Standalone GPS Or Smartphone For Hiking?

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Handheld GPS devices can help you pinpoint your location during a hike. If you get lost and need to direct rescuers to your location, the GPS will provide exact coordinates.

It’s an invaluable piece of tech and it could save your life. But if GPS technology is also built into most smartphones then what’s the point of buying a separate handheld GPS?

Why buy and carry an additional device when you already have one that does everything you need?

Well, there are a few reasons.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of using handheld GPS units over smartphones and determine which option is best for you.

What is a Handheld GPS Device?

GPS stands for Global Positioning System. A GPS device receives satellite signals and uses these to triangulate the location of the device, telling the carrier exactly where they are in the world.

The exact features will depend on the specific device, but most GPS devices include basic location services, letting you know where you are. They may also include information relating to your altitude and nearby road and city maps, and you can use this information to find your way back home.

The best hiking GPS devices include spoken directions, much like the GPS navigation unit in your car. Just clip it on your belt and follow the directions.

If you have ever used Google Maps on your phone to find your way around a strange town or city, you’ll be familiar with handheld GPS navigation. Therein lies the key question because if your phone can do it, why should you buy an extra GPS unit?

Is A Smartphone As Good As A GPS?

A smartphone is definitely just as good as a GPS device when it comes to GPS navigation. It will give you an accurate reading and get you where you need to go.

The problem is not whether your phone is good enough, but whether it can fully replace a handheld GPS device and provide the same level of durability and reliability.

There are two main things to consider here:

Battery Life

The best handheld GPS units can run for 15 hours or so in full use and they also have power-saving modes that last for hundreds of hours. What’s more, they use basic AA batteries that are easy to change.

Just include a couple of batteries in your backpack or pocket and you’re good to go.

Smartphones are a little more complicated. They rapidly drain power and are charged by plugging them into a power source.

There are phones with better battery life, and there are also ways to conserve your battery, but they still don’t get close to portable GPS devices in that department.


Most smartphones are surprisingly resilient, much more so than you might realize. But their screens still crack and the electronics are still susceptible to moisture.

Handheld GPS units are much stronger and more durable. They are shockproof, waterproof, and dust-proof. You can drop most handheld GPS units in a dirty and rocky stream and avoid any consequences. If you do the same with a smartphone, it probably won’t survive.

Do You Still Need A Standalone GPS?

If you already have a smartphone, then using your phone for navigation is definitely the cheaper option. If you’re one of the few people on earth that doesn’t have a smartphone and you’re just buying one for GPS navigation, it makes more sense to purchase a dedicated unit.

The best handheld GPS devices can cost the same as a medium to high-end smartphone, but as noted above, they will provide more of the dedicated features that you need.

If you already have a smartphone and can’t afford to buy a handheld GPS, just skip the additional purchase.

Your smartphone might not be as durable as a handheld GPS device, but it’s certainly better than nothing. There are also a few things you can do to improve its efficacy:

Buy a Rugged Case

A rugged case will protect your phone against drops and scrapes. These cases are made from sturdy and lightweight materials and there are lots of great options for every type of phone.

The Rokform is a great example. This link points to a Rokform that fits several versions of the iPhone 12, but there are other options on the market.

Most modern phones (iPhone included) offer some kind of water resistance. They are not perfect, but if you add a rugged case then you should be protected against rain, splashes, and even drops in streams and puddles.


A powerbank like this one can charge your devices on the go. It’s enough to get half a dozen full charges out of your phone and should be more than enough for long hikes. It’s not quite as convenient as the long battery life on a handheld GPS, and it’s definitely not as easy as carrying some extra batteries and using them as needed, but it’ll provide some peace of mind and help you out whenever you’re caught short.

You can also take the powerbank on vacation and on long road trips and use it to get power as and when needed.

Charge Your Phone and Reduce Consumption

It doesn’t matter how long your phone’s battery life is, you should always make sure it’s fully charged before you leave for your hike.

In addition, you should turn off power-hungry smartphone apps and reduce the brightness. Airplane mode will also help to reduce power consumption and ensure you have power when you need it.

Do I Really Need A GPS For Hiking?

Yes, you should always take a GPS device with you when hiking. It can be a smartphone or a handheld GPS unit. What matters most is that you have something to turn to if you get lost or stranded.

Is A Dedicated GPS Better Than A Phone?

Although dedicated GPS devices are superior to smartphones in several ways, the actual apps can be problematic.

With a smartphone, you can use Google Maps and other apps that you’re already familiar with. They are free, user-friendly, and update regularly. With dedicated hiking GPS devices, you may be restricted to proprietary apps that have premium features.

It really all comes down to which unit you buy and what you’re comfortable using, but this is something you should consider when making your choice.