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Hiker Smartphone Navigation App and GPS Device Use Trends

Use of Analog and Digital Navigation Aids
Use of Analog and Digital Navigation Aids

Digital Smartphone Navigation Apps and GPS Devices have eclipsed the use of physical maps and magnetic compasses in terms of usability although their full scale adoption is still hindered by lingering battery life and network connectivity limitations. But how widespread is their use?

We recently surveyed 543 hikers across of wide range of abilities, experience, and locales to find out which navigation tools they carry on hikes and found that the full adoption of Smartphone Navigation Apps and GPS Devices is far less widespread than one might expect given the enthusiasm and hype surrounding them.

Map and Compass Use Remains Strong

Most hikers still use analog map and compasses to navigate or augment them with a Smartphone App and GPS Devices, despite the fact that they serve redundant functions. You can see this in the pie chart shown above, where 52.9% of the hikers we surveyed use a map or a map and compass to navigate, while 9.3% use a smart phone app or GPS device as their sole navigation tool. A full 34.3% use both analog (map and/or compass) and digital devices (Smartphone App and/or GPS device) to navigate in combination.

In order to understand the use of Smartphone Apps and GPS devices in conjunction with physical maps and compasses, it’s important to remember that they complement each other, even though they can have overlapping functions. For example, hikers use Apps and GPS units to collect tracks and waypoints, or measure distance hiked, time hiked, or cumulative elevation gain which are all functions that complement map and compass use. We speculate that the use of these complementary functions helps apps and GPS devices get traction with map and compass users, providing an “on-ramp” for further exploration and experimentation.

Navigation App Use is Twice GPS Device Use

Drilling down further, we see that 85% of the hikers surveyed use a physical map, while close to 56% use a compass, by itself or on conjunction with a map.

Hiker Navigation Aid Use by Tool
Hiker Navigation Aid Use by Tool

Smartphone App use is also more than twice that of GPS Device use, an interesting finding considering how recent Apps are compared to dedicated GPS Device units. Some of the hikers we surveyed, close to 4%, don’t carry any navigational aids, primarily because they hike on well-known or well-marked trails.

Most Popular Smartphone Navigation Apps

Here is a list of the most popular Smartphone Navigation Apps we identified in our survey. Which ones are your favorites?

About the Survey

This survey was run on the website which has over 280,000 unique readers per month, so a large pool of potential respondents. Readers were incented to participate in the survey in exchange for a chance to win a raffle for a piece of backpacking and camping gear. There were 544 people who responded to the survey, but 7 responses were removed as being incomplete or irrelevant, reducing the number of recorded responses to 537.

While we’re confident that the results are fairly representative of the general hiking population based on the size of the survey results where n=537 people, we can’t claim that the results are statistically significant because the population self-selected.

There are also a number of ways in which the results could be biased including: hikers who read might not be representative of all hikers, hikers who read Internet content might not be representative of all hikers, hikers who respond to raffle incentives might not be representative of all hikers, our methods for recording responses might have been unconsciously biased, and so on.

The author is an expert in statistical analysis, survey, and experimental design and is sensitive to these issues. However, given the size of the respondent pool and the strong consensus among user responses, we believe that the survey results published here will be useful to backpackers and hikers who are interested in learning about the navigation aids used by their peers.


  1. Unless an app can run off line it is next to useless or just a toy. Which ones can do that?

    • I use Gaia and Viewranger myself. No problem at all. I use an iPhone 6. Gps works independent of cell data.

    • Backcountry Navigator also works like a champ offline, just as good as my Garmin Oregon gps. Of course, you do have to make sure you have the appropriate maps downloaded in advance.

      The gps has advantages of being more rugged, waterproof (though some phones are water resistant now), possibly more convenient as I hang it from my shoulder strap and don’t have to unlock it, and a better Go To functionality for bushwhacking.

      The app has much better maps and is more convenient to access data from after the hike. And as Phil mentions in another comment, my phone has much more functionality (including the Peakfinder app). For better or worse, I find I like it so much that for shorter hikes close to home, I will sometimes only carry the phone. For longer hikes, areas I’m less familiar with, off-trail and more rugged terrain, questionable weather, and vacations where I’ll be hiking multiple days in a row I always carry both, plus a map and compass.

      • BCN is difficult to get started on – for me at least.I am working on it as I want it functional for the Tour du Mont Blanc in late summer. Wikiloc can use downloaded maps off line but is not all that accurate.

