Is A Hiking GPS Worth It These Days?


I remember when my brother-in-law used his Hiking GPS while we were out in the wilderness and it really came in handy several times. This was before the age of smartphones–fast forward to now, are hiking GPS devices even worth our time, anymore?

The primary advantages of a hiking GPS over a smartphone are durability, battery life, removable batteries, and Iridium Satellite support (SOS messaging and weather updates). Smartphones are more versatile, however, because they can perform more functions.

I was curious about the specs of a hiking GPS vs. a smartphone and I really wanted to see if there are still advantages of one over the other.

Is A Hiking GPS Even Worth It?

I scoured tech specs and reviews to find out if there were advantages to using a hiking GPS. This is what I’ve found:

CategorySmartphoneHiking GPS
Battery Life6-12 hours of use16-200 hours of use*
Removable BatteryNoSometimes
Satellite MessagingNoYes (needs Iridium Satellite Support)
Satellite Weather ForecastNoYes (needs Iridium Satellite Support)
Preloaded MapsNoYes
DurabilityRequires External CaseYes
* Some Hiking GPS’s can be configured to only reach out to satellites less often saving a lot of power

After doing this research I was able to narrow down the primary advantages of carrying a hiking GPS–which showed me there are definitely reasons why you would want to use one. However, there are strong reasons why a smartphone can work for many requirements as well.

7 Reasons Why You Should Use A Hiking GPS

Let’s talk about the most important reasons why you should consider a hiking GPS:

Hiking GPS Satellite Messaging

GPS works via communication with (at least 4) satellites to find your position. This is how the GPS in your phone or the GPS in your Hiking GPS device function.

One feature that’s unique to certain hiking GPS devices is Iridium Satellite support.

Iridium satellites are in low-earth orbit and they are not used for GPS, but instead they are used for satellite communications.

In fact, one class of devices are simply called satellite communicators, or satellite messengers. These devices support communicating through the Iridium satellite network.

Often these satellite “messengers” are nothing fancy in terms of the type of communication–you can think of it as text messaging via low-earth orbit satellites.

When you’re hiking in the middle of the mountains, this is fantastic, because you can give status updates to loved ones while you journey to the earth’s most remote locations that don’t have a chance of having cellular service.

Another hugely important feature of these types of devices is SOS support. With SOS, you can send a signal to emergency services and get help even if you are dozens of miles away from cellphone towers.

SOS communication and Satellite messaging over the Iridium satellite network requires a monthly subscription fee.

Iridium satellite communication support is limited to certain devices. Most Hiking GPS units actually don’t support Iridium Satellite communications, but some do, like the Garmin GPSMAP 66i, or the Garmin inReach Explorer (Amazon links)

The Garmin GPSMAP 66i supports Iridium satellite communication and therefore satellite messaging and SOS signaling, as well as supports all the features you’d expect in a Hiking GPS, including global navigation and advanced topography maps so you can accurately navigate in remote locations.

If you don’t need help navigating, or if you want to use your smartphone GPS to navigate but want the SOS and satellite messaging feature, you’re better off getting a satellite messenger such as the Garmin inReach Mini. With a lower profile (roughly half the weight) and a lower price, you just get the satellite communication without the navigation.

Hiking GPS Satellite Weather Forecasts

Another benefit of being able to access the Iridium satellite network is that you get the ability to get the weather.

Getting weather forecasts at home is great for convenience because it can help you dress for the occasion, properly. Getting the weather forecast in the middle of the ocean or in the mountains could be a matter of life and death.

Again, the Garmin GPSMAP 66i supports the inReach subscription which means it has access to the Iridium network–this is necessary to get satellite weather forecasts.

Your standard hiking GPS (or your standard GPS app on a smartphone) doesn’t get this information. You need to get a device with access to the Iridium satellite network.

Hiking GPS Battery Life

Perhaps one of the strongest reasons why it’s worth considering a hiking GPS rather than using the GPS in your smartphone is battery life.

