) since then, I’ve exclusively used this model for my phone and I’m very happy with it. It’s been a permanent fixture – not only for all my backpacking, but also cycling, mountaineering, at work, navigating food deliveries in the gig economy… you name it.
By mid 2022, the case had worn down so much (I’ll elaborate in a moment) that I decided it was time for a replacement. So I got another Lifeproof Fre, identical to the first. I think it’s the best all-round iPhone case for those that love to exercise outdoors. And 3 years is a reasonable shelf life for a phone case, no? Most people replace their phones every 2 years or so anyway.
Otterbox (LifeProof) Fre Case Review
Here’s some important notes before diving into the review.
Everything in this post is based on 2 purchases of the LifeProof Fre model for the iPhone Xs. The initial purchase was made in 2019, and then a second purchase was made in 2022. I haven’t upgraded my iPhone from the Xs (iPhone 10). They’re up to the iPhone 14 at the time of this writing, but we can conclude that the Fre model has stayed fairly consistent in its design to match the upgrades.
The LifeProof company was founded in 2011, but has been owned by Otterbox since way back in 2013. Otterbox kept the LifeProof brand intact until recently in 2022, when they chose to retire the brand and repurpose everything under the Otterbox name. So the “LifeProof Fre” phone case is now called the “Otterbox Fre,” but the product is the same.
Cost & Where to Buy
An OtterBox Fre case for your iPhone generally runs from $80 to $100. Yeah, it’s expensive. That’s the reality of buying a truly waterproof phone case with drop protection. These products are made with a high-quality silicone, as opposed to the lower grade silicone that you’ll find in most smartphone cases.
LifeProof cases are known for being waterproof and especially drop resistant (see more about the drop testing below). They come with a 1-2 year warranty (Your phone itself is not guaranteed). You’re also paying a little extra for the OtterBox (or LifeProof) brand, in a similar fashion to Apple products.
All LifeProof Fre cases have built-in screen protection. Other phone cases often require a screen protector, sold separately. I think LifeProof cases are worth the money, especially if you spend a lot of time outside and are generally rough on your phone. When I’m hiking, my phone usually doubles as a camera – the more you handle your device in such conditions, the more likely you are to drop it.
There’s so many generations and variations of the iPhone available that maybe it’s best to shop directly through the OtterBox website to ensure that you’re getting the proper model. You’ll find the widest variety of colors and styles there too.
If you take the time to carefully review the listings on Amazon, however, you’ll often find your desired case at a nominal discount.
Since the size and shape of each iPhone generation varies, the specs of each respective case will vary too. Here’s a rundown of published specifications from the OtterBox website.
|14||0.09 lbs / 43.00 g||5x MStandard*||6.28 in / 159.52 mm||3.40 in / 86.47 mm||0.62 in / 15.66 mm|
|14 Pro||0.10 lbs / 44.60 g||5x MStandard*||6.31 in / 160.26 mm||3.40 in / 86.40 mm||0.65 in / 16.46 mm|
|14 Pro Max||0.11 lbs / 49.60 g||5x MStandard*||6.83 in / 173.52 mm||3.64 in / 92.53 mm||0.65 in / 16.46 mm|
|SE (3rd gen)||0.11 lbs / 49.90 g||6.6 feet / 2 meters||5.90 in / 149.86 mm||3.10 in / 78.74 mm||0.53 in / 13.46 mm|
|13||0.09 lbs / 42.99 g||6.6 feet / 2 meters||6.28 in / 159.51 mm||3.40 in / 86.47 mm||0.59 in / 14.92 mm|
|13 Pro||0.09 lbs / 42.50 g||6.6 feet / 2 meters||6.28 in / 159.51 mm||3.40 in / 86.47 mm||0.62 in / 15.63 mm|
|13 Pro Max||0.11 lbs / 48.50 g||6.6 feet / 2 meters||6.84 in / 173.64 mm||3.66 in / 93.02 mm||0.62 in / 15.73 mm|
|12||0.09 lbs / 42.50 g||6.6 feet / 2 meters||6.30 in / 160.02 mm||3.40 in / 86.36 mm||0.54 in / 13.72 mm|
|12 Pro Max||0.11 lbs / 48.50 g||6.6 feet / 2 meters||6.86 in / 174.24 mm||3.66 in / 92.96 mm||0.57 in / 14.48 mm|
|SE (2nd gen)||0.11 lbs / 49.90 g||6.6 feet / 2 meters||5.90 in / 149.86 mm||3.10 in / 78.74 mm||0.53 in / 13.46 mm|
|11 Pro Max||0.11 lbs / 49.90 g||6.6 feet / 2 meters||6.64 in / 168.66 mm||3.54 in / 89.92 mm||0.49 in / 12.45 mm|
The OtterBox Drop Test (Military Standard)
The latest OtterBox Fre series conforms to a series of drop tests created by the Defense Department called the “Military Standard.” The serial code to reference the specific drop test is called MIL-STD-810G. If you want to dive deep on it you find the downloadable government PDF on this page.
