Wednesday 26 September 2012

Controversy 1: Smartphones & GPS in the Hills

Many years ago when the first handheld GPS units appeared I was called a Luddite, old fashioned and out of touch by those keen to boost this new technology because I said that they didn’t replace map and compass. Much more recently I’ve been criticised for promoting smartphones for navigation and for not saying that they weren’t any use and that map and compass was all that was needed. Yet over this time my views haven’t changed much, just adapted to new technology, and I’ve never been as anti or pro any method of navigation as some people thought. Here, in the hope of making it clear, are my views on navigational tools.

Firstly, and most importantly, is that word ‘tools’ for that is all that maps, compasses, GPS units, smartphones and tablets are, tools that can be used for navigation. None of them hold any magic qualities that will navigate for you. If you know how to use them they can all be useful, if you don’t they are all useless. Just carrying a compass or a smartphone won’t help you navigate if you don’t know how to use it. As with any tool you need to know what it can and can’t do.


The basic tool is a map of course. A map with contours and other symbols that, when you can read them, show what the terrain is like. I love maps. I can spend hours poring over them, studying landscapes and planning routes. I do nearly all my navigation with a map. As long as visibility is good I can quickly locate my rough position on the map and identify surrounding features even if I haven’t been paying much attention for my whereabouts for a while.


I always carry a compass though it may not be used most days. When visibility is poor it comes into its own, either just giving me a rough direction or the more precise one of a map bearing. In white-outs high in the mountains and in forests where no features are visible I’ve walked for hours with the compass in my hand. I do check the local geology though. Long before GPS came along I was taught that compasses are infallible. Then I walked off the wrong side of Ben More on the island of Mull, following a compass bearing, and discovered that if there are magnetic rocks around compasses can be 180º out. Oops!


When GPS arrived I could immediately see the usefulness of a device that gave you a grid reference you could plot on a map to see where you were, which was much quicker and easier than the various compass techniques (angle of slope, triangulation and more). You needed to understand grid references of course and not muddle up eastings and northings. And you needed a compass with a roamer scale (or a separate protractor) to plot the grid reference on your map. You could also input a series of waypoints into those early GPS units and then follow this route. I once, as an exercise (not an intentional one – I forgot the map), recorded my route up a hill with the GPS and then used the GPS to retrace it. Doing this I realised an advantage of a GPS over a compass. If you move off the line of a compass bearing due to some obstacle or other you have to take a new bearing as the original one will now be inaccurate. A GPS will point towards the next waypoint from wherever you are.

GPS took a big leap forward when maps could be downloaded onto a unit. Now instead of a grid reference there was your position on the map. Wonderful! In mist and the dark this made navigation much easier. Now if I’m unsure of my whereabouts my first action is to check the GPS map.

Smartphones and Tablets

The latest controversy surrounds the use of smartphones for navigation (and will probably soon include tablets). When small mobile phones first appeared they were criticised because a very few people used them to call for help instead of learning how to navigate. However it soon became apparent that they could be a great boon in calling for rescue when it was genuinely needed and in helping rescue teams locate someone quickly. The controversy died down. Then smartphones arrived. Phones with mapping and GPS receivers. Back came the controversy because again a few people are misusing them and think that they can navigate in the hills with the basic maps provided. You can’t. Or at least no more than you can with a road atlas. But it’s not the device at fault. It’s the operator.

Unfortunately some people are criticising smartphones and giving out myths about them. It was in trying to clear these up that I gave the impression to some people that I was championing phones over map and compass.

One rescue team member was quoted as saying that smartphones were only suitable for urban walking because in the hills they ‘invariably’ fail due to lack of reception and poor battery life. Now the first isn’t true and the second shouldn’t be. Any smartphone with a GPS receiver has as good or better reception than any standalone GPS unit (and the latest models of both are far better than GPS units of just a few years ago). I can’t remember when I last couldn’t get reception, which isn’t surprising as I can get it inside buildings and vehicles, unlike with early GPS units.

As for batteries the answer is simple: carry spares, just as you would for a headlamp or torch (I presume no-one is advising against one of these because of poor battery life). If you have a phone with a non-replaceable battery (a stupid design) then there are various devices that will recharge it. Also, turn off functions you don’t need (I put my smartphone or tablet into airplane mode) and switch off the smartphone when you’re not navigating with it. My current smartphone lasts 6-7 hours like this, which gives several days of use if I don’t keep it switched on. My tablet lasts three times as long and I often leave it switched on to record my route (which has the advantage that if absolutely necessary I could use the tablet to retrace it, though I’ve never done this).

