One piece of gear has recently revolutionized navigation in the backcountry and it’s right there in your very pocket. That’s right, it’s your phone.
Your smartphone can easily double as an excellent wilderness GPS device. It’s constantly acquiring satellite signals even when cell range is miles away. With the right app, you can use this feature to your advantage by turning your phone into an affordable and reliable navigation tool.
While we still highly stress the importance of knowing basic navigation skills and learning how to use a map and compass, we live in a world where technology reigns supreme. And this piece of technology is all too convenient to pass on.
Do I Really Need a GPS Device?
In short, yes. When you’re in the backcountry, navigation is absolutely critical. Without it, you can easily wind up lost and find yourself in a very dangerous situation. By bringing a GPS device (along with your map and compass), you will always know exactly where you are, which will help keep you safe and will make your trips far more stress-free.
It’s very common to be uncertain about how far the next trail junction, campsite, or key landmark is along your route. Or maybe you already passed it without noticing? So are you still on the right trail or not? Because this isn’t feeling quite right... and… commence panicking. But with a phone GPS app, all those questions are answered in an instant. Once you learn how to use the app, you’ll find it very useful for pinpointing your location, even on short day hikes.
For us, learning how to turn our phones into GPS devices has been a huge game changer on our backcountry trips. A few simple phone apps have probably been the most important innovations we’ve made to our backpacking setup over the past few years. And for people who hike as much as we do and test as much gear as we do, that’s really saying a lot.
Why Use Your Phone
While Garmin may be the leader in handheld GPS devices, those tools are not exactly budget-friendly or simple to use. In addition, they’re an extra piece of gear to bring, which adds weight, bulk, and complexity.
This is where your phone comes in handy. You already own your phone and you’re probably bringing it on the trail anyway. In addition, your phone is a multi-purpose tool: it can snap photos, play music/podcasts/video, double as a backup flashlight, and a whole lot more.
So if you can figure out how to use your phone as a wilderness GPS device, you’ll add a ton of value to a piece of gear that’s already very useful.
How Your Phone’s GPS Works
GPS systems are obviously pretty complicated, but here are the basics. GPS stands for Global Positioning System. In short, this is a network of 24 active satellites used for navigation. Your GPS-enabled phone acts a receiver, communicating with these satellites to pinpoint your exact location on earth. This location tracking is obviously very useful, especially for applications like wilderness travel.
No Service, No Problem
You may be wondering if you need cell service for your phone’s GPS to work, and the answer is no, you don’t. GPS relies on satellites, not cell towers. So even when you have no signal, your phone’s GPS will be up and running. And that’s a very good thing because you’ll be hard pressed to find cell service in most remote wilderness areas.
However, even though your GPS system will work without cell service, it’s very important that you download the correct maps to your phone before you get out of service. If you don’t, your phone will still be able to locate you, but you’ll show up as a blue dot on a blurry map, and that won’t be useful at all. More on this in a bit.
Also, in order for your GPS to work best, your phone needs a clear signal path to the sky. This means heavy tree cover, deep slot canyons, or other impeding objects may make it hard for your phone to get a clear GPS signal. That said, in our experience, we’ve mostly gotten excellent GPS coverage with our phones, even in dense forests and deep canyons.
Which Apps Work Best for Backpacking?
When it comes to GPS navigation apps, there are two we recommend above the rest for backpacking trips: Gaia GPS and Topo Maps+. You’ll also need signal-free driving directions to get to/from your wilderness trailhead, and for that, we use an app called Maps.me. All three are on our top gear picks list, and here’s a rundown of how they work:
Gaia GPS gives you access to an impressive catalog of over 50 downloadable and printable base maps. You’ll find maps such as National Geographic Trails Illustrated, NeoTracks US Topo, and ESRI World Imagery.
You can create customized maps by adding your own overlays, trails, GPX tracks, and waypoints for increased guidance. This includes helpful information for active fires as well as public and private land. We find Gaia’s user interface to be relatively user-friendly, although, as with most GPS tools, there’s definitely a learning curve.
While this app allows the option of recording your trip, we omit using this feature in exchange for prolonged battery life.
Topo Maps+ was designed specifically for backpackers, by backpackers. This app features an array of excellent maps including USGS Topo, National Geographic Illustrated, and many more.
With this app, printing and downloading maps is easy and come in crystal clear thanks to the high resolution. With data from 500,000 plus trails, you have an extensive list right at your fingertips.
Topo Maps+ also allows you to create custom routes, add waypoints/gpx tracks, and find the distances and elevation profiles along the trail you’re following. And that’s a very nice benefit. As with Gaia, Topo Maps+ will take some time to learn how to use, but that will be time well spent. Find out more here. Also, for a full tutorial on using Topo Maps, click here.
Getting to your destination is just as important as navigating your way around your destination. This is why we use Maps.me. This free app can help you get directions to your trailhead (and back home), whether you have cell service or not. You’ll just need to have your region downloaded prior to losing service in order to use it.
This app isn’t quite as good as a tool like google maps, but for offline navigation, we use it all the time. It even has routes for a ton of wilderness trails, though we rarely rely on maps.me for backcountry navigation.
How to Use GPS Navigation Apps for Backpacking
The most important thing you’ll need to do to use your phone as a GPS device is to download maps for offline use. Once you’ve downloaded the maps onto your phone for offline use, they will automatically show your location on a topo map when you’re in that area.