The test requires a case (with a device inside) to be dropped 26 times from a height of 4 feet. Every corner, edge, and surface must be included a designated number of times. The landing surface is 2 inches of plywood, which itself is on top of concrete.
For OtterBox’s newer iPhone 14 cases, you’ll see something like “5x MIL-STD-810G.” The 5x means that Otterbox exceeded the standard by a multiple of 5 times. So in the chart above, when you see “5x MStandard,” that means that the case was actually dropped 5×26 times, or 130 times!
Are LifeProof Cases Actually Waterproof?
Yes, the LifeProof (now OtterBox Fre) cases are made to be 100% waterproof. They’re additionally protected from snow and dirt. The advertised specifications state that they’re waterproof to a depth of up to 6.6 (2 meters) of water, for up to 30 minutes. This means you should be confident in bringing it in the shower, having it around the hot tub, and so on.
…but be sure to test it.
With that said, LifeProof (OtterBox) stresses that you should perform an underwater test of the case before subjecting your expensive device to such conditions. It’s good common sense to do this, just to make sure you’ve installed the case correctly and haven’t received a defective product.
Since the case is completely waterproof, it keeps out the majority of dirt, dust, and sand. Over time, however, a small amount of dirt will somehow find its way in – especially if you frequent the beach or camp in windy, dusty environments.
Here’s a video I made where I perform a water test with a LifeProof Fre for the iPhone Xs. The paper towel remained completely dry, so the test was success.
Here’s the official water test instructions from the user’s manual:
Your case has been water tested. If you plan to expose your device to water, it is recommended that you perform a installation water test. DO NOT INSTALL DEVICE DURING TEST.
- Snap case front and back together.
- Close charge port door.
- Submerge case face down in water for 30 minutes.
- Remove, dry, and look inside for moisture.
- Open charge port door and use a coin to separate case. If dry inside, go to Install Device. If wet inside, contact Support.
Microphone Sound Quality
On the bottom end of the case there’s 2 indentations of thinner material that allow for sound to travel to the microphone. These pits attract dirt and dust collections, and will need to be cleaned often if you want to avoid blocking the microphone to improve sound quality.
I open the charging port during phone calls, but I’m not sure if this actually helps. Obviously the microphone performs better with no case at all, but I’ve never heard complaints from the other end of phone calls because of the LifeProof Fre.
Durability & Personal Experience
After some time, it’s inevitable that a case will ultimately wear down and fail. Let’s face it, we handle our phones a lot. I first purchased a LifeProof Fre case early in 2019, and it didn’t require replacement until February of 2022. So the case lasted for about 3 years.
The first piece to show significant wear was the was the front-right edge, adjacent to the screen. Anyone that takes a lot of photos on an iPhone should know that there’s a shortcut from the lock screen to get straight to the camera – the shortcut is to simply swipe firmly from right to left across the screen (when held upright).
I’m sure it’s the repeated friction of my thumb in this action that caused the material to begin wearing down and peeling away. Soon the wear started to show on the left side, too. Fortunately this area doesn’t affect the functionality of the case whatsoever.
What finally motivated me to replace the case in 2022 was when the buttons stopped working. It was specifically the two volume buttons on the left side that lost their elasticity and broke. I rarely use the knob for silent mode, so that one was still intact.
Some of the buttons may be hard to push when you first install a brand new case, but they quickly become more malleable over time.
Sometimes you’ll see complaints in reviews about the flap that protects the charging / headphone port, but I never had a problem with it. If yours is especially difficult to unfasten, or even breaks, it’s likely a defective product that can be replaced under warranty. In day to day use, however, I’ll often leave the flap open to minimize the wear and tear on this sensitive area – rather than repeatedly snapping it open and closed.
Photos & Camera Quality
The camera quality through LifeProof (OtterBox) Fre cases leaves something to be desired. The selfie camera especially suffers from some blurriness behind the robust screen protector. There’s no way around this, even if you keep your screen clean. You can still get effective selfies, but those looking for the absolute highest-quality images possible from this lens are not going to be satisfied.
I don’t use face detection, but it reportedly works just fine.