Of course you need to have proper maps on a smartphone for it to be useful for navigation. This isn’t a problem as OS maps are available, visually exactly the same as the paper maps. 

The problem is that anyone who thinks that a smartphone with road maps is adequate for navigation won’t have any navigational skills. Educating people that they need these skills is important. Telling them that smartphones are useless in the hills is unhelpful though and could have a negative effect if accompanied by misinformation. If someone knows they can get a signal but a so-called expert tells them they can’t why they should believe anything else that person tells them?

To conclude: good navigational skills are of course essential in the hills and wild places. And the key one of these is being able to read a map, whether it’s on paper or on a screen. The latest tablets and smartphones are efficient GPS units and with good maps can be used for navigation. Indeed, being able to pinpoint your position on a map on the screen should make it harder to get lost. That said, carrying a paper map and a compass as well as a GPS is wise. Apart from anything else if one fails (and I’ve seen maps shredded by the wind, blown away and dissolved by rain) you still have the other.


  1. I recently learnt that the GPS in my iPhone was as good as my Satmap. Until then I was of the belief that the phone GPS was inferior and used the phone masts (hence needing a signal) to help triangulate a position. I now know that is wrong.

    I'll be sticking with the satmap though, as I'm not paying for another set of maps to go on my phone!

    1. With Gaia Gps phone app, you get unlimted downloads for topos worldwide and its so much easier to load tracks and waypoints into it than my GPS

  2. I agree totally. They are all just tools to be used as the situation requires. I prefer map & compass but I love the ability of my Garmin and Iphone to give me accurate positions in bad weather or when I'm misplaced (aka lost). Batteries die, maps get saturated etc ad infinitum. Given I always carry my phone anyway I figure an extra few ounces for a GPSr is a worthwhile weight for two backups to my map as I'd prefer to walk out rather than be a needless mountain rescue evac.

  3. 100% Agreement.
    Good article :-)

  4. 100% Agreement.
    Good article :-)

  5. Nice and clear! And lots of common sense

  6. Breath of fresh air! Couldn't agree more with you Chris. I hadn't realised you may have had some stick on this subject. Bit daft really.

    Though I'll be the first to admit, I mainly use a map and compass. Purely out of preference. But there's no denying the benefits afforded by smartphones now. For less than £15 I bought much of the UK at 1:50 mapping (Memory Map) on my Android device. Now that's cheap! You can't buy the paper maps for that.

    I didn't need it of course but I chose to because it made for great back up tool. And lo and behold the first time in years, I got lost during the night in some woods in Snowdonia. I couldn't work out where I was, triangulate etc.

    Alas, the GPS on my phone with OS Mapping pin pointed me to within 5 metres. Enough for me to locate my rough position and consequently find my way out the woods.

    You can't argue with that for a tool. And I'll use it again, no doubt. Would I rely on it? Perhaps to help fix a position but not for navigating. I just prefer a map. But it was quick and easy and my tired sweating body was thankful for it.

    There are FREE apps out there, that will give the user a OS Grid Ref too. No mapping. But another handy "tool" to use on your smartphone if you're lost.

    Of course, it all depends on the user like you've stated and I'd have thought this was common sense. Much as taking spare batteries too. I have a wee bag for my hikes with spare batteries for head torch and phone. Even a back up phone (an old Nokia as it happens).

    And those who say you need a phone signal for phone mapping to work? In the old days aye. Not now. MemMap on my phone, or even Viewranger, the maps are pre-loaded. So, you ONLY need the GPS. Pure GPS devices days are numbered in my opinion. Why bother wasting the money? With a little care and thought (and evolution) smartphones are fulfilling their potential noted by some only a few years ago. (you can buy rubber protection for the phones, waterproof cases etc).

    As I've already said, I still prefer a map and compass (not that I use the compass much at all nowadays). But there's no harm in my opinion to what you touch upon Chris.

    It's a sign of the times are a changing - and there'll be teething problems, and there'll be folk who criticise. It's the nature of such things. Human nature.

