Smartphone navigation for hiking

Smartphone Navigation for Hiking – A fad or useful tool?

You want topographical maps and offline GPS navigation when you’re hiking into the wilderness? Have you considered smartphone trail navigation and hiking apps? Google Maps certainly isn’t going to cut it so you need to look for more detailed apps that contain offline topographic detail.

Most seasoned hikers will say your smartphone should not be your primary navigation tool but I am not about to argue this with the thousands of hikers who use them. My recommendation, if you are going to use your phone as a navigation tool, always carry a map and compass or GPS as a navigation backup. It’s my recommendation you always have two reliable navigation aids.

Smartphone navigation is common as a hiking tool. Unfortunately, some people think they are magical devices that keep people from getting lost – Nope! They are useful tools but should never be relied on as your only navigation tool. Continued use of GPS running in the background can dramatically decrease battery life. If they run out of batteries, get wet, or break, then it is a good idea to have a map and compass or GPS as a backup.

For all hikes I do, I actually use my smart phone and hand held GPS for a quick update on my current position but I always plan my hikes using a scaled topographical map and I always carry a map and compass in my pack. Most important tip is to select an app with offline hike trail maps to ensure that you are never left stranded without mobile coverage and it will save your battery life too.

Tips to get the most out of your phone

  1. Keep the phone turned off when it’s not needed. A Mobile phone outside of range will continue to search for a signal quickly using up the battery. Also turn off the WiFi and Bluetooth settings
  2. Keep it dry and warm, store the phone in a waterproof pouch or buy a waterproof phone
  3. You can often get reception from high ground. If you don’t have reception, walk to a high point
  4. SMS messages use much less power than calling; if your battery is low, send information via SMS
  5. The GPS in your phone relies on the mobile network to render maps, while some phones have maps stored inside them. Most of these maps are not ideal for hiking as they lack detail, so it is advised to download outdoor apps learn how to use them. Know how to access your current GPS location from within the app.
  6. Download the Emergency Plus App This gives your GPS location immediately and will allow you to contact emergency services directly from the app. Ensure your location services and mobile data is turned on.

There are a lot of apps out there, some good, some not so good. Everyone has different preferences so I won’t tell you which one is best.  Here are a handful of the smartphone trail navigation apps I have used, in no particular order of recommendation.    

Safety Apps

Emergency Plus: Developed by Australia’s emergency services and government and industry partners. The mobile phone app uses a phone’s GPS functionality so callers can provide emergency call-takers with their location information as determined by their smartphone. This app also includes SES and Police Assistance Line numbers as options, so non-emergency calls are made to the most appropriate number.

Download from the App Store and Google Play

BOM Weather: The Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s weather app, giving you the most accurate weather information at your fingertips. This app provides information wherever you are in Australia on current weather conditions, warnings, forecasts and rain radar information.

Download from the App Store and Google Play

First Aid App: The Red Cross First Aid app is a free, comprehensive pocket guide to first aid and CPR, giving you access to the most up to date first aid information anytime, anywhere.

Download from the App Store and Google Play

Trail Navigation Apps

Hiiker App: HiiKER helps you to find 1000s of the best backpacking and hiking adventures, with reviews, photos, and great places to stay. Prepare for areas of low network connectivity by downloading all of the trail information for offline use. Plan each and every stage of your hike from accomodation and campground stays, to food and water refill stops and so much more. Customise your app to your personal preferences by adjusting map styles, meassurement units, Map projects, and average hike speed estimates.

Get HiiKER PRO+ with an extended 14 day free trial and get 20% discount off your first year’s subscription. We’re excited to offer members of Trail hiking Australia Community this exclusive deal to help you get outside with extra confidence with our premium mapping, planning and tracking features. Claim this offer here.

Download from the App Store and Google Play

Pocket Earth Pro: Detailed, interactive, customizable, and frequently updated worldwide maps, available online and off! More than 100,000 places. True high resolution support for Retina display giving crisp, beautiful maps. Online Routing with driving/cycling/walking directions! Save your routes for offline use! Hands-free GPS Navigation.

Download from the App Store

Gaia GPS: Gaia GPS is a full mapping and GPS application that gives you access to a whole host of map layers. It’s available for IOS and Android and even provides a web interface to allow you to plan out your routes and sync them with your other devices. It also allows for recording GPS tracks and waypoints. 

