Samsung Smartphone Wants to Stomp Garmin — You?

Post by blogger | June 14, 2013      

Love, or lust? My techno nerve is jinking with so many hot smartphone choices.

I’ve put my smartphone marriage off a couple of years. Built-in cameras have not pleased me. I wanted bigger screens with more ways to make touch-screening easier, and I wanted a waterproof version with more electrical life so I didn’t end up lugging a cased phone with a pound of auxiliary battery. One person in our family has an iPhone. I’ve never been impressed (sorry, malus domestica fans). Another has a Samsung Galaxy S4. I’m more impressed. Ruggedized smartphones are out there but don’t get my juices flowing. Rugged cases are out there but are frequently bulky and never ideal. Now, along comes the Galaxy S4 Active, available any day from AT&T, presumably in weeks from Verizon. This little doozie has hormone inspiring attributes that might be irresistible for backcountry skiing and other mountain sports:

) Water resistance (not exactly an underwater phone/camera, but apparently perfect for backcountry abuse).
) Physical camera button (no more triggering photos with your nose when you’ve got gloves on).
) Some sort of “glove friendly” action on the touch screen (that’ll be fun to test.)
) Drop resistance.

No, this post isn’t a phone review. (Though yes, I’ll cop to technolust and the phone reviews ARE coming.) The agenda here: We are involved in a couple of projects porting backcountry hike/ski/climb guidebooks to the web. As we are abundantly aware of, such projects MUST work on a smartphone. Yeah, we might provide a downloadable GPS route or track you can kludge into your Garmin or (gasp) fool around with inside a large steel box filled with noisy fans. But really, those klunky small-screened dedicated GPS units could soon be added to the endangered species list, and desktop computers are a woolly mammoth — a large formerly noisy (before they died) curiosity.

At any rate, since we have a lively community here I thought I’d do a brief opinion poll and see where all of your are going with this. If some of you can answer these questions in any way you choose (narrative or bullet points, doesn’t matter) we’d appreciate it:

)Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry?
)Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?
)If you don’t use a smartphone, could you see it in your future?
)Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos?
)Anything else oh esteemed Wildsnowers?

Condensed PR text follows:

June 5, 2013 – Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd ……(ellipses means WildSnow edits) today announced the GALAXY S4 Active, designed to enhance life experiences of the active user who wants to stay connected while exploring environments from the most rugged mountain trails to the roughest rivers.

GALAXY S4 Active is the newest addition to the GALAXY series and is purposefully designed for active users who love the outdoors,” said JK Shin, CEO and President of IT & Mobile Communications Division at Samsung Electronics. “Samsung has taken the innovative features of the GALAXY S4 and added breakthrough protective design elements to create a device that thrives in an active environment and is built for a lifestyle of travel and exploration.

…GALAXY S4 Active was engineered to keep active users connected as they explore and experience the world around them.

…GALAXY S4 Active has qualified protection from dust and water (IP67?) …(ellipses means WildSnow edits) The fully sealed design keeps dust particles out and protects against water damage for up to 30 minutes of submergence at a depth of one meter. Equipped with a water-resistant earphone jack, the GALAXY S4 Active frees you to use earphones in more adventurous conditions, in the same way you’ve used them in normal ones. Whether capturing every moment of a wild rafting trip or taking a great underwater photo in the pool, the device’s unique construction lets users capture amazing moments…

…Featuring a 1.9 GHZ Quad-Core processor and 2,600mAh battery, the GALAXY S4 Active can handle the most intensive tasks with ease and precision …with ‘Glove Touch’, cold weather is no longer a problem since the touchscreen can be fully operated while wearing gloves.