  7. I think you made that crystal clear. A map and compass should always be with you but using a GPS or smartphone is just so handy. Waterproofing of said devices can be an issue, more so on phones than on GPS’s but it needs consideration.
    When i first got my GPS i thought i was never going to get the hang of it but just like map and compass you need to use it often, make mistakes on training walks and overcome the learning curve. Or go on a course if you wish to.

  8. I totally agree that these are all tools that help in navigation and it's how you use them that makes the difference. When I did my night navigation assessment for a scout walking permit, I was told not to bring my GPS as it would not be needed, only a map and compass. I ignored the information and left it in my rucksack (where it lives), switched it on at the start of the exercise and then ignored it. It remained there for the whole assessment, but if I'd got lost of Holme Moss (easy in the dark out of site of the mast!), I knew that I had a backup and the ability to use it.

    I think it was wrong to exclude the GPS from the assessment, but it was right to test if we could navigate without one. Interestingly the assessor was interested to know how far we had travelled when we got back and was happy to trust my GPS then!

  9. I like using a map and compass - i feel i'm doing it the old way and that i'm using nothing other than the earth's magnetic field and a map. However, I don't go walking often enough to be good at it. Last month I was on Ben MacDhui with some colleagues from work and I was navigating with map and compass to come off into Glen Luibeg. Unknown to me I came off my line of bearing and ended up on a path rising out of Loch Etchachan. I used my GPS to find where we were on the map and then I was confident to continue. Without the GPS, I would have been uncomfortable which may have led me to make another mistake. I suppose the GPS helped here, but if I was better at navigating with map and compass the situation wouldn't have arisen. I like the photos Chris ;)

  10. I dislike GPS devices, but largely because I know people who use them because they cannot navigate with a map and compass. GPS is essential for such folk in the hills. People also have a habit of uploading route profiles online which as a matter of personal taste I dislike. Also, the map on a smartphone is tiny, you cannot see a day's walk and easily plot a route on a screen the way you can with a map.

    However you are quite right, if you already know how to navigate, why not take a GPS as a backup? I've not had my map blown away by the wind before, but I've had them sodden and I've been lost a couple of times, including in the Cuillin which has magnetic rocks. If I had had to get out of the situation fast then GPS would have been a godsend.

  11. Hi Chris Can you recommend a particular app you use to work with OS Maps?
    many thanks


  12. Very well written article Chris. Lays it out in a fair and equal way, unlike so many forum threads (aka flame wars) regarding the paper/digital navigation debate.
    Absolutely agree that no matter what navigation aid you use, if you haven't learnt how to use it properly, you are likely to get in trouble. As the 'whipping boy du jour', smartphones get into the news a lot. Not because they are worse for navigation than older methods, but because they are in the hands of numpies who shouldn't be out unsupervised. Not as popular in the press as the stories of people getting lost with paper maps. Either proper ones, or a rough set of directions a mate down the pub drew from memory when he was up on the hill a few years back...

    Personally i use smartphones for navigation, and have done for at least 5 years, on various devices and 1000's of miles. None of which have ever let me down, drowned, and been smashed. I have an Aquapac waterproof case for my smartphones, which i have never used, and have been out in some horrible weather but still have yet to have rainwater kill my device. And i have a large (9000MaH) battery charger. Which also barely gets used, except on multi day walks when there will be no pub/restaurant/church charging options.

    As i mentioned above, people who use Google Earth/Maps, etc as hiking maps deserve all they get and should really be out with a grown up. Common sense alone should make them realise that those maps are just not good enough. I use, and have for years, Viewranger (which would be my recommendation, Peter) as my mapping solution. Though i have used other OS map apps such as Memory Map, Back Country Navigator, Alpine Quest, etc.

    But, when i plan a long distance walk where i will find myself in unfamiliar, remote surroundings, i do also purchase the appropriate paper maps and put them in my backpack.

    End of the day, it's horses for courses. There will be 'dyed in wool' types in any discussion, on both sides. Immovable, unchangeable. So it's much more pleasant to discuss subjets such as this with people who are able to see both sides, such as yourself.

  13. Great article as others have stated. Cuts through the urban myths and plain errors and compares like for like.


  14. I am a big fan of GPS mapping but it does have its limitations. Any body who has tried to navigate across the Cairngorm Plateau in sub zero, white out conditions will know that using a simple device like a compass can be challenging but a smartphone can be almost impossible.

