How to use a Smartphone for GPS Navigation

How to use a Smartphone for GPS Navigation

Martin
12 minute read

It is highly likely that you hold in your hand a piece of navigation technology that only a few decades ago was available only to the military and scientific communities. However, Global Positioning System (GPS) technology today is everywhere, most commonly in a smartphone. So the question is: How to use a Smartphone for GPS Navigation

With the decreasing cost of technology, you can now easily purchase a low cost rugged outdoor smartphone for under $200 that will replace a dedicated handlheld GPS navigation device, and be easier to use and more versatile too. Read on to understand how to use your Smartphone for GPS Navigation.

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How GPS works on your Phone

GPS stands for Global Positioning System, which is basically a network of satellites that can determine the location of a gps enabled device anywhere on earth. This is very useful in outdoor navigation applications such as travel and rescue.

While modern smartphone use AGPS, a hybrid of cell phone and satatlite triangulation, you don't need cell phone coverage to use GPS navigation. This is an important factor for outdoor use, as you may find it difficult to get mobile coverage in remote locations.

AGPS adds cellular location data to assist geolocation. Your phone carrier knows where you are since your phone "pings" cell towers. How precise this is will depend on the strength of the signal between your phone and the tower, but it's usually good enough to be used for location data.

Jerry Hildenbrand - Android Central

Despite your GPS system working without cell coverage, it is important that you have up-to-to-date maps loaded before you leave an area with mobile data coverage. If you don't, your phone will find you, but you won't know where you are without a base map!

GPS has better performance when the satellite line of sight is unobstructed This usually results in heavy tree cover, deep canyons, or other things getting in the way. But I've found generally excellent GPS coverage in our tests, including in dense forests and canyons.

Navigation Apps

There are various navigation and mapping apps available that are suitable for hiking and biking. They come in at different prices, usually dictated by the quality of mapping included with the package. If you are considering outdoor wilderness expeditions, you should choose appropriately as some apps are better suited to this than others.

Of course, there are plenty of free navigation apps available and intro versions, but even paying a one-off payment represents excellent value for money. The apps we will cover all utilize your smartphone's inbuilt GPS capability and come with base mapping and downloadable GPX files.

 

Gaia GPS

This app is a favorite among the backcountry bikepacking community as it works on both Android and iOS. Gaia GPS gets updated regularly, and it gives you unlimited access to a wide range of global mapping layers, including IGN maps in Spain and USGS in the United States. It also has options to use Google Maps and OpenStreetMap (OSM). 

Before you set off on your trip, we recommend that you find the best mapping you'll need and download it to your phone. Mapping is available in different scales giving different levels of detail, and a popular scale is Level 14 (1:48,000). The download is relatively compact at this scale, but it still has a good level of detail. 

Android phones tend to outperform iPhones when it comes to mapping, as you can use their SD card to store your mapping. With an iPhone, you might find that the mapping soon eats into your phone's memory. For following tracks and paths, Gaia has an option to download five tiles on either side of your route. This feature is called Download Map Along Track and will save memory.

 

Google Maps

You're probably used to using Google Maps for general route planning and navigation. Google Maps is also great for finding local attractions, bike shops, fuel stations, accommodation, and other useful places. 

You can download larger mapping sections from Google Maps, around 120,000 square kilometers, to your phone, although this is for a limited time of thirty days. This feature is particularly useful if you need to navigate a city or have several routes to cover but know you'll have no cell network coverage. 

For wilderness or backcountry navigation, Google Maps is more limited. To get an idea of contouring and the shape of the land, you should swap to Terrain view or even try Google Earth. Google is okay for planning cycling routes, but you may find it directing you down private roads. 

 

Ride With GPS (RWGPS)

Another popular navigation app is Ride With GPS. You can start using this app for free, but you'll need to subscribe to access its full range of features. 

RWGPS has an Offline Maps feature, and this allows you to prepare your maps and routes before setting out on your trip. There is also a thriving community around RWGPS and an incredible amount of shared routes. 

 

Komoot

Available as a mobile app or desktop version, Komoot offers navigation through either portal. It comes with plenty of curated content, which, along with its sophisticated routing engine, sets it apart from other navigation apps. 

If you enjoy a blend of hiking and mixed-terrain mountain biking, then Komoot could be the app for you. If you are only into road cycling, this app may not be the right fit, especially since it comes at a one-off lifetime payment. 

To navigate using Komoot, you first need to unlock some mapping. The app comes with one free region, and then you have the option to buy single areas or region bundles. The single free map is fine for trialing the app, but not much else, so you need to be prepared to purchase some maps.

 

Other Navigation Apps

MTB Project, Google Earth, and Wikiloc are a few of the other decent navigation apps available for hiking and biking. Strava is another one, and it has a heat-map of popular riding routes. You can download Strava's GPX files if you have access to the Premium version. For Android users, AlpineQuest, Backcountry, Navigator, and Orux are particularly popular. 

An excellent free mapping app that you can use offline is Maps.me. This one is particularly useful for long-distance bike travelers or if you're going to another country on a biking trip. Depending on the region you are traveling to, the mapping is well detailed and precise. You can download the napping for the entire country before arriving and have quick access to it offline as soon as you arrive.

If you simply want to record or log your longer routes and workouts, you could also consider a GPS-enabled cycling computer. The Xoss G GPS bike computer is an excellent and very inexpensive option for GPS ride logging.

