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Thru-Hike GPS: Why a Dedicated Device Beats Your Phone

Read Time: Approximately 10 minutes

If you are like most people, the idea of getting lost in the woods is terrifying. But what if there was no chance of getting lost? What if you knew exactly where you were at all times? This may sound like a dream come true for some, but it can be achieved with GPS technology, so why use a GPS for hiking?

GPS provides many benefits on the trail as these devices can give you current weather, and terrain maps and the big benefits come from the SOS feature and the ability to message via GPS instead of cell signal. This is KEY when on trails as you tend to be far from cell reception, and when danger hits communication is vital!

You see, a GPS (Global Positioning System) device tells your location by using satellites to pinpoint its position on earth instead of cellphone triangulation. It also provides accurate directions and tracks how far you’ve gone, which makes them perfect for hiking trips!

For those who say “why not just learn to use a paper map and compass”, a GPS alone can’t replace those vital skills but when you are far from humanity and a snowstorm is coming in getting alerts provides you time to plan and execute the plan instead of being caught blind.

Do I Really Need a GPS Device on the Trail?

For the vast majority of hikers, the next question will be whether they even need a GPS device, frequently because they point to their phone as a “GPS” device.

While your phone is a GPS device there are a lot of limitations to its functionality versus a more dedicated device that can impact your possible safety in an emergency.

We will look at both phones and GPS below, hopefully, it will give you a more clear picture as to the fundamental differences within both devices and why having and paying for a GPD device on the trail is a smart cost.

Why Choose to Use Your Phone

The cost is probably the first big factor to why thru-hikers choose to use their phone as their sole navigating device. The phone you have to have and pay for already is already also a GPS unit, so there is no additional cost.

This also allows you to cut down on the cables and additional power needs for another electronic device, or alternately carry a bigger battery to recharge your phone.

Why Choose a Dedicated GPS Device

First and foremost, this allows your phone to be your everything else device. On the trail, you will have access to information on the current and future weather, locations, and notifications of progress and similar can be done with these devices.

Most GPS will have a pretty long built-in battery power or life, some are up to 7 days without running out of power which means on the trail you may never need to charge them except for once you reach the next town.

Drawbacks to Using Phone GPS Only

The problem with relying heavily on a single device is now you want to conserve as much power on the device, listening to music or leaving it on becomes a stress point in battery drain and limited lifespan before charging.

Additionally, you now have a problem if you should drop your phone, and yes this happens far more than you would think, and damage or fully break it you now have no communications, no exact location or directions should you get off course.

This actually happened on the trail with a lady who got lost off the trail and wasn’t found for years (obviously having passed away) as no cell signal left her abandoned and unsure where to go. Technology can save your life, don’t be scared to use it as if it existed long ago our ancestors would have taken them.

When You Find My Body

Putting all your eggs in one basket is a dangerous game, even on a trail that runs so close to humanity like the AT does, you can be lost easily in any of those forests and not be able to find your way out due to lack of cell signal.

What Benefits Can GPS Devices Provide on a Trail?

There are a lot of reasons why you might want to use a GPS handheld device on a hiking trail, and most are common sense as they take some of the little things a phone can kinda do and enhance them to make them be more beneficial to you.

First off, many hikers will try to avoid using their phone’s battery as much as possible because they are using it as their phone, messenger, video camera, still camera, social media presence, entertainment system for audio and maybe movies, and then maybe a video editor also.

In addition, the GPS software and devices are built to keep satellite signals and also help handle a lot of things that can be super helpful when you don’t have a cell signal and are deep in the woods, things like accurate weather, navigation, messaging via GPS, and then the SOS button (the lifesaver).

Weather Reports

A handheld unit will offer good weather reporting, some can display on their own screens some may require a cell phone app to give a better representation of the data but they are all considerably better than the weather forecasts you get on your phone.

GPS will typically have a three-day forecast as well as what the temperature is currently so that you can plan out your days and nights with more accuracy, which is especially important if you’re using a down sleeping bag or quilt.

For those thru-hiking at the end of Winter or beginning of Spring knowing that a sudden snow flurry is incoming, or a hurricane, tornado warnings area ll important information to help you make smart decisions.

Being able to know where you are when everything has gone wrong to get back on track is beyond important in the woods and big forests become simple to get turned around and lost in.

This is why a GPS can be an important tool, and the most useful thing about having one is actually being able to know where you’re going and how far away from civilization you may be.

The navigation can also be used to send updates, on some GPS models, to your family or friends to whom you give the URL to allowing them to watch you and your progress on the trail and see that you haven’t stopped due to something where they need to worry.

