smartphone GPS app vs handheld GPS for bike-packing navigation- Mtbr.com
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  1. #1
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    smartphone GPS app vs handheld GPS for bike-packing navigation

    hi fellow bikepackers,
    i am planning my first bike packing adventure and am stuck between buying a new smartphone (my first) with GPS or a handheld GPS. Other than battery life and durability, are there any clear disadvantages of smartphones? i will be often times in areas with very poor or no cellular nor data signal, and will most likely use the phone on airplane mode to conserve batteries. My route will be passing through villages and urban areas every now and then meaning i will have time to charge my phone a bit. Any experiences with bike-packing only using a smart phone? or should i go for a garmin etrex20 or something else affordable? I checked the GPS/HRM thread but found no such posts, only ones talking about app features and so forth so i figure i try to ask the question here.

  2. #2
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    major disadvantages using a phone. if the phones don't have cell service thentheir GPS usually will not work properly. they use cell towers still to lag the maps etc. ..

    you can not beat a handheld GPS unit. I have owned several from Garmin and in love them. some come with cameras too. they are much more accurate

  3. #3
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    In my experience, all recent smartphones have a real GPS chip that functions in airplane mode without issue. I frequently use this for overnight trips through areas with spotty or no cell reception to prevent battery drain. I just did this over the weekend and after recording a 60 mile ride the first day, and a 25 mile ride the second, still had 90% battery on my year-old phone (battery life not quite as strong as new). It's pretty rare these days to find a phone that still relies on cell data for positioning.

    That said, I'd really advise both options. You have the stand-alone GPS with the phone for a backup. Did that for my cross-country ride a few years ago, and frankly, finding directions to local resources (restaurants, stores, etc) works way better with a smartphone (when you have service) and not to mention access to social media, ease of reaching out to loved ones, etc.
    Oh noes. I'm going to drink the Kool-Aid.

  4. #4
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    If you download the relevant map tiles to your memory card you don't need a cell signal. I prefer my phone/tablet gps, backwoods navigator pro, because of the larger screen and the unlimited selection of free maps and aerial photo tiles. My $23 power supply will keep my phone, camera, and light charged for ~2 weeks.
    Last edited by bsieb; 06-22-2015 at 12:11 PM.
    I ride with the best dogs.




  5. #5
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    I'm fairly unimpressed by the useability of my Etrex 20. It might be better if I was to get more maps for it but the interface is overly complex and hard to use, and there is a serious lack of functionality.

    That being said I love it for simply following preloaded tracks. Good battery life, that can be extended indefinitely by simply carrying more batteries, and great durability. For most of my trips I will create and load tracks onto the Etrex at home, then fall back on my phone if I get lost or need to head off route for some reason.

    Like others mentioned, if you download maps a phone with a good case will take the place of a dedicated GPS for a lot of reasons, but battery life is still a big issue for some trips.

    Also, it'd be nice to have a GOOD case/bar mount for a phone. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough, or my phone isn't cool enough, but most cases and mounts I have seen have some major shortfalls.

  6. #6
    saddlemeat
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    ^I'm thinking a gas tank bag with a clear pouch on top might work as a mount. I normally have my screen turned off unless I'm looking at it, so a pocket works good too. Here in the high desert SW the heat of direct sun light can be intense.
    I ride with the best dogs.




  7. #7
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    thanks for all the feedback. in terms of phone cases, the bbb case looks quite good. not sure if they sell those in the US but you can find them everywhere in europe. I also looked into battery banks as i will have to charge my camera as well so that can solve the battery life on smartphones.

  8. #8
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    Just another vote for using a smart phone as a GPS. I recently upgraded to an iPhone 6 and kept my iPhone 5 as a glorified ipod and GPS device (much to the disappointment of my 9 year old daughter). I have no data plan so can only connect to the interwebs with wifi. No matter, as the GPS functionality does not rely on cell service.

