GPS is a term thrown around a lot these days but when it all comes down to it, something with GPS can show where you are on a map.

In this article:

What is a GPS?

GPS and Cell Reception

GPS units vs phone apps

GPS articles


What is a GPS?

GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It’s a series of satellites floating around the earth that talks to an antennae in your GPS unit or phone. Using the signal from multiple satellites and some very complicated math, the GPS can figure out where you are on a map.

When you have a clear view of the sky, the GPS can clearly see more satellites and it’s location will be more accurate. If you are in dense tree cover, amongst many buildings or in a canyon, there aren’t as many satellites to see and accuracy will be lower.

GPS and cell reception

GPS connection and cell reception on your phone are different things. You can have a GPS connection to the satellites but be too far from any cell tower to get voice or date for your phone. This is important for map data.

GPS apps on your phone usually need two things: GPS reception to figure out where you are and data connection to download maps. If there’s no data to download maps then your phone will know where you are but can’t download the street or terrain maps to show it. But most apps can go offline to solve this.

When you download maps offline, you’re eliminating the need for data when you’re off the grid. When the maps are downloaded to your phone, you won’t need a data connection, just GPS. If you move into a new area where you don’t have maps downloaded, then you won’t be able to see anything. Some apps automatically download these maps for you, but for most, you have to find the download option and pick which ones you want.

GPS units vs phone apps

Right now there are 2 main groups of GPS: dedicated GPS units and phones.

Dedicated GPS are like a Garmin 64 series GPS that are just a GPS. That is it’s only function. They will show you a map, track where you’ve been and let you navigate to waypoints and routes.

Phones obviously do a lot more. With an app on your phone you can see your location on a map, track where you’ve been, navigate to waypoints and routes and take photos. After you’re done, you can use everything else on your phone or upload the tracks and images to websites online.

Dedicated GPS usually have larger GPS antennae than phones do and so can connect to more satellites for a more accurate signals. They also can have much better battery life. Dedicated GPS usually have battery life measured in days where as phone battery life is measured in hours when using the GPS.

GPS Articles

GPS is an in-depth topic. Dig in to these other articles.

Other Backpacking Gear

You’ll need more than just a GPS to head out backpacking. Here are guides to all the other gear you need for backpacking.