GPS phone apps?

I use navigation on my phone for driving (on occasion), but I have no experience with off-road GPS, i.e. using it on lakes. It would sound silly, except I did get disoriented in my sailboat once, so I know it can happen. I also saw some comments (somewhere) about using GPS for paddling speed, which to me could be entertaining.

I’m really interested in knowing what apps you guys are using. I’m using an i-phone, but my wife has an Android, so apps for either could work for us. Please let me know what you like!

The only electronics I use are online websites from private parties and/or nonprofits or NGO’s that document places to paddle on my desktop PC. Stuff like the Boston Kayaker or Blue Ways RI websites. I also read on the forums and potentially post on the appropriate ones asking about any inkling of potential challenge or danger I might find in a new place I might not be aware of

I will extensively research places to paddle and read about all possible using the internet. Once I get on the kayak everything goes analog and non-electronic. I use pieces of paper with a map. I use an analog magnetic compass. I also use my eyes for looking around and orienting myself. If there’s a river with various channels or inlets or swamps or side areas or waterfalls that can kill me I will mark those as well and where to turn. What I mean is “TURN LEFT AT THIS FORK TO AVOID DEAD END; CONSIDER EXPLORING BUT KNOW GOING RIGHT WILL TAKE MORE TIME”.

Otherwise I don’t use any electronics or apps. The problem with relying on digital trappings is that anything on your phone starts to consume battery life very quickly and there is no way to recharge. Also an electronic device is prone to fail in the water. OK so there are new waterproof phones, I have an old one, fine. But if there’s a chance you can get lost or hurt or killed from a navigational error which is often then I don’t want to rely on anything that has a greater failure chance. I might use google earth or the maps on the phone, maybe just to see what building or structure is next to a certain place. Otherwise it’s all pen, paper, plastic and metals.

1 Like

While I carry my iPhone with me, it’s only to have access to the USCG mobile app and my weather app. Using it for GPS tracking of speed would use up too much battery.

For speed, time, distance, etc. I use a Garmin Forerunner 310XT attached to the bungee in front of my snack hatch. It’s waterproof and the display shows real time information. I upload the data to Garmin Express/Garmin Connect on my desktop computer and can see my journey on a map as well as my paddling speed and even my heart rate if I’m wearing a HRM. Battery life is about 20 hours. All activities are saved, so it’s a nice record.

The 310XT has been discontinued but I’ve seen some refurbished ones for sale.

DCRainmaker publishes some good reviews, guides, and tips on various fitness products:

1 Like

Map my Ride…it gives course, average speed and distance. It is bad for on site nav due to sun light.

1 Like

I’ve tried several apps. I haven’t found one that I like yet. I would to track speed and distance as well as mark places. Keeping the GPS running does use a lot of battery, especially since there is no cell service a lot of the time where I find myself so the search for towers is already draining the battery.
I keep one of the little backup batteries with me and plug into it to recharge if I’m out long enough to worry about that.
I’m suspecting that the correct answer is to buy a handheld GPS with the proper map backgrounds and waterproof rating.

1 Like

To be clear, I’m not feeling any kind of special urgency to get something (handheld GPS), but was wondering what our phones might already be capable of, with the right app. Point taken on the battery life issue.
@Overstreet Map my Ride sounds about my speed
@Rookie what is that Coast Guard app you have? That’s interesting…
@CA139 Aye, I had a nice compass, with a leash, but just checked it and it seems to have lost water and separated (ew… dead compass!) - gross. Have to get another one!

I like the “Sports Tracker” app.

It tracks path, distance, max speed, average speed, and more. ITs free for the basic version which does what I need.

1 Like

Very cool app. In setting up your profile (name, address, phone, emergency contact number, etc.) you can include descriptions and photos of your kayak(s) and serial numbers, length, manufacturer.

Enable location services for the app on your phone and if you need help, it calls your nearest USCG station. I know that red button works because once I hit it by mistake and it asked me if I really wanted to make that call (I backed out quickly).

1 Like


Very cool app. In setting up your profile (name, address, phone, emergency contact number, etc.) you can include descriptions and photos of your kayak(s) and serial numbers, length, manufacturer.