In general, because the hiking GPS is specialized it has more capability to use less battery life. A smartphone is designed to do a lot of things (even at the same time), and it has a focus on user experience. A smartphone has a beautiful display with a very accurate touchscreen, while many hiking GPS units don’t have these types of features.

Only some hiking GPS units have the ability to take pictures! Which is just a small example of how smartphones can do hundreds of things (like playing games, checking notifications from a the hundred different social media apps out there, and on and on for days) while a hiking GPS unit is meant to do a few specific things.

Because of this specialization, a hiking GPS has the capacity to have a much strong battery life than a smartphone.

On average, I found that hiking GPS units advertise about 34 hours of battery life, while the most popular smartphone actively used can last about 8-12 hours depending on what you’re doing.

Hiking GPS Low Power Modes

Furthermore, hiking GPS units occasionally have low-power modes which allow for tweaking the amount of times the GPS unit reaches for the satellites in an hour.

The Garmin GPSMAP 66i for example has Expedition mode, which advertises over 200 hours of battery life, which is amazing if it reaches even half of that.

The Garmin inReach Satellite Communicator like the inReach Mini supports a power-saving mode that advertises up to 480 hours. This device doesn’t allow you to use it as a hiking GPS, but it’s another example of how the GPS unit can be configured for power-saving modes to last a lot longer.

Removable Batteries For Hiking GPS Units

Even if the your particular hiking GPS doesn’t have stellar battery life, an incredibly important feature for many hiking GPS units is the ability to replace the batteries.

Most of the time, the flagship smartphones (i.e. the most popular and expensive) don’t have removable batteries. If you want to charge your smartphone while in the wild you need solar panels and a solar “generator”, which is just a device that makes the power from the solar panels fit for electronics.

The alternative is to bring a power bank which is simply a battery that allows for energy transfer to your Smartphone or other non-removable battery pack.

It’s more weight efficient, most of the time, to simply carry an extra battery pack or a couple of AA batteries–this is a bit of a double-edged sword since Lithium Ion has longer-lasting batteries (much of the time), but being able to replace batteries means you can get the device to last indefinitely depending on how many extra batteries you bring.

The key is to plan your trip carefully and bring extra batteries or power banks depending on how much you’ll be using your device.

Protecting Your Battery Life For Your Hiking GPS (Or Smartphone)

Some hiking GPS units advertise amazing battery life, but after reading user experiences I discovered that what’s advertised and what’s reality is often based on the best case scenario.

The best case scenario for battery life is for a device to be on a fence in the open for the extent of the battery test.

Unfortunately, you probably wouldn’t need a GPS unit if your trip consisted of sitting on a fence for 20 days.

Simply moving puts extra work on the GPS unit because it has to disconnect and reconnect to satellites that come into and out of view more often. This is especially true of walking through forest since the trees obscure the ability to communicate with satellites.

The most battery consuming activity for a GPS unit is connecting to satellites. When a device powers on, it can take 5-30 minutes to detect and connect to the needed number of satellites.

This is true of whatever GPS unit you get–so if you want your GPS unit to last as long as possible, it’s important to do what you can to protect the battery life.

  • Only use the GPS capabilities when you need them: If you are hiking along a well-established trail and you know where you are from experience than you probably don’t need your GPS to be touching all the satellites as you journey
  • Turn off your GPS units at night or during long rests: It’s not likely you need to reference where you are when you’re not going anywhere
  • Avoid turning your GPS units on and off rapidly: Remember that one of the most battery-intensive time is to boot and to find satellites. If you find yourself turning the GPS unit off and on every 30 minutes you are likely to drain the battery faster
  • Keep an eye out for connection issues: Technology is technology–sometimes a device is just stupid and will continue to search for satellites even if has failed to find one for the past hour. Searching for satellites when you are not in a spot that can reach them will drain the battery quickly. If you’re in a no-GPS-service zone (in a dense forest for example), turn the device off to prevent needless scanning

Preloaded Maps on Hiking GPS Units

Hiking GPS units often come preloaded with all the maps you need to get to where you want to–and oftentimes have the capability of downloading additional maps if you want specific location data where you are going. Out of the box, though, you get a lot. (Always best to scope out the area you are looking to go to make sure the necessary data is there)

Smartphone GPS apps often require extensive prep. The maps are not going to be as detailed for the world since the world is a big place. You have to make sure that you download all the necessary maps before you go or else you’ll have little to go off of.

