Smartphone vs. GPS for Hiking

Smartphone vs. GPS for Hiking

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No one wants to get lost while enjoying nature. The best way to keep this from happening is to use GPS ... unless you are, of course, a master navigator and can wield a compass and map like a pro.

There are many devices that are fitted with GPS capabilities nowadays, but the two main one's hikers consider the best are the smartphone and a handheld GPS device. Which one is the best?

In this article, we will take a look at the pros and cons of each in the hopes we can help you figure out whether you want a smartphone or a separate GPS for hiking.

Pros and Cons of a Smartphone Navigation for Hiking

Smartphones have become a tool from everything from business to school and, yes, even in wilderness adventuring. There are, of course, always the advantages and disadvantages of using it. So let's take a look at those now.


Ease of Use

Most people nowadays, no matter their age, have a smartphone. This means that for the most part, you have a good grasp on how to use it, except if you have just gotten it, then you will need to take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with it.

It is very natural once you have downloaded a GPS app; you can start by exploring your city or even a national park.


Not only is the screen of most smartphones bigger than a handheld GPS, on top of that, the maps on the phone, because of touchscreen capability, are also easier to navigate.


Price really isn’t a concern as most of us already have one of these devices in our pockets or bags.


Because of the phone’s connectivity and the growing level of coverage, the map syncing is faster and more up to date.

Your phone will update any area as long as you have service with waypoints and markers, so that makes it a great option to travel the trails.


Battery Life

The biggest disadvantage that your phone brings with its battery life. Even with the improvements in technology that are aimed to expand the life of your battery, it is still unreliable.

You can put your phone in airplane mode, but when using programs that need constant updating or are just power-heavy, you will see a marked decrease in power level faster.

Quality of Build

Phones, though getting tougher, are not really designed to take what can be thrown at it in the great outdoors.

This means that the next biggest disadvantage that using a smartphone for hiking is that they tend to break easier than a handheld device.

New Maps

Your maps refresh quickly, there is no question, but when not in proximity to any Wi-Fi signal, you will not have the ability to download any new maps. That means you have to make sure to download the right maps beforehand. There are a lot of apps that will work offline, but first, you have to have the map.

Smartphone vs. GPS for Hiking

Pros and Cons of GPS for Hiking

There is something to be said for using the right gear for the right tasks. Does that mean that a handheld GPS device is the way to go? Just like with the smartphone, there are advantages and disadvantages. Take a look.



Having a unit that runs on batteries means that you can carry extra, so there is never a time that you are afraid of losing access to your maps.


Most GPS units are tough little gadgets with rubber protection, and some even have a little water resistance.


Unlike the phone, this device was specifically designed with navigation in mind; there are not a lot of extra frills that will detract from its purpose.

It also means that the devices have targeted systems designed to enhance your excursion and keep you safe.


Most of this GPS comes with a bunch of maps already loaded and a base map. This means that there is less need to download maps into the system.



There is definitely a price of entry when going with this option. This is perhaps the most significant drawback when looking at this device.


These devices are small, and therefore the screen is small.

Final Thoughts

So which wins the battle? It really is kind of a toss-up and comes down to your preference. If you are going to hike on a regular basis though it might be advantageous to invest in a handheld GPS device.

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