Download from the App Store and Google Play

Avenza Maps: A mobile map app that allows you to download maps for offline use on iOS or Android smartphone or tablet. Your device’s built-in GPS will track your location on any map, plot locations and photos, measure distance and area, and more. You can browse and purchase additional maps from all over the world through the Avenza Map Store.

Download from the App Store and Google Play

Memory-Map: The Memory-Map app turns your iPhone or iPad into an outdoor GPS and allows you to navigate with 4WD maps, Topo maps, Street Maps or Marine charts without the need for maintaining a phone signal. Maps are downloaded on-the-fly or in advance. Once the app and maps are loaded to the Phone, cellular network coverage or internet connection is not required for real time GPS navigation.

Download from the App Store and Google Play

Outdooractive (ex View Ranger): Outdooractive is your digital guide to the outdoors with downloadable route guides, outdoor maps, and powerful GPS navigation features. Our mobile app runs on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Android smartphones, tablets, and watches.

Download from the App Store and Google Play

Top Maps+: Easily download USGS, Glacier Topo, Satellite, and Thunderforest topographic maps so you can use the maps offline while deep in the backcountry. Use your iPhone’s GPS to view your current location, even when you don’t have a cell signal. GPS and downloaded maps work even without an internet connection so you can use Topo Maps+ deep in the backcountry. Add waypoints at important locations, like where you parked, so you can navigate to those locations.

Download from the App Store

Wikiloc: Find the ideal trail for your next activity with filters such as mileage, elevation gain or also narrowing it down to the one that interests you with the map. Record your outdoor activities on a map, get real-time statistics like speed, distance and elevation profile graphs, take photos and mark waypoints along the route and upload all of it directly to Wikiloc. Wikiloc Premium lets you explore and discover the best trails near your location and follow them with aids like heading indicators, compass and audio clues that alert you when you wander off the trail. No internet needed!

Download from the App Store and Google Play

There are many more hike navigation apps available, what’s your favourite?

24 thoughts on “Smartphone navigation for hiking”

  1. I use the Australia Topo Maps app. You can cache maps for offline use and load gpx files and waypoints. You have to pay for the 25K Vicmap topos but I found it worth it. Free for NSW topos. I also build my own Topo maps in ArcGIS or QGIS and create maps for use in Avenza for free.

  2. I would say use a dedicated hiking GPS like the Garmin Etrex 30, have your file imported into an app like ride with GPS. Put your phone into flight mode to save the battery ( the GPS will still work) and works very well offline and shows your location. Also take a paper map.

  3. I recently tried to use my trusty old app that allowed me to generate trail elevation profiles based on Google maps — no go, it does not work anymore. This prompted me to look for an alternative — the start of an exciting journey I must say. Since I last checked for online maps apps a couple of years ago the world has changed. There are now some very capable apps for online planning and tracks.

    For what it’s worth, I will post my notes on the mapping apps that I have tried during the last week –
    These are not meant to be full tests, just notes on my first impressions.
    Only armchair testing so far, will take some on the trail next week.

    I am not interested in live tracking features so I haven’t checked these out (Uses too much battery and I don’t care how fast I was per minute etc. It’s enough for me to know at what time I’ve arrived in the evening and my average speed during the day).

    I’m also not interested in social network sharing so haven’t tested that either.

    Generally, for most apps: don’t rely on precise elevation indication – most apps show the elevation at a cursor position, but even if you place the crosshair exactly on a contour line, it can be off by tens of metres.

    I will post for each product separately so that comments that you may want to make can be targeted more directly.

    Hope the following is somewhat useful for some of you….

  4. Avenza maps: Have used it for years and still do, basic but highly functional map viewer with location mapping. Excellent professional maps can be purchased for many areas, but you normally need to pay for each map. Very useful if you want to use Parks Victoria maps, which are free.

  5. Pocket Earth: Have used it for year and still do. Likewise, basic but highly functional map viewer with location mapping. Pros: pay once, use everywhere (big advantage over Avenza), cheap ($7.99). The only app with a useful search function that I’ve seen. Cons: Maps are Open Street Maps only, which are pretty useful but not always ideal. For example, topographic information is not always available. Will possibly ditch this after I now have a few new alternatives (see flooding posts).

  6. Maps 3D: A bit of a niche product, and pretty fun. Various map types, including Thunderforest Topo maps world-wide. Can render all maps as relief which is fun and even useful, particular if you are discussing a route with kids! Very smooth route planning with elevation profiles and automatic trail matching; track recording and following. Nice clean design, easy to use. Cheap ($5.99). Worth the few dollars even just for fun.

