Back to Adventure Alan’s Ultralight Backpacking Home Page: This contains a wealth of information on backpacking with gear lists, trip reports, backpacking techniques for various weather and environments (cold rainy weather, alipine hiking, desert hiking), etc. While focused on lightweight backpacking, much of the content applies to all styles of backpacking.
How to use the iPhone as a GPS mapping device for backpacking
The ATT iPhone (and other SIM based iPhones) is a viable tool to use as a GPS and mapping device for backpacking trips worldwide. In many ways it is superior to traditional mapping GPS units like the Garmin Oregon. This post will tell you how to get the most of your iPhone as a backpacking GPS.
For gps and mapping purposes, the Verizon version of the iPhone is identical to the ATT version except it does not have the same ability to disable the phone, and therefore managing battery life is problematic. See the Battery Conservation section for more information.
The method for using the iPhone for backpacking is to use apps that let you preload the appropriate maps and data files over WiFi. When you are out on the trail without cell service, you can use the preloaded maps along with the iPhone’s GPS.
If you already own an iPhone, then the cost of using it as a GPS/Mapping device for backpacking is very reasonable.
For purposes of this article (GPS and mapping), the devices vary only in whether the device includes a GPS chip.
A device with a GPS chip can identify your location (usually within 10 or 20 meters) even when it has no WIFI or Cellular signal.
A device without a GPS chip can identify your approximate location only when it has a WIFI signal; these devices are still useful tools for looking at maps but will not show your location on the map while you are hiking.
All iPhone models (4, 4S, and 5) include a GPS chip. The 4S and 5 models also support GLONASS which in some locations should improve accuracy and time to first fix.
No iPod-Touch model has a GPS chip.
All iPad models (iPad with Retina display, iPad2, iPad mini) that have 3G or Cellular also have GPS chip and therefore behave like an iPhone for mapping purposes.
(The iPad with Retina display and iPad mini also support GLONASS; the iPad2 does not.)
The WIFI-only iPads do not have a GPS chip and therefore behave like an iPod Touch for mapping purposes.
To clarify a common misconception: You do NOT need WIFI or Cellular connection for the GPS chip to work; however you do need to have pre-downloaded the map content in order to have your current location show up on a map.
Gaia GPS displaying OpenCycleMap of a section of the Lycian Way in Turkey. Red lines and blue pins show our intended route (2 alternatives shown).
The brown dashed lines show trails that have been added by users to the OpenStreetMap database, wiki-style.
OpenCycleMap and Satellite imagery are especially important when hiking in Turkey because the government does not publish any topographic maps.
Using an iPhone with a $10 app (in this case Gaia GPS) we carried maps, satellite imagery, and track data for ~600 miles of trails in Turkey!
How to Choose your Apps
There are hundreds of iPhone mapping/GPS applications to choose from, and there are seemingly new ones everyday.
You should probably buy a couple applications; they are not expensive, and the map content is usually free
(unlike Garmin, where you pay substantially for map content).
Many of the mapping apps are not designed for hikers, and many of those that are designed for hikers are seriously flawed.
Here is an annotated list
of the (~80) apps we reviewed,
including more detailed information about each app, and a list of great apps that are not mentioned below.
We are maintaining the list and appreciate leads on apps we misssed and corrections to inaccurate data; please post comments and suggestions below.
Before choosing an app, you need to decide which types of maps you want to view while hiking.
You may want to use more than one app if you care about more than one map type.
After deciding which map type you want you can then evaluate the features and usability of the apps that provide that map type.
Here are the general classes of maps:
- National Mapping Agency maps - Topographic maps issued by the government that provide coverage for an entire country (USGS, NRCan, OS, IGN, LINZ, etc). These maps are almost always the most accurate and detailed source of topographic and geographic information, although they often do not have the most current cultural changes, such as new trails.
Some governments license their map data to the apps at no charge (USA, Canada, New Zealand, and some UK maps), and others do not (UK's best maps, France, Australia).
When you use an app that gives access to freely licensed maps (for example USGS) you usually do not need to pay any fees (beyond the initial cost of the app) to download an unlimited amount of map data.
When you use an app that gives access to maps for which the app developer must pay licensing fees, then you will need to pay for the map content. Prices vary wildly, depending on the fees that must be paid to the government for use of the maps.
