Let’s preference this discussion with the acknowledgement that this is a very opinionated and multi-faceted topic. My own opinions in the last 10 years have swung the pendulum from “Absolutely not” to “Well… maybe”. In this post I attempt to debunk some of the outdated info that still permeates many experienced wilderness travelers opinions and offer a balanced modern look at the Smartphone/Dedicated GPS argument.
First we need to get some very serious disclaimers out of the way.
No technology, whether it be the greatest new iPhone or the most rugged time tested handheld GPS, should replace a solid understanding of navigating with map & compass. This, and supplemental “Improvised/Survival Navigation” skills, is sadly a dying art, and one of the main reasons I created an 8 hour Wilderness Navigation course to help people re-discover or hone these base-line skills. If plotting a bearing on a map and correcting for magnetic declination scares you, you should start here.
If you are like me though, and never head into the mountains without a paper map & compass but like to supplement your options by creating track logs, routes, and way-points, then you should read on and discover the advantages and disadvantages smartphone navigation.
Let’s start with one of the biggest arguments against smartphone navigation.
When I first tried using a smartphone as a primary navigation tool it was with the iPhone 4. I had downloaded a $5 GPS app that seemed to magically turn my phone into a $200 handheld GPS. It only took about 2 hours on the trail to realize that battery life was a big concern with smartphone GPS use. I went from 100% to 23% in only a few hours.
Fast forward to today. It’s all about “power management”. Updates to the iPhone iOS now allow the GPS chip to function even when the phone is in airplane mode!
I used to shut off WiFi and blue-tooth to conserve juice but going into airplane mode is the best way to save battery power. The biggest power draw on the phone’s battery when is attempting to locate cell towers to provide 3G, 4G, LTE style service. This constant “searching for a signal” kills batteries very quickly.
If you switch to airplane mode that search doesn’t happen. Your battery life is extended ten-fold. I’ve GPS’d 8 hour treks in cell free zones and arrived back at the car with more than 80% of my juice left. Switching airplane mode on and off can be done on the iPhone with a swipe up and one button press:
This strategy has eliminated my own need to carry extra battery power on day-trips. That being said, it’s never a bad idea to have a little extra “ammunition”. For that there are countless options on the marked for portable re-charging devices. I recently picked up a re-charger on Amazon for $20 that seems to pack a huge punch in a size smaller than a pack of cigarettes. Since I haven’t fully tested it yet I won’t mention the details of it here yet, but I will mention the one re-charger I have used with great success. The Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus.
This little device has 4 rechargeable AA batteries inside. It’s functionality is incredibly simple. It charges at home by plugging into any USB port. I can use it to re-charge my iPhone from dead, “1-3 times”. In my personal testing I would say it probably will charge a dead iPhone in normal temperatures 1.5 times. But it also has a usu-able LED flashlight (consider it a backup to your headlamp you won’t forget at home), and for extended trips, can be recharged with solar power when used with one of their solar panels.
The AA batteries are removable so you could use this for headlamps, radios, avalanche beacons, anything that requires AA batteries to operate (can be outfitted to charge AAA too).
So to recap the “battery dies too quick” argument in the Smartphone vrs. Handheld debate: Use airplane mode and if heading out for more than a day carry a recharger.
EDIT 12/9/15: Comments related to battery life have brought up to issues I’d like to add here.
Screen Use. It’s true if you leave your screen on battery life will be greatly reduced. Since I only occasionally refer to the device on an “as needed” basis, this has little effect on my battery drain. If you are needing to constantly stare at the phone to try to orientate yourself you have missed some opportunities during your trip planning session.
Cold Weather. It was pointed out that sub-arctic temperatures can make a phone go from 100% to zero in minutes when exposed to harsh low digits. This is a very valid point. I combat this by carrying my phone in an inner zippered chest pocket or on more moderate days a zippered hip pocket. It will get very humid in these inner layers so the water-resistent (or proof) case is very important here. When I need to get a quick location update I do it keeping the phone very close to my body, pretty much within inches of my face. When it is that cold out I’ll have a large insulated jacket on with a big hood, and I can shelter the phone from massive heat loss for a minute while I orientate myself.
EDIT 1/13/2016: After multiple excursions in sub 20F temps with moderate wind chills I must concur a dedicated handheld GPS is needed for reliability in these temps. The phone battery simply can’t withstand these temps long enough to even get a quick location fix. For real winter navigation stick with a dedicated hand-held with AA Lithium batteries. For the other three seasons read on!