How to use a Smartphone for GPS Navigation - handheld rugged smartphone gps

GPS Without Network Coverage 

As mentioned previously, even when your adventures take you to remote parts of the world with no cell network coverage, your GPS will still work fine. That is because your phone's GPS relies on receiving signals from satellites rather than cell towers. Therefore, even when you are 'off grid' in the wilderness, you can still use your phone as a navigation aid. 

However, even though your GPS will function without access to a cell network, you must download the correct mapping before going beyond network coverage. If you don't, your phone will still be able to calculate your location, but it will have no means of showing that to you. 

To receive a good GPS signal, your phone must have a good signal path to the satellite. Heavily wooded areas, steep canyons, and large objects can impede your phone's line-of-sight with the satellite and degrade the GPS signal's reception. Having said that, it is still mainly possible to get excellent GPS coverage in most places.

 

Phone Battery Life When Using GPS

The Routzz app is designed to shut off the screen between navigation cues by default (the screen is the single biggest power drain on most smartphones), and since the guide and route data is preloaded, you are only using GPS for navigation. The result is a full day's battery life on most phones with a decent battery capacity. 

GPS might take something like 100mW-200mW. Typical phone batteries are between 4000 and 8000 mWh. This means if all your phone was doing was running GPS, it would take 40 hours to discharge the battery.

Waleed Kadous on Quora

Regardless of which navigation app you are using, it will be useless if your smartphone's battery dies. If you are in a backcountry location with no access to power, you must conserve your phone's battery charge. Here are a few tips to ensure you've got enough charge for your trip:

  • Activate airplane mode and low-power modes. 

  • Avoid recording your tracks, as doing so will use additional power. 

  • Shut down all other apps.

  • Switch your phone off when you're not using it. 

  • If camping, keep your phone warm by having it close to your body at night.

  • Turn off location services in other apps. 

  • Keep your screen brightness low.

Charging Your Phone 

Being away from the power grid doesn't mean you have to go without a phone charging facility. There are plenty of lightweight charging options available, ranging from power banks to solar chargers. When it comes to charging leads, try to get a universal one and keep it short. When you've got to back-pack everything, it's all about keeping things minimal.

Mounting Your Smartphone To Your Bike

How to use a Smartphone for GPS Navigation - handlebar mounted smartphone

Smartphone handlebar mounts for your bicycle come in many different styles and at various price points. When considering solutions to mount your Smartphone to your bike, there are 3 things to bear in mind:

1. Waterproofing

Chances are you will experience inclement weather at some stage of your travels. Snow, rain, or water from puddles will do your phone no good, so you need to ensure that it's adequately waterproofed. Unless you own a Rugged Smartphone, don't rely on the phone's inbuilt waterproofing; make sure your smartphone mount has a waterproof screen or a sealed cover into which the phone is encased.

2. Durability

Ensure that the mount you choose is robust and provides a secure fixing both to the phone and to your bicycle. This means the mount itself should be made from durable materials, and as you don't want your phone moving around or falling off while you are on a trail, the clamping mechanism needs to be secure.

3. Versatility

There are plenty of phone mounts that are designed specifically for one type of phone. This might be the best solution while you have that particular phone model. However, what happens when you decide to change your phone? Opting for a mount that will fit any smartphone could be your best option, and a great solution if you use one phone for work and one for play.

 

Smartphone Navigation App or Dedicated GPS?

Ultimately, it is a choice between using smartphone navigation apps or getting a dedicated GPS device for your navigation needs. To help you decide, here are a few advantages and disadvantages of using a smartphone navigation app:

 

Advantages of Smartphone Navigation

  • They are intuitive to use and have a modern look and feel to them. Compared to a smartphone navigation app, a dedicated GPS can appear old-fashioned and clunky to use.

  • For route-finding, a smartphone navigation app is easier to use than a dedicated GPS device. 

  • A good-quality navigation app gives you access to an incredible range of mapping from all over the world.

  • With a smartphone, you can use the device's keyboard for programming and naming routes and waypoints quickly and easily.

  • There is no need to tether a smartphone to a computer when importing or exporting GPX files.

  • Chances are, you already own a smartphone, so there is no need to purchase a separate device. 

  • A smartphone has more versatility than a dedicated GPS device. You can use your smartphone for other things than navigation - even making a phone call!

 

Disadvantages of Smartphone Navigation

  • Battery life on a smartphone is generally low, so you will need to have some method of charging or carry additional power packs. This issue is compounded if you are going on an extended expedition or trip. 

  • Smartphone navigation apps are less well-suited to navigation on a single track. Dedicated GPS device screens tend to be more suitable for this because they are clearer to view. 

  • Specialist cases to improve protection and robustness are expensive. 

  • If the weather is cold or wet, it can be challenging to use. Gloved hands or a damp screen do not make for easy operation.

  • Smartphones are not designed to operate in extreme temperatures, unlike a dedicated GPS device. 

  • In some situations, a dedicated GPS device will offer better mapping. However, this mapping does tend to be expensive. 

  • A smartphone battery will drain quickly, so you need to adopt power-management practices. Also, consider using your smartphone in conjunction with an affordable GPS cycling computer.

 

Conclusion 

Smartphone navigation apps have opened up a whole new world of exploration. Access to satellite imagery, location identification, and worldwide mapping means that pretty much nowhere is off-limits for your next adventure. 

This is in fact why we decided to offer our smartphone navigation apps to outdoor explorers around the world. After many years offering our self guided tours to our clients using our own rugged smartphones, we realized that pretty much everyone has their own handheld navigation device in their back pocket! 

Try using a smartphone navigation app to discover new adventures in your own backyard. 

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