Enable location services for the app on your phone and if you need help, it calls your nearest USCG station. I know that red button works because once I hit it by mistake and it asked me if I really wanted to make that call (I backed out quickly).*

The one thing again to be careful of is anytime you’re using these electronics there is a layer prone to failure. Newer phones are more water resistant or “proof” and there are cases that are waterproof too. The charge runs down though now there is solar charging and some newer kayaks have special mounts for that as well. You can also buy mounts for that capability and they are not expensive but remember that when you start using the GPS the phone won’t have as much life and there are just more layers to get in trouble and fail. In this vein, the whole “Simplicity” of the one and done for the phone is also compromised because this in and of itself is its own rabbit hole of extra equipment and “Stuff”.

One cool thing now is that there are marine VHF radios with GPS where you can hit a button and it will broadcast your distress beacon with your location automatically. In order to work you need to get a callsign and register with it; normally this process requires an existing boat registration but you can put “rental” or multiple boats as a kayak normally doesn’t have one in most circumstances. Most marine radios are waterproof and do float too. With this device now you can communicate on channel 16 as well which becomes more important when dealing with busy harbors or communicating channel crossings.

Maybe I am a luddite but even if someone is really good at this stuff and you have the latest and the greatest the truth is that the phone will never be as reliable or have the same battery life or be as durable as the original thing itself (compass, map, radio). The difference in using the specific item is with the phone you just buy an inexpensive software and get the capability with your phone. You just bring the phone and you’re good to go. The other item introduce more clutter, more “kit”, more stuff to remember (or forget!) in your life but the more you need same said safety item (longer paddles in more challenging places) the more you need the real “Safety” item and you should rely less on your phone.

Also please remember that your phone has one important limiting factor: reception. Nothing will save you if you lack reception. Radios and compasses and maps don’t require that. Sometimes its hard to know ahead of time there is no reception in a given area until you’re there and you need it and your phone says NO SERVICE which makes for a pretty terrifying OH CACCA moment.

I remember reading a story about people paddling in Long Island Sound to Block Island and one of them got tipped by a wave resulting in his “waterproof” phone which was also protected in a waterproof bag getting wet and failing. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did. They were fine but still.

The best thing to do is probably have both: the “real” thing and the app.

@CA139 - Got it, thanks! Your posts are starting to sound urgent, we’ve been warned, and you’ve not been ignored. But I want to find out what people ARE using, in case there’s some cool apps.

For me, in land-locked North Texas lakes and slow rivers, it’s just for fun. It would be cool to find an app that could show my paddle speed, distance, etc - and curious about what apps people are using on the water. I’d still like to hear from more posters about any apps they appreciated when kayaking, thanks!

Sorry a little pressed for time. Stream of consciousness.

I’m using an app on my Garmin watch that is designed for rowing. (Didn’t find anything specific to kayaking). It tracks all the metrics that a standalone Garmin (or similar) device will track – speed, distance, route, temperature, etc., and because it’s on my wrist, it also provides paddle stroke speed, length and heart rate.

If I didn’t want those biometrics, I’d use a Garmin Edge of some sort, which could also provide mapping…

Disclaimer - all of my kayaking has been on protected, confined fresh water.

1 Like

I ditched the Garmin and instead use one of two apps on my phone. For day tripping where i just want to know how far I went, I use Runkeeper. This is more of a tracking app than a navigation app, although it does show you a map with your track, and you can tell if you are heading in the right general direction.

The second app I use is Gaia GPS, which offers many navigation-useful features. For example, you can mark a destination, and the phone will give distance and compass bearing to the destination. You also see your track on the map. You have several options for the base map, but not, unfortunately, navigation charts. I find the Gaia maps, which are based on USGS quads, most useful. Gaia offers the ability to download mapping to your phone, which allows off-network use of the mapping.

Battery life can be greatly enhanced by using airplane mode. Yes, the phone will still receive GPS from the satellites, it just stops looking for cell towers and wifi and doing a lot of background things that chew up battery. In airplane mode, the battery use will be mainly driven by display-time. The more you keep the display lit, the more battery is chewed up. I find that I can use Gaia for paddling 5-7 hours and use as little as 30% battery (iPhone 6). I’ve also used 80% for similar duration where I screw up and tuck the phone away without locking the screen.

Both Runkeeper and Gaia save your tracks to their web sites, so you can examine and share them online after your trip is complete.

