Navigating on the hills with a smartphone has become quite a contentious subject and there are a lot of misconceptions around how GPS works on a smartphone. In this article, I aim to explain how to safely navigate with your phone and at the same time, debunk some of the myths I often see mentioned on social media.
Firstly, I can’t stress enough that before navigating with a smartphone, you should be able to competently navigate with a map and compass. If you choose to use a smartphone as your primary navigation tool, then also carry a map and compass as backup.
What Application to use
A stock smartphone off the shelf will not be of any use for navigation. Fitness tracking apps and Google maps are of no real use either. These apps may record your route, but they do not show the lie of the land, like steep terrain, crags, rivers and other obstacles. Instead you should download a dedicated mapping app such as OS Map or Viewranger. Once you have downloaded an app, you then purchase map tiles, usually in 1:50,000 or 1:25,000 scale depending on your preference.
How to navigate with a smartphone
There are two ways to navigate. The first is to download or create a route, then save it as a gpx file and on your phone. The route you want to undertake appears on your screen and with GPS enabled you can follow the route or see if you veer off course.
The second method is to use the smartphone as you would with a paper map, for example to see where you are at any time or to take a bearing. My YouTube video explains in more detail on how to take a bearing using the Viewranger app.
Whatever app you choose, set it up before heading out and familiarise yourself with the workings of it.
Preserving your battery during use
A lot of hillwalkers are put off using a smartphone for navigation as they believe this will run their phone battery down. By following these tips, your battery should last the course of the day, if not longer:
- Switch your phone onto flight mode. GPS will still work in this mode, but may need switched back on after activating flight mode. Your phone uses a lot less juice in flight mode because it is not constantly searching for a signal.
- Close all the apps you don’t need, these may be draining your battery in the background.
- During the colder months, make sure your phone isn’t constantly exposed to the cold weather. Keep
- Start your walk with as near to 100% battery as possible.
- Carry an external power pack or a solar charger if you’re going on longer backpacking trips.
Other factors to consider
- Smartphones are not as tough or as rugged as a standalone GPS device. So protect your phone with a decent phone case to protect against drops and should it rain, have a waterproof case with you too.
- Smartphones are difficult to operate with big winter gloves on.
- If you don’t want to use your phone as a navigation tool, it is still wise to download the basic OS Locate app. This app is recommended by Mountain Rescue and will give you a 6 digit grid reference should you get lost or need to alert emergency services of your location.
It is perfectly safe to use a smartphone as your primary navigation tool and many experienced hikers choose to do so. Whether or not we’re at the tipping point of GPS replacing map and compass, is entirely another subject. That said, if you’re in the old school camp of those who’ve successfully used the traditional methods for decades and continue to do so, please don’t berate those who successfully use more modern methods. The problem is the temptation for inexperienced hillwalkers to head out without map and compass and to rely solely on Google maps for navigation. Admittedly, I’m concerned about the increase in call outs and many mountain rescue teams announcing they’ve had their busiest year on record.
Whatever method you choose, stay safe and enjoy.