Messaging

Most GPS devices will provide some amount of messaging per month as part of their plans, normally you can increase this as needed based on your beliefs before hitting the trail.

This messaging ensures you can always send messages and receive a message even when you are miles from a cellular tower and have zero cell reception. This can be excellent for the hiker leaving the family at home who will want or need to communicate more frequently.

For thru-hikers, messaging can also be a way of sending updates on your day or whereabouts, they don’t need to be anything too long just letting those at home know you’re still alive and kicking.

SOS

This is more of a life-saving function than any of the others, this is nearly all devices is a single button placed under a cover that when pressed will send out the SOS and will get recovery services in motion to assist.

This would be vital if you are up in the mountains and should slip breaking a leg and leaving you away from the trail without any way to safety. Giving you a fighting chance.

As you can see, there are many benefits that come with using a GPS device on your next hike and thru-hike. From weather reports to navigation messages and SOS features, these devices have been created to enhance the hiking experience and make sure that you’re safe while out in nature.

How to Use a Phone for GPS

For those who just can’t afford to add a hiking GPS device, you can optimize your modern smartphone as much as possible for your GPS needs to ensure a fun experience using smartphone apps and built-in location services with their internal GPS.

You will want to understand how the GPS functions on a phone and what you can and can’t access with only GPS on a phone to be prepared for when you are in GPS-only mode.

Then we will cover a few of the most common apps that have maps you can download and use, some are specifically trail-related and others are purely mapping so you may want to find what you prefer.

How GPS Works on a Phone

GPS and your cell service aren’t the same things, cellular service requires those towers you see around your city that relay the cell signal for you to make all the calls and messaging you do.

Your cell phone will have a GPS ability built-in which is used for directionality in apps and to provide all those routing services people have come to love in their lives.

This GPS will work whether or not you have cell service as long as you have a clear view of the sky, the denser the forest you are in the worse the GPS signal may become so take note of this when in the deeper forests where your sky is.

The GPS though useful is limited in what it can provide; you need to download any maps you need before utilizing GPS otherwise, it will just place you as a directional arrow on a blank canvas which won’t help you.

What Apps Work Best for Backpacking

There are many apps available for your phone, some are free, and others cost a nominal fee to download, and then the others are subscription-based.

The apps range in functionality, such as providing turn-by-turn navigation or giving you general directions along with the ability to zoom out and see nearby areas of interest if needed.

Farout

Formerly known as GutHooks, the best trail app out there for thru-hiking, FarOut is continuing to improve and expand its offerings, always working on adding new trails based on user requests.

Hiiker

A newer app in the hiking world, but this one has a pretty nice initial layout to look at trails and the elevations and distances. You can one-off purchase trails or subscribe with their annual plan (21.99) or three-year plan (52.99).

Topo Maps+

Topo Maps+ also allows you to develop your own routes, add waypoints/gpx tracks, and discover the distances and elevation profiles along your walking path. And it’s a wonderful feature.

Topo Maps+ will take time to learn how to use, just like Gaia, but it will be time well spent.

Gaia GPS

Customizable maps may be built by adding your overlays, trails, GPX tracks, and waypoints for more precise guidance. This includes pertinent information about active fires and government and private property.

Gaia’s user interface is relatively simple to use, although there is a learning curve with any GPS tool.

Concerns about Using Your Phone

There are many concerns that you should keep in mind when going phone-focused as your navigation device while on the trail.

Let’s jump into the primary two big issues now.

Battery Life

If you use a phone for everything along with constant GPS use, your battery life will suffer greatly, and your phone may die out on you much faster than expected.

Be conscious of what apps you’re using, how long they are running, and whether or not those apps need to be left open in the background as well, so pay attention to all these little details when utilizing a smartphone as your GPS device.

Emergency Use (SOS)

There is no ability to get an emergency call out without cell service when using your phone as your GPS device. The only way to get help is if you can find a cell tower.

This leaves hikers in precarious positions at times and is one of the primary reasons people choose dedicated devices such as Garmin InReach Mini, BivyStick, or what I use in the Zoleo instead of relying only on their smartphones.

While we aren’t saying that using your smartphone as your main navigation tool is a bad decision, just be sure you are well informed about its limitations before heading out onto the trail.

Final Thoughts on GPS Device Use on Trail

There are many reasons to use a GPS device for hiking, even if you have your phone. For one, getting a signal in some areas of the trail can be difficult while hiking.

Secondly, your phone uses its battery more quickly when using GPS functions.

As mentioned before, there are many benefits to having a dedicated GPS device for hiking and other outdoor activities like geocaching or bikepacking: you will get more accurate data (elevation profiles), and your battery life should be much better than with using your phone as the main source of information on the trail because it is not continuously searching for a signal.