…With an 8-megapixel rear camera, users can easily share their vivid experiences while on the go …volume key located on the side of the device can be used as a camera key … GALAXY S4 Active will be available for purchase beginning this summer, with initial retail in the U.S. and Europe. It will be offered in three different color options: Urban Grey, Dive Blue and Orange Flare. Specific availability will vary depending on the market.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


75 Responses to “Samsung Smartphone Wants to Stomp Garmin — You?”

  1. Jack June 14th, 2013 9:08 am

    Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry?
    No. [I do use handheld GPS for sailboat navigation]

    )Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?
    No. I do use smartphone as emergency “give me a lat/lon” backup.

    )If you don’t use a smartphone, could you see it in your future?
    yes, definitely. Especially as a backup to map & compass.

    )Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos? Yes.

    )Anything else oh esteemed Wildsnowers? I guess I’m sort of trad, in that I
    prefer good topo + guide sheet + compass + open eyes. However, there is
    nothing like GPS if you are in fog/white out or have made a major nav mistake.

  2. Ralph June 14th, 2013 9:17 am

    I have an iPhone 4S, with a LifeProof case. It’s completely waterproof, shockproof, fairly slim, and beats the Otterbox by a mile. I’ve even used it when surfing, though I recommend checking that the headphone jack cover is installed before doing that [wry smile]

    I don’t use a GPS for BC navigation, though I also use it when sailing.

    Like Jack, I’ve used my smartphone to pinpoint me, but I prefer to use compass, map and my manual Thommen altimeter. I prefer not to rely on electronics for crucial functionality.

    I now use my iPhone exclusively for photography. I do suffer the shutter lag, focus and burst shoot deficit, but it’s worth having the camera always there, and being able to share with family/friends almost immediately, and back up to the cloud once I get back to a WiFi connection.

  3. Lou Dawson June 14th, 2013 9:22 am

    I hear your Ralph, about relying on electronics… on the other hand, what if a group had 4 GPS capable smartphones with routes installed, and one waterlogged map (grin)?

  4. Jesse June 14th, 2013 9:58 am

    Yep, I use an iphone for backcountry navigation, until recently with motionX but have now switched to viewranger. I no longer even bother with paper topos for long-distance backpacking in Europe where navigation will be simple. In more complex hiking terrain or if skiing in an area I don’t know well, I still bring a topo. It stays in the pack.

    I no longer even own a proper navigational GPS unit, which is a relief since I never tried one I didn’t utterly hate. I have an old forerunner for fitness stuff, mostly running but also ski touring laps at resorts.

    100% iPhone for photos. Far better than the crappy point and shoot it replaced. Like the S4, the physical volume button operates the shutter. You have to swipe the screen to turn the camera on, but that’s at least fairly easy to do with your nose! I’ve always wanted a physical key to activate the camera, but the S4 active doesn’t seem to have one either.

    Interestingly, I find the touchscreen actually DOES work with gloves if you’re really sweating, or if it’s raining… slightly moist fabric will mimic your fingertips well enough. But working with gloves all the time would be great. Even better would be if you could resize the app icons for use with gloved fingers, which Apple of course would never permit!

    I guess ruggedization (especially water resistance) is a good idea, but I’ve just never had a problem with it despite not owning a case. If it’s really pouring rain I put my phone in a ziploc, just like a paper map, and I try not to drop it off any cliffs, just like a paper map. A far bigger issue is battery life. iPhones are around 1400 mAh, so 2600 is pretty appealing, but you get that on the standard S4 already.

    It is truly pathetic that my longest comment ever on a backcountry skiing website has been about a phone.

  5. Andy June 14th, 2013 10:20 am

    -Maybe, but not as a GPS routefinding tool
    -I almost exclusively use a smartphone camera for my pictures.

    -The only routine backcountry use for my GPS-equipped smartphone (other than the camera) is using a GPS altimeter app to calibrate my wrist altimeter.

  6. Darin Berdinka June 14th, 2013 11:08 am

    Auxiliary Question…

    For those of you using your Smartphone as a backcountry GPS/Topo Map device what App are you using? Several to choose from, hard to tell what works the best and all relatively expensive for an app.

