Hiking With GPS: Should You Bring a GPS Hiking?

8 min read

Have you ever gotten lost? Whether it's in a city, on a highway, or in the wild, it's never enjoyable. Thankfully, there are trusty GPS devices to help get us out of these jams and return us to safety once more.

Should you bring a GPS hiking? Yes, you should have at least one device with GPS on a hike. Whether it's your smartphone or a standalone GPS device, it's always better to be safe than sorry.

"But wait!", you say. "I only hike trails that I'm familiar with!". That's fair. However, sometimes, things happen. Having a GPS with you on a hike isn't just there for you to find your way. It's also useful for others to be able to find you should you not turn up when you're supposed to.

It goes without saying how helpful this can be. Especially in a scenario in which you're injured or exhausted. But before we get too far down the doom and gloom rabbit hole of being lost and immobilized, let's have a deeper look at hiking with GPS.

Is it Worth Getting a GPS For Hiking?

hiking with gps

This is one of those questions that usually has the unfortunate default answer of "It depends". After all, a GPS for hiking? Isn't that just a bit overkill? Maybe in specific scenarios like, say, a leisurely stroll through a well-populated state park. However, as mentioned above, there are other situations in which having a GPS on your person can be very useful.

It's not just the cost of a GPS device that might have you second-guessing. There's also the learning curve, the added weight, and the consideration of whether you really need a GPS for the kind of hiking you do. But let's take a closer look.

For casual hikers sticking to well-marked, frequently traveled trails, a GPS might be a nice-to-have but not absolutely essential. You're not likely to get lost, and a simple map or even a trail-marking app on your phone might serve you just fine.

But here's the thing. If you're the adventurous type, often veering off the beaten track, a GPS becomes more than just a techy accessory. It could be your lifeline. In remote, poorly marked areas, a GPS could be the difference between a great adventure and a distressing experience.

And, again, if there is an unfortunate accident and you're unable to move or leave, it could come in handy if someone else needs to locate you. This, of course, will depend on the functions of your device. However, you can always bring your smartphone along, most of which have very capable GPS features that work just fine. Then again, having a backup is always a great option.

Why You Should Bring a GPS Hiking

You might be thinking, "I've got a good sense of direction. Why would I need a GPS?" Trust me, I get it. However, there's more to a GPS than just telling you where North is.

Now, you might be an old-school hiker, preferring the feel of a paper map and the trusty old compass. Or perhaps you rely on your smartphone for all your navigational needs. Either way, you might be wondering why you should even consider bringing a GPS device on your hike. Isn't it just an additional piece of gear to lug around? Well, let's take a closer look at why a GPS could be a game-changer on your hiking adventures.

Precise Location Data

The primary function of a GPS device is to provide you with precise location data, and this can be a lifesaver in certain situations. Whether you're hiking through a dense forest or traversing an expansive desert, it's not always easy to keep track of where you are.

Even the most experienced hikers can get disoriented, particularly in areas where trails are not clearly marked or in adverse weather conditions. A GPS device can help pinpoint your exact location, reducing the chances of getting lost and increasing your overall safety.

Real-Time Information

Many modern GPS devices offer a plethora of useful features that go beyond simple location tracking. For instance, they can provide you with real-time data about your altitude, the distance you've covered, and the estimated time to reach your destination.

Some GPS units can even provide weather updates, alerting you to potential storms or temperature changes. This kind of real-time information can be invaluable in planning your route and making necessary adjustments along the way.

SOS Features

Consider this scenario: you've slipped on a rocky trail and twisted your ankle, or perhaps you've lost your way in a dense forest as night falls. In such situations, an SOS feature on a GPS device can be a literal lifesaver.

With the push of a button, you can send an emergency signal with your exact location coordinates to rescue services. This feature is particularly useful if you're hiking in remote areas where cell service is unreliable or non-existent.

Route Tracking and Sharing

With a GPS, you can track your route, marking points of interest, water sources, or potential hazards along the way. This feature allows you to review your path, learn from your journey, and plan future hikes more effectively.

Moreover, many GPS devices allow you to share your tracked routes with others. This can be particularly useful if you're hiking in a group and want to share the trail details. Or perhaps you want to share your favorite trails with the wider hiking community.

Conservation of Phone Battery Life

Using your smartphone for navigation, especially with the screen on for extended periods, can drain your battery life quickly. And while power banks can offer some relief, they too add extra weight to your pack.

By using a standalone GPS device for navigation, you can conserve your phone's battery life for other uses - like making emergency calls, taking photos, or using other important apps.

In summary, while it may seem like an additional piece of gear, a GPS device can enhance your hiking experience in numerous ways. It can increase your safety, provide valuable real-time information, and even help you become a more informed and responsible hiker.

GPS vs Smartphone For Hiking: Which is Better?

gps vs smartphone hiking

Okay, so you might be reading this and thinking, "But my smartphone has GPS. Isn't that good enough?" It's a valid question and one that deserves a bit of a deep dive. So, let's compare these two options head-to-head.

Your smartphone, with its built-in GPS and an array of hiking apps, might seem like the perfect hiking companion. It's compact, multi-functional, and already a part of your daily life. However, there are some key factors where a standalone GPS has the edge.

First off, standalone GPS devices are typically more rugged and built to withstand the elements. Rain, dust, drops - a good GPS can handle it all. In contrast, your smartphone is more susceptible to damage.

Second, the battery life of a standalone GPS device is significantly longer than that of a smartphone. This becomes even more critical when you're on long hikes or overnight trips where charging your device isn't an option.

Lastly, GPS devices often provide a more reliable signal, especially in remote areas. While your smartphone relies on a cellular signal for many of its functions, a GPS device connects directly to satellites, making it more dependable for navigation.

The Downside of Using a Standalone GPS For Hiking


Look, there's no denying the benefits of a GPS device for hiking. But there are definitely some drawbacks to having a standalone GPS. So, let's peel back the curtain and take a look at the other side of the coin.

A key downside to a GPS device is the cost. Quality GPS devices can be a significant investment, and if you're a casual hiker, you might find it hard to justify the expense, especially if you're already carrying around a $1,000 smartphone.

Learning to use a GPS device effectively can also be a challenge. They're not always as intuitive as your smartphone, and you'll need to invest some time in understanding the features and functions. Some people might "get it" right out of the box, others ... not so much. This rings true especially if you're not the "techy" type.

Another consideration is the weight and space. A GPS device is another item to pack, and for hikers who prefer to travel light, this can be a drawback. But, don't worry — there are compact units that can fit within your pocket.

Don't let this put you off from getting a standalone GPS for hiking. While there are some drawbacks, they're few and far between. The biggest setback for people is going to be the cost. The good news is, there are plenty of affordable hiking GPS units out there on the market.

Should You Bring a GPS Hiking? Conclusion

At this point, it's pretty safe to say that the benefits of carrying a standalone GPS unit outweigh the drawbacks. Even with your smartphone, it's always a smart move to have a backup — don't leave anything up to chance.

I may sound like an overbearing parent here, but things tend to happen when we least expect it. And getting lost or injured on a hike is no exception. All in all, if you can afford it, get yourself a GPS for hiking. Even if it's a lower-end/economy model. A little help goes a long way.