    The key is to preload maps. I use Gaia GPS but have also had good experiences with Navigator Pro. I also have an app called PDF Maps which allows you to view pdfs that have geospatial data. You can get all the USGS maps for free and the app will locate you on the map while out in the field which is pretty cool.

    With all extraneous stuff turned off (cellular, wifi, location services for everything but the GPS app, etc.) you can really minimize battery use. I saw posted in another forum on this topic that the latest system upgrade allows you to get a GPS signal even in Airplane mode. This was previously not the case for Verizon users on iPhones (ok with AT&T). I have not tested this to see if it is true. But that makes for a really easy way to minimize battery use.

    I use a battery recharger made by a company called Trent. Can’t recall the model but it gives me about 7 full charges on the phone before it needs to be recharged (and has more than one USB output to charge multiple items at once). There are others out there that take regular batteries which might be better for a longer trip with few opportunities to plug-in and recharge. Be sure the amperage is correct for your phone first!

  9. #9
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    My experience: Cell phone with careful battery monitoring. As everyone has mentioned, use it in airplane mode to save battery. The GPS will still receive. And then you can kick it over to get data as needed and make calls or send messages.

    Some apps will let you download maps for use in "out of service" areas. Google tracks used to be one that did this. I say "used to be" because I haven't used it in at least two years. You used to have to mark an area for off-line use so there's some up front planning. Maprika does as well with less planning. I used that last week.

    I carry a Goal Zero solar charger as well as spare cell phone batteries. Most recently I've noticed a trend in cellphone "chargers." I bought a 40,000 amp one that weighs about the same as the goal zero. So it's your choice, charge via solar or charge via battery.

    Ultimately, I just think the two way communication of the cell phone (when available) out weighs the hand-help GPS unit. Caveat: the most extreme isolation I've bikepacked was Baxter in Maine where we went three days without connection.

    Best of luck!

  10. #10
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    I've been thinking about this. I've pretty much decided to go with my edge 1000 as the primary and my nexus 6/phone as secondary using Locus Pro for navigation. Phone as secondary as I find the phone's touch screen not so great through the waterproof case and I worry about the phone overheating in the sun, not that that has happened.

    Edge 1000 over my etrex30 as I like the bigger screen.

    Locus pro is the best Android app for nav (proximity alerts, routes, etc.) I've tried, though I have back county navigator as a backup.

  11. #11
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    I'll go ahead and throw in my 2 cents worth... I just finished the Dixie 200 on Sunday and I will not be using my iphone 5s as my primary gps again...

    The good:
    -- Gaia GPS is a great program and easy to use.
    -- The Rokform stem mount is expensive but rock solid.

    The bad:
    --The Rokform case is sweet but not waterproof so I just bought their adapter mount and velcroed it to my lifeproof case.
    --Iphone screen is a PITA to see in the sunlight
    --I had my phone on airplane mode and the backlight as little as possible and my battery was dead in less than 6 hrs.
    --I updated the iphone ios the night prior to the race and when I got to the campsite/start line I was checking my tracks and realized that all of my mapsets I had downloaded in Gaia Gps were fuzzy and unreadable. If the town about 5 miles from the campsite wouldn't have had good service I wouldn't have been able to re-download the maps. Guess maybe I should have re-checked everything immediately after updating the phone but I still don't think it should have been an issue.
    --I run a dynamo hub and a usb cache battery so my big plan was to keep my phone charged the whole time... Less than 10 minutes from the start I start getting the message that my cable is not compatible or authorized for my phone or some shit like that and it wouldn't charge. I had been using the cable for a month prior so I'm assuming apple has some fight going on with charge cable makers or something??

    If I wouldn't have had my etrex 30 stuffed in my bag I would have been dead in the water and pissed off. I can see the iphone being ok for a day ride but with all of the annoying things I had go wrong with it the iphone will stay as my backup navigation plan.