    Gaia looks promising. Any input?

  7. Tim June 14th, 2013 11:10 am

    i was introduced to the “topo maps” app (for the iphone) this winter and have been stunned with how good it is. you’ve got to download at home the maps you’ll need in the field, but the functionality is excellent (touch zooming and scrolling, etc.), it’s cheap ($8) and all maps are free thereafter. it turns the phone into what seems to me a better GPS than any dedicated GPS i’ve seen, read about or used — honestly it feels like spy tech. (i heard the ute store in aspen has stopped carrying GPS units for this very reason — this app and others simply work better, cost less, etc.). from a philosophical perspective, it really highlights the achievements of map makers working in earlier eras b/c these maps stitch together like they were made for this precise application!

    i relied on the app heavily for a traverse this spring that otherwise would’ve required eight different paper quad maps, some of which are not commonly available.

    downsides would include battery drain, which it does seem to burn, so you need to be mindful to keep your phone off or in airplane mode when you’re not using it to “ping” yourself. but it works where cell coverage doesn’t just the same, and usually takes less than 30 seconds to get your “ping” once you turn the antennae on.

    i have since purchased one of those “lipstick” sized auxiliary battery chargers ($26) that will also power the phone for music at the hut or whatever.

    the real downside may be more nebulous. i’ve used this to navigate with such precision and confidence that what you end up with is this notion that “getting lost” is impossible. and that of course creates problems in of itself, and i’ve had a few laughs chuckling about the prospect of spending a night out in the woods without being lost in the slightest!

  8. Lou Dawson June 14th, 2013 11:41 am

    Tim, YES. I’ve seen that app, it’s one of the reasons I’m confident that stand-alone GPS is going to be a joke very soon except in very specific cases. Weird the GPS companies didn’t get more on the case. Another point. I’ve owned a Garmin and a TomTom car unit. My wife’s iPhone does just as well, sometimes better.

  9. Erik Erikson June 14th, 2013 12:11 pm

    – Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry?
    No. I love to work with map, compass and altimeter and never gave GPS a chance.Though I admit that GPS can be very usefull in certain situations, but I see more and more people outdoors who rely solely on GPS, following GPS tracks provided by others and have little idea how to use a map and where they actually are located in an area cause they just follow that little arrow
    – Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?
    No, see above
    – If you don’t use a smartphone, could you see it in your future?
    Yes. Though I will probably stay “oldschool” regarding navigation, GPS will be an issue fo me, and than it will be probably provided by a smartphone. GPS why? – First cause of safety in extreme situations (no sight and so on), second because especially regarding mountainbiking cool trails in an unkown area are often only porvided via gps-tracks these days. Why smartphone than? Cause I carry a phone anyway for callings in emergency.
    – Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos?
    No, I personally still use an old push button phone (no smartphone) without camera function cause the battery lasts much longer and it seems to be more solid. (This winter in a quite cold period we had two cases where after an avalanche they could not call mountain rescue cause the battery of the smartphones were empty). So I bring a small camera (sometimes my official ccell phone,which is a smartphone, but my employer does not really like that… 😉

    As I said above, it is not only for rational reasons that I prefer a map over a GPS or smartphone: I love to find a route on a map or during a rest looking at a map, having a large overview, figuring where else I could go in the future and so on.

  10. TimZ June 14th, 2013 12:25 pm

    (Rarely. I would use a GPS watch if I could afford one)Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry?
    (I tried a few times, gave up due to crappy battery life and no network connection)Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?
    (Not likely. Too many gadgets as is)If you don’t use a smartphone, could you see it in your future?
    (No, I use a m4/3 system, if I had a compact camera I might consider replacing it with a smartphone)Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos?