    Some GPS users seem obsessed with programming waypoints and following the routes on their devices, constantly peering at the tiny display. There is one navigation device I use more than my compass and more than my smartphone, the mark 1 eyeball!

    I am a big fan of my Motorola Defy IP rated Android phone running Viewranger but I still have issues with sunlight readability of the screen and using the capacitance screen in the rain. Cant wait for the first smartphone designed with the hill walker in mind.

  15. I have used Maverick on my Android phone. This can use 1:25000 OS maps. If you use the paid for app (a couple of quid) you can download the maps for a route in advance to your phone. The maps are free.

    A tip to maximise your smartphone battery life is to use a separate Bluetooth GPS receiver (I got mine for under a tenner on E-bay). The Bluetooth radio on your smartphone uses less power than the GPS receiver, so the battery lasts longer. The Bluetooth GPS receiver has a rechargeable battery that lasts a few days.
    You might also need an app (various free or paid for) so the mapping app (like Maverick) can read the Bluetooth data.
    I put my Bluetooth receiver in the top pocket of my pack in a waterproof bag for a clear view of the sky.

    My HTC Desire battery life was extended considerably. If only you could selectively turn off the radios, the phone radio really eats into the battery life, and use Bluetooth only for maximum battery life. There might be an app to do this, I have not looked.

    Problem with all the smartphones is they are touchscreen devices and they are not waterproof - ever tried to return an iPhone or iPod with water damage (they have a water sensor at the bottom of the headphone jack)?

    I now use a SatMap, which I can use with gloves :-)

    1. Didn't know that zippety. Interesting info regarding the bluetooth. I'm going to look into that.

  16. Thanks for all your comments folks. This is obviously a topic of great interest!

    Peter, I use ViewRanger on my smartphone and tablet.

    I don't have a waterproof smartphone or tablet so I carry them in Aquapac cases. I can see them clearly and operate them in these cases. In bright sunlight it is necessary to shield the screen from the sun to see it properly.

    I have used the smartphone for navigating in a blizzard on the Cairngorm Plateau and I can see the screen okay. I have gloves that work with the touchscreen.

    1. Good point about the gloves, Chris. I use a pair of OutdoorDesigns where you are still able to use a touchscreen phone. Handy in winter.

  17. A smart phone comes on most of my trips now (I am almost always solo). I can send txts from the most surprising of places, and use it as an occasional ebook reader. It's also useful sometimes for arranging transport. Best of all has been GPS though. I never wanted to buy and carry a proper GPS, but was delighted to find I could get one for free with my phone. I use it about once a day and often at the end of the day in camp, just to see it is still working OK. I always have a map and compass and use that all day, but a back up position checking option is really nice to have. Looks like I am going to have to get an Aqua case (any particular model you recommend for phone?). I have been using a ziploc to date, but that's not ideal, especially in the kind of conditions you might really want a GPS.

  18. Hi Chris

    A great right up and to the point. Having maps on a phone or tablet is just the start of navigation, as you say, like all maps and other tools you need to know how to use, read and make the most of those maps. Plus as you say you need an app or two which are reliable enough and are not just "street maps".

    One thing people often forget is that whatever app you get it must be able to work off GPs signal alone, in case you drop mobile signal. I make this warning having learnt the hardway - I thought the app had downloaded all the map I needed offline only it had missing sections and I was left guessing... I soon learnt the value of also carrying a paper map "just in case".

    Great write up.

  19. Jason, I use the Small Whanganui case for my HTC Desire S. Which case is best depends on the size of your phone of course.

  20. "But it’s not the device at fault. It’s the operator." love that comment, often so true! Got Viewranger on my Nexus 7 too, it is stunning! One thing that has taken off recently too is phones on handlebars for cyclists navigating. It works so well as it means you don't have to stop cycling to look at a map which despite being one of my favourite things, when I am cycling its a right pain having to stop to do so. I use one of these wee bargains...

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. I find Viewranger excellent on my Wildfire phone, cost me less than 15£ and I've got all national parks 150000 maps installed on the phone (so no issues with signal from the network) and it's very useful. Apps like Grid Ref will provide you with a...grid ref and cost nowt to download. Of course, if you go up there using google maps which unless cached won't be available off network and you don't know how to read a map, trouble will happen..