For example: iPhiGeNie charges 14 Euros per year to access the all maps that IGN publishes (not so bad); ViewRanger charges 90 GBP for the 1:50K LandRanger series, the Explorer series is additional (wow!).
For access to USGS and NRCan (USA and Canada) maps we like Topo Maps and Gaia GPS.
We use both of these apps and believe they are better than the numerous other apps we have evaluated.
Topo Maps is easier to learn and use but provides only USGS and NRCan maps and has limited functionality.
For a user who only cares about USGS/NRCan quads and uses only waypoints (not tracks or routes), this is a fantastic simple app.
Gaia GPS provides Satellite imagery and OpenCycleMaps in addition to USGS, and has a richer set of features, but takes longer to learn to use.
For a user who wants the most complete set of functionality and the best selection of map sources, this is the best available app for the US and Canada.
- For access to LINZ (New Zealand) maps we like Gaia GPS. Same comments as above:
You get complete functionality and, in addition to LINZ maps, you get OpenCycleMaps and Satellite imagery.
For access to IGN (France) maps we like iPhiGeNie (based on evaluation at our desks, we have not tried it in the field).
For access to OS maps (UK) we suggest two alternatives.
UK Map offers freely licensed OS maps, which are not as detailed as the Explorer and LandRanger series, but will suffice for many users (especially price-sensitive users). It is elegant and easy to use, but does not support waypoints or tracks.
ViewRanger is a solid full-featured app that offers the gold standard Explorer and LandRanger OS maps. It is too bad that the Ordnance Survey charges such high licensing fees, but serious back-country walkers will probably want to invest in the exceptionally good 1:25K Explorer maps available via ViewRanger.
- For all other countries --
ViewRanger offers National Agency maps for many European countries and may be the best option in those countries,
however we have not investigated other options are therefore reluctant to suggest that ViewRanger is the best choice. Suggestions welcome!
- OpenCycleMap - aka, OpenStreetMap, OSM, OSM Topo, Cloudmade Topo/Cycle. Many iPhone apps include this map source because it is freely licensed topographic map of most of the world (below 60 degrees latitude).
Although the topographic and geographic detail is not as good as maps from the national mapping agencies, there are three important characteristics: it is freely licensed; cultural information is often more current; and it covers most of world.
Take a look at the OSM treatment at their website.
We have successfully used OpenCycleMaps together wtih Satellite imagery (with no National Agency Maps) for long hikes in Turkey, Australia, and Spain. In Turkey there were no National Agency maps available; in Australia and Spain they were available but at too high a cost for our purposes.
Gaia GPS is our favorite app for this map type.
There are many other apps that provide access to OpenCycleMaps, but only Gaia (that we have found) also includes downloadable world-wide Satellite Imagery, is easy to use, supports waypoints and tracks, and allows import and export of gpx and/or kml files.
- Satellite images - Often very useful, especially for off-trail hiking. Gaia GPS is our favorite app for satellite imagery as it offers downloadable satellite imagery of the whole world (ESRI World Imagery), and also USGS Aerial Imagery for most of the CONUS.
- Regional and local maps - Nearly every park publishes a map, showing park boundaries, trails, roads, campgrounds, and points of interest.
These will nearly always have the most current trail information.
- Maplets is a great app for viewing these maps; if the park you want is not already available,
submit a request and they will attempt to add it.
You could find these maps on your own, and view them using any iPhone pdf viewer. However, Maplets makes it very easy to find them, and
by using Maplets you are able to see your current location on the map (assuming the map was drawn to scale). Maplets does not offer any features other than viewing your location on the map (no tracks or waypoints or compass or distance ruler, etc) and so is best used to complement other more fully featured apps like Gaia GPS or ViewRanger.
- National Park Maps HD (from National Geographic) includes Trails Illustrated Maps for 20 US National Parks. They are excellent maps with clearly marked trails and trail distances.
Tips on Using the iPhone
Regardless of which app you choose, there are a few considerations for using an iPhone in the backcountry.
- Data - When you have a WIFI connection, download the map content (and trail data if you have it) that you’ll need while hiking. Your iPhone can get GPS signal in the woods, but you will be unlikely to reach the Internet for data.
- Battery Life - Manage your battery life. Day hikers can get away without taking special steps to tend the battery life, but for multi-day trips, you must tend to these things. This article closes with detailed instructions on how to maximize battery life, because we think that’s the true crux of the issue.
