Outdoor GPS unit or mobile GPS app

GPS unit, GPS watch or mobile phone app

Outdoor GPS unit or mobile GPS app

Outdoor GPS unit or mobile GPS app on your mobile phone, which will meet your requirements best.

Each year people come to us here at the Outdoor GPS Shop and ask, what is the difference between a standalone Outdoor GPS Unit or Mobile GPS App, which will meet your requirements best.

This is a very good question as it is important as when you are heading out that you have the correct choice for your needs.

Here at Outdoor GPS Shop we only sell handheld GPS units and GPS watches but the truth of the matter is one of these options may not be the best fit for you, in fact, a GPS app you can download and use on your mobile phone may be a better option.

What this article is going to do is explain the pros and cons of each type of navigational experience in an honest transparent manner. This way by the end you will be able to identify which is the best fit for you.

Before I start I must thank you for everybody who helped me put this article together, including friends from the Outdoor Gear UK Facebook page and also Lindley Chambers, from Challenge Running (safety co-coordinator for the Spine races, both summer and winter editions).

Mobile Phone app

Some examples (in no order) – Viewranger, OS App, Memory Map, Google maps

1. Battery life

One of the key things to think of if you are going to download and use a GPS app on your mobile phone is battery life. As we have all experienced, when the screen on your smartphone is lit it uses plenty of battery, also if you are out of mobile phone signal or out in cold conditions this can also drain your battery.

Yes, there are solutions to this, you could take a power pack and charge your mobile phone halfway through the day, this would always be recommended as if your phone goes flat and you need it in an emergency, the phone could literally save your life.

Therefore, if you are thinking of using your mobile GPS app please do think about a backup battery to keep your phone charged ‘just in case’.

Another good top tip if you use your smartphone as a GPS put it in airplane mode, this will still let the  GPS work but it doesn’t keep using a lot of energy hunting for a signal in poor reception areas. Also keeping your smartphone close to your body in very cold temperatures can also help preserve the battery life.

2. Durability

The second factor when using your mobile phone outdoors is durability and what happens if it rains.

Many of us have accidentally dropped our phones and had to pay for a replacement screen, a modern smartphone is frankly a very expensive high-quality screen so we need to protect it.

The other thing to think of is what will you do if it rains. Some of the more expensive smartphones are now fully waterproof, I know I have done some underwater footage with my smartphone and it survived.

You need to check with your manufacturer if your GPS is waterproof.

A good solution to both of these problems is putting your GPS in something like an aquapac. These are waterproof pouches that you can still use the touchscreen on your smartphone and also it will help protect your screen, Also they make your phone easier to handle and less chance of your dropping your phone when outdoors.

If the weather is cold you may struggle to use the touch screen on your smartphone, if this is the case you may want to get some gloves that have the small pads on so you can use a touchscreen with the gloves on. Another alternative is to use a touch screen stylus on a piece of cord.

3. GPS Fix on your mobile phone

Sometimes smartphones can struggle to get a fix on where you are. If your phone is struggling to get a GPS fix make sure that you have the GPS switched on, iPhones refer to this as – location services. As well as using the GPS the phone will use the mobile phone network 9if you have one to give you an accurate position of where you are.

4. Which mobile phone GPS apps

This is not a review of the different mobile phone GPS apps, that may come later, but some examples are Viewranger, OS App, Memory Map and Google maps

The key thing is mobile phone GPS apps come in three categories and it is the third of these we need to use if wanting maps when in the outdoors.

– Map only Apps

Google maps fall into this category, many of us have used an app like this to navigate in an urban environment, and it is a great navigational experience in the town and city, far better than any outdoor GPS unit will ever be. It streams the map data over a fast-urban mobile phone network.

But these should not be used in a rural setting, the maps need to be streamed live so if no network, no maps and the maps don’t show footpaths and bridleways which is what we are going to walk along in the countryside. They also will not give you a grid reference.

– Maps and navigational Apps

Some of these apps are like a standalone GPS unit, the key thing is to choose an app that can be used offline. Some of the free or entry-level GPS apps have to be online to download the map, so just like Google maps above, no mobile phone signal, no maps.

So you need to use a GPS app that you can download the maps onto your phone before you head off, the maps will be large file sizes so again make sure you have the memory capacity on your phone to store these downloaded maps.

