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August 2021 Issue
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Navigation with smartphones and handheld GPS devices

Smartphones and GPS devices each have their strengths and both can be used to improve your navigation. Photo: Mark Watson

Mark Watson considers the pros and cons of smartphones and GPS devices and discusses his methods for tramping and bikepacking navigation using both in tandem. 

We are very well served these days with digital mapping technology and GPS systems at affordable prices and with better functionality than ever before. Indeed, most of us have a highly capable navigation system built into our phones, depending on the apps we choose to use.

The smartphone has become an essential item in my quiver of adventure tools, but there’s still a place for more traditional navigation methods. The trick is knowing how and when to use each device and its strengths and weaknesses. 

Smartphones

While Google Maps won’t get you very far in the backcountry, a phone loaded with a good digital mapping app that supports the use of NZ Topo50 maps, such as BackCountry Navigator, Gaia GPS or New Zealand Topo Maps, puts topo maps, that are identical to paper maps, at your fingertips. 

These days, on trips up to a week in length, I use phone maps more during a typical day of tramping and navigation than I do paper maps. I find it faster because I can keep the phone in my pocket for quick consultation. In most situations, location fixing is very fast, though gorges or steep cliffs can cause inaccuracy, and I like that I can zoom into map features, such as contour lines for easier reading. 

For navigation over complicated terrain in poor visibility, I’m more likely to turn to my phone for route verification than my dedicated GPS device or a paper map.

But there are limitations. While a phone’s high-resolution touch screen is fantastic for clearly displaying a large area of map at once (unlike most GPS screens), and is easily scrolled around, they are terrible in rain. While some phones have a degree of water resistance (or even waterproofing), many don’t and coupled with water making a touchscreen unusable makes them pretty useless in much more than a drizzle.

It’s also important to be mindful of battery life. I always use my phone on flight mode and dim the screen as low as I can get away with to maximise battery life. My phone GPS still works in flight mode but some battery optimisation settings can reduce accuracy. For trips of more than a weekend, I carry a 10,000mAh power bank for recharging.

Make sure you have cached the maps you intend to use, so that they are available offline. With some systems you can choose to download just the map tiles (region) you wish to use. 

Another benefit of smartphone mapping apps is that you can also use different types of map. I use Open Street Maps (OSM) as well as NZ Topo50 maps because in some locations, the OSM maps are more up-to-date or complete. Generally, it’s a matter of consulting both depending on location and information required. Another advantage of OSM maps is that you can select a destination, ask the app for a route and it will give you one, with a total distance and, usually, total elevation gain/loss. Depending on the app, you might get an elevation profile too. This feature can mean more accurate trip length estimation, which will aid in your decision making. Because OSM maps are open source, users contribute to the completeness of the data and more tracks are now appearing on OSM in greater accuracy than on NZ Topo50 maps. I run the two map types in different apps so that I can easily switch between them.

Handheld GPS devices

Increasingly, I use my smartphone as my primary navigation and route planning device but I always take my Garmin eTrex when off-track travel is expected. There are some key use scenarios where a handheld GPS is superior. 

If you’re following a track you have preplanned and loaded onto your devices, it’s a better use of battery to follow it on a handheld GPS than on a phone. Generally, when you’re following a track, you leave the screen on – very battery-intensive for phones. Non-touchscreen handhelds are also unaffected by rain on the screen and are water-resistant.  

I record all my trips, both for navigational backup and sharing of routes, and I always do this on the GPS to reduce battery demand on the phone. Using a Garmin eTrex 20x, I get about four-days use following a route, while recording one, out of a pair of rechargeables. If you leave the handheld on the menu screen, so that it’s not redrawing the map, you can save power. Turning off any feature that displays your track as you record it saves battery, too.  

Where handhelds tend to be less useful is for an overview of the map. The screen is not as large and they don’t scroll as quickly to other parts of the map. For evening trip planning sessions and to view elevation profiles for upcoming sections, I always turn to my phone.   

Tried and true

Both of these devices have their pros and cons, but they are electronics and prone to unexpected failure or battery problems. I always carry a paper topomap and compass for backup. Being able to orient a paper map to the land and locate your position is a foundation skill that should be learned and not be overlooked.  

Pros and cons

Smartphone

  • Easy to read screen 
  • Allows use of different 
  • map types
  • Better tool for route analysis and complicated navigation
  • Less reliable in rain
  • Can be battery hungry

Handheld GPS

  • Very battery efficient
  • Superior for route 
  • following and recording
  • Reliable in rain
  • Robust
  • User interface is clunky
  • Small screen