Smartphone Vs. GPS: Which One to Choose for Hiking?

Smartphone Vs. GPS: Which One to Choose for Hiking?

Published: Apr 30, 2021

As smartphones advance to achieve even more capabilities, they are more and more involved in our daily lives and activities. New apps emerge every other minute to support our endeavors, and hiking has hopped on to that bandwagon. Nowadays, smartphones even offer as much capability as GPS systems.

Smartphones are suitable for frontcountry hiking, whereas the rugged build of GPS systems supports backcountry hiking. GPS devices are also better suited for backcountry hikes due to their long battery life and efficient working. However, they do not work with as many concurrently running features as cellphones.

Does this mean that if you are backcountry hiking, the GPS is your only navigation option? Read more to find out the features, pros, and cons of both a GPS device or smartphone while hiking.

 

Smartphone for Hiking

One of today's essentials when out and about hiking is the ubiquitous smartphone. The versatile tool comes in handy when you need a flashlight, camera, or means to get in contact with emergency services. Nowadays, phones are ever-present with us, only leaving our vicinity as we shut our eyes for the night. This fact makes it no surprise it tags along as a personal essential on hikes.

Coming in multiple forms, from dedicated, rugged smartphones for outdoor use to our daily-use smartphones, this piece of equipment is a reliable multi-function tool on hikes, as long as it has power.

So, what does this lightweight and portable tool offer? What are its downsides, and is there a way to tackle them? Let's dive into the details regarding the use of a smartphone for hiking, and those of its biggest competitor, the trusty handheld GPS.

Pros

The amount of features a cellphone offers while hiking is immense. From reading a book under the stars to capturing picturesque scenes and moments, your smartphone is well-endowed when it comes to features. Besides, all of these are packed in a lightweight and easy-to-carry device that easily fits in your palm.

The portable nature comes in handy considering hiking's essential rule to pack light.

The pinnacle purpose of phones is communication, and smartphones provide this functionality supporting essential functions at the very least. You might not need to check your social media while out in the backlands, but it does help to have a way of accessing medical services whenever the need arises.

Downloadable content, such as maps and other navigation utilities, is an essential plus that smartphones offer hikers. The simplicity of use also makes it a quickly accessible source in case of any encounter with something unfamiliar. This support includes downloaded guides, search engine services, and the ability to call or text someone.

When out exploring, people commonly want to capture the moments, memories, and views without having to pack heavy video and photography equipment. Luckily, smartphone cameras have advanced so far that it is now possible to capture artistic content if the creativity bug bites you. Their ease of use also means that with basic photography skills, you can capture your hiking experience.

After a long day of traversing the country, laying close to your tent among the stars, or on an evening as you prepare a meal, phones come in handy as they provide some entertainment. For instance, you can watch your pre-downloaded content, read books, take notes, prepare reminders, and even take video logs of your hiking experience. 

 

Cons

Despite the pros far outweighing the cons, there are several disadvantages to consider before packing a smartphone alongside your gear for your next hiking adventure. Some of them include:

  • Battery life - The most significant issue with smartphones while out and about is the need to recharge or replace them once they run out of charge. It is never a matter of if, but a matter of when. Far from access to power, solar chargers, power banks, and backup batteries are essential.
  • Network access - Once you are away from cellular support, features such as positioning and communication may be rendered entirely unreliable. When utilizing smartphones for navigation, their use must support your map and compass's function rather than completely replace them.
  • Protection - Phones are fragile, and unless you're utilizing models specially designed for the rough outback, protection from humidity, drops, wear and tear is a key consideration from the start.

 

GPS for Hiking

GPS, short for Global Positioning System, is a global satellite-based navigation system providing time synchronization, velocity, and location. The GPS receiver devices determine their location by measuring the time taken for a signal to arrive at its location from multiple satellites. Since radio waves move at constant speeds, the receivers can use the time measurements to calculate their distances from each satellite. The process is known as trilateration.

Pros

The most important function that GPS offers hikers is navigation. Indeed, this powerful tool can provide pinpoint location details to an accuracy level of 30 centimeters. This accuracy is important in your hiking navigation as the plotting of routes from current locations can determine whether you end up circling the same spot or arriving at your destination. Desert-location hikes, where physical features such as dunes may prove similar, are noticeable locations GPS proves handy.

Compared to the skill-intensive use of maps and compass equipment, the GPS is straightforward to use. Indeed, to use yours, you simply have to key in a destination, and the device handles the rest. That is a complete contrast to the much-needed map-reading skills for locating and plotting routes yourself.

Due to the lack of apps and services continuously draining power, the GPS can serve as a suitable tracking mechanism for hikers in case they require rescue services. Designed with extended battery life, it can prove to be a lifesaver when a hiker is stuck and immobile and needs to share their location.

Operated, maintained, and upgraded by the U.S. Department of Defense, GPS is essentially a free service as GPS devices incur users no costs to use the service.

The fact that the GPS operates on satellite technology ensures the service is available on the entire planet. This global presence of the utility ensures users can utilize it with no mileage or distance limitations. Thus, users can backpack as far into the outback as they wish and still enjoy the peace of mind of knowing their location and routes.

Some hikes, especially in backcountry territory, may involve swimming or deep wading. GPS devices' development focuses on durability to survive the rough handling, tumbles, and drops that come with adventure.

Cons

The downsides to using GPS for navigation start with the fact that inaccuracies may occur. Indeed, these devices rely on signals they receive from at least four satellites. However, fewer connections are expectable in bad weather or when physical features obstruct signals. Extreme atmospheric conditions also affect signal reception with accuracy reduced in geomagnetic storms.

