Smartphone and Tablet GPS- NOT!

Smartphones and tablet computers are useful and fun gadgets. But are they a good way to navigate in wilderness when your life depends on finding your way? No.

The GPS receiver in a smartphone is designed to help 911 dispatchers locate you during an emergency call. Cell phones also use the cellular phone network to help locate you. The system is designed for urban areas and is not nearly as sensitive as the dedicated GPS chipsets that are used in handheld GPS receivers intended for serious navigation. Such handheld receivers are based on military designs and have several major advantages over the chipsets used in phones and tablets:

  • The receiver is much more sensitive, meaning it stays locked onto satellites in difficult conditions
  • Trail GPS receivers receive 12 or more satellites simultaneously, keeping the navigation lock where the sky is partially obscured, such as heavy forest cover
  • Battery life is at least 16 hours, and much more if you leave the unit off except when checking your position
  • Trail GPS receivers use commonly available AA or AAA batteries which are easily replaced in the field
  • Most trail units are waterproof
  • Maps are stored in the receiver's memory and you won't lose them if you go out of cell phone range

Rescue authorities advise that backcountry adventurers not use phones for navigation because they're having to rescue more and more people whose phones died or can't get service. You should always carry a printed map and a good liquid-filled compass- the batteries NEVER go dead. Thensupplement those with a reliable trail GPS receiver.