Rugged Shell: iPhone Cases For The Outdoors

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Catalyst Waterproof Case (top left), Highline Case (with tether), Thule Atmos X3 Case, Pelican ProGear Voyager (bottom left), Otterbox Resurgence, and wood-backed EXO23 Black Aluminum Case

Smartphones are a tool for the outdoors as well as everyday life. Over the past two months, I put a handful of cases to the test with my iPhone 6, including on hikes, while biking, running, and for workaday use. Here’s a wrap-up of eight cases that stood out.

Waterproof — Like a little suit of armor, the Catalyst Waterproof Case ($69.99) attaches tightly and seals a phone into an airtight space. The company calls it “the most protective case in the world,” which may be an exaggeration but also is qualified with a waterproof (to 16 feet under) and drop-proof (up to 6 feet) design.


Catalyst Waterproof Case

Related review: iPhone spends two years in LifeProof case

This durability comes from a polycarbonate case with rubber bumpers, silicone seals, and watertight acoustic membranes for clear audio. I didn’t go swimming with the Catalyst but after two weeks of hard use outdoors, including in precipitation, the case earned my trust. Caveats: Touchscreen sensitivity is compromised slightly through the clear window, and the case requires an adapter for some headphone jacks.

Handmade — A few things separate this case, including its wooden face, intricate metal hinges, magnets to hold it closed, and a finish that looks more artisanal than mechanized. Made by hand in Brooklyn, N.Y., the EXO23 Black Aluminum Case is the most beautiful (by far) in this review. It offers protection with its metal frame, though the phone face is exposed and there are no dampening bumpers. Not water-resistant, very expensive ($212!), but by far the coolest case here.


Made in the USA by hand, the wood-backed EXOVault cases were the most primo in the test

Built-In Battery — A slim lithium battery embedded in the Otterbox Resurgence ($99.95) offers a free recharge in the wilds. When your phone goes dead, simply press a button on the case and you get a power-up. (I was able to use my phone for two days straight without an external power supply.)


Otterbox Resurgence

The Otterbox case is made with a fiberglass-filled polycarbonate shell and foam inside, making it resistant to bumps and small drops. No covering on the glass touchscreen, however, and not waterproof.

Power Up — Like the Otterbox Resurgence above, the BuQu Tech PowerArmour has a battery integrated into a thin case. You get a full phone recharge by pressing a button on back. The case is more minimal than the Otterbox, making it a bit less bulky but also not as protective. It has an LED “fuel gauge” on back to show remaining battery power, and it requires an audio adapter cable to hook up headphones. A bit less expensive than the Otterbox option at $79.99.


BuQu Tech PowerArmour includes battery guage on back

Holster — It clicks into a holster that can be worn on a belt. A “kickstand” on back props the case up so you can set your phone like a mini movie screen for YouTube videos. But phone protection is the bigger calling card on the Pelican ProGear Voyager ($60), which has thin layers of polycarbonate and rubber in its small frame. Unique to this model is a clear screen cover that protects from scratches. Finally, Pelican offers a lifetime guarantee, noting if a customer breaks the case “we replace it.”


Pelican ProGear Voyager

Tethered — A tiny bungee cord connects to this case, which can then be attached to a zipper pull, belt loop, or other tie point. With the Highline Case ($29.95) from Kenu you get a phone that’s tethered and not droppable — though the polycarbonate case doesn’t cover the screen, so if it swings and hits something you could be trouble.


Highline Case

The leash, which is made of braided Kevlar, uses a port on the bottom of the iPhone and a notch in the case to attach. I like the minimal look and the simple design to keep my phone close on a chairlift, boat, or any other do-not-drop spot outdoors.


Harbour Case has a fold-out “kickstand” for propping the phone up

Everyday Carry — The Harbour Case ($24.95) from STM is made to protect from “daily mishaps,” the brand advertises. A dual-density polyurethane protects from small drops and scratches, which is for many people all you need. A bonus is a “kickstand” that lets you fold out the bottom of the case to prop your phone up for viewing.

Slim & Protective — A selling point with the Thule Atmos X3 Case ($39.95) is “exceptional protection with minimal bulk.” At 0.4-inch in depth, this case adds very little to a naked iPhone.


Thule Atmos X3

But its rubbery edges and polycarbonate frame give enough cushion to keep a phone safe from a shoulder-height drop, Thule cites. (Just don’t drop it glass side down; there’s no screen covering.) Funny bonus: Thule gives a 25-year warranty with the case to protect for decades after your phone has become obsolete.

By
Stephen Regenold is Founder of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of five, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.
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