My phone is in a lifeproof case, and if I know I’m going to be getting wet, in a little dry-sack made for cell phones. With the display active, the phone interprets water drops that may land on it as fingering motions. So, if you have the phone laying face up, the display is active and it rains or there is a lot of spray and dripage, the phone reacts to the random drops and does strange things. So, I guess that is a downside, but it’s not that hard to deal with.



I use “Gaia GPS” on my android phone. I use it for both hiking and kayaking. It records your path and shows where you are. It is nice when hiking and you come to a fork in the trail, you can know that you are where you want to be, and choose the right path. Each trip is recorded in color, with the color switched each time, so you can see where you were in the past without being confused regarding the current trip. It does not seem to suck the battery dry on my phone.

I also have a Garmin Vivoactive watch. It will create a map on the phone after the trip, but does not show a map while you are out.


I’ve not surveyed the options, but I’ve been using Motion-X GPS on my iPhone for more than a year and it does everything I need. It’s helped me find my way home more than once. I also carry a small auxiliary battery to recharge my phone.


I use Gaia and I used to use MotionX. Both are great Apps for recreational information like you want. They are also serious navigational tools that I do rely on. There are many many others. As I’m sure you know, the GPS functionality of your phone has nothing to do with the cell. You do not need a signal, in fact, you can use an older phone or a cheap one off eBay (less than $80) that isn’t even active on a calling plan. Therefore, in order to conserve battery put it on airplane mode and turn off all other apps. If you want a chart on the screen be sure to download the map or chart you want when you are home on wifi. Each App has a different way to do that and it might cost a couple bucks. Have fun

1 Like

That’s great advice. Thanks.

Hope someone has found a good app and will list it here on this forum thread. Every one I have tried sucks down the phone battery too quickly. So, I use a Garmin GPS which is archaic in its logic and difficult to use.

I’m not sure you’ll find an app that is perfect… just apps that do the job.

I have been using Map My Fitness on my android, to record my miles. They have a section on their website about maximizing battery life. Even following their recommendations, it still wears the battery down faster than I would like… so I got a back-up battery (or portable charger). My wife says its the biggest battery that Walmart carried, and cost a whopping $15.00. Before I go out, I plug my phone into the back-up battery, and set them both together, into a waterproof case. The longest paddle I have done yet, was 10 hours, just over 53 miles. My phone was at 100% when I was done, and my back-up battery, still had 75% battery left, according to its 4 “battery charge remaining lights”.

Although I have not needed it for navigation, I did check my progress when I was getting a little concerned with the daylight I had left… But google maps was easier to use for that. Because of my dis-trust in electronics, I had paper maps that I printed out, and put into plastics sleeves. The paper maps were under my deck lines right in front of me, so I could keep track of my progress that way. In my youth, all I had was paper maps when I was out and about, but the electronics of today are pretty amazing.

Because I have an interest in river current speeds in MPH at different flow rates, with advice from here, I have been using a Garmin Forerunner on my wrist, that shows pretty incredible information on speed, direction, heart rate and the like. Not that its a big deal to me, but this information is “after the fact”, when it is loaded into Garmin Basecamp, so it doesn’t do much for navigation.

Often, when I go out, its just to the local beach, to practice rolling, edging, etc… When I do that, I call my wife to tell her where I’ll be. Usually, I’ll just roll a few times, and then start paddling. Whenever I’m not going to be in one spot, I either call or message my wife to tell her what I’m thinking. Because my plans always change, I also “share my location” (android, google maps, shows a blue dot on your location, tapping on that blue dot brings up an option to share you location with someone.) If anything was to happen to me, she can forward that “link” of my current location to anyone she chooses.

So… the short version… When I’m on the water, 1) I have google maps running, sharing my location. 2) Map my Fitness, tracking what I’m doing. 3) occasionally, I’ll be using a GPS speedometer, showing only my current speed, not a location or map. With a back up battery, I’m never short on battery. If I ever plan to be out for more than 2 days, I’ll have a second back up battery.

I use Strava and google maps. Google maps just to see where I am, need to go etc.
Strava gets launched at the start of my trip. Measures a lot of things Including top and avg speed, distance etc… tracks my route on a map. Great app, use for biking too.