Using Your Phone as a GPS Device While Backpacking

Using Your Phone as a GPS Device While Backpacking

(Last Updated: May 7, 2019)

Are you planning a hike and are wondering how you will navigate through the woods? Worry not. Times have changed. You no longer need physical maps or compasses. What you need is probably right on your hand as you read this—that’s your phone.

This is how it works. Your phone is capable of receiving information from GPS satellites so as to calculate your device’s location. Using the right software the phone will even display the exact location of the device on the map. On top of that, it may give directions to other various locations. These features make your phone a cheap accurate alternative GPS device.

Although it is highly recommended that every nature enthusiast is well conversant with the primary tools of navigation (use of map and compass), technology is quickly taking over. Thus, we cannot afford to ignore this cheap and useful navigation tool.

Why you still need a GPS navigation device?

GPS navigation device

The thrill of backpacking is in the adventure of exploring new areas. However, this fun can be lost the moment you get lost in an unknown location. Other locations can be very dangerous. That is why you definitely need a GPS device. A GPS device together with your map and compass will help you know exactly where you are.

Imagine walking many miles in an uneven terrain only to realize that you are already past your campsite. Or, you are looking for a certain landmark and are not sure of where it is. Maybe you are wondering, “I’m I still following the correct path?” No need to worry about this. If you have a phone GPS app, such questions and worries are resolved promptly. You will only need to understand how the app works in identifying your location anywhere.

If you are able to use your phone as a GPS device your backpacking trips will be more fun and stress-free. This is especially true for any person who loves hiking. If you are able to incorporate a few easy phone apps to your outdoor treks then, the worries and hustles of getting lost will be no more.

Advantages of using your phone as a GPS device

Although other portable GPS devices can come in handy when you are in a new location, most of them are quite expensive to purchase and are not easy to use. On top of that, carrying a portable GPS device will add to the weight of your luggage.

Here is where your phone comes to your rescue. On top of using it as an entertainment device, camera, and flashlight at night, you use it as your outdoor GPS navigation device.

How does the GPS of your phone work?

GPS of your phone work

Understanding how your phone determines where you are is complex. But we will break it down for you. Let’s start with the basics. GPS is the short form for Global Positioning System. It is a radio navigation system which uses radio waves between satellites and your phone’s receiver to give information regarding your location any time to any person who may require it. The process is very accurate and is extremely essential for any kind of travel, whether hiking or trekking.

Do you need cell service for phone’s GPS to work?

cell service

The answer to this question is very simple – no, you don’t. You do not require cell service or WIFI for your phone’s GPS to function. In fact, this GPS feature will work perfectly fine even when your phone is in Airplane Mode. Here is why. Your phone’s GPS feature does not depend on cellular connections; instead, it communicates with GPS satellites to track your location. That means that the service is reliable even in very isolated areas.

Although you do not need a connection for your GPS system to work, it is extremely crucial for you to pre-download the right maps to your smartphone before traveling backcountry. Failure to do this will make the feature useless. This is because the GPS system will still track you but you will appear as a blue dot on a vague map.

Additionally, for your GPS system to function properly, the receiver (which in our case is your phone) requires a well-defined signal path to GPS satellites. Any obstructions from dense forests, hills and other objects will alter with its functionality. However, most phones have been seen to still function well even in areas with a lot of obstruction from dense forest cover.

Which are the best apps for backpacking?

There are two top GPS location tracking apps that we highly recommend to every backpacker. These are Gaia GPS and Topo Maps+. Included in this list is another very essential app that will give you driving directions even without a signal connection. The app is called These three will make your backpacking navigation very smooth. Read on to find out how they function.

Gaia GPS

This app has a database of numerous downloadable maps. Some of the maps included are the NeoTracks US Topo, ESRI World Imagery, National Geographic Trails Illustrated among many others.

Assuming you have already downloaded the map of the area you are traveling to, you will only need to load it in the Gaia GPS app to enjoy offline GPS tracking. Additionally, you can make your own custom maps by including personal trails, overlays, waypoints, and other important landmarks. Other details such as public and private land boundaries can also be added to the map.

This apps user interface is user-friendly and with a bit of learning is easy to understand. An outstanding feature of this app is that it can allow you to record your entire journey. However, if you are looking to increase the life of your battery you can skip using this feature. Once you download the app you will have three levels to choose from. These are free, membership and premium membership. Additionally, various tutorials on how to use the apps are readily available in the market today.

Topo Maps+

This is a unique app that is specially made for backpackers by some of their own. Topo Maps+ has several awesome maps such as the National Geographic illustrated, USGS Top among many others. Also, you can easily download and print very clear maps because of their extremely high resolution. On top of that, you will have access to data from more than 500,000 trails.

Other outstanding features of this app are the ability to custom make new routes, to include new waypoints, and to see the distances along the tracks you are on. Just like other apps, you will need a few minutes to learn its functionality, but you will be glad you did. is an app that will come in handy in leading your way to and fro your destination. This is what it does. By loading a pre-downloaded map of the region you are visiting, this app will provide you with directions to any location within that region.

The reason why you cannot afford to ignore this app is that you can use it even when you are offline. Although this app cannot match the standards of google maps and the like, not many apps can match its functionality for offline navigation.

How do you use GPS navigation apps for backpacking?

use GPS navigation apps

To use your phone as a GPS device there are a few things you need to do. First, pre-download maps of the region you intend to visit. On downloading these maps, your phone will automatically indicate where you are on a topo map once you are in that region.