The fact that GPS does not provide local knowledge means it may not provide all the expected details of a place. The knowledge counts for a lot when one is hiking, and reliance on GPS alone means you may miss out on helpful information, for instance, road closure or potential flash floods. This vital information may not be easy to deduce from the information GPS devices provide.

Another con of relying solely on GPS is the matter of battery failure. The constant communication to provide accuracy in positioning requirements means the devices quickly run out of power. Unless you have access to sources of power or backup batteries, running out of charge while you are out and about could lead to you losing direction.

Smartphone vs. GPS: Which One Is Better for Hiking?

Smartphones are better for hiking needs in frontcountry trails and camps as charging and communication facilities are within reach. The extensive array of apps available to support a comfortable and fun-filled hike are more than enough. A trek around the park should do fine with a smartphone as well, whereas a hand-held GPS device may be overkill.

Standalone GPS is, however, a more reliable option for hikes out into the mountains and forests. The rugged build quality makes these devices a perfect selection for backcountry hikes and camping expeditions. Compared to smartphones, GPS devices are better built for the rough outback.

Recent advancements have seen smartphones take over much of hand-held GPS functionalities, and the simplicity of tackling everything with one device is a huge plus. We can easily deal with our durability concerns by buying rugged phones or phone protection, such as carrying cases.

Some advantages of GPS devices over smartphones include battery life and types. Indeed, GPS gadgets support both rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries, ensuring one can quickly reconnect to navigation services once the power runs out. Hikers can instantly reconnect by replacing the batteries, whereas most smartphones today do not offer the option to take out the battery, let alone replace it.

If you are looking for an aesthetic experience, the smartphone would be a better choice. Recently released smartphones overrule the need to huff and puff around with DSLR equipment and utilities. All you need is a modern smartphone to can share artistic landscapes or plant life photos thanks to the advancements in camera technology on gadgets.

Therefore, the two navigation forms are proper selections for a hiking experience, depending on how far into the wild you want to dive.

 

Best Smartphone Apps for Hiking

The multi-tool nature of smartphones thrives on the fact that you can download and install apps to do pretty much anything you want. Hiking can be supported by smartphones as long as you take precautionary measures to protect them, such as using screen protectors and rugged phone covers. An alternative would be to buy smartphones designed for outdoor enthusiasts and made rigged structurally to survive the activities.

 

Some top-rated apps to install for your next endeavors include:

  • AllTrails - This app allows users to sort content by activity, suitability, and popularity from a collection of more than 100,000 trails.
  • Gaia GPS - While this application allows you to plan trips and record GPS track for free, a premium subscription offers hikers a lot more worthwhile features.
  • iNarutalist - Nature enthusiasts love this app that allows them to capture and identify plants and animals that you spot on hikes. You can even earn badges on the platform for your observations.
  • Google Maps - A priceless yet straightforward tool, Google Maps is one of the most reliable navigation tools whether you are in the city or out in the countryside hiking. 
  • Pokemon Go - An honorable mention that makes a hiking experience even more fun is the augmented reality game that allows you to locate, capture, battle, and train Pokemon. 

Best GPS For Hiking

Numerous considerations go into picking the best GPS device for you. Some of the factors to consider include:

  • Case
  • Features
  • Battery life
  • Display size
  • Positioning technology
  • Weight
  • Planning software (allowing you to import pre-developed routes)

 

Enjoy this curated selection of today's best handheld GPS gadgets:

  • Garmin GPSMAP 64sx - With a battery life of about 16 hours, this device offers top-tier accuracy, a barometer altimeter, and a 3-axis compass. The large, well-marked buttons ensure reliability in cold and wet weather.
  • Satmap Active 20 - Featuring Bluetooth Smart, this water-resistant gadget allows you to share routes wirelessly and even connect with other equipment, such as heart rate belts. It comes with a rechargeable battery whose place can be taken up by three AA batteries if it runs out at unprecedented times.
  • Garmin eTrex 22x - GPS devices, especially expensive ones, sometimes offer overwhelming features. With 25 hours of battery life and tough, water-resistant construction, the eTrexx offers many outdoors people everything they need. Users can, however, include additional features at small costs.
  • Garmin Oregon 700 - One of the sacrifices regularly made when switching from smartphones to GPS devices for navigation is the user experience. However, the Oregon 700 offers a high-quality touch screen for users to interact with its feature-rich interface.
  • Garmin GPSMAP 66i - If you're looking to invest in an array of top-tier features, including options such as satellite messaging and SOS, this gem comes at a cost but earns its rights to do so. You can head out into areas with no cell service, maintaining the ability to send and receive messages, initiate rescues, and access weather forecasts, all with battery life worth 35 hours (200 in power saving mode).
  • Garmin inReach Mini - Possible to pair with smartphones to offer rudimentary navigation on preloaded maps, the inReach Mini is a minimalist's paradise. The lightweight device offers satellite messaging and SOS, and boasts up to 90 hours of battery life.

 

Hand-held GPS gadgets maintain the upper hand when it comes to mapping and accuracy. They support a more comprehensive range of satellite systems that are valuable in deep backcountry territory where cellphone coverage is an issue.

However, what maintains handheld GPS's longevity is the battery life. Indeed, apps on smartphones utilizing location services are battery hogs, and even with the possibility to recharge them, they are not nearly as efficient in terms of power as handheld GPS.


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