    Anything else: I wear liners inside my ski boots… come on 🙂

  11. Travis June 14th, 2013 12:40 pm

    )Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry?
    Yes – Suunto Ambit 2
    )Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?
    Sometimes –
    )If you don’t use a smartphone, could you see it in your future?
    The better the software gets & the more I use it the more I trust it
    )Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos?
    No – still using Cannon S100

  12. josh June 14th, 2013 12:55 pm

    I have both a garmin touch-screen map-based gps unit and an iphone 5 with “topo maps”. I pretty much just leave my garmin at home now. Topo Maps uses real USGS quads instead of garmin’s much inferior topo base maps. This feature allows me to mentally transfer very easily between my paper map and my iphone gps. The only disadvantage of the iphone gps is that there’s not PC-based management system (such as garmin’s basecamp) and you can’t import .kml files as easily.

    I also use the camera (which does have an real trigger button, by the way — it’s the volume down button when in camera mode on all iPhones).

    And, I use avy lab, which is a great iPhone snow app, as well as NOAA’s fantastic radar and sattellite app. The ability to have all of the above on one box is amazing.

    I use an uncased phone and a clear waterproof bag-style case — and I can still operate my phone with my thinner gloves on with no probles.

  13. bill h June 14th, 2013 1:34 pm

    Have both a Delorme PN60 and a ruggedized casio gzone smart phone.

    The Delorme user interface and button navigation is very clunky and annoying, although the unit works fine.

    As a result, for day tours I use an app called Backcountry Navigator Pro (10 bucks) which I’m pretty happy with. You can download both topo and aerial photo tiles for whatever area you’re touring to live on your phone’s memory card, and then use only the phone’s GPS when out of cell range.

    Pretty good functionality; takes waypoints and routes etc, which you then download to a sister website and can share around and convert on the website to the usual kml or gpx etc.

    Downside: this ‘ruggedized’ phone has pitiful battery life and barely makes it from dawn to dusk anymore. Miss my old Samsung Convoy which went 6 days on one charge easy.

  14. JR June 14th, 2013 3:52 pm

    1)Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry? – Not every trip, but for the new/bigger objectives. I pull tracks off my GPS to refine my trip planning.

    2)Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?
    I’ve tried, with both an iPhone 5 and a Samsung SGS3. Battery life sux, and my fear of getting water on the devices are inhibitors.

    4)Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos?
    I tried but my camera produces better quality, for sure.

    5)Anything else oh esteemed Wildsnowers?
    I like the potential multi-use benefit of a smartphone — E911, Kindle, Mapping Device, Photos, SPOT connection, etc. They have a long way to go to meet my expectations for bulletproof performance.

  15. Steve June 14th, 2013 5:36 pm

    Have not had much luck using GPS in the North Cascades on devices other than a dedicated GPS handheld.

    I second the Lifeproof case: I dropped my iphone in salt water two weeks ago while launching a boat. It was down 6 feet. I paid a kid $20 to jump in and get it for me. Water was 49 degrees. Phone still works like a charm. Not to mention the countless drops it has received in the Lifeproof case. Previously I had shattered three iphones.

  16. jed June 14th, 2013 8:46 pm

    I use an iPhone 5 in a LifeProof case, rigged with the “Topo Maps” app. For lightweight pursuits in simple or familiar terrain I leave the Garmin and camera behind. In fact, I was on the verge of canning the dedicated GPS entirely. I made it through both AMGA Ski and Alpine exams without consulting the Garmin. In relatively “settled” terrain where government maps come in large (or is it small… in any case, we’re talking like 1:24,000 or 1:20,000, as opposed to AK and the 1:63,360 originals) scale, the Topo Maps app is amazing. The large scale allows one to zoom way in to sort out the relative placement of user and pre-placed waypoints.

    However, just recently on Fairweather in Alaska, I found the limitations of the iPhone. I could zoom in until the map was fully blown up. But it still wasn’t close enough to allow instrument navigation back down through crevassed and waypointed country. We got ‘er done with old fashioned route-finding, but the phone gps would have been of no use. This is not necessarily an indictment of smartphone gps, but an issue of the otherwise-best gps app available.