    • I’m using BCN too. Another advantage is that you can download multiple maps, i.e. you can have Google Maps in addition to topological maps for example, so it’s like carrying multiple maps. Agree that BCN takes a bit of practice, but not overly.

    • Surprising since I never saw anyone use a compass while on the AT in Georgia in April. I saw maps(pages from books mostly) and apps used by hikers. AT hiker worked in Airplane mode so battery life was good.

      • Many if not most GPS programs require a “mobile data” connection and operate using the net. The better don’t if you have the maps downloaded for offline use. Any area where you don’t have cell phone coverage would require this and in the US that seems to be all over once you leave the cities. The GPS of the phone itself has nothing to do with the internet certainly.

        • I doubt that most or even many GPS programs require mobile data to function. I suspect that they are all similar in the ability to work offline. Others feel free chime in here because in fairness I have only used one: “Backcountry Navigator”, cited in several posts herein. I downloaded and continue to use the free version, having never experienced a lack that would justify spending the measly $10 for the pro version. It works very well offline. I can pre-download a map much larger than the area I will be hiking in with no problem. The map resides on the micro SD card and takes up much less space than you might think. No cell signal, no wifi, no problem! In fact, the only situation I can imagine that it wouldn’t work is in a tight slot canyon where the satellites might be difficult or impossible to acquire. Hope this info helps somebody! :)

        • JV – Please try out a few before posting – I have several. I am using BCN now though downloading maps there is a bit of a trick! My pack includes paper maps, a compass as well as the cell phone in my pocket. I pay for the “pro” version on any app that I continue to use – only seems fair to the supplier.

      • Most of my readers aren’t thruhikers.

  2. I missed your survey, but I have recently changed from GPS to phone app. I did this when I witnessed my friend’s phone appearing to acquire satellite lock-on much quicker than my (relatively old) satmap GPS. In addition, route planning on a desktop PC requires the payment of an annual subscription with satmap (I think). This put me off upgrading. I chose viewranger instead because although I have to use their website if I wish to plan my routes on a PC, its free, and I think the possibility of sharing routes with friends etc is much more open on viewranger (although I haven’t made a proper comparison on this element). I have used viewranger for 7 days on the Cape Wrath trail in scotland and whilst sea kayaking in a labyrinth of islands around loch maddy in the outer hebrides. The latter exercise was great at testing my conventional map reading ability because I navigated with a paper map and compass and was able to compare my actual recorded track with my pre-planned track on the viewranger app. I went wrong once, and was able to refer to the phone to find out exactly where I was. Great for training skills and great for safety. I think phone apps are set to eclipse the hand held GPS as their use will slowly decline; phones can be just as robust and much more powerful in terms of their utility.

    • I like the fact that phones are general purpose too. Good for photos, voice recording, note taking, etc.

      • Exactly. Im still one who doesn’t trust the battery life on an electronic device and will always take a map and compass. My phone becomes my camera. Its usually either off, or in airplane mode when I’m hiking.

        • Easy to have a spare battery you connect with a USB cable – not light weight but it works.

  3. In my opinion, smartphone use for backcountry navigation will likely continue to expand over the next few years. If you are correct that it is their “battery life and network connectivity limitations” which are hindering their more widespread use, then it stands to reason that as more people realize these devices will work offline with a suitable app and pre-downloaded maps, they will make the switch. Also, battery life issues can be mitigated by placing the phone in airplane mode so it is not continually searching for a network that is unavailable. And if you aren’t recording a track or waypoints, you can turn the phone off completely and only turn it on if you become disoriented. Additionally, many people are now carrying those little portable power supplies which can recharge a phone multiple times and/or miniature solar panels to serve the same purpose.

    If this survey is run again 2-3 years from now, I suspect you will get significantly different results.

    Philip, thanks for the work you do collecting and collating this kind of data. It’s always interesting to know what equipment other hikers are using and why.

  4. Where there is no signal being in flight mode saves your battery – keeps the phone from searching for a signal

  5. I was on the Appalachian Trail in April and May and used Guthook. Of those who had a navigation app, they used Guthook, and I talked to quite a few hikers.

    Guthook is accurate, works great in airplane mode and gives a lot of good info including pictures of shelters.

    I’m surprised the survey did not include this app.

    • It’s not a general purpose navigation app and the survey wasn’t AT or PCT specific (since the Vast vast majority of hikers don’t hike long distance trails). A few people did mention using it in their comments, but our objective in this survey was not to list every app that people used.