Anyone who has ever experienced the sickening feeling of picking up there multi-hundred dollar device off the ground to see the screen look like this knows what I am about to address. Durability. A “naked” iPhone is a very vulnerable target. It took me two cracked iPhone screens to realize I needed protection. The first one happened when I leaned against a boulder after climbing a long multi-pitch rock climb and heard the crack in my right hip pocket. The second time happened when I removed my protective case then fumbled the phone for a short 3 foot drop to a hardwood floor.
There is no arguing that a “naked” iPhone is heart ache waiting to happen. Luckily the industry has responded with more than half a dozen solutions. I am currently testing two, and finding they are both quite bomber protection for my investment.
Both cases have high scores in drop protection but the Thule option also boasts a “IP68” waterproof rating. Extra insurance during that drippy ice climb or that bathroom fumble. I’ll review both cases in more detail later this winter when I have had adequate field time.
So to recap “Smartphones are not durable enough”… you’re right, but after market cases can make them contenders.
There’s a lot of reading out there regarding this issue, one of which is a kinda-cool plotting study done by a Canadian Search & Rescue member. While I won’t argue that an external antennae will squeak you out a couple more meters of accuracy for all intensive purposes the newest GPS chips, like the one in the iPhone 5 or higher, are more than enough accurate for navigational purposes. Just check out this cool gif from this post:
No matter what device is used in the above test, you are going to find your tent in a whiteout.
So to recap “Smartphone GPS is not accurate enough”- current iOS & iPhone 5 or later definitely are.
Well we are running out of negatives to using a newer smartphone for wilderness navigation. Let’s look at some additional considerations that are swaying me to use this as my exclusive GPS device:
Let’s compare some key features from this top of the line dedicated handheld model, the Garmin Montana 680t, to the iPhone 6s+.
I’ll be honest the biggest deciding factor for me to upgrade to the iPhone 6S Plus was the huge screen. Not only has it been awesome for navigation but this is my home “tablet” as well for streaming TV, email, etc. Many people have asked if I regret the size and I honestly say I could never go back. Anyways let’s look at the facts rather than my opinion in relation to screen size & resolution:
Garmin 680t: 2″ x 3.5″ ; 4″ diag (7 sq. in. viewing space)
iPhone 6s Plus: 4.75″ x 2.75″; 5.5″ diag (13.06 sq. in. viewing space)
The iPhone 6s Plus has almost twice the amount of viewing space!
Garmin 680t: 272 x 480 pixels (130560 pixels)
iPhone 6s Plus: 1920 x 1080 pixels (2073600 pixels)
The iPhone 6s Plus has more than 6 times the resolution!
There’s really no arguing this point. Viewing USGS topo maps, satellite imagery, etc., is all much more beautiful on a modern high quality smartphone than any dedicated recreation handheld GPS on the market.
Garmin 680t: weighs 10.2oz
iPhone 6s Plus: 6.77oz (plus 4oz for waterproof Thule Atmos x5 case)
Weight becomes a virtual tie when you factor in a waterproof case
The comparison between the two is becoming more and more unfair. We haven’t even touched on the photo and video capabilities of the newest iPhone, and I won’t bother as they put any photo/video capabilities of any handheld GPS to shame.
What are we missing?
Oh! Mapping software! Smartphones don’t have remove-able data cards for importing all that great topographic information! Unfortunately the need for purchasing multiple SD cards to store topo info from various sources is becoming a thing of the past. Did I say unfortunately? I meant fortunately.
With websites like CalTopo and apps like ViewRanger that let you store maps for offline use and Avenza PDF Reader that lets you create and upload custom maps that are as good, or often much better, than anything that has been available on the market, the era of needing remove-able SD cards and dozens of DVDs with regional maps has come to an end. I provide some information on how to do this in my last blog post here.
So to sum it all up, I am all in. Smartphone Wilderness Navigation is here, and when approached the right way, can be as reliable as any handheld GPS ever was. That statement comes with a very big grain of salt. If you rely on technology, over basic understanding of wilderness navigation, when every battery is spent, every LCD screen is frozen, and water crept into your fancy protective case… you will eventually need a rescue. But if you have that foundation of navigational knowledge, then Smartphone GPS has reached a level of dependability that can replace the need for dedicated handheld GPS units.
There. I said it. Please join the discussion below!