  12. #12
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    On the trail under partial tree cover in the hills, my iPhone 6 isn't all that accurate. It's maybe within 50 meters at times. Average seems to be under 5 meters, but when it really matters I'm still grabbing a compass and topo map to make sure.
    I like bikes

  13. #13
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    I am in the smartphone camp. One drawback is that I do have to turn airplane mode on/off between checking my location to save the battery so that the phone isn't constantly checking for a cell signal (iPhone 5s still has this limitation). However, it might seem like a hassle until you've tried it but it takes all of a split second to turn airplane mode on and of - doesn't really bother me. I am not a GPX recording whore - I just check mine periodically to make sure I'm on the right path.

    Also there is the issue of a non-interchangable battery (there are a million aftermarket battery cases and charge packs that solve this issue). But I could see this being a problem if you are heading outside the U.S., particularly south of the border or outside the western hemisphere where you might have trouble finding a replacement battery. I believe most standalone GPS units take AAs or something.

    People talk about the lack of ruggedness of phones. I think this has been addressed through water resistant hardcases. Mine is even compatible with touch ID.

    I know you said you weren't too interested in the app information but I thought the below info would be helpful to those who haven't quite figured out how to use a phone as a dedicated GPS effectively who are interested - it's actually quite easy, but stop reading here if you're not interested in that...

    I use Galileo offline maps for iPhone. There are similar apps out there for other platforms. To generate offline maps for free, I use MOBAC - Mobile Atlas Creator on my laptop to generate topo and satellite maps in whatever size, shape, detail and configuration I need. Then I upload them into the Galileo app on my phone using iTunes. I create GPX/KML files using Google Earth for routes overlaid on my offline map. MOBAC allows you to add waypoints and such as well. Galileo also has a free vector map of the US which can be downloaded state by state, to save space that includes POIs and such.

  14. #14
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    I use a Garmin Etrex 20 and leave the smartphone at home unless I am doing a rare tour near urban centres.

    The Etrex is waterproof and a set of batteries last days. It's far more rugged than my smart phone and costs ~25% of what my smartphone does so damage or loss won't hurt near as bad.
    Safe riding,

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  15. #15
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    Right now I'm looking into getting a new smartphone that'll best fit in with bikepacking and hiking so I can streamline my electronics as much as possible, ie. no standalone GPS, no camera, preferably no solar charger/battery pack.

    To that end I'm thinking of getting a Galaxy S5 since you can load it up with all the map resources you could ever want on the microSD card, it has removeable batteries so you can just bring 2-3 spares with you for half the weight of an external charging unit, and the camera is good. It's also supposed to handle water well.

    Alternatively, you can look into dynamo hubs and broaden options greatly that way.

    If you want to make a phone work for GPS though you need to put a lot of forethought into it though, and work out a few kinks. It seems to me like a good option for weight weenies like me, less so for people who just want to get out there and don't want to invest that kind of time and energy in advance.
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  16. #16
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    I would argue that you should always have a backup gps of some form. Etrex 30 is my primary and I can get AA batts just about anywhere. Gaia gps on my iphone with all my tracks loaded is now my backup. I do run a dynamo hub but got tired of issues with cables deciding to be incompatible and crap like that.

  17. #17
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    I am carrying a 30 dollar
    kmashi blue 20,000 mah power supply, which can keep my phone/gps, and mirrorless camera, charged for a couple weeks or more. Only need one short charging cord and the 16 oz battery fits easily in my framepack side pocket. It also runs a small led camp light, and can charge my mini newt bike light if I take another charging cord. The power battery does take a full day to charge when fully discharged. Gives me unlimited phone/gps use very simply.
    I ride with the best dogs.




  18. #18
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    Reasons I use a Garmin instead of my phone:

    Google doesn't provide cacheable maps in many regions of the world, so if you're going to 'odd' places (i.e. ones where telling people you're an American gets reactions of novelty) then you usually have to purchase a 3rd party solution.