    Finally, another follow-up question: Has anyone tried so-called “touchscreen-ready” gloves? I too can vouch for the effectiveness of moist gloves, but there in Colorado and here in the Eastern Sierra we just don’t get much of that wet, wintry stuff.

  17. Bar Barrique June 14th, 2013 9:39 pm

    I haven’t used my handheld GPS lately, but I do sometimes depend on a friend who has a newer one, and, is more savvy at using it’s features. I think that these things are on their way out.
    I don’t own a smart phone.
    Do I see it in my future? Hmm; probably, but I’m not in a hurry.
    Cameras take better pictures, and, any time there’s a discussion on camera’s, touch/LED screens are dismissed as unusable. Funny thing is my wife got a Canon 320 HS recently, and the LED screen is usable in the alpine unlike previous cameras.
    Further thoughts; I live in North West BC, and, due to the location of the satellites (south of us, so there is an angle line of sight issue), GPS can be sketchy. Cell phone coverage is even worse, though some times it is surprising where you can get a signal.

  18. Reg June 14th, 2013 10:35 pm

    YNNNN…other than you Americans talk talk talk, and map and compass and wristop alti is all u need to go…unless you must talk talk talk.

  19. John June 15th, 2013 1:56 am

    Topo Maps is a great iPhone app in the US. Since I don’t get cell coverage in the Elks I don’t take a phone, radio always, sat phone sometimes. I sometimes use a Garmin Montana instead. But I know the area pretty well.

    Rainier, or the like, I use the Montana, particularly for the Track-Back feature. Wands work well too.

    Topo Maps App in other countries is lacking, because many of the maps are very old, don’t line up with newer topo surveys,scale may be different, and often don’t show current landmarks.

    I always take a phone on the bike, because my rides start and end in areas with cell coverage. So last week I was checking elevations with it on the F-Pan Using Topo Maps even though I was out of cell coverage 80% of the ride.

  20. Dan June 15th, 2013 6:52 am

    I use my Samsung S3 with Google’s MyMaps App. Me or someone else will have a paper map as well. One downside of Google Map apps is that while you can download a map offline (for use with only GPS signal) you can’t download waypoints or a route.

  21. Ryan Bressler June 15th, 2013 9:33 am

    I only occasionally use my phone (nexus S) in the backcountry. I wrote which travis mentioned but I mostly use it to print paper maps at home or with a dedicated garmin + gpx track.

    I also carry a dedicated camera (s100) which generally takes much better photos. However with newer versions of android I have started to pull the phone out at viewpoints for the ease with which the camer app can take panoramic photos:

  22. ty June 15th, 2013 7:50 pm

    HA! a smartphone gps just screwed me over on a “car to car” trip to Gallatin Peak. A simple compass would have navigated us back to the correct trailhead, but the gps had us going (literally) in circles…we got to the wrong trailhead at 3am and slept on the ground, cursing technology the whole time

  23. stewspooner June 16th, 2013 8:24 am

    When touring in remote and unfamiliar terrain, I carry and occasionally use (I’m much more comfortable with a conventional map) a Garmin 60CSX GPS. I’m almost always carrying my Motorola Defy smartphone, but the limited cell coverage here in the Kootenays makes it useless for backcountry navigation. I’ll often use my smartphone to take photos, but I always get much better shots when I use my Canon SD? digital camera. I carry my SPOT for emergencies, and to check-in when on extended trips, and am thinking about upgrading to a Delorme Inreach SE, for its’ satellite two-way texting capabilities. I’m also always carrying an avalanche transceiver, but the weight and complexity of all this stuff is getting ridiculous. I dream of one device that will incorporate all these functions.

