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Smartphones vs. GPS Devices on a Hike

It was only about a couple of decades ago that personal, portable hiking GPS devices hit the hiking world by storm, allowing anyone to know their exact position on the planet, in a country, and down to their pinpoint location on a trail. However, as the world of technology so often sees, another product came around that flipped the GPS market on its head: smartphones.

Now, there is ongoing debate over what the best outdoor technology products are to keep you from wandering off into the woods.

Smart Phone vs GPS

The Case for GPS

It’s about an even split among hikers as to whether they use their cell phones or GPS units, but there are certainly benefits to each. Most GPS units can be downloaded with topographical maps, letting you see exactly where you are on the mountainside, in the desert, out on a lake, etc.

Essentially, GPS devices are compasses that do the bulk of the work for you, and then some. You can use them to record the route you travel (which is stored in the device) over the course of a day and can be called upon if you ever want to turn around and follow the exact route back to your starting point. This makes a GPS perfect for backcountry exploring and hunting, when trails may be used extremely infrequently, or may not exist at all.

Bells and Whistles

Hiking GPS devices come with several features, such as accurate altitude readings, recorded mileage, speed, changes in elevation, and even programs that tell you ahead of time about topographical features that could impede your trek, whether it’s canyons, rivers, or other hurdles.

Smartphones Enter the Market

But for all the benefits that come with GPS devices, smartphones have become an accepted form of navigation among many avid hikers. Those that are equipped with GPS combine triangulation from cell towers as well as GPS satellites to compute your current location. Like traditional GPS units, smartphones can also accept downloaded topo maps.

Be Careful Using a Smartphone

It should be cautioned, however, that while all outdoor GPS systems do exactly what they’re meant to do, not all smartphones should be relied on for navigation. For one, most smartphones aren’t built for outdoor activity. Humidity, rain, tough terrain, drops, and other wear and tear from the trails may be enough to render it useless, whereas GPS devices are built to be rugged and withstand the elements.

Also, using your smartphone as navigation means constantly running applications—not to mention eating up data—to find your way. This can quickly drain the power from your phone, and if you’ve got a model without interchangeable batteries, you’ll be navigating with map and compass in no time. There are, of course, mobile charging devices, such as portable solar converters made by Goal Zero, but these can add bulk to your pack if you’re the ounce-counting type.

If you do use a smartphone for navigation, be sure to buy the right casing for it to keep it protected, and if it doesn’t have removable batteries, be sure to take one of these charging systems.

Loyal to GPS

Despite everything smartphones have to offer, many diehard hikers and backpackers swear by a good combination of dedicated GPS and navigation skills. Although the GPS may lose signal under dense foliage, you’ll never run the risk of losing signal completely, as smartphones that rely on cell towers can. Also, the costs of using GPS and map applications, which sometimes come with monthly fees, can be more than investing in a good personal GPS up front.

While it’s best practice to take your phone along with you on outdoor adventures these days, many use the opportunity to completely unplug. Using a GPS can allow you to take your phone along, but turn it on only for emergencies.

It’s important to note that neither a GPS nor a smartphone can replace a strong grasp of navigational techniques. Before going on any excursion, learn the basics of pioneering, how to read a map and compass, and how to study the topography of the trail or region before you go.


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