    Easy enough to find extra batteries or even better, one big battery with USB ports to charge any devices, they don't weigh much and pack a lot of power.

  23. Thanks Chris.

  24. really pragmatic article, thanks Chris.
    Am still at the steep part of the learning curve with GPS.
    Seems to me that of the 3 elements of navigation,

    1. planning, 2. finding your way on the ground and 3. knowing where you are,

    1. PC digital/ A4 paper print outs are best answer as of today.
    2. needs A4 paper min
    3. GPS is the best at this for sure.

    and yes my Android gives me a GPS location.

  25. Great article Chris. I have always told people they need to be able to read a map and that GPS is a backup device not a complete replacement to the map and compass. With the advent of GPS units with mapping inbuilt, articles like this from someone with your experience need to be shown to those new or unsure as to what is the best way to navigate.
    I always cringe when I see reports in the news of walkers lost on the hills in the UK because with proper planning and awareness when out this should not happen in anything but the most severe conditions, and then if these conditions were a possibility you should be experienced enough to navigate in them if going out ( though mistakes do occasionally happen to even the best prepared and most experienced).
    I carry map & compass, my Satmap 1:50k and my andriod phone with Memory map installed the last two are mainly there if the weather closes in to the point that visibility is zero so rather than spend longer periods going over compass bearings I can now make a quicker decent or push on to my over night stop and be there before the weather gets to severe to continue on.
    I must admit I still prefer going over a paper map to finalise routes but now use Memory Map on the PC for the planning as it is so quick and convenient to plot a route get distances elevations etc compared with a paper map.

  26. Great post Chris!

    Some more thoughts/remarks from my side. A major drawback of any electronic equipment compared to a classic map/compass combination is that a gps/smartphone could break during the trip. I think an average smartphone lasts about 3 years... that is not ignorable on a 1- or 2-week trip. I agree on your statements on batteries, but it still could become a problem on very long trips. My opinion is that gps and smartphones are fine for navigating, but a map and compass should ALWAYS be part of your kit.

    I also agree with some of the remarks above that the small display of most gps-devices does not give you a good overview of the region.

    Personally I never take a GPS in summer (just more fun, in winter however I see it as essential for a safe trip, even though I won't use it on most days.


  27. Thanks Willem. I don't think it's that likely that a gps/smartphone would break during a trip. I took one on my 75 day hike on the Pacific Northwest Trail in 2010. Over two years later that phone is still working fine. Of course a smartphone could break, just as a map can blow away or disintegrate and a compass crack. That's a reason for carrying more than one navigation device, whichever you use as a first choice.

    The small screen of smartphones is a drawback. Larger tablet screens are much better.

    I carry a smartphone year round. Sometimes I use a tablet to record the route (battery life is much better than my smartphone) when I need that info. I reckon for actual navigation I use a map 90% of the time, a compass 8% and the GPS 2%.

  28. Thanks for the overview of the current GPS situation Chris.

    I was just about to replace my old basic Silva Multi Navigator GPS with a new £250+ Garmin - as I liked the idea of having maps on a GPS system.

    You've made me realise I might as well keep the old Silva and use a smartphone with appropriate maps to supplement it.

    Like most older walkers I like to carry map and will be gaining a phone...rather than just replacing my old GPS unit!

    Well done for providing such a common sense article!

  29. I have been using a Smartphone for navigation for the past couple of years. Not just in the UK but Spain and, even, Oman. I wouldn't go back to a dedicated GPS unit. I carry a rechargeable USB battery to keep the phone topped up.

    I've just discovered this site with maps of Britain for Smartphones at a fraction of 'GPS' prices :

  30. Dear Chris

    On a Drumochter summit on Nov 2nd this year I was on snow-covered ground in a white-out. Pacing got me close to the summit but not close enough to see the cairn so pulled out my GPS to check my location. I usually wear spectacles but it was too wet and misty to see through them properly. Despite trying to read the grid reference using the magnifier on the base plate of my compass I couldn't see a thing.Something similar happened on a very dreich day doing the Clisham round a year or so ago. In short, just when I need most to check where I am, my eyesight and the small font size of my GPS let me down. Can you suggest a GPS device/mobile phone with a large and/or changeable font size for grid references? I can't believe I am the only person with this problem - there must be hundreds of hillwalkers with less than perfect eyesight. I am very happy with the most basic of devices - in fact I prefer them - I find "fiddling" with electronic devices and suchlike tedious in the extreme. My mobile phone is pretty dull, not at all smart. Paper map and compass (plus spares) and a grid reference when I need it will keep me happy (though I wouldn't necessarily reject anything more sophisticated if I had to have it to get grid references of an acceptable size).