  24. Ji June 16th, 2013 6:44 pm

    )Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry?
    Yes Garmin Oregon 450 and iPhone 4S

    )Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?
    Sometimes. Vague coverage and battery life issues mean an overnight trip needs longer battery life than the phone provides – switching of the telephone radio dramatically effects GPS functionality so battery life is poor. Garmin currently provides enough battery life – with a set of spare batteries – for a >=2 day trip.

    )Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos?
    Depends. Fastest & Lightest then take my phone as map / book / camera / alarm clock. If not I’ll take my DSLR.

    )Anything else oh esteemed Wildsnowers?
    Battery life is my biggest problem. Probably need to invest in a small solar panel to feed enough power into the phone to keep it going.

  25. Martin June 17th, 2013 1:07 am

    * Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry?
    Yes, Garmin Oregon. Satellite reception is fast&stable, batteries last a whole day of tracklogging, and with CustomMaps I can install any raster map I want (even scanned paper maps, if no digital version is available).

    * Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?
    No, or only as a backup.

    * If you don’t use a smartphone, could you see it in your future?
    Not unless phone batteries improve damatically. I want my phone to work when I need it for emergency calls, so I keep it turned off and try not to waste precious battery power for navigating and logging. In cold weather, I saw phone batteries die within a few hours (phone on standby), while my Garmin easily lasts a whole day.

    * Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos?
    No, I carry a Canon DSLR. I want to take proper photos. And the added weight makes for better training results *g*


  26. stephen June 17th, 2013 6:42 am

    )Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry?

    Sometimes, although I usually know where I’m going or use a paper map & compass if not. GPS is primarily handy in poor vis to figure out *exactly* where one is. NB: I have an old GPS without mapping.

    )Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?

    No, that’s usually impossible where I live (Oz) due to poor network coverage where the snow is, and in remote areas generally. There are issues with water ingress too – I have stories – and having no means to navigate is not acceptable; I always carry a compass and map(s) in any case.

    )If you don’t use a smartphone, could you see it in your future?

    Only if network coverage improved very drastically, and that’s not going to happen as nobody lives in BC touring areas in Oz and few go there. Also, they’re in national parks/wilderness areas and building towers is a can of worms, and not IMHO justifiable on a number of grounds. For things other than navigation, different story.

    )Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos?

    No, I have a real camera with a decent lens!

    )Anything else oh esteemed Wildsnowers?

    I’m actually in the market for a smartphone and was tossing up between the existing Galaxy/Note models and now the *&^*$# have announced another one and there are rumours about the Galaxy Note 3 as well. I may never get around to actually buying anything! 👿

  27. Lou Dawson June 17th, 2013 7:11 am

    Stephen, thanks for your take, but do you realize that smartphones with internal GPS work using the satellite GPS system and don’t need to have network available? Or are you just saying that since the phone is useless for comm in most areas you’re in, lugging one around and using as GPS is kind of pointless?


  28. Lou Dawson June 17th, 2013 7:13 am

    I hear you about the choices. I was about to go for Galaxy Note because I wanted to run maps on a large screen, then along comes the Active, and running it without case as compared to Note with case is very attractive. Note with case would be huge. Though I’m still thinking of that route. Lou

  29. bryan June 17th, 2013 12:28 pm

    Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry?

    Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?

    If you don’t use a smartphone, could you see it in your future?

    Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos?

    Anything else oh esteemed Wildsnowers?

  30. Dude June 17th, 2013 3:32 pm

    )Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry?
    Garmin 62sc. Most of the time. It’s fun to make tracks and see the vertical and tracks on Google Earth, both for skiing and mountain biking. It’s worth having just for the occasional check. I have found that in skiing it often can make a route very efficient and has actually prevented several wrong turns.

    )Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?

    )If you don’t use a smartphone, could you see it in your future?
    Yes, if they were better.

    )Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos?