    Battery gets sucked dry very quickly using GPS. My portable battery goes much further when it's charging a 100% drained Garmin and a 10% drained phone than a 100% drained phone.

    I use my phone as a camera so it's much more convenient to be in a pocket rather than attached to a stem.

  19. #19
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    Quote Originally Posted by schnee View Post
    Google doesn't provide cacheable maps in many regions of the world,
    Depending on where you want to go, Google's maps are not all that great anyway. For me (northern Europe) Google is good for roads and major paths and terrain features. For singletrack size trail, something else is needed. Caching looks OK on my Samsung phone.

    I usually keep mobile data Off on my phone, until I really want to upload or download something.

    "it IS possible that you are faster or slower than anybody else who is having at least as much if not more or less fun"

  20. #20
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    I use a Garmin GPSMAP 60 CX as a lot of places I bike in has no cell coverage. IPhone has got GPS app as backup.
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    Latitude: 57ş 45' Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

  21. #21
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    I'm running Backwoods Navigator Pro in my Samsung, it doesn't need a cell signal, so I run in airplane mode, and cache the map tiles, usually the Arc GIS topos, on the phone sd card. I sometimes cache the satellite views too. Works as good as any Garmin I've used, and has a much bigger screen.
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  22. #22
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    I am not a fan of smartphone gps for anything but driving through the city due to on the fly traffic updates.

    I use a older Legend HCx with a microSD card and this works very well for me. I also have a Minoura headset mount that I mount my GPS to to center it across my stem and keep most things off my handlebars.

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  23. #23
    saddlemeat
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    You need a gps app, the google maps are just for driving, like a Nuvi.
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  24. #24
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    Smartphones have come a long way. But I still consider them a secondary GPS device. Etrex20 is still my go-to for reasons mentioned above.

    But with a waterproof case, decent mount and a dyno hub, I may consider just the phone. Always paper maps as a back up if going way deep into unknown territory.

  25. #25
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    I've had good luck with a combo of a Garmin 800 and my smart phone. I get about 10 hours of battery life out of the Garmin 800. I will bring an external battery source to charge this for long days and charge it when I get to a power source. I use the smart phone as my paper map replacement. Still playing around with the Apps out there but I like having maps that are pre downloaded that I can look at when I stop. I wish the iPhone could replace the Garmin but the screen is hard to see and operate while riding. If you don't mind stopping to use the phone than I would go that route. Otherwise the GPS unit is far better to read on sunny days while moving.

  26. #26
    saddlemeat
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    ^I agree, if you need to need to have it mounted and visible, a gps is better.
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  27. #27
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    Quote Originally Posted by perttime View Post
    Depending on where you want to go, Google's maps are not all that great anyway.
    Yeah, I found a good alternative for cities - Pocket Earth. You buy the app, then download local maps for cities and their surrounding areas. It's been useful enough - and enough restaurants/hotels have good enough public wifi - that I'm finding I haven't needed to buy a SIM card in Bulgaria.

    It is still a bit spotty for long distances where I am now, but the Garmin 800 maps solve that problem.

  28. #28
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    Hola The Factory,

    I'll go with whatever you already own. If you already have a smartphone with a decent screen and GPS, that will be my choice... unless the mount/case & apps for the phone gets close to the price of an used Garmin GPS.

    I'm going to try an old Garmin Edge 800 (I use for commuting) for my next warm up trip, to see how it handles a longer trip + a smartphone as backup... mainly because I already own both

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    Federico
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    Quote Originally Posted by The Factory View Post
    hi fellow bikepackers,
    i am planning my first bike packing adventure and am stuck between buying a new smartphone (my first) with GPS or a handheld GPS. Other than battery life and durability, are there any clear disadvantages of smartphones? i will be often times in areas with very poor or no cellular nor data signal, and will most likely use the phone on airplane mode to conserve batteries. My route will be passing through villages and urban areas every now and then meaning i will have time to charge my phone a bit. Any experiences with bike-packing only using a smart phone? or should i go for a garmin etrex20 or something else affordable? I checked the GPS/HRM thread but found no such posts, only ones talking about app features and so forth so i figure i try to ask the question here.
    Cycling in developing countries, making & printing portraits for those families who've NONE. www.theironlyportrait.com

  29. #29
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    Locus pro app and any smartphone. I use it all over the world, huge feature set and map choices.