    BTW, Iove all your gear reviews and other articles and books; your Cicerone book on Scotland is a real treasure.


    1. Belated reply I'm afraid. Sorry Alan. On smartphones and some GPS units you can enlarge or shrink the map. I wear reading glasses as well and have had the same problems with maps. This is a big advantage of smartphone mapping.

    2. The App OS Locate is good and gives you a clear grid reference. Can't post a screenshot here. You can choose 6 figure National Grid (e.g. SO637036) or Lat and Long and altitude in meters or feet.

    3. OS Locate Screenshot from IPhone posted here

  31. Thanks Chris a very well balanced article and a great range of comments as well. I teach map and compass for a living so like the feel of a map in the hand and the challenge of using them in the worse of conditions. Using traditional techniques it is possible to navigate very accurately without a GPS type device. Commonly errors are made because people fail to use the correct range of techniques and haven't practised them enough.

    I am however a real techy and use ViewRanger across all my devices. My device of choice for route planning and for using as a digital map and to record tracks is a Nexus 7. Like Chris I use a waterproof case (Proporta Beach Boy) and can record a track and use the device for general map reading for about 4-5 hours using only 25% of the battery. The biggest advantage for me is with the need to wear reading glasses I can zoom the map right in and read the contour and other fine details! I also like to note down intresting features, potential camp spots and the like as waypoints which along with the track makes a great record of the journey.

    One of the biggest draw backs of a GPS device is that it stops telling you which way to go when you stop so some thought needs to be made when a route is plotted into it. Placing waypoints beyond the junction or object you are walking to helps as is knowledge of interpreting contours and water features. A straight line between two points is not always the best way to walk!
    If people want to bring devices on my courses they are more than welcome and I can blend them into tradional map reading. I teach relocation techniques using a map and compass but I'd rather people are able relocate themselves quickly and very efficiently when cold and tired rather than clinging onto a traditional way, or no way belief.
    If the devices get people out and about them that is the main thing.

    1. Thanks Nigel. I used to teach navigation back in the 90s when I led ski tours, mostly in Norway. That was before smartphones and GPS mapping anyway so it was all map and compass. I also took part in mountain marathons where navigating accurately with map and compass is essential.

      Your point about blending tech and traditional navigation is excellent and just how it should be. Seeing them as in competition is wrong. They complement each other.

  32. On Android I use alpine quest for mapping, 'Grid Reference' for simply displaying large font grid ref, and Mapmywalk if I'm walking alone as my family can see where I am.

    AlpineQuest gives full OS mapping for about £4 - a bargain if ever there was one.

  33. I agree the whole issue is around an absence of proficiency with map and compass.The technology changes yet that issue continues as before.Through the years I recall numerous similar articles accusing mobile phones and hand held GPS units when these were all new technology.
    ~Sylvia Powell.

  34. Thank for sharing. Logical, reasonable and full of common sense.

  35. A smartphone GPS app is extraordinary,however never a substitution for taking a map and compass into the hills.In the event that you are determined to utilizing GPS location capability,a stand alone GPS receiver has some unmistakable advantages over utilizing an advanced mobile phone app.Designed for use in the outdoors,are rough and ready to withstand the odd drop without breaking.Waterproof.Smartphones are definitely not.@Lillie Jensen.

    1. There are shockproof and dustproof smartphones. I've never had one though or even a waterproof ones and my smartphones have been on multi-month walks without problem.

  36. Extremely interesting article, and useful comments also.
    I am thinking of getting an electronic device with maps, but only as a supplement to OS maps and compass, not instead of. I can, however, see the benefits of the two complementing each other.

  37. Thanks for injecting a breath of common sense into the discussion!

    About a third of my hikes go off-trail for at least part of the journey. Do I bring paper map, magnetic compass, and barometric altimeter on all of them? Of course I do! Do I also bring a smartphone, with a GPS application and a couple of different maps (satellite imagery, topography, landcover, ...) downloaded? Definitely! They're both tools. Am I afraid that I'll be confronted with a dead battery or busted smartphone? Well, then I still have my other navigational tools. I can spot catching features and handrails and approach points and get where I'm going or find my way home. (Where I hike, there's very seldom good enough visibility for sight resection. When I get to a good viewpoint, I know where I am.)