What better excuse to delete all those pictures, videos and music tracks from your smartphone? You can’t beat a good tidy up.

– Position Only Apps

These mobile apps are very limited in their functionality, but they are are for one thing, to give you a position fix. In the UK we will be looking for a Grid Reference, or British National Grid to give it the correct name.

It is not bad practice to have one of these apps on your mobile phone as a backup, either to your standalone GPS device or your maps and navigational app described above.

Many of these apps are free and vary in accuracy, so download one and test it before you head off. I know we have experienced some very varied results in these kinds of apps.

5. So, to summarise

Over recent times many Mountain rescue teams, rightly, have expressed concerns about heading into the countryside with just a mobile phone app to navigate. BUT if you are using a paper map as your main form of navigation and your mobile phone app is just for backup and just to confirm you are where you think you are and as long as you have addressed the issues in points one and two (battery like and durability) and you have chosen a map that can be used offline these apps are a great introduction into the world of outdoor GPS navigation.

I have also met a number of people that use an old smartphone as their GPS, take the SIM card out and download the GPS app onto it at home using the wifi. Then as your unit is not searching for a mobile phone signal it should improve the battery life considerably. But please be aware, if you are using an old phone the battery life may be poorer as the battery may be coming to the end of its like anyway.

Often GPS apps are cheap, so there is no harm in downloading one and giving it a go.

6. When I asked Lindley Chambers, from Challenge Running (safety co-coordinator for the Spine races, both summer and winter editions), when is a phone acceptable he kindly gave the following advice

  • It’s one of those “It depends” scenarios.

If you cant read a map but can use your phone with an app like Viewranger or OS locate/maps then that’s better than not having anything.

If you are on a tourist path with lots of other people in good weather on an easy to find route then no big deal, after all we see people all the time on paths with a phone and no map and they are usually ok.

If you are competent with an app and your phone or your GPS watch and know how long the battery lasts and how to use them then great as long as you know your limits and the limit of the kit you are using. But many don’t.

  • If you are going somewhere in bad or changeable weather with higher risk and more remote then a phone really should not be your only means of navigation.

Always think “what if”, if you drop your phone or it gets wet or runs out of power then what’s the plan?

Standalone Outdoor GPS device

Some examples – Garmin and SatMaphandheld units and GPS watches

1. Durability

The key thing with a dedicated GPS device (whether a watch or a handheld unit) is the durability.

These things are meant for the outdoors, you can drop them, submerge them in water and hit them with a hammer and the don’t break. Before you ask, yes, I have hit a GPS screen with a hammer.

2. Cost

The big downside of a standalone GPS unit is the cost, and this is where the GPS app on your mobile phone wins over. If you are a summer walker and don’t tend to venture out if the weather is bad and you always take a paper map, why not use the GPS app on your mobile phone.

Yes, you can get a basic GPS for a couple of hundred pounds but really you should be thinking of spending around £500.00 for a decent GPS unit or watch. We could get into the debate that the latest iPhone or Galaxy phone is twice that much if you buy it outright, but many people are shielded from that cost by buying these devices on a monthly contract.

3. Offline maps

With and dedicated GPS device the maps are all offline, either on a memory card or stored on the internal memory.

The other nice thing is if you are heading overseas you can just pop in the map card for that country, you change a few settings, as I suspect giving the rescue services a British National Grid in Portugal may not go down too well.

4. True navigational device

A dedicated GPS system gives you a great ‘navigational experience’, this is the car sat nav experience but off-road.

When you are navigating a pre-planned walk your GPS will be telling you how long it is until your next turn and how far and at what time you are going to get to your final destination. If you do plan your walks beforehand on your PC or a mobile phone app (now that’s ironic isn’t it), to me the maps on the screen are just a background image as you are following an arrow telling you where you should be going.

I am amazed how many people get hung up about the maps, I say to these people, I don’t get in your BMW and tell you how great your maps are on your SatNav compared to by trust Tom Tom, I don’t really care I just want the thing to tell me to turn left in three miles.

The same also should be looked at when buying an Outdoor GPS, the maps are there for you to plan your route on, but when you are being navigated along that activity the maps are frankly just a background image.