The main, rear camera cover tends to get scratched over time, degrading the quality of your pictures from the primary lenses. My original LifeProof case’s lens cover in 2019 got scratched up quickly, but the new one from 2022 seems to be a lot more resistant to wear and tear. So that’s something.
There’s a solution to this problem if you’re serious about photography – simply remove the lens cover from your LifeProof case, and expose the high quality lens of the original iPhone. This eliminates the waterproof efficacy of the case, but it’ll still have a high degree of water resistance and drop protection – the main things I want as a backpacker.
How to Put On & Remove the LifeProof Fre Case
Here’s a video (above) that shows how to install the case. The one below shows how to open and remove it.
Putting it on is pretty straightforward – just be sure to go around the edge and make sure it’s all clicked into place. If the case isn’t closing all the way, I’d wager that it’s likely to be user error, sorry. One possibility, though, is that the the thin rubber gasket came out of place. Just check it and slip it into place. If it’s especially stubborn it may need to be replaced under warranty.
It takes a little bit of muscle and fingernail strength to remove the case. The way to get it started is via the corner of your device, where there’s a small indentation. Next to this indentation there’s a little, sturdy knob. Place your left thumbnail in the indentation, hold your right thumb under the knob, and apply outward force with both thumbs. If this doesn’t work, you can use a tool like a coin or a piece of silverware to apply the necessary force to the indentation.
Here’s the official instructions from the user’s manual:
- Remove any screen protectors and clean device with included cloth.
- Insert into case front, top first.
- Snap on case back.
- Close charge port door.
- Inspect edges to make sure case is sealed around device.
I guess i didn’t follow the exact directions in the video. Oh well.
- Open charge port door and use a coin to separate case.
- Pull case apart and remove device.
Dealing with Bubbles
Bubbles in the LifeProof Fre screen are a common problem that occurs where there’s free space between the screen protector and the screen itself. The appearance of these bubbles is not only annoying, but it can make it a little harder to type, too.
Fortunately there’s an easy solution to this. Before installing the screen, simply rub your fingertips on the screen of your phone and the interior side of the LifeProof screen protector. The natural oils from your skin will do wonders to make the 2 screens gel together and eliminate the bubbles. It won’t cause any noticeable marks on the screen either, as long as as your hands are relatively clean.
Overheating and Wireless Charging
I’ve only had trouble with my iPhone overheating in conditions where the weather was very hot (I was in Phoenix) and my phone was exposed to direct sunlight in my vehicle. I’ve never had problems with my phone overheating as a direct result of using its case.
For the record, iPhones are not made to be operated in temperatures that exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit, or 35 Celsius.
Wireless charging should work with the latest Otterbox cases that include a “MagSafe” magnet. I don’t regularly use wireless charging, but it would not work for me on hotel lamp charger with a standard LifeProof Fre case purchased in 2019.
Lanyard for the LifeProof (OtterBox) Fre
The Fre series does not come with a lanyard, but it’s no problem to attach one. On the bottom left corner you’ll find a small anchor designed to tether it. Here’s a lanyard on Amazon that’s made specifically for LifeProof cases.
In your search for a phone case, you’ve probably come across the OtterBox Defender as being comparable to the LifeProof Fre. The main difference between these cases is that the Defender is not waterproof.
Let’s look at some more alternatives.
The nearest equivalent you’ll find to OtterBox is a brand called Pelican. They produce all sorts of cases for a wide range of outdoor pursuits. I first came across them in the world of whitewater rafting, when I was interested in a case for my DSLR camera (I ended up using an ammo box instead).
So here’s Pelican’s lineup of marine cases. The specific “Marine” model is genuinely waterproof. Others are listed as being “splashproof” (at an IP4 rating instead of being completely waterproof), but that’s still a good fit for hiking, climbing, and so on.
Catalyst is a company that specializes in cases for electronics. Their focus seems to be on Apple products, but they make waterproof cases for a handful of Samsung Galaxy models, too. Their “total protection” lineup is waterproof.
Flotation for Kayaking
For rafting, kayaking, and water sports in general, you might want a case that includes some sort of flotation. Your waterproof case does no good, after all, if your phone ends up at the bottom of the lake.
One option is to consider getting a dedicated floatie and attaching it to your phone via a lanyard. Just be sure it has enough flotation – phones are getting big and heavy nowadays. I used this one years ago for an Olympus Tough camera. That camera was like a brick, so I’m confident its floatie should work for a phone, too.
Another option is to get a dedicated waterproof pouch. The top-rated pouches that include flotation are the AquaVault, the CaliCase Universal, and the Vansky.
Pelican makes one too.
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