As far as which maps to download, we always download two different maps for offline use. One map will be the most detailed topo map we can find with trails, trailheads, and important waypoints listed. The other will be a satellite map of the area, so we can keep an eye on the terrain and scope out good sites for lunch breaks and camping. ,
When available, we also like to download GPX tracks for the routes we plan to travel. This can be especially beneficial if our trip includes any off-trail sections.
Conserving Battery Life
A dead phone will obviously be useless to you, and if you’re dependent on your phone for navigation (you shouldn’t be), you could be in a really bad spot. So conserving battery life is a prime concern when traveling in the backcountry. Here are a few tips to maximize your phone’s battery life on the trail.
Leave your phone in airplane mode and low power mode - our batteries will last around 4-5 days with light use on these settings
Don’t record your tracks - this will drain your battery life big time
Close all other apps
Turn your phone off when not in use
Sleep with your phone in your sleeping bag - cold temperatures can drain your battery overnight even when your phone is off
Minimize location services in all other apps
From solar panels to power banks, there are a plethora of compact, ultralight options for recharging your batteries while backpacking. For our trips, we like to keep things simple and light, so we always bring our Jackery Power Mini.
The Jackery Mini is one of the smallest and lightest power banks on the market. It features a 3350mAh rechargeable battery, which for us, is about two full charges for our phones when we’re in the woods. It’s compatible with Androids and iPhones and will take approximately 3-hours to charge. It’s also insanely affordable which is a breath of fresh air when it comes to purchasing ultralight gear.
We also recommend picking up one short 3-inch cords to charge your phone, camera, and anything else. Really, it’s all about packing down to the basics and one short universal cord might be all you need.
As with any new piece of gear, it’s critical to test your GPS app prior to your trip. It may take a few hours to learn how to use your GPS app properly, so make sure to spend some quality time with it.
Download some maps to your device, then take it out for a test spin on a short hike. Reference the map often until you’re comfortable enough to understand how to use it properly.
You’ll also want to pay attention to how well your phone’s battery life performs. Do a realistic test by putting your phone on airplane mode and low power mode during your trial.
Remember, once you’re deep in the backcountry, Google won’t be there to save you. So really get to know how your phone GPS app works well before hitting the trail.
Don’t Rely Solely On Technology
Technology does and will fail. If your phone is your only form of navigation and you encounter an issue, you could easily wind up in a terrible situation. We created a tutorial video to teach the basics of wilderness navigation and explain what to do if you do get lost.
Along with these tips, we recommend always carrying a physical topographical map and compass. A map can’t run out of battery, won’t stop working when wet, and doesn’t have a screen to smash. A compass will guide you when reading a map and can help you get back on trail if you do get lost. While there’s a variety of compasses on the market, the Suunto M-3 D Leader Compass is our top pick. For guidance on how to properly use compass and map navigation, check out our tutorial on navigation.
No matter how short or long the trip, keep these two items with you. Even if they stay stashed in the bottom of your backpack the entire length of the journey—it’s better to have them than to not.
Other Helpful Tips & Tricks
Choose a pack with hipbelts and shoulder straps: Constantly removing your pack to dig out your phone for directions is a pain. Hipbelts and shoulder straps will give you easy access to your phone for directions, without the annoyance of constant backpack removal. They’re also the ideal compartment for camera storage. There are plenty of great daypacks and backpacks with these features.
Purchase a waterproof phone case: Accidents happen. Weather happens. A waterproof and shockproof phone case is a must-have when backpacking, especially if it’s your main way to ensure you’re not getting lost in the woods.
Protect your maps: As we mentioned before, Gaia GPS and Topo Maps+ also allow you to print paper maps for reference. If you’re going to use them in physical form, you’ll want to print them on waterproof paper. Otherwise, they’re likely to become nothing more than an ink-bleeding, wadded mess. Another option is to use a waterproof map sack to keep maps protected and dry.
In Case of Emergency
It’s important to note using your phone’s GPS navigation app will help with location, but in the event of a medical or life-threatening emergency, it won’t be able to call for help.
For this reason, it’s good to pack a satellite messaging device. These devices let you send simple messages, track your trip, and send an SOS signal at the push of a button - all without cell service. Here’s a list of our top picks:
Garmin inReach Mini 2-way Satellite Communicator: The Garmin Mini weighs a mere 3.5-ounces and boasts 50-hours of battery life for when you need it most. It features two-way messaging with confirmation, location sharing, downloaded map storage, basic weather forecasts, and an interactive SOS for 24/7 emergency response.
SPOT Device: This rugged device works solely off satellite to send your GPS coordinates to your personal contacts or a rescue center. It features SOS for emergencies, help for non-life threatening emergencies, one-way messages for check-in, and progress tracking.
Garmin inReach Explorer+: If you like the inReach Mini, but want more features, then take a look at the Garmin inReach Explorer+. The Explorer has a longer battery life, larger screen, and built-in digital compass as well as colorful topo maps for GPS navigation. The one downside is a loftier price.
We hope this guide answers your questions about how to use your phone for backpacking navigation. If there are any apps, phone chargers, or emergency messaging devices you’ve found particularly helpful on your journeys, let us know in the comments below.
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