5. Power and batteries

This to me is one of the key things. Many outdoor GPS devices have either phenomenal battery life if they have built-in batteries or often many devices run on AA batteries so you can change them if they go flat.

Some of the new GPS watches have power management modes so you can shut off non-essential things on your watch and the battery life turns into days and weeks.

These things are made to run day after day and if you are camping or off-grid, that’s not a problem as you can either just pop another set of batteries in many of the Outdoor GPS devices.

6. Dedicated device

I believe you should have a dedicated device, I love my smartphone and I am the person who goes and buys the latest iPhone outright from the Apple store and loves it to bits, but when out in the hills on that wet misty day my smartphone is packed away in a waterproof Aquapac in my rucksack, just in case.

My standalone buttoned GPS unit is on my rucksack strap on a backpack tether, soaking through and with my thick winter gloves on I can use it and I know this thing is going to power on whatever the elements throw at it.

7. When I asked Lindley Chambers, from Challenge Running (safety co-coordinator for the Spine races, both summer and winter editions), why an outdoor GPS unit should be used he kindly gave the following advice and also he touched on some other key points

  • Durability and reliability – Outdoor GPS unit or Mobile GPS App, handhelds are generally built for the job and are reliable and waterproof and tough. Depending on models they are easier to use in bad weather and can be used with gloves on etc.
  • Crossover of safety roles, if you use your watch to record the run or route then also relying on it to be your emergency location device to get you a grid or navigate with is putting all your eggs in one basket which has risks. If you use your phone as navigation and your emergency call facility again too many eggs in one basket. If your phone or watch goes down you loose everything.
  • We cant discuss the merits of each device and capabilities between watches and phones and handhelds, there is so much crossover in function. Handhelds have similar capability and function so on events this is what we require participants to use.
  • Learn to read a map and use a compass well, even if you mostly use a dedicated GPS device or your phone or watch.
  • Know how to use your kit, like the map and compass any electronic device is useless if you don’t know how to use it well. I spend time teaching this stuff and it amazes me how many people think you just take it out of a box and use it.
  • Think about battery life in cold and wet weather, phones are crap with gps running constantly, think 4 hours for an iphone to maybe 8 hours for a top android phone. Touch screens are rubbish in the wet and cold. How do you charge it?
  • If you don’t practice with any of this stuff often it’s pointless how good it is.
  • Know how to call for help and text 999.

These are Lindley’s thoughts on what he takes on his activities – Outdoor GPS unit or Mobile GPS App

  • Local routes or familiar areas of low risk and shorter duration.

I am unlikely to take a map as I either have a rough idea or I have my phone as a back-up GPS with Viewranger on it. I will primarily use my GPS watch for navigation and GPS location in an emergency. I have a phone that I know will last for 3-4 days with GPS on that is fully waterproof and drop tested.

  • Longer routes or unfamiliar areas with medium risk

I will take my GPS watch still probably as a primary source and use my phone as an occasional check or overview, my watch can load routes I have planned onto it. I will probably take my handheld Garmin as an emergency back up with a fresh set of batteries.

  • Very long or high risk routes including multi-day stuff

All of the above plus a map and compass and most likely my spot tracker too. I would still usually use my GPS watch on a planned route and my handheld or phone on a route I have not planned or maybe be practising with my map and compass.

I hope this helped – Outdoor GPS unit or mobile GPS app

As I said at the beginning I have tried to be as impartial as I can, it is important as when you are heading out for that walk or cycle ride that you have the correct choice for your needs.

Here at the Outdoor GPS Shop we only sell handheld GPS units and GPS watches but the truth of the matter is one of these options may not be the best fit for you, in fact a GPS app you can download and use on your mobile phone may be a better option. The choice is yours – Outdoor GPS unit or mobile GPS app

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  • Alan Sykes Reply

    Good article with some great points. It’s worth stressing that a GPS of any description is never a replacement for being able to look at a map and understand it. I’d always advise the ability to revert to map and compass where necessary.

    I would stress (especially given our conversation) that apps are not your property. You don’t ‘own’ them. You own the right to use them. You are effectively leasing them although you may have paid a fixed one off fee for that. This is the same for ebooks and music though very few people realise it. So your app could be pulled at any time!

    May 12, 2020 at 9:21 am

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