Smartphone vs GPS for Hiking: Which One is Better?

Stand-alone GPS devices are typically a better option for serious hikers because they offer more durability, accuracy, and battery life in remote locations. But smartphones can function similarly and are a good option for hikes with cell service. 

This post will look at smartphones and GPS units for hiking purposes. I’ll highlight some advantages and disadvantages of each option to give you a good idea of which might be the better choice for your hiking preferences. 

Let’s get started. 

Smartphone vs GPS for Hiking: Pros & Cons

While both smartphones and GPS can help hikers navigate through the wilderness or their neighborhoods, each device is different and has pros and cons. Check out the table below for a quick reference on these.

Smartphone ProsSmartphone ConsGPS ProsGPS Cons
Everybody has oneShorter battery lifeLonger Battery LifeMore expensive
Many navigation appsLess service in remote locationsBetter service in remote locationsLimited functions
Easy to useNot as durableVery durableCan be bulky
Better for front country Can be expensiveBetter for the backcountryNot always intuitive to use

If you are an extreme hiker who likes to venture deep into the backcountry, then getting a dedicated GPS unit is probably the best idea. But the average hiker who just goes on the weekends is probably fine with a smartphone. 

Which of these devices is better comes down to the type of hiking you do, how often you head out into the wilderness, and your personal preferences. There isn’t one definite answer, so let’s break things down a bit here.

If you are a serious hiker who plans on spending a lot of time in the wilderness far away from civilization, then a GPS unit will be better than a smartphone for several reasons. These units have a longer battery life and are generally more durable. 

GPS units can also get better service in the backcountry, which is important if you consider safety. You always want potential rescuers to know where you are, so having a pinpointed and accurate location is ideal. 

But that doesn’t mean that smartphones are a bad choice, especially if you plan on hiking near cities and other population centers with good cell service. And since most people already have a smartphone, this is also an economical choice.  

Smartphones are also easier to use than most GPS units. And if you are already familiar with your navigation app, then you don’t really need to learn anything else to start using GPS for hiking. GPS units aren’t that complicated, but they are not always as intuitive as smartphones.

Using a smartphone is also a more budget-friendly option because you don’t have to purchase a separate GPS unit, which can be a few hundred dollars or more. Smartphones aren’t necessarily cheap, but most people already own one. 

Phone GPS vs Garmin Accuracy

Many people who want to use a GPS for hiking or any other reason often wonder how a phone and Garmin compare when it comes to accuracy. Both of these devices offer similar accuracy, so it just depends on other preferences you have. 

The thing to know with a Garmin or other handheld GPS unit is that it can last longer and be more durable, which is a definite advantage in a wilderness situation. If your phone dies, it won’t be able to put off a GPS signal.

Also Read: How Accurate is Garmin GPS


Here are a few quick answers to some of the most commonly asked questions related to whether a smartphone or GPS is better for hiking. 

Should I use a cell phone app or handheld GPS for hiking? 

If you plan on hiking for extended periods in remote backcountry locations with limited cell phone service, then a handheld GPS unit is a better option. If you hike near population centers with reliable cell coverage, you’ll be okay with a cell phone app. 

Is it worth getting a GPS for hiking? 

Having a GPS is a good safety measure if you hike often. It’s always good to have access to emergency services if you are in the wilderness, and GPS units can also help you navigate and not get lost. But they can be expensive, so it depends on your needs. 

Can you use your phone as a hiking GPS? 

You can easily use your smartphone as a hiking GPS, as long as you have cell phone service. Some smartphones will put off a GPS signal without service, but it might not be as accurate. You’ll also need a navigation app or other GPS app on your phone. 

Is a GPS device better than a phone? 

A GPS device is better in most backcountry locations where cell phone service is limited. These devices also offer more durability and battery life, which can be good safety measures when you head into the wilderness. 

How to Choose a Handheld GPS for Hiking

These are the factors that we recommend you take into consideration.


If you’ve ever been backpacking, you know that every ounce counts when you are lugging it up a mountain, and every inch counts when trying to pack the last of your belongings into a single bag. The GPS you choose needs to balance functionality with practicality.

Always check the weight of each potential unit, and consider that any backup batteries are also going to add to that number. Make sure the unit will fit comfortably in your hand and easily into your pack since some models aren’t perfect rectangles.


The battery life of your GPS is extremely important. While handheld units have the advantage of typically use replaceable batteries rather than requiring recharging, it’s inconvenient to carry a bunch of extra sets.

You’ll want a battery life of at least 16 hours, but many offer up to 48 hours, which is especially great if you plan to go on longer trips.


You should pick an interface that you can comfortably interact with. While some people can’t survive with the familiarity of a touch screen, others will get better use out of physical buttons (especially if you’ll be wearing gloves or have larger fingers).

Some handhelds are offered in black and white, instead of color. These can be easier to read in direct sunlight, but harder to use.


Technological advancements have made the handheld GPS more than a map. From the different types of maps the unit supports to additional features such as messaging, almost every model offers a little something extra that differentiates it from the crowd. If these are necessary to you, narrow your search to higher-end models.

Final Thoughts

Both smartphones and GPS units can work for hiking, and the best option depends on where you like to hike and what other preferences you have. If you spend a lot of time in remote places, a GPS is a good idea. 

Regardless of your choice, always let someone know where you are hiking in case of emergencies. Having a smartphone or GPS can help rescuers find you, but telling someone where you are headed can help if the batteries die. 

Do you use a smartphone or GPS for hiking? Which do you like more and why? Let me know in the comments below.    

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