Smartphone VS GPS For Hiking

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Smartphones have become one of the most important devices to own, and as technology continues to evolve, these devices have replaced having to own different standalone gadgets.

Our smartphones have done away with the need for digital cameras (unless you happen to be a professional photographer), and music players, so it makes sense that more and more outdoor enthusiasts have started to think about their options when it comes to GPS vs smartphones for the purposes of hiking.

The device you decide to use will depend greatly on what you are using a GPS for. In some cases, the navigation tools on a smartphone will be enough to help you get from point A to point B. But there are other areas where the capabilities of a smartphone do not match up to handheld GPS units.

Smartphones and handheld GPS units both share their own set of disadvantages and advantages. Below is an overview of each of their weaknesses and strengths.

Smartphone GPS


  • Convenience is the main advantage of a smartphone. You probably own a smartphone already that you carry on you at all times.
  • Many smartphones also have integrated GPS maps that can easily give you navigation to get you from point A to point B.
  • In most cases, smartphone devices use international GPS which allows for faster satellite acquisition time, which means you won’t need to go onto the internet to use these navigation features.
  • Familiarity- If you are a GenX or younger, you probably use your phone countless times throughout each day. You may even find that the smartphone GPS app that you are using is easier to use and more intuitive than a dedicated device.
  • Screen size- the maps on a smartphone are easier to read when compared to the smaller screen of a dedicated GPS unit.
  • Cost- With a smartphone, you won’t have to worry about coming up with $500 or even more for a handheld GPS device.
  • Quicker Boot Up, Smartphones typically turn on instantly and are usually faster when it comes to finding locations.


  • Smartphones are similar to a mini-computer in your pockets, and they are not really made for rugged use outdoors, which means they are not as robust as handheld GPS devices.
  • Battery life: Smartphones are useless if they run out of power, and it is common knowledge that the battery life on most smartphones is not that great. If you do use your phone as a GPS device, keep it in “airplane mode” which will help to extend the battery for a while longer.
  • But if you are going on a multi-day hike, you will need a few battery packs so that you can recharge the phone. You will also need a solar charger for your battery packs.
  • Durability: GPS units are purposely-built to be durable and rugged, and most of these devices are also waterproof to IPX7 standards or even better. If you decide to use your phone, it is a good idea to invest in a durable case.
  • Maps: The maps on a smartphone are frequently updated when accessing it. To test this, put your smartphone into “airplane mode” and then try to access the maps. Unless the map was cached, you will appear as a small blue dot, but the screen will be blank.

The GPS chip in the phone will know your Longitude and Latitude, but you will need internet access to download a map so that it displays your exact location. This is something you can solve by pre-downloading maps of any area you will be hiking in with the GPS app on your phone.

Handheld GPS


  • Durability is the most apparent and notable benefit of handheld GPS devices. Many of the hiking GPS devices are splash-proof or waterproof, so they will continue to perform even in bad weather conditions. The standalone GPS units are also able to withstand manhandling along a trail.
  • Battery life is another stand-out advantage of handheld GPS devices. Many of these units include interchangeable batteries, which means they will last for a lot longer when compared to smartphones. In fact, dedicated GPS units run on AA batteries. As an example, The Garmin Oregon can run all day on two to four AAs, and you can also carry replacement batteries to last you for a week or more in your backpack.
  • Rugged build: Many of the GPS units are not only rugged but also come with rubber-armor combined with water resistance or waterproof features.
  • Purpose-built: A dedicated handheld GPS unit serves one purpose and that is navigation. So the typical GPS unit comes with a lot more sensors and features when compared to what a smartphone can offer.



Many people have purchased more than one dedicated GPS unit, and most agree that they never really get their money’s worth. This is because they are only used a few times over the course of a year, and then they get packed away and eventually become obsolete. If you plan to use your GPS unit all the time that’s great but if you only plan to use it occasionally, it can cost a lot to invest in a dedicated handled GPS device.

  • The screen size of a handheld GPS device can also be a problem for some people.
  • The controls on a dedicated handheld device are usually serviceable, but most agree that they are not as close to as intuitive when using a GPS APP on their phones.

Waypoint Syncing And Management

With a GPS handheld device, it is usually only possible to get the data off the device and then onto another device such as a desktop computer would be to use a USB connection. With an app on a smartphone, the waypoints load automatically into the user’s account.


If you have decided to buy a chip for the additional data, this chip will need to be updated annually to make sure the data is up-to-date. This usually involves a fee.

Precautions When It Comes To Using A Smartphone As A GPS Device

It is worth mentioning that while every Outdoor GPS system is designed for a specific purpose (to use them outdoors), not all Smartphones will be reliable when it comes to navigation. To begin with, the majority of smartphones are not designed for outdoor activities. Rain, humidity, drops, rough terrain, and general wear-and-tear caused by these outdoor excursions can cause the phone to become useless. On the other hand, GPS devices have been built to withstand different elements and they are a lot more rugged.

At the same time, using a smartphone for the purpose of navigation can mean that applications are constantly running in the background, and it can also eat up a lot of your data. This will also drain the phone’s power very quickly.

But if you still decide to use your smartphone for your next hiking trip, just make sure you invest in the right case so that it stays protected. If your phone doesn’t have a removable battery, you will also need to take a charging system with you.

GPS Loyalists

Despite all the cool features that smartphones can now offer, many of the diehard backpackers and hikers stick to a great combination of navigation skills and a dedicated handheld GPS device. Even when a handheld GPS device loses signal (when you are wading your way through dense foliage, you will never risk losing your signal completely. When it comes to smartphones, they are reliant on a cell tower for signal, and if the tower is not in range, you can risk losing your signal altogether. While phones do have dedicated GPS chips that will work without celluar service, if you forget to download the maps, you will just be following a blue dot on a gray screen.

At the same time, the costs involved to use GPS along with its map applications, which can come with a monthly fee could end up costing you more than buying a high-quality personal GPS unit up front.

While it is one of the better practices to keep your phone with you when you go on an outdoor adventure, some outdoor enthusiasts use this opportunity to unplug completely. When you use a handheld GPS unit, you can still travel with your smartphone, but only turn it on when you really need it or in an emergency.

It is also important to know that neither smartphone nor GPS devices will replace having a good understanding of navigational methods. Before you head out on any excursion, you should know at least the basics when it comes to the right way to read either a compass or map. You should also know how to gauge the topography of either a region or trail before you set out.


When comparing GPS vs Smartphones for hiking, both options can be great when you need precise directional data. Whether you decide to use a smartphone with built-in GPS features or a standalone GPS, will depend on how you plan to use the GPS. A smartphone is usually fine for day treks close to town. But when you require something more rugged and reliable that is designed for outdoor use, a handheld GPS unit is a much better option.