There is a lot of debate among hikers regarding the wisdom of carrying a GPS or GPS-enabled smartphone while hiking. Even those who recommend its use in some wilderness areas are less inclined to bring one along on the John Muir Trail, with its general lack of navigational challenges. I’m not going to wade into that argument, other than to say I think carrying one is worth the money and weight.
If, after examining the advantages and disadvantages, you decide to carry one, why not get the most out of it? Here are a few uses that might not be immediately apparent:
Note: in this article I will often use the term “mark.” By “marking” a position, I mean establishing a waypoint at a particular location in order to find it later. GPS devices are good at that. Just make sure, prior to your hike, you learn how to mark a location, and how to use your device to return to that spot.
Mark your campsites and break spots.
There are several reasons for this: you can record locations that were particularly good or bad, you can leave your campsite for a side hike (or a short walk to another campsite) and find it easily when you return, even in the dark, and, should you leave something at a spot where you took a break, the GPS will give some idea of how far you need to backtrack to recover it, as well as exactly where it is.
Mark where you leave your gear if you are bagging a peak.
One usually doesn’t want to haul everything to a nearby summit, but you don’t really want to leave your stuff right next to the trail, either. Instead, hang your gear on a tree (to discourage marmots, pikas and mice from exploring), mark the spot, and know that you’ll be able to find it later.
Mark spots of particularly amazing photos.
Lots of cameras now have a GPS built right in, but a GPS is a heavy power user. Should you decide to save your camera battery, or if your camera doesn’t have a GPS, consider marking the spot you took a particularly good shot, like the one of the bear trying to get into your canister.
Many GPS devices will tell you the exact time for sunset and sunrise.
Many hikers like to stop, eat dinner, and then hike a while longer before turning in for the night. Knowing when the sun will set can help you decide when to make that stop for dinner and just how much light you have left.
One final note: one area where GPS devices sometimes do NOT excel, even though they have a readout that appears to be quite accurate, is in calculating elevation.
Good hiking, Ray
Always enjoy and profit from your blogs, Ray. Keep ’em coming!
Thanks, Steve. Appreciate the kind words!
Can anyone recommend a really good GPS app for iPhone? I have yet to dive into using a GPS, but would like to play around with this a little. Always enjoy your blog posts!
Gaia recently released a major update of their app. I used it before the update and liked it a lot. Have been playing around with the updated version and like it even more. The display / detail on my iPhone is great, with ability to zoom in for details – and out for reference. The main downside is the learning curve as the Help (in the app’s Settings) is a collection of articles (by subject matter) – so a bit hit/miss. Plus, you need storage space on your phone for downloading maps that cover your Route area. The app allows you to choose the pixel of your download – with greater density providing clearer zooms – but consuming more storage space. Lastly, Gaia offers a great set of maps, including Gaia Topo and OpenHiking. If you pop for Premier, a larger selection of maps is available.
As long as you limit use of recording tracks to short stints – battery life should not be an issue as long as you use it in Airplane mode (so you will need to download maps and routes to your phone before the trip). To further save battery, I close the app if I’m not using it. My iPhone 7 will last 6-7 days on a charge.
I plan my trips (save routes, waypoints, etc) at Gaia.com and they sync to your phone app. Though you need to download a map for your route within the app – which is easy.
Lastly – their support has always been very timely with responses to my questions / suggestions.
I first learned about Gaia GPS on this blog and used it repeatedly on our recent two week JMT hike. (Had hope to do the whole JMT but trail conditions were too difficult.) It was invaluable. There is also the JMT Hiker app which is dedicated app for the JMT. I used it as well, but depended more on Gaia. A great advantage to Gaia is that you can use it anywhere, even in an airplane to track where you are as you fly high over the terrain. (Great fun)
Thanks Mike! I had heard about it, but nice to hear from people who actually use things. Appreciate it!
Kathy, I’ve not used it yet, but some youtubers that are thru hikers recommend
Guthook. You can get a JMT guide from them for 9.99 at the app store.
Hi Eric, that is actually the only one I have tried, and I had a hell of a time trying to figure it out.
And thanks Eric. I’m going to try it again.
I used my iPhone 5S with Guthook app for JMT through-hike. I would also refer to Elizabeth Wenk’a JMT book to decide area where we would stop each day so we were positioned for easy access to the next pass early the next day.
George….I’m going to need to spend some time with the Guthook app. I had a hard time figuring it out. I have the Wenk book on my Kindle app, (and love it) and somewhere I downloaded her waypoints. Just need to figure out how to get them into a GPS app. LOL. Thanks for the info!
Hey Kathy, I also heard REI has classes on GPS and compass nav.
There is also ( affiliated with REI) Adventure University.com. they have online classes on navigation, first aid, rock climbing.etc.It’s really great ! Even after the class, you have access to ALL the material you covered so you can always go back and review! REALLY good stuff!! They also go through finding a stranger hurt and how to “legally” handle it.Highly recommend taking a look!
Thanks Eric, I’m ok with compass nav, but the GPS thing is foreign to me. I actually took a map and compass class at REI, but the online option sounds intruiguing, particularly if they go into GPS! I am definitely going to have to go check that out. Thanks!
Eric do you have a link? AdventureUniversity.com is not an active website.
You might try this: https://www.rei.com/learn.html, although I’m not sure it is what Eric had in mind.
Thanks Ray – don’t think it’s the same thing, but a good resource nonetheless.
My view is that the batteries last much longer in a GPS than my phone.
I was on one hike where I dropped my radio. The GPS allowed me to mark my current location to drop my gear, then trace back accurately to find my radio, then head straight back to my gear to continue my hike. I do not believe my phone would have been able to do all this and still have decent battery power for the rest of the day.
Now the phone is nice in that it is my camera and with location services turned on, it will GPS tag my photos.
Thanks, Derek. You are absolutely right about battery life in most GPS units. Much better than phones!
Good info Derek. I do have a 4 oz. solar panel and a 5 oz. battery bank, so not really worried about power issues. I don’t currently have a GPS, and don’t want to buy one, until I am better able to evaluate the different features. As of right now, I need to learn more about using the GPS features on the phone, and then a real GPS will most likely be the next step. But it’s great to hear that the battery on a GPS is decent. Thanks!