- Protect Your Phone - If you are going to be hiking with an iPhone, you should probably have ways to protect it from the elements.
There are a number of cases to help protect from bumps and scratches, and a zip lock bag (Heavy Duty Freezer Pint size) or
Aloksak (4.5x7") is a simple and cheap way to make sure rain or a wild river encounter doesn’t cost you several hundred dollars.
In terms of waterproofness and durability, the iPhone needs to be treated as you would treat a non-waterproof camera, unlike a Garmin which is designed for outdoor conditions.
- OpenStreetMap - Spend an hour learning about OpenStreetMap (aka OSM).
OSM is a free map of the world, and many iPhone apps are based on map content from OSM.
OpenCycleMap (aka Cloudmade Topo) is a variation that includes contour lines and hiking trails. Data is added to OpenStreetMap by users like us, wiki style. If your favorite trails are not there, then you can add them and the world will be a better place for it.
- Software Updates - Occasionally check for updated versions of your apps. From iTunes, in the left side bar click LIBRARY->Apps to show your list of apps. Now in the bottom right click Update Available and proceed from there. Or, on the phone, go to App Store -> Updates and proceed from there.
- GPS Accuracy - The iPhone 4S and 5 should be more accurate than the iPhone 4 because it uses both GPS and GLONASS satellites.
When using the iPhone 4 in shallow grade mountains or flat landscapes, with minor tree cover, the accuracy has consistently been within 10 meters.
When using it in deep steep walled canyons, the fix is not as accurate as Garmin, 50 to 100 or more meters off in a deep canyon (Paria Canyon in Utah).
Using a Garmin and an iPhone 4 we concurrently recorded tracks on 12 miles of trail in fairly dense conifers on the west slope of California's Sierra Nevada range and could not tell any difference in accuracy.
We leave it to the reader make their own determination if this level of accuracy is sufficient. We have not tested under heavy tree cover.
Battery Conservation Settings for field use of your iPhone
It's important to follow these guidelines to conserve your iPhone battery and get the maximum battery life in the field, particularly for extended trips. Our research ended up focusing a great deal on battery life, and we hope these ideas help:
- Make sure you can see your battery level at all times.
Do this so you can get better resolution information than is available with the battery symbol in the upper right corner. Go to Settings->General->Usage->BatteryPercentage and set it to On.
- Tweak all the Settings as per Apple’s recommendations.
You can find the recommendations here.
However, don’t turn on Airplane Mode as they suggest, and don’t disable location services (i.e., GPS), since that is the one battery-intensive service that you really do need.
- Shut down all extraneous apps.
iPhone 4 supports a form of multi-tasking or background processing, and you are not likely to know what’s running in the background. Some apps (but not most) can actually do work in the background and consume power. To be completely sure you don’t have anything consuming power, fully shut down all the apps you aren’t using.
It’s not intuitively obvious how to do this. Double-click the home button to display the recently accessed applications. Touch and hold any of the icons in the bottom bar until the icon shakes and the red circle is visible. Tap the red circle to shut down an app. This looks similar to the graphic used for deleting an app, however with this method you are merely shutting it down, not deleting it.
iPhone 4 and Garmin Oregon 550t. The iPhone's display is larger with over six times the resolution of the Garmin. The map available on the iPhone has much better detail than the Garmin (pictured is a section of Alaska). In this picture the iPhone is in a one-ounce hard case with rubber shock absorbing liner. The case has raised edges of to protect the iPhone display from damage. The Garmin has a similar raised edge built into its housing.
- Disable the phone while backpacking.
When the phone is enabled there is significant background battery drain. Baseline battery drain for ATT iPhone 4, with the phone asleep and all other battery conservation measures in place:
<0.1% per hour (1-2% per day): SIM Inactive.
~0.4% per hour (9-10% per day): SIM Active (signal present).
~1.2% per hour (nearly 30% per day!): SIM Active (no signal).
ATT iPhone 4 (and other SIM based iPhones). To absolutely maximize battery life, deactivate the phone’s SIM by using one of two methods:
Remove the SIM card from your phone. Be careful, the SIM card is small and quite easy to lose. This method should work for any iPhone with a SIM card, not just ATT phones in the U.S.
