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 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 map mode 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.

Best Hiking Apps

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

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

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?

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24 thoughts on “Smartphone navigation for hiking”

  1. 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

  2. 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.

    • Hi Katrina. What happens when you click the download button? You will need a GPS device or a phone app that will allow you to import GPX files to view the route

  3. 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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