Should you use a Smartphone for Wilderness Navigation?

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 In this post I attempt to debunk some of the outdated info that still permeates many experienced wilderness travelers opinions and offer a balanced modern look at the Smartphone/Dedicated GPS argument.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.

Battery life


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.

Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus
Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus- photo from

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.

Problem addressed.

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!

Next /up:


Photo from

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.

Otterbox Defender Series                                    Thule Atmos x5


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.


Image from

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:


A decent dedicated handheld GPS will probably set up back about $200. A top of the line one is closer to $600.

Let’s compare some key features from this top of the line dedicated handheld model, the Garmin Montana 680t, to the iPhone 6s+.

Screen Size

The iPhone 6S Plus vrs. the Garmin 680t

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!

8 thoughts on “Should you use a Smartphone for Wilderness Navigation?

  1. I carry an inexpensive power pack that gives me up to three extra charges. That, combined with using airplane mode, generally gives me plenty of life in the backcountry. I think it’s best to use these powerful and intuitive apps, but also have a map and compass as a plan B. Technology can and will fail.


    • 100% agree. Thanks for chiming in Ben. As I mentioned I’ve stopped carrying a recharging pack for day trips, but if I ever mis-manage my phone power lower than 50% I shut it off to reserve for a real emergency. I think I need to be clear in this post that I am not really using the device to navigate, and more to simply record.


  2. On the power issue, while it is certainly true that the GPS chip uses very little power, and it works while in “airplane” mode, the biggest power draw on a modern smartphone is the screen (several studies to this effect). If you’re using the GPS for something other than just tracking where you are going — as in you are using it often for navigation and consulting the map, then you are going to be draining the battery quite quickly.

    The test of various GPS units in an open field is interesting but doesn’t simulate the situations we see in the mountains and forests. Overall however I’ll agree that accuracy isn’t all that important -if you are within a few tens of metres of a trail you’re usually OK, and as long as everyone is using Strava via their smart phones then it’s a level playing field.

    My contention is that the utility of armouring and carrying extra battery packs for a less accurate and less durable version of a wilderness GPS with daylight readable screen and 12 or longer hours of battery life is approaching zero. If you’re going to be a wilderness expert then you should buy and use the professional (or at least recreational) quality tools that are the standards in the field.

    Based on 15 years experience I rescue upwards of 35 groups of people a year in the past 5 years and all of them are using smart phones. Without fail they have zero battery life left, barely enough to call for help. Some of them never manage to get a call out to 911 and their relatives end up calling… and by then we can’t get a position from them.

    While it’s true that most of these people couldn’t be bothered to download an offline map (and I;d say most of them would struggle to adopt that technology), they relied on the phone for navigation because they had been led to believe that was OK – and a combination of the phone, the technology and their limited knowledge led them to be rescue by me and my SAR team.

    At least half of them would have been fine with a wilderness GPS unit – simple, easy to use, dedicated to wilderness and most importantly having a GPS coordinate they could read out over the phone to me!

    My current recommendation is this; backcountry experts should feel free to use a smart phone for navigation in situations where they feel it will work fine. Their expertise allows them to make this determination, and more than likely they will have a paper map as a backup in case of failure.

    The general public still needs to understand basic navigation, take a paper map and avoid the use of smart phones until they understand the pitfalls properly. The various points of ignorance in the general public toward how the phones work, and the limitations, do endanger lives.

    So while I don’t entirely disagree with your assessment, I think on balance we need to stress public education on this issue.


    • Your point on screen use is very valid. When I use my phone as a GPS tool I refer to it very rarely so the screen stays off while the unit tracks my trip. This point is important enough that I will revise the post to include this info, thanks for bringing that up!

      I’ve actually never used “Strava” but the two GPS apps I do use, Viewranger & Avenza, seem to mimic the accuracy of just about any non-military grade handheld I have ever used.

      I’m not going so far to say dedicated wilderness GPS’s are now obsolete, but the gap between the two has decreased significantly with battery management options and hardcore durable cases. The battery life & durability issue is just not as big of an issue as it was even five years ago (with proper management).

      As a search and rescue member myself I understand that a large portion of amateur back-country travelers are over relying on their smartphones without understanding their limitations. How many of the “zero battery” folks had their phone searching for WiFi & Bluetooth the entire day? Did they even have a map & compass? This post is geared to those with a certain fundamental skill set, I am not advocating for mass neophytes to abandon common sense (they seem to do that find without encouragement).

      As for the assumption that half of those you’ve rescued may have been fine if they had a dedicated GPS, that might be true, but I’d wager the same folks would need to be coached through figuring out where their GPS tells them their coordinates, never mind the variations in Datum that could create issues. I’d also bet the vast majority lacked any real wilderness navigation training, a clear disclaimer I make right off the bat. This technology is meant to supplement solid low-tech navigational skills, not replace.

      Your final point I whole heartedly agree with and hoped that came across in my piece. One must understand basic navigation and continue to carry a paper map & compass. When one relies only on technology one is not destined to succeed.

      Thanks for adding your voice to this topic!


      • I’ll agree that in general educated users can use, but not rely on, smart phones. For the general public I think there is still more harm (in the sense of overconfidence and lack of knowledge in how to use) involved, and a dedicated device has more utility.
        Ultimately, in my opinion, for most people the phone should be reserved for emergency communications and not navigation.


  3. Chiming in from the Android world, I’ve gone through a similar conversion as Dave.
    My phone has a removable battery, so I keep a spare in my emergency kit.
    But recharging throughout the day, I use a protective case that doubles as a recharger.
    (This in turn needs to be recharged back home, but together with the phone’s own battery, I can always get through a big day.)
    And as backup just in case the phone gets all glitchy, this satellite texting device:
    … also has a GPS that can be used by itself. Lacks a basemap, and needs two extra buttons to help w/ zooming vs panning, but an excellent backup, and can also record highly detailed tracklogs for about a week’s worth of daytrips on a single charge.
    (Unfortunately the Explorer GPS signal can’t be understood by any Android apps. And the Explorer phone app will allow you to shut down even the GPS function on your phone, but unfortunately it doesn’t show waypoint labels on its map display, but is otherwise reasonably good.)


    • Thanks for chiming in Jonathan! I’ve always been skeptical of the phone cases that have extra battery power in them, figuring they were probably only adequate at each function when combined into a single unit. If you wanted to share specific models for other Android users that would be great! As for the back-up PLB style device, I carry a company provided SPOT Gen 3 as an organizational risk management requirement: Bummer the Explorer doesn’t communicate well with Android OS!


      • I’ve had really good luck (for the most part) with my LifeProof Fre Power for iPhone 6. The case is 0.38 lbs and has full protection like the other LifeProof cases. Prior to this, when headed into the deep, I carried the Switch 8 (0.2 lbs), Cable (0.02 lbs), Case (0.11 lbs). Granted there isn’t a weight savings , but carrying all that extra junk was worth the whopping 0.04lbs.

        Switch 8 with the Nomad is still super handy on long trips, but that’s a different discussion.


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