Use iPhone and IPad as GPS

-- Last Updated: May-22-16 3:27 PM EST --

In preparing for an upcoming canoe trip I have discovered a growing movement in the thru hiking and canoe tripping world away from the typical Garmin type handheld gps units and toward the use of an iPhone and/or iPad for GPS. After a couple of months of experimentation I've made the decision to sell my Garmin and I've made the switch. I am using an inexpensive but excellent quality app - Gaia gps. I have discovered ways to set my devices up so they consume very little battery. I will carry a back up recharge battery that will be sufficient to give my devices the juice I need to travel for two to three weeks with careful management of battery consumption. Gaia pro subscription includes excellent topo maps and satellite imagery. The interface is dramatically better than the Garmin interface in my view and the image quality on an iPad or iPad mini is incredible. Waterproofing is an issue but I have found and tested an excellent lightweight case that works extremely well. I'm sold. Others might want to consider the change. The price is certainly right if you already have an iphone or ipad. Maps are free. Easy to download.

Something to think about.

Viewability in direct sun?
I’ve thought about using my iPad, but I can’t see the screen in bright sunlight on land. I’d have the same problem on the water. How do you get around that?

I kept my GPS
Cell phone coverage is too spotty where I go.

If the iphone is getting signal it’s nice.

I have lifelock h2o proof case and float system.

iphone nice for photos with that rig.

same here
would not want to rely on cell coverage.

The Gaia app
Is NOT dependent on cell phone coverage

You download the maps at home where you do have coverage

Then go forth

Rob is using this system in the Yukon where there is no cell phone coverage

Over at CCR other Arctic trippers are also


– Last Updated: May-22-16 1:44 PM EST –

t6he PCT trail (Mex to Canada), cellular signal is mostly not available at all. It's why I carry my Android phone with a 3,000mAH battery (long life) vs any iPhone (been there, done that) that have pee poor battey life. Motorola branded smartphones pull in the best signal of any mfg. and that's important. That said, my hike buds carry a SPOT gps device that's also capable of text messaging..awesome since no cell signal needed.

Note: I've never seen anyone on the PCT (or anywhere in the West) use a iPad on the trail for GPS. Why would anyone want to carry that bulky, short battery life tablet? Maybe the iPad Mini..for those light days....

…I think I’m going to have to give it a try then! I still have my Garmin but it’s an oldie…

Cell Service is Not Needed

– Last Updated: May-22-16 2:50 PM EST –

Modern iPhones and cell ready iPads (including minis) have a high quality GPS chip that works perfectly with no cell service. Cell service is absolutely not needed. The performance is on a par with traditional modern gps units. The interface is waaaay better.

Visibility in the sun is an issue. It is an issue even with my old Garmin at times. Anti reflective screen protectors help. My use on a canoe trip is mostly evening planning under the tarp (no significant glare issues), and occasional position checks during the day when I can generally find a position that reduces the glare. I also use it on day hikes and glare issues can be dealt with pretty easilly. Generally, for my use anyway, glare is not a big problem.

Its pretty nice to be able to wake up my ipad mini for a few seconds and see where I am located on a beautiful high resolution satellite image of the river and check our progress. After 10 seconds I put it back to sleep and tuck it away and off we go.

One big advantage is cost. Huge cost advantage actually.

For hikers I agree an iPad is probably too heavy. Trust me though, if you start researching this you will find that there are many day hikers and thru hikers that are using iPhones in this fashion. More and more as time goes on and as the apps improve. Gaia is terrific. With one fairly small device you get a lot of functionality and not just gps. The battery life, as I said, can be managed very effectively once you learn how.

Also, no gps, (iphone or otherwise), should be considered as a replacement for skills with map and compass. If you can't find your way in and out with a compass and a map you shouldn't be using the gps to get yourself in only to find the gizmo fails and you can't get out because you lack the map and compass skills.

iPad -
The current crop of iPads that are “cell ready” have an excellent gps chip that works perfectly without cell service. In fact you do not even need a cell contract. However, for some reason that I do not pretend to understand, iPads that are “wi-fi only” do not appear to have the ability to work without connection to a wi-fi signal. Wierd.

I have one
love it. Battery life is fine as long as you’re not working on it nonstop.

Going to give this a try, thanks!