Are you wondering which offline maps you need to download? A good idea is to download two maps, a detailed map, and a satellite map. The detailed map will be essential while you are identifying waypoints, path trails, and other crucial trailheads. The second map will come in handy when you want to monitor the landscape of the area or are searching for a nearby campsite.

In case your journey will involve several off-trail routes, we highly recommend downloading GPX tracks for such routes. However, these are not always available.

Cell phone battery

Cell phone battery

How can I conserve my cell phone battery life?

A phone is an essential gear for every backpacker. It can be very frustrating to have your phone’s battery dies too soon, even worse, if you plan on using your phone as your GPS navigation device. Therefore it is extremely necessary for you to learn a few ways you can use to conserve the phone’s battery life. Below are a few tips.

  • Use airplane mode
  • Turn on low power mode
  • Dim your screen
  • Switch off background activity – these are all those other apps you are not using
  • Switch off your phone when you are not using it
  • Turn off location services in your phone’s apps
  • Turn off push notification – these will prevent your screen from lighting up every few minutes
  • Set your screen auto-lock interval to be the smallest interval possible
  • Avoid exposing your phone to extremely low temperatures which can drain your battery even when it is off
  • Do not record your trails since it quickly consumes your battery
  • Take fewer photos and videos

Options for recharging your batteries

If you plan to be out camping for a few days, you definitely need to know how you will recharge your battery should it run out of juice. There are a variety of options available. You either use solar panels, power banks or even look for any nearby charging stations available. However, the most convenient option is the use of lightweight power banks.

This one is commonly referred to as the world’s most stylish, portable and compact power bank for any smart device – including Android and iPhones. It has a charge capacity of 3350 mAh which is approximately two complete charges for a standard phone’s battery. Charging a single phone to full capacity takes around three hours. We love it is because it’s super affordable to get this lightweight device.

Also, since backpacking requires you to pack small, a good idea is to carry a single universal charging cord that is compatible with all your devices.

Perform a prior functionality test for your phone’s GPS

To avoid any disappointments, time wastage, and unanticipated inconveniences on your trip, we recommend testing your GPS navigation apps beforehand. Note that since it is your first time using this app, you need enough time to get the hang of it.

The best way would be to pre-download some few maps of your current region and go to the outdoors for a short test hike. While at it, make sure you refer to the map from time to time until you are well conversant with the app.

Additionally, this is a good chance to do an actual test on the performance of your battery life. During your hike, put your phone on airplane mode, dim the screen, and turn on low power mode. This will give you a realistic picture of how the battery will perform in the woods.

Also, keep in mind that while camping or hiking, you will have no access to cell service. And, all search engines will be out of reach. Thus, you need to fully understand how to use your GPS app prior to your trip.

Have a backup plan

Bad days always knock at the most unexpected times. Imagine you are only relying on your phone’s app to navigate through a new area only for it to get lost or fail to function…That’s why you need to have a reliable alternative option.

Bring along your physical map and compass. These will never fail, run out of juice, or even stop functioning. Although they can be time-consuming and difficult to use, they will aid in finding your way to and from a campsite. Also, you will not have to worry about getting lost in the woods.

Regardless of where you are going or how long you are going, always pack your map and compass in your backpack. You never know the exact moment you might need them.

Additional tips

Go for backpacks with shoulder straps and hip belts

These will save you the bother of having to remove your backpack now and then so as to access your phone to refer for direction. These hip and shoulder pockets are perfect for storage of your phone, camera, power bank, and other small portable devices.

Laminate your maps using waterproof paper

Many GPS apps allow you to download and print maps which you can refer to on your trip. Laminating or printing these maps on a waterproof paper will protect them from any water damage while on your trip.

Use a waterproof and shockproof case for your phone

What if your phone falls in water? Or, what if it falls down and your screen completely cracks? You can avoid these from happening by investing in a quality waterproof and shockproof phone case. This is a very essential item especially if you are relying on your phone as your main navigation tool.

What to do in case of emergencies while backpacking?

Remember that GPS apps only help with offline navigation. But, what will you do in case you are in a dangerous situation that requires you to call for help?

This is why you need to carry a reliable satellite messaging communicator. These devices do not require cellular network and can send short messages, monitor your trip, or even send a distress signal just by the push of a button. Below are some of the best satellite messaging apps.

On top of being a very lightweight device (3.5 oz), the Garmin inReach Mini allows 2–way offline texting with a confirmation alert, storage of downloaded offline maps, weather predictions, location tracking, a 24/7 interactive SOS search and rescue center, and many other features. Also, this communicator features an impressively long life battery that can last up to 50 hours.


This is yet another impressive satellite messaging device. With this device, you can easily track your trip, send SOS texts to rescue centers, share custom messages to family or friends, and even share your location to your contacts. Also, the SPOT device is lightweight and uses 4 AAA lithium batteries which are rechargeable or can be replaced once they run out.


This one is an upgrade to the Garmin inReach Mini. It has a longer battery life (up to 100 hours), a bigger screen and several preloaded topo maps that you can use for GPS navigation. On top of that, you will have an inbuilt digital compass to help you with directions.



Undoubtedly, installing a phone GPS navigation app is a must for every backpacker. However, never forget to pack your physical map, compass, satellite GPS messenger, a power bank, and of course a universal charging cord. All these are items you will need for your trip. It is our hope that the info in this article offers you a comprehensive guide on using your phone as a GPS navigation device for your next backcountry trip.


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