While there are dozens of rad GPS devices on the market, they are expensive and bit excessive for basic hiking and backpacking. Instead of investing in one of these pricey pieces of gear, use your handy smartphone and never get lost in the wilderness. Google Maps is our trick to navigating the trail but you will need to know a few tricks. Read on to find out 5 ways to use your smartphone as a GPS app while hiking or backpacking.
Because of the high price of GPS devices, we’ve never invested in one so we’ve always used Google Maps which is free and easy to use. For more than 3 years of full-time adventure travel (click here to read our story of how we sold everything we owned to travel in search of adventure) we’ve learned a lot of awesome tips and tricks to make Google Maps the ultimate off-grid adventure tool.
Google Maps is especially helpful if you’re seeking epic, hidden gem hikes. I can’t tell you how many times our smartphone GPS has saved us from getting lost or stuck in the wilderness.
Google Maps Hiking GPS Tip #1: Download offline maps
The first and most important part of using your phone as a GPS is downloading maps for offline viewing. Obviously, you’re not going to have cell service if you’re hiking off the grid. To download maps for offline viewing click the little menu icon in the top right corner. You’ll see a menu that looks like this:
Click “Offline Maps” and select “Custom Map.” Download the entire vicinity of the area you will be hiking in, not just the minimum area possible.
Related blog: Backpacking Pack List- Everything You Need To Be Comfortable in the Backcountry
Google Maps Hiking GPS Tip #2: Get coordinates
This is a tip to use when executing a route you found on a blog or website. There are lots of times when this has prevented us from getting lost in the wilderness on a lesser-known trail.
Now finding coordinates can be hard sometimes and if it’s a straightforward hike, you might not even need coordinates. On easy trails, I simply type in the trailhead name and save it as a “Want to Go” or a “Favorite” (see below).
However, if you’ve found an off-the-beaten path trail, you will need coordinates. If the information source is good, they will provide you with coordinates if necessary. If not, you should search for the same hike or trail on a website like ProTrails. Luckily, if you find a legit adventure from a blog like ours, people will provide coordinates when necessary.
Google Maps Hiking GPS Tip #3: Drop pins
Once you’ve found a viable source of coordinates, you’re going to copy and paste or type in those coordinates into the search bar of Google Maps. A pin should drop down and now it’s time to save that coordinate to view later…
Related blog: Making the Jump from Resortist to Adventure Traveler
Google Maps Hiking GPS Tip #4: Label pins or save them to Favorites
You’ve found a coordinate source and you’ve inputted it into the search bar, you need to save that coordinate to view when you’re out there in the wilderness. Swipe up and you will see a few options like Save, Label, and Share.
Click either Save or Label. Saving will mark the spot with a heart or bookmark easily seen on your offline map or you can click Label and mark that coordinate with a brief description. Say you found info on our blog saying, “When you reach the big boulder just to the right of the trail at these coordinates (COORDINATE,-EXAMPLE), make a sharp right,” you are likely going to want to label those coordinates with, “Boulder: Make a sharp right.”
Sometimes the label button doesn’t show up like that. If it doesn’t show up right here, all you have to do is click the three dots in the top right corner and you should see a button that says, “add label.”
When you finish labeling you will hopefully have a nice route that looks something like this:
Google Maps Hiking GPS Tip #5: Share your route
Have you ever discovered a hidden gem that you want to share with the world (but wouldn’t it no longer be a hidden gem then?)? Here’s how you can save your hike. While you’re on your newly discovered route, click the current location button and hold your finger down on your location until a pin drops. Now, swipe up on your Dropped Pin and label it with a short description. You’re not going to want to drop a pin on every inch of your route so notice identifiable markers while on the trail and label those spots. For example, you reach a junction where you must stay right. Drop a pin on that exact location and label it, “Junction: stay right.” It’s useful to mark spots where it’s easy to get lost, spots where you must make a sharp turn and mountain passes.
Google Maps Hiking GPS Tip #6: What if I can’t find coordinates for my route?
This is a legitimate concern that happens often. In this situation, you’ll have to use some brain power. Luckily, if an information source doesn’t offer coordinates, it will probably offer a map with a line showing the trail. You are going to cross-reference the provided map with Google Maps. Find the circular button with layers on it on the right side of the screen just below the search bar. Click that button and switch to terrain view. Next, scale your phone’s map on the screen to match the scale of the map you’re referencing.
See the two map examples below:
I’ve got my maps close enough to scale that I can tell where the line is referring to. As you can see I’ve already dropped some pins on where I’m pretty sure the trail is. Before dropping these pins I had to zoom in a bit further to confirm the exact location:
The most identifiable marker is the first large switchback and the overlapping forest road at the beginning. The reason I didn’t drop any more pins on this hike for myself is because I knew that this hike ascended the south ridgeline. In the close-up of my map, you can see I put a label, “Head uphill here” because from then on it was a direct route. I can distinctly see that ridgeline that heads to the left side of my map. I knew I wouldn’t need coordinates because I would then be able to see the obvious ridge in person. Other helpful markers are mountains ridges, lakes, and rivers. Once you have your pins dropped, switch back to satellite view because you can’t view terrain maps when offline.
Important tips for using your smartphone as a wilderness GPS
1. Conserve battery
The first and most important to save your phone is to regulate the temperature. In extremely hot or cold weather, your phone will die at an extremely fast rate. In cold weather, put your phone in your pocket or in a warm spot in your backpack. In hot weather, you have fewer options but luckily, heat isn’t as bad fo your phone as cold. Avoid putting your phone in your pocket and try not to have a purely rubber phone case (more on phone cases below).
The easiest way to save your phone’s battery is to edit a few settings.
- Turn on airplane mode (AKA turn off Bluetooth and wifi)
- Turn your brightness all the way down
- Turn on power saving mode if your phone has that option
- Close all apps besides Google Maps
- Turn off Siri or other voice control setting
2. Have a battery source
As I mentioned previously, phones die much faster in extreme temperatures so you will NEED a charging source. We’ve used multiple different chargers and the absolute best one we’ve used is the BioLite Charge 40. Much like phones, batteries also die faster in extreme temperatures. How terrible would it be to go through the work of bringing an extra battery for your phone only to plug it in and realize the battery died before you could even charge your phone?
The Charge 40 is made durable and weather-resistant with stainless steel so a dead battery will never be the case. The Charge 40 has enough battery life to charge your phone 4 times! This battery also comes in the 20 and 10 sizes which are cheaper but have only better power for 2 and 1 charge-ups, respectfully.
You’ve got all your info saved on your phone, you’re prepared and ready with labels on your coordinates, and you’ve brought a charger in case your phone dies, then you’re taking an awesome shot and in your state of happiness from being on the trail, you get distracted by the views and you drop your phone shattering the screen, or worse, completely breaking your phone.
You have to have a good case because dropping your phone is honestly the most likely thing to happen on the trail. Rubber cases are good until you drop your phone on a sharp or curved surface and wood cases actually create more impact when dropping your phone. Instead, invest in a Lifeproof case. Lifeproof cases are pricey but they’ll save you money on a broken phone. Lifeproof cases are 100% water, snow, dirt, and drop proof making them perfect for adventures on the trail and in the backcountry.
Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments below!