    Sent from my SM-N920T using Tapatalk

  30. #30
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    i ended up getting the lumia 640. the navigation works great and the battery life is decent. for a few day stints, where there is occassional access to charge the battery is fine, but as others mentioned, if you are going to the way remote parts of the world then most likely a garmin is the best choice.

  31. #31
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    I only use the phone apps as last resort backups, unless it's the Colorado Trail. That app saved my butt in this years CTR. The Etrex20 is my goto track follower cuz it'll go 3 days on 2 lithium AA batts. You can always find AA batts at resupply points, often the lithium ones. I also carry a Garmin 810 & hope not to have to use the power hog.


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  32. #32
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    I really like my Kyocera Brigadier. No cell reception GPS was connected to eleven satillites at once while bike packing in Idaho. Battery life was better than the Iphone5 my friend carried. Waterproof and shockproof and dust proof I just hooked it to the handlebar with the Finn which worked great. Also has large easy to read compass and altimeter.

  33. #33
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    I would vote for a phone. Here are my tricks to keep it running (i have Android phone):
    * Install OsmAnd map app. Its free, it works offline (you need to download the maps first of course), it uses Open Street Map maps which for some regions are best maps possible, and for other you can improve the map yourself (it works similar to Wikipedia)
    * switch to energy saving AND aircraft mode to conserve energy
    * buy yourself powerbank. Its cheap and allows to charge your phone on the move.
    * buy yourself those simple silicone bands to keep your phone on handlebar. They work better than expected :-) 2 Pcs Bicycle Handlebar Silicone Straps Bike Front Light Holder Phone Fixing Elastic Ties Rope Cycling Flashlight Torch Bandages-in Bicycle Light from Sports & Entertainment on Aliexpress.com | Alibaba Group

  34. #34
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    My iPhone uses between 50-80% battery per day if I'm recording a track. Ergo, recording a track is not an option.

    But if I'm just following a preloaded track or viewing maps and checking location the battery usage can drop to less than 20% per day. And doing these things on a phone is far superior to the antiquated interface of a dedicated GPS unit.

    Conversely the eTrex can record tracks for three long days on a set of rechargeable AA's. It sits securely on the bars giving me some basic data at a glance. Spare batteries live in my headlamp.

    I bring both. Weight gain is minimal. Problem solved.

  35. #35
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    I am thinking of getting one of the budget smartphones just to use as gps device only, without any voice and data plan or such. Something like motorola moto e2. Is it going to work?

  36. #36
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    I use an old iphone 3 for this with maprika, I download the map on wifi before I leave.

  37. #37
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    i use orux on my tablet, but its too big to carry around.
    any good source for shaded offline maps download?

  38. #38
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    Quote Originally Posted by brankulo View Post
    i use orux on my tablet, but its too big to carry around.
    any good source for shaded offline maps download?
    I use http://www.gpsfiledepot.com with 2008 Garmin mapsource to load topo base maps on my Garmin handhelds & cycling computers. For an android app I use MyTrails which has free offline topo maps.

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  39. #39
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    Quote Originally Posted by geekonabike View Post
    I use GPSFileDepot - Free Custom Garmin Maps, Ximage hosting, tutorials, articles and more for your GPSr with 2008 Garmin mapsource to load topo base maps on my Garmin handhelds & cycling computers. For an android app I use MyTrails which has free offline topo maps.

    Sent from my A1-810 using Tapatalk
    I switched to smartphone and viewranger, i also use pdf map viewer with geo pdfs from usgs. Detailed maps with layers , you can get rid of layers you dont need of add your notes or such.

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