Hiking with a GPS or iPhone?

dedicated gps gps Handheld gps

With GPS in every iPhone sold, you might ask why you need to buy a dedicated GPS for trekking outdoors any more. The good news is that your smartphone really can take on the role of a dedicated GPS, but there are a few things you’ll need to keep in mind when doing so.


Smartphone or Dedicated GPS?

If you’re deciding between a dedicated GPS unit and simply using your smartphone, it’s important to remember that there are a few key differences between the two. Generally, a dedicated GPS unit is going to be a better choice purely because it has been designed with the outdoors in mind.

However, your iPhone’s limitations aren’t entirely insurmountable with a bit of forward planning, a few accessories, and the right apps.

Battery Life

Let’s face it — smartphone battery life is still disappointing. While the modern GPS chips found in the latest devices are considerably more power efficient than those found in earlier smartphones, sustained use of GPS, your iPhone’s screen, and the cellular network will quickly drain your battery.

Many dedicated GPS devices use replaceable batteries, often in the form of AA’s, which are easy to find and carry. By comparison, your smartphone uses a fixed rechargeable lithium-ion cell, so it might be worth investing in some sort of emergency charger that allows you to use standard AA batteries, which you could stock up on.

You can also get much larger rechargeable cells for a great price. These charge the same way your smartphone does, over USB, and come in a variety of capacities. They may be ideal for short hikes and overnight stays, but they’re not ideal for longer trips.

Don’t forget that there are also solar-charging options. Some backpacks now come with solar panels that allow you to regain some juice while you hike in the day, but you’ll need around 3 hours of sustained exposure to charge your phone.

Whichever option you use, you should engage Airplane Mode (by swiping up from the bottom of the screen to reveal Control Center) to save battery life on your phone while depending on your GPS navigation, especially if you’re out of range of cell towers anyway.


Most dedicated GPS units are built to be sealed against the elements, with rugged designs that can survive a knock or two. Your cellular phone isn’t waterproof, and should you break the screen it will require expensive repairs.

Which brings us on to another point: if you’re hiking in adverse conditions, make sure you get some gloves that are designed to work with touchscreens. Many dedicated GPS units avoid touch controls in favor of joysticks and buttons for this very reason.


If you’re not carrying a paper map, mapping is probably the most important part of choosing a navigation solution. The good news is that maps are generally a lot easier to acquire on smartphones than on dedicated GPS units, thanks to apps built with ease of use in mind.

While many dedicated units often require a trip to a local hiking shop to have maps pre-loaded, smartphone mapping apps can save maps to your device in a few steps. Dedicated units rely on detailed maps, often with a price point to match, while there are lots of free mapping solutions available on the App Store.

GPS Performance

Speed and accuracy can vary between devices, but it’s generally accepted that dedicated units have higher levels of accuracy, since they’re built for that purpose and can take advantage of more satellites than smartphones can.

Regardless of this performance, though, both smartphones and GPS units will have difficulty getting a location fix in certain situations — like in a forest under a thick canopy, or in deep valleys or enclosed spaces.

The GPS units found on smartphones are built with cell towers in mind, which enables them to get a fix far quicker than many dedicated devices. If cell towers aren’t in range, then performance suffers, but dedicated devices can’t take advantage of this kind of assisted GPS, so they will usually take longer.

The Handheld GPS

The other most common type of navigation device is the handheld GPS. Used for hiking, fishing, geocaching, or any other outdoor pursuit, it is also based on technology that has been included in the smartphone.

Tougher and Longer Lasting

Handheld GPS devices are used outdoors, in a variety of weather conditions and terrains, and far away from a convenient charging point. This is well outside the comfort zone of most smartphones.

You can get a tough case for your phone or Android phone, to protect it against the elements. External charging packs can also give your phone an extra boost of power when it is needed. Both of these solutions add considerable bulk and turn the pocket-sized device into something altogether more massive.

Handheld GPS devices, on the other hand, are far more rugged and have much better battery life. There are many mid-range devices that are waterproof and dustproof, and provide up to many, many more hours of battery life. And many run on batteries, so they can be swapped out easily when you need to.

If you’re well off the beaten track, the last thing you want is for you phone’s battery to die just when you need it the most.

Other Features

Handheld GPS devices are also able to combine niche elements that the user base requires in a way that smartphones cannot. Their screens are designed to be more easily viewed outdoors, button-based models are usable while wearing gloves, and hardware features such as a compass or altimeter are often built in.

The Case for a Handheld GPS

A handheld GPS is a much more specialist device, as a result, it has certain requirements that a smartphone cannot yet provide.

If you’re just taking the dog for a walk in a nearby forest, then your smartphone and Google Maps (with cached maps for offline use) will help you not get lost.

But for more serious use, whether hiking, fishing, or camping, then the added toughness and superior battery life make a handheld GPS device the right choice.

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