8^( Mine not working perfectly
i thought the culprit was cell coverage…

I still like the eTrex… something about state of the relic…

how’s the
the devil work in the canyon ? or beneath the mtn or cliff or…

we may look stupid but we are not…

Been using an old 4s

– Last Updated: May-22-16 10:59 PM EST –

As back up for my Garmin for a few years now. Running ISail and IHike with maps downloaded when in wifi range. Carry a battery stick to charge it. It is in a waterproof otterbox.

I just can't get comfortable using my iPhone unless I am backpacking and not wanting the weight of redundant devices, but not on the water. But if my old 4s bites the dust, no worries. No cell contract needed so don't get rid of your old iPhones.

I’m with you on using the phone
These days, I rarely take my Garmin anymore. The user interface on the Garmin 76CSx is torturous. At 1.5" x 2.5"the display contributes to the pain. The Garmin uses a pair of AA batteries in 2 - 3 days. And to get topo maps on the Garmin requires the use of the internet, two Garmin programs, and a transfer onto 4GB micro SD cards which I then insert into the GPS unit. It’s about 3 times the size of my iphone. A big advantage is the Garmin is more water resistant. I used to think it was waterproof, but the corrosion inside the battery compartment tells me otherwise. So, really, it needs to be protected and that advantage is gone.

I do not leave valuables in my car at the put in or the trail head. My wallet and my iphone go with me. So, sinc I am taking the phone anyway, I should use it. However, my present paddling practice is to put the phone in a jar and the jar in a drybag. If I need to know my location or want to take a picture, I have to stop and get the phone out. So, the iphone is much underutilized. Obviously, I need to get a waterproof container for it.

The battery argument is moot. If I take the Garmin, I am not only packing the size and weight of the Garmin, I need to bring extra batteries for it, and carry out the dead batteries. So, I could trade the weight and bulk of the Garmin and backup batteries for a power pack to recharge the iphone and I’ll come out ahead on weight and bulk.

But, as to this topic, I can’t think of anything the Garmin does better than the iphone. And, the iphone does a lot of other things. Besides taking pictures, you can make a phone call (ya, I know, you need towers for this)(and ya, I know, nobody actually talks on a phone anymore–but you could). Try getting an Uber ride with your Garmin.


These phones
You write of function as a GPS when out of cell tower range ?

and GPS when in cell phone range but the maps are free plus cost of using phone to load the maps.

What’s cost for loading the Grand Canyon NP ? Is the phone capacity up to the GC NP ?

If I compare the phone map to the GPS Garmin 78 map I would immediately see a significant advantage to the phone ?

Garmin Battery Life
My battery use really improved once I went wit lithium AAs. I’m getting about 10 - 14 days use on a pair of AAs. That is being on about 5 hours a day - that’s an average day time on the water for me.

I may yet one day go to the phone for primary use, but I worry about damage. My 76csx has survived me being out of the canoe on a class II-III drop. Tethered to a thwart it survived bouncing around rocks while the canoe was upturned and still computing away when I got reunited with the canoe. The rubber bumper was damaged, but everything else was continuing to work.

I like having my geographys pre-loaded on a 4G chip, and it is a very simple process to get the correct mapping on the unit. Simply swap out the chip. I took the time (only needs doing once) to create 10 different map sets of the areas I frequent., so all the tedium is behind me. I found a little credit card sized holder for all these micro-sd cards so everything is conviently bundled together.

Chip, wanna sell yours? A backup unit would be nice.

But now I intend to explore the iPhone alternative - thanks to the OP for the idea.

Batteries last 10-14 days! Not mine.
Waterbearer has been my mentor of the 76CSx, so I value his opinions

I switched to LI bats after he gave me that hint, but I have never gotten more than maybe 4 days use out of them in the CSx76. Maybe it is my leaky battery compartment. But even with ten days life, I still don’t think that will tip the scales for convenience, ease of use, and multi-functionality.

It is true that once you create your map sets on the chips, you don’t need to repeat the process to reuse and switch between map sets. Of course, with the i-device, you never have to do it even at the start, and never have the issue of finidng yourself somewhere the map set does not cover (as long as you have at least occasional access to the net).


unless going ultra light
I always like to have a backup plan.

’Most important, they had three smartphones. Mr. Quintero had jury rigged a computer battery to charge the phones during the journey. This meant the men had something invaluable, GPS to guide them to Florid ’

Loading maps from Windows PC?
Using the Gaia app, could you perform your map collecting activity on a desktop and then port it to the phone?

I find using a large monitor useful when creating your map sets. If forced to use iPhone to create the map sets that would be more tedious - small screen to interact with.

Anyone know? Thanks.