  7. TopoMaps Plus by Clacierpeak: Pros: Different types of maps world-wide, including global topographic maps from Thunderforest and satellite imagery. Very comprehensive functionality including route planning beforehand with automatic matching to trails. Trail matching functionality is, however, inferior to some of the cheaper apps above. Elevation profiles. Printing paper maps for the route (to selected scale), tracking and track recording, mapping photos to maps (even past ones, love that!), can synchronise between devices and desktop, can make trip suggestions. route editing is quite flexible but a bit tedious. Other apps are simpler to use. Apple Watch support (not tested, I don’t use one). Most expensive app that I’ve seen (I paid $46 for a 3 months subscription to Pro features). Also, among all the apps I looked at it had the most bugs/glitches. Nothing fatal, but annoying. For example, route displays not being updated correctly until after closing and reopening the route etc. – not sure whether it’s worth the purchase it at this price point. I can’t really see that it has an edge over the competition except for the photo matching and map printing. Let me know if you discover something that I’ve overlooked (printing maps to scale is pretty cool, though).

  8. View Ranger: Only discovered this today. Thunderforest maps, proprietary premium maps, satellite imagery and a range of free maps . Aims to be a social network as much as (or more than) a mapping app. Offers a library of route suggestions that can be searched by criteria (length, difficulty, rating, …). Track recording. Some unique and uber-cool features: augmented reality that labels peaks, waypoints, etc on your smartphone viewfinder image (haven’t had a chance to try that yet, no peaks in my living room); flyover features that generates a virtual flyover for a route from satellite imagery. Has a “Buddy Beacon” function that maps another user to the live trail (I guess that only works in phone coverage areas!) Syncs across devices. Probably not the right tool if you are basically looking for a “smart map” but maybe interesting as a trip library / social network. Premium subscription $15.99 year with a 7 day trial period.

  9. TopoMaps by Oliver Kulpakko: More Bugs than features, no standout features that set it apart from the competition. $5.99. Deleted it.

    Terra Map Pro: Looked interesting at first, but very slow and interface is tedious. Not a competition to the other ones above, especially not at $13.99. Also deleted this one.

  10. And to conclude just my $0.02 on app use on the trail.

    I don’t understand why anyone would say “a smart phone must only be used as a backup”. I think that’s the wrong way round…

    To be sure, you absolutely must carry a paper map and a compass as a backup.
    Obviously you must also make sure that you can navigate with these, even when there are no trails.
    In fact, ideally you make sure that you can navigate by map and sun without a compass.
    After all you want to be able to get home even after you’ve lost your compass (just don’t lose your map!)

    Having said that, why make your life harder than it has to be? In normal circumstances a smartphone enabled map is ideal.
    Quick, fast, convenient, and reduces the chance of error. Compass integrated.
    Not to mention the fact that you can automatically map happy snaps to locations and other goodies.
    Certainly much, much more convenient for trip planning at home.

    If you carry a modern phone (long battery life) and a foldable solar panel (you can get that down to 150 g these days) you are unlikely to run out of power in most Australian settings, even on extended trips.

    Sure, your phone may be damaged, but so may be your map (ever had a soaked map that split at the fold and that’s exactly what you needed to see?? Unlikely to happen to a phone).

    Same on the water: No serious sailor these days would navigate without a GPS. Sure, a circumnavigator needs to know how to navigate by map, almanac and sextant, but these are the backups, not the everyday tool!

    • One comment regarding smartphone use as a backup. Speak with search and rescue organisations about the number of people rescued where their phone failed and they don’t carry a map. If you don’t want to be a statistic, then learn how to use a map and compass and always think of it as your primary navigation source. That’s my opinion. It’s your life so take that for what’s its worth

  11. I agree that not carrying a compass and a map is just idiocy and a dangerous one at that. I guess it depends on what we mean by “primary” – I mean “the thing that I will use in normal situations on the trail”. If you by primary you mean “the safe option to fall back on if things go wrong” — that’s exactly the opposite. I would agree that under that interpretation primary has to be a paper map.

  12. New to this website, thanks to all contributors: a great read. After having a good look through all this ive gone with all trails: for 90 bucks for three years it covers everything i need and the topo map layers are Fantastic, i can zoom right in without loss of quality. Avenza is probably my next pick, My Garmin fenix 5 watch also has a fantastic topo map feature which while limited in its functionality it got me out of trouble yesterday!

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