The 21st century has made a huge difference in the way hikers, hunters, geocachers, and others who love to explore nature track their position and progress. Both smartphones and GPS units have working compasses, but which is more reliable on a hike? And although smartphones and accompanying apps have been replacing dedicated GPS units for the average consumer, are they able to oust the device for hiking purposes? We compared the two technologies to determine which is the better wilderness guide for your needs.
For sake of comparison, we've looked at the hiking-specific Garmin Oregon 550T 3" Handheld GPS Navigator ($387.33 with free shipping, a low by $3) pictured below, versus the Backpacker GPS Trails Pro App for DROID Incredible ($3.99). Moreover, you can use the app on the nicely-discounted HTC DROID Incredible 2 3G Smartphone for Verizon Wireless (free with free shipping with a new contract; a $35 activation fee applies).
Location, Location, Location
Of course, the whole point of utilizing a GPS unit or a map app is to know exactly where you are. The traditional GPS has some advantages in this area: it can place you within 10 feet of your actual location. Smartphone GPS apps, on the other hand, tend to not be so accurate. Knowing an exact location is extremely important, and is the difference between being located on one side of a roaring river, or at the bottom — rather than the top — of a steep cliff.
Altitude is sometimes an often-overlooked function in location services that can help pinpoint your position. The Oregon GPS has a built-in altimeter, while the cell phone calculates altitude via GPS coordinates; advantage, Oregon.
Maps Are a Mighty Expense for the GPS
A new Garmin Oregon comes equipped with a pre-loaded 1:100,000 scale topographic map that many backcountry explorers find too low a resolution to be useful. Garmin recommends buying the TOPO U.S. 24K scale regional maps, which will cost you an additional $99.99 per region. Another very useful GPS feature is its ability to load suggested routes, whether for hiking, hunting, or geocaching. You can buy modules of mapped routes for expeditions on, for example, the pictured Appalachian Trail ($49.99).
The Backpacker GPS Trails App includes detailed 1:24,000 scale maps of the United States, available free that can also be accessed for offline use. In fact, the app is designed to work without cell phone service, operating via the GPS chip in embedded in the phone. Buying additional maps for your smartphone is a little different: they're available as apps for about 99 cents each. But you can also download the trips described in each issue of Backpacker Magazine, free of charge.
The Garmin Oregon unit is waterproof and designed to be extremely rugged, so you needn't fuss over the elements. The smartphone is, well, not up for a swim. You can beef up the phone by buying a more durable case or even a dry bag like the New Waterproof Case Bag ($6.99 with free shipping, a low by $1) from Meritline.
Battery Life is Short for a Smartphone
The Garmin Oregon GPS operates on two AA batteries and claims to have a usage life of 24 hours, which can span several days with intermittent use. Conversely, the short battery life of a smartphone running the Backpacker App is one of the most persistent complaints among those who use it. Experts recommend shutting down all other non-essential phone functions in order to extend the life of the battery. However, there are ways to recharge a cell phone while on the trail. You could carry a solar rechargeable battery like the pictured ReVIVE Series Solar Restore External Battery Pack ($24.99 with free shipping, a low by $2) or an AA-to-USB charger like the Portable AA Battery Powered Emergency Charger ($2.78 plus 50 cents s&h, a low by $1).
Documenting Your Trip? Opt for the Smartphone
Long gone are the days of vacation slide shows; now, the savvy traveler wants to be able to snap a picture, have its location tagged on a map, and upload it to the interwebs instantly. The Garmin Oregon comes with a rather mundane 3.2-megapixel camera, and uploading your photos requires a computer and Internet connection. Smartphones have a much sharper camera and, once in cell phone range, can upload a photo with a couple of keystrokes. Both will allow you to tag a photo or video with the exact location it was taken, but for the best images, the smartphone wins.
So can you trust your smartphone on a wilderness trip? The answer today is perhaps. Certainly, the necessary technology is much cheaper if you already own the phone and related plan. However, cell phones aren't rugged, battery life is iffy, and location-service accuracy is approximate at best. Yet it's only a matter of time before smartphones will subsume dedicated wilderness GPS units.
Regardless of the up-and-coming status of the smartphone location services system and the commonly used GPS unit, we advise that neither technology be used exclusively. Wise backcountry travelers will arm themselves with a detailed, waterproof map and mechanical compass, using the GPS technology to confirm you location. Why? Because a map never runs out of juice or goes kaput when immersed in a mountain stream. The wonderful world of electronics has arrived, but you shouldn't bet your life on them just yet.
Front page photo credit: Pocketables