  6. A few years ago, when my dedicated GPS croaked a month after the warranty went out, I decided to invest the money in a smart phone instead and haven’t regretted that decision.I use Backcountry Navigator Pro and am impressed with the multiple map sources available. My old GPS had lower resolution maps that required an annual subscription and jumping through many hoops to get them on the device, which also had a tiny screen. My phone, in addition to being a camera, also has bucketloads of reference material for my use. For me, there’s just no comparison in the functionality. Now, it they would just come up with a REALLY sunlight readable screen…

  7. The availability of cheap, high capacity backup batteries is a game changer for me. He fear of being lost without power or even needing to ration use to any extent is now a thing of the past.

    • Yes, with some juggling my battery easily lasts 2 days (up to 10 days in certain configurations), and I carry an 11 Amp battery for recharging. Unless I’m 10 days in the bush, I’m not running out of power.

  8. For me #1 is pre trip research and planning. With bush whacking I’ve got to do as much research as possible, get / down load maps and pre plan what I think the best approach will be. We start off with GPS set to a certain location on the map we want to go to, set it and go. We then go with the flow whether it’s a logging road, heard path,skid road or thick and nasty stuff. You’ve got to be able to read the terrain around you and adjust to it. I use the compass as well because you never know if that GPS will fail even though everyone in the group has one with spare batteries.

      • I think he’s saying that the battery power may fail, not that reception will fail. That’s true with anything electronic.

    • I am confused. I like maps and compasses, but I am missing something here. Are you saying that the GPS signal will not be available or be in error? I’m considering getting a smartphone android app also. I am reading what you wrote as saying that everyone in the group’s GPS fails at the same time, a probability approaching zero if there are at least four in the group, for example. With that many people, yes I do know that the GPS reception will not fail, unless by know I mean 100% certainty, which is silly. What am I missing please?

  9. The best of both worlds is a paper map with a UTM grid and a simple GPS coordinate app (I use GPStest on Android).
    Navigate with the paper map until you are doubtful about your position, then fire up your phone and find out exactly where you are by locating the coordinates from your phone on the map.

  10. I’m absolutely surprised by these results. A smart phone is just so much more convenient that I can’t believe people bother with physical maps and compass. Maybe the smart phone apps are not user-friendly enough yet? Or perhaps people find conserving battery hard? If you eschew a smart phone I really would like to know the reason. Please chip in!

    With an offline-map (I’m using Backcountry Navigator) with a press of the button I know where I am, and do that while walking and know how far it will be to the next target. That seems to me much harder with a map, but perhaps people use maps and compasses for entirely different purposes.

    • My father was a navigator on a B24 and then managed geophysical exploration crews in remote and often poorly mapped areas all over the earth for decades. I grew up around topographic maps and could read a map pretty much as soon as I could read “Run, Spot, run!” My father took me “surveying” and drawing my own maps with a lensatic compass when I was about ten. He recently gifted me with his large Brunton compass that he used for a half century.

      I mostly rely on BCN now, however, I usually have a map with me as well. I like the quick, large overview of an area I get with a map and it may have topographical features in the distance that I don’t have loaded onto my phone. There’s also a certain comfort level of having it as a backup if something goes wrong with the electronics (which has happened). I can also write notes on the maps–yes, I can also do that on the phone but it’s easier for me on the map.

    • I am also surprised by these results. I use an iPhone 6 and GAIA with a backup battery. The electronic maps are pretty accurate and the apps will only keep getting better. The only downside I see is preloading maps on your phone. 5 years from now the results will be flipped.

  11. For me the paper map is always there. I love the damn things and won’t give them up. The phone is really just a backup for that.

    • Agreed. Map and compass should always be with you while exploring the great outdoors. Though I also use a smartphone app ( prefer Spyglass for ios).

  12. When you live in a part of the world with limited cellular coverage which most of alpine New Zealand is map and compass and the ability to use them effectively is a must! The exception is satellite coverage devices and I guess that this will become more affordable in the not too distant future.

    • What is being said is that if a unit won’t work offline it is useless. Some do with the downloaded maps. Sat coverage has nothing to do with the net. Many phones now use both the US and Russian systems – faster that way.

  13. In the UK, you can buy a waterproof / shockproof smart phone with GPS connectivity for about £160, so I think they will start to replace single use GPS devices quite quickly. You don’t need cellular cover at all if you have saved your planned route on the phone and you can lock onto satellites as with any other GPS device.

  14. PS. I would still always carry a paper map and compass though.

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