I’ll start with a disclaimer: I believe you should first have and know how to use a map and compass when backcountry hiking. The advantage of a map and compass is that it never needs batteries, works anywhere, and is simple to use after you learn some basics. With that being said, I do carry a map, compass, AND a GPS. I try my best to navigate by map and compass and just use the GPS for data collection which I’ll explain later.
An often asked question is which GPS or GPS Application I use on my smartphone or which do I recommend. For the record, where I normally hike is a National Forest with absolutely no/very little cell coverage, heavy canopy especially during the spring/summer, and is riddled with deep canyons which makes Cellular coverage extremely difficult but GPS signal possible. Your hiking environment may be totally different, but this is my frame of reference for my experience.
My “go-to” GPS device is a Garmin e-Trex Venture HC. This device can be purchased for under $100 and has the ability to view the map and track on the device. I have downloaded the topo maps from gpsfiledepot.com for the entire state of Alabama as well as the Southeast United States. There is also a download available called “My Trails” and all three are absolutely free and very useful. I use the Garmin supplied interface “Basecamp” and “MapSource” which can also be downloaded for free. While “MapSource” is an older interface, I am familiar with this program and prefer it. It can be found for free with some Internet searching.
The Garmin GPS has never failed me in the terrain that I typically cover. I make sure to turn on the device at trailhead and wait until it has connected to the satellites and has a good signal to begin tracking my adventure. I have used this GPS on all of the trails in the Sipsey Wilderness in the Bankhead National Forest as well as many off trail adventures. I have never had a dropped signal for more than a few minutes or difficulty obtaining a signal. As I stated earlier, I use the GPS to track my adventure to compare planned miles versus actual miles. After the adventure, I look at the elevation gain/loss, speed, actual track on the map, and waypoints of items that I have marked during the hike.
I have been using the Garmin GPS for several years without any issue. However, I decided to try a smartphone GPS app in addition to my actual GPS to research the accuracy for a backup device. Through trial and error I realized the free apps did not have the features I desired. After using a couple of different apps, I have settled on the Gaia GPS application.
The Gaia GPS app is not free – it cost $19.99 for my Android device. It has a couple of features that I desire for a GPS app. The user can download maps to be used “offline.” When I put my phone in airplane mode the GPS feature still works and I can record my hike to view later while saving battery power. It gives me data after the hike and one neat feature is the ability to share the information with others (even those without the application) via a link. Here’s an example from a recent hike: https://www.gaiagps.com/public/Ga22vX2IaiT39VVOLX5OTemc
Gaia also has a very extensive help section that will walk you through many topics. Of course, this has to be done when your phone is connected either by Wi-Fi or cellular reception.
How does the Gaia app compare to an actual GPS device? In order to find out, I used both on the same hike. I powered up and set the record track on at the same time and stopped recording and powered off when I completed the hike. Here is the comparison:
Gaia app data:
Total distance: 5.3 miles
Points recorded: 1028
Moving time: 3.0 hours
Overall Pace: 45.20 minute/mile
Total time: 4 hours 1 minute
Stopped time: 1 hour 1 minute
Moving speed 1.8 mph
Average speed 1.3 mph
Ascent: 740 feet
Descent 751 feet
Garmin etrex Venture HC Data:
Total distance: 5.2 miles
Points recorded: 399
I also used the feature on the Gaia app to export to a gpx file and loaded both into the Garmin MapSource to compare.
The GPS track from the Gaia App:
The GPS track from the Garmin GPS:
The elevation profile from the Gaia App:
The elevation profile from the Garmin GPS:
After reviewing the data above, I was totally blown away. This was an out and back hike. The elevation profile should be close to a mirror image from the middle out. The Gaia reflects this and the Garmin does not. The Gaia provided more data and the ability to share with other users. The Garmin only took 399 points (set to normal) while the Gaia provided 1028 points and I don’t see a way to change that particular setting.
With all of this being said, the Garmin does have the advantage of replacing the two “AA” batteries when needed, while I would have to charge my phone for the Gaia App which isn’t quite as easy, but not impossible. The Gaia does provide more data easily and seems to be more accurate.
I expected the data to be almost identical with possibly the advantage going to the “REAL ” GPS. So, what do you think? Are you as surprised as I am about the difference?