Or, use the SIM PIN feature (read Apple's Help Topic. and call 611 from your phone to get your initial PIN from ATT). When using this feature, you are asked for the PIN code only after the phone is fully powered down, not after each time the phone has been asleep.
Verizon iPhone 4. The Verizon phone uses CDMA instead of SIM card. The only way to disable the phone is to turn Airplane Mode on. But this also disables the GPS. To make Verizon phone battery life viable for backpacking, you would need to keep the phone in airplane mode and temporarily toggle airplane mode off every time you want to get a gps read. The hassle factor would depend on how often you need a read. Alternatively, for short trips you could carry a recharging solution.
Alternatively (ATT or Verizon), to retain your ability to make and receive calls and text messages with the least battery drain. Go to Settings->General->Network->CellularData and set Cellular Data to Off to ensure that you’re not unintentionally using the data network, because network access is very battery intensive. Also make sure you turn off 3G, WiFi, and Push notifications. Note: This is not as battery conserving as deactivating or removing the SIM, but this method is the least draining way to maintain basic phone and text services.
- Don’t use the Tracking feature.
Most of the map apps allow you to save the track of where you’ve been, but to do this it must constantly get a GPS read and store that data, which is a steady battery drain. Instead, make sure you’re not in Tracking mode and just get your current location when necessary. In our battery tests we found that Tracking mode consumes ~5% of the battery capacity per hour. If you do all the other battery-conservation steps, then you can use Tracking for a long day hike (~60% of the battery will be used in 12 hours of Tracking), but the Tracking feature is only viable for a multi-day backpacking trip if you have a battery recharge solution.
- Be EXTRA cautious about leaving the GPS app in the foreground during sleep.
If Tracking is off and the app is in the background when the iPhone is put to sleep, none of the apps we tested incurred battery drain.
However, if Tracking is off and the app is in the foreground when the iPhone is put to sleep,
quite a few of the apps we tested incurred a battery drain of between 2 and 7% per hour
(including, as of May 2012, MotionX, GPS Kit, Trail Maps by National Geographic, and EveryTrail Pro).
This is a significant issue and hopefully is a bug that the app’s respective developers will fix soon.
Whichever app you choose to use, make sure you check to see if you must manually put the app in the background before putting the device to sleep,
and if so, you must be absolutely diligent about doing so.
- Check to see if your apps give you control over when the GPS is engaged.
Some apps have excellent battery management settings, most do not. For example ViewRanger has a setting that allows you to activate the GPS only on demand,
whereas most apps run the GPS whenever the app is open. With ViewRanger, you can open the app and study the route without running the GPS
(which is battery intensive), but still easily get your current location when you need it by tapping the Locate-Me icon.
- Beware of Auto-Lock.
Under iPhone->Settings->General you’ll find Auto-Lock. After the user-specified duration of inactivity, the iPhone automatically goes to sleep as a battery conservation measure (since the display itself is a big battery drain). Of the nine GPS apps we tested, four of them did not respect that setting, and the iPhone stayed on indefinitely if the application was in the foreground. Whichever app you choose, make sure you test to see if it prevents Auto-Lock from engaging and adjust your behavior accordingly.
- Keep the iPhone warm.
Batteries achieve optimum service life if used at 20°C (68°F) or slightly below. Avoid letting the iPhone overheat in direct sun, and keep it in pocket close to your body in cold conditions.
More detailed battery information in this great article.
- What to expect in the field.
On a six week hike in Turkey Amy and Jim used the iPhone 15-30 times per day for 30 seconds to perhaps 4 minutes per use. Our battery drain was between 7% and 20% per day. The SIM was disabled, and we used all of the battery conservation measures listed above. We recharged in shops, and we were never more than 4 days between shops.
On six week hikes in Australia and Spain, where we had more frequent access to shops and therefore less need to be frugal, we used the camera and reference apps in addition to map apps, and on these trips used 25-40% of the battery per day.
On a six day mostly off-trail backpacking trip in Yosemite Alan and Alison used the iPhone, and averaged 12% daily battery drain.
Your mileage will depend entirely on your usage patterns, but these examples from different users in different circumstances give a sense for what you might expect.
Prior to a multi-day trip, be sure to test your baseline drain (iPhone asleep and no activity) to make sure that drain is down in the 1-2% per day range. And experiment on day hikes so you can estimate your daily drain based on your own usage patterns.