    )Anything else oh esteemed Wildsnowers?
    I decided to go GPS because of the accuracy, durability and issues with battery life as I wanted a more reliable unit, and didn’t want to pay the extra monthly cost for a smartphone. For skiing, I use it for approaches in the dark and finding the car in confusing terrain. (ever get lost coming out from Buffalo Mountain in colorado?!) I also use it for hunting as it is very easy to get disoriented when following critters around, and a lot of traveling is done in the dark. Sometimes I also load property lines onto the unit for hunting and mountain biking excursions.
    I would like to have one phone/gps/camera/music unit but haven’t been impressed with the quality of the gps’ or cameras, nor the durability of the phones/batteries.

  31. Jesse June 17th, 2013 4:41 pm

    A few people have mentioned concerns about accuracy. Is there any actual evidence that dedicated GPS units are that different to what’s built in to smartphones? I would have thought that GPS chipsets were pretty standard.

  32. Ji June 17th, 2013 6:44 pm

    In my experience an iPhone in Airline Mode – all radios off – will take an inordinately long time to get a GPS fix. If you start with a fix and then wander out of signal range (but don’t switch to Airline Mode) you will continue to track and eventually you’ll reacquire a signal when you return within signal range, though on many occasions I’ve had to reboot the phone to reacquire a signal depending on factors unknown. Has anyone tried using a phone purely as a GPS device? If so which phone and where?

    GPS receivers come in many different forms with different accuracy levels and different levels of adaptive technologies to deal with errors, dropouts, etc.

  33. Lou Dawson June 17th, 2013 7:06 pm

    Jess and Ji, we’ve used smartphone gps extensively for driving, including out of cell range, the GPS is spot on accurate, easily as good as my Garmin and TomTom. We also use the GPS with the Peakfinder app and it always seems right on. Still, this is an area that needs solid experimentation. Since I really know my Garmin, I’ll be working on this issue over coming weeks and eventually report back. If anyone else wants to do a comparo and comment here, great. Or contact us for a guest blog. Lou

  34. Scott June 17th, 2013 7:39 pm

    I think smartphones would easily replace dedicated gps units, if only the battery life were better. Of course the dedicated units are not great in this area either.

  35. Lou Dawson June 17th, 2013 8:57 pm

    I get totally adequate battery life by using lithium AAs in my Garmin, but they do fail when you don’t expect it, usually while you’re standing in a whiteout in the middle of a crevasse field. Jury out on the smartphones, obviously one would have to carry an auxilary battery pack. Lisa uses her Anker nearly all the time hooked up to her iPhone. She has two Ankers, swapping for the charged one. She’s gotten a strong bicep from speaking on the phone, rubber banded to the Anker.

  36. stephen June 17th, 2013 10:55 pm

    Hi Lou,

    I was under the impression that some smartphones got their navigation (“GPS”) functions solely by triangulating off towers, and that they often chose to do this in any case, i.e., that forcing the phone to use satellites rather than cellular data wasn’t so easy.

    It’s also unclear, at least to me, what the accuracy of phone GPS is like compared to a dedicated unit. My most common use for GPS is actually geocaching (sad, I know but I have a friend who’s really into it), and pinpoint accuracy is a good thing there, and often very problematic too. Comments anyone?

    Since it often rains here in Oz, taking a waterproof GPS makes more sense than a phone which isn’t going to work anyway; I was on a trip where major problems arose because the phone/GPS got wet and wouldn’t function in zero visibility and would prefer to avoid a recurrence(!). The Galaxy S4 Active may render this moot though.

    Also, in the last few days a number of interesting devices have been announced. Apart from the S4 Active, Panasonic have the LF1 pocketable camera coming which includes an EVF, and there’s this:, plus substantial rumours of a Nokia smartphone with EOS branding soon.

    It appears that camera/phone convergence is accelerating rapidly, but so far there aren’t any really good phone options for demanding low light use; I expect this to change,

    It seems we are living in interesting times 🙂

  37. Ji June 18th, 2013 1:44 am

    Hi Lou,
    I use my phone extensively as my in car SatNav and it works excellently. I believe that when doing navigation along a route the phone will default to the nearest “road” or “route” nearby. The actual GPS fix need not necessarily be correct but it decides you MUST be on the road, not driving across a field for example.