This isn’t that strong of an advantage since you should prepare either way, but it is a small difference.

Accuracy and Consistency of Hiking GPS Units

I have to be careful of what I say here because smartphone technology is constantly evolving and the sensors are getting better each year.

As far as advertising, smartphone GPS units and hiking GPS units claim around the same accuracy–within several feet (around 10).

There’s not a lot of test data to look at and it’s hard to know which one is more right if comparing two devices, but there are differences.

Perusing a lot of user experiences I found that many people find that smartphone GPS reports different mileage or speeds than other types of GPS units.

It makes sense that since the smartphone is so non-specialized that the GPS wouldn’t be as consistent as other devices. This probably even varies from device to device.

From a hiking perspective, you may find that one device can find sufficient satellites while another device cannot, or you may find your smartphone GPS is completely sufficient for whatever accuracy you need. I couldn’t find good data to support good comparisons between one type of device and another.

Durability of a Hiking GPS Unit

Another thing to consider is that your smartphone is a very expensive and capable device with dozens of sensors and sometimes very high quality cameras.

When you’re hiking, you’re going up and down and all around among rocks, dirt, rivers, and a thousand other anti-smartphone things that are just waiting for their opportunity to crush technology.

A hiking GPS is going to come in a durable and tough casing out the gate–no accessories required. Many of them have the IPX7 water-resistant rating. If you want this type of durability for your smartphone you need a case–there are several tough options to choose from–but know it will also add to the bulkiness and weight of your smartphone.

Staying In Touch With Nature

This is kind of an unquantifiable benefit, but it’s still important to consider. With a smartphone you get some extra potential distractions. If you’re going out to the mountains to get away from it all, it’s more difficult to feel like you’ve gotten away if you bring your smartphone which serves as a reminder of the rest of our life.

Sure, most of the phone is useless without the internet, but there are plenty of apps to take your attention when you’re off the grid.

With a hiking GPS you have no distraction besides your own location data–which isn’t that exciting to be honest. But that’s a good thing! As it helps you be a bit more present in the moment.

X Reasons Why You Should Use a Smartphone Instead

Now, that’s a lot of reasons why a hiking GPS might be better for you, but there are several reasons why a smartphone makes more sense. Let’s talk about them.

First off, it is definitely possible to use your smartphone as a hiking GPS because your smartphone often has GPS capability.

In order for this to work you need a hiking GPS app. This is crucial because your typical maps app doesn’t have the necessary capability to navigate you while you’re in the wilderness. Polaris Navigation is a popular one for Android, and AllTrails features a huge array of crowd-sourced location data for many locations.

Price of Hiking GPS Units

Chances are you already have a smartphone. If you’ve already shelled out $500-$1000 for a smartphone it’s kind of hard to justify shelling out an additional $200-$600 for a hiking GPS.

If money limits your options, right now, it’s definitely possible to use a hiking GPS app which is going to be much less expensive than purchasing a specific hiking GPS.

Photography Smartphone Capabilities

This is probably one of the strongest reasons you might want to bring your smartphone. You get the ability to track your location and the ability to take pictures. Sometimes you can take absolutely stunning pictures. For example, I took this picture with my smartphone a couple years ago:

Prairie Fire flowers in the Uinta Mountains

Rather than lugging up a separate camera which is additional weight and hassle, your smartphone has it all in one spot–the convenience often wins out here.

Flexibility of a Smartphone

I know I mentioned above that one of the downsides to a smartphone is its ability to distract you, but there are some advantages. What if you want to bring books? Well, books are bulky and can be heavy and it’s nice to be able to bring all the books you want wherever you go.

There are several survival guides as well that give advice in several situations that you potentially weren’t ready for.

It’s probably this reason that many opt to use their smartphone GPS for navigation rather than a hiking GPS–you get all the capabilities you want on your trip as well as the ability to navigate.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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