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Backpacking Gear for Beginners: GPS and Phone Apps

This post is part of the Backpacking Gear for Beginners course.

Why do you need a GPS or a GPS phone app? 

Some trails are marked clearly with signs and trail markers but many are not. GPS, or Global Positioning System, is a system of satellites that connects to your phone or handheld unit and tells you exactly where you are on the planet. 

GPS can be dedicated units like a Garmin 66s or just an app on your phone that talks to the GPS satellites. One thing to keep in mind is that running a GPS app on your phone will drain the battery faster. Make sure you know how long your phone battery lasts and take an extra battery to charge. Don’t kill your phone battery with a GPS app if you need it for emergency communication.

Most GPS units and apps can load track files, or breadcrumbs, that show you exactly where a trail is. Many websites have tracks available that you can follow. These are a great way to see exactly where you are trying to go and how to get there. Don’t forget you also need to get back to the car once you’ve made your destination.

GPS or phone app?

Dedicated GPS units will be a little heavier to carry but you’ll still have a phone as backup if your GPS battery dies or breaks. A phone will be lighter to carry and do many other things for you. I prefer to carry both, having the phone for backup and not running the battery low in case of emergencies.

Does it come with maps?

Some GPS and apps are loaded with maps right from the get go. Some require you purchase topo maps or premium versions of the apps to actually get the maps you need. Check for your area and the type of maps before buying.

Are the features you want, like offline mode, in a premium version?

GPS and apps almost always have different versions that come with different features. A GPS unit might only come with maps preloaded in certain versions. Some apps only have offline mode in the premium versions. Check before heading out into the woods. 

Carry enough batteries for the GPS or app to last

Activating the GPS and having the screen on with phones takes extra battery power. Practice on smaller trails so you know how long your phone or GPS lasts while using the maps. Always carry a backup battery and cable to charge your phone if you run out of juice and really need to use it.

Test out your GPS and phone and figure out how to make the battery last the longest 

GPS have certain options that drain the battery faster. Having the screen on will drain the battery longer or saving tracking points more often. Disable or change these power-hungry features and your battery will last longer.

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