    My smartphone has a case that has been subjected to a variety of IP68 and MIL-STD-810G tests. I've fallen in whitewater with it in my pocket, and taken a couple of tumbles on rock, and the phone made it out with less damage than I did. I immersion-test the case about twice a year in case the gaskets have sprung a leak. I also carry a 14 Ah external battery about the form factor of a brick that's similarly ruggedised - because sometimes I've had track recording going for as long as six days at a crack without an opportunity to go into town and suck at the electrical teat.

  38. As many have found out - no phone power, no map. Most phones have a best-case battery life (when used sparingly as a GPS) of less than a week. Even with external power packs that's less than 10 days. Solar chargers are great if the weather's clear - useless when not. Paper maps as a backup only makes sense.

  39. I like the smartphone apps, but I tend to keep it as a backup to my GPS and I always have map and compass. I'm due for an upgrade as the battery is very weak.

  40. I prefer using a map and compass personally, but I have found GaiaGPS on a smartphone very useful too, if only because it gives me access to digital maps and layers, such as slope angle shading, that I can't get on paper. The most important skill I find is being able to relate a topo to the world around you and what different terrain means in terms of level of effort to hike. It doesn't matter to me if the maps are paper or digital. They're just different "user interfaces" to the same data.

  41. Just a great article and full of common sense.I do find it odd that new tech GPS & phones are often disparaged by `experts`. I guess it is because they have put a lot of effort into learning old style and feel rather let down that this new style of navigating, makes things so much easier and quicker for everyone with little effort actually. But never the less, a basic knowledge of navigating which when topped with experience over time is invaluable. I have been using map & compass for decades and using a GPS& then smart phone, for only a year, but just couldn`t understand why I was being told from some quarters the requirement to still use map & compass, after experiencing the thrill & ease of use of new tech gadgets, which gave me such a fantastic sense of freedom outdoors on the hills, & I am 63 years old.

  42. The one and only disagreement I have with the article is the suggestion that non-replaceable batteries for smartphones are a stupid design.

    I used to only ever buy electronics with removable batteries, and carry spares when I was walking.

    However, smartphones are a bit of an exception. Having fixed rechargeable lithium-ion batteries enables them to be very small but have great battery life, plus I don't think I'd like to be messing with lithium ion batteries in wet conditions. Also, smartphones can have quite an intimate relationship with their built-in battery - monitoring it, adjusting cpu speed depending on temperature and how old it thinks the battery is, etc. They literally "get to know" their battery and this helps them give us reliable feedback on how much battery life is remaining, etc.

    Great that we now have very lightweight portable power banks to recharge phones on the go.

    1. I agree! Now. Back in 2012 portable power banks weren't very powerful and were quite heavy. I felt replaceable batteries were a better choice for backpacking as a couple of these were far lighter than a power pack and my first two smartphones had these. I didn't have any problems with them. I changed to a non-replaceable battery smartphone for two reasons - it was waterproof and power banks are now much lighter and I needed one anyway to charge other devices. In use I haven't found any difference between non-replaceable and replaceable batteries except that the former are a hassle once they don't last as long.

    2. Haha! Excellent one-word second paragraph. Says it all. I almost wrote in my original comment, "I bet you'd think differently now!".

      I've changed my thinking also, having had my first smart phone for only 2 years, and a power bank for only 1. I almost bought a head torch that I saw in a shop recently precisely because it had a built-in battery which would could be recharged with the same power bank I take for my phone.

      I agree that non-replaceable rechargeable batteries are a problem in the long-term once their capacity gets low. I like the idea of "semi-replaceable" lithium-ion batteries: they are very light weight for the power they give, and although they become useless after a few years, you can open up the device and replace them, with a tiny bit of electrical know-how, in a nice dry environment e.g. at home.

  43. I believe that there is no doubt that smartphones with a GPS receiver will thrive in the mountain regions to fin track and communicate with others. Your carrying extra battery with the smartphone is also a good idea to prolong the longevity of the phone. Besides this smart gear, your clothing is also important in a mountain expedition.