    In the mountains if I start with a solid fix from GPS + cell triangulation and/or Wi-Fi triangulation its fine from then onwards. However it can lose itself entirely. At home my phone GPS is generally about 100m out – though this is while inside.

  38. Ji June 18th, 2013 1:57 am

    If you are going to do any write up on ‘phones as GPSes I’d be really interested in knowing about the GPS chips in the phones. I’ve never been able to find that information on the web. You might get a chip ID but not anything pertaining to its accuracy etc. For dedicated GPS devices this informaton is part of the spec.

  39. Lou Dawson June 18th, 2013 6:09 am

    All, due to your comments we’re getting a super overview on the “state of the tech” when it comes to phone GPS. I’m incredibly eager to commence some testing and I’ve got some ideas on how to test more than one phone. I’ll be working on this all summer. Keep the comments coming and do as much evaluation as possible. Biggie would be for all of you to figure out how to know when the phone is using actual U.S. GPS system, and/or just using cell towers.

    One thing to remember about satellite GPS is it generally will not work indoors. Sometimes my Garmin will pick up a satellite or several while it’s sitting on my desk, but unreliably. If you want to find out if your smartphone is using sat GPS or phone tower GPS, just go deep inside a building and use. If you can still use GPS, you’re using the cell tower triangulation system.

    Also, brief reading on the web snows that phones usually default to “AGPS” (Assisted GPS) which blends use of satellites with cell towers. So the whole deal is confusing. Best way to test for the backcountry will be to simply do it in the backcountry where there is no cell signal. We’ve got lots of places like that around here.

    And let’s hope we can figure out how to just look at the phone settings and know what the phone is doing. Probably via an app? Web research indicates that Samsung, for example, has a whole menu of GPS settings.


  40. Lou Dawson June 18th, 2013 6:15 am
  41. Martin June 18th, 2013 6:23 am

    Hi Lou,

    there are all sorts of apps (eg ‘GPS status’ for android) that show which and how many satellites the phone ‘sees’ right now. If it doesn’t see any but still gets a fix, it’s using cell towers.

    From my experience current phone GPS chips work well in open areas but are no match for dedicated devices like Garmins, exp. in difficult areas (dense forests, deep valleys).


  42. Lou Dawson June 18th, 2013 6:30 am

    Martin, the message I’m getting from research is the compromised performance of the phones is almost entirely due to the crumby GPS antenna buried in the phone. First advice I’m seeing is to make sure phone has view of sky, if in car, place forward on windshield for example.

    Also seeing lots ot advice to just “get a bluetooth gps for the phone and stick that big ol’ antenna on your car roof…”

    Yep, interesting times.

  43. stephen June 18th, 2013 8:05 am

    “Good view of the sky” is easier said than done. For geocaching, pinpoint precision is highly desirable but near cliffs, in valleys, in thick bush or scrub, or in CBDs with tall buildings getting a good lock can be problematic even with a decent dedicated Garmin GPS with a proper aerial.

    Phone tower triangulation may help with the CBD problem, but IMHO It’s expecting quite a bit to get the same accuracy from a phone where the GPS is just one of many parts of the mix. I know it’s possible to use an external aerial with most phones through some sort of “proximity pad” the phone is held against (I know nothing about radio or phone technology or nomenclature) as a hut I ski to has such a system, but I don’t know if there is a portable version of this, what it’s called, or indeed if this type of antenna is any use for GPS as opposed to phone/radio reception.

    Lou, thanks for posting the excellent Macworld article!

    Martin, does Android ‘GPS status’ allow any control over what happens, or just info? I notice here: it says “The PRO version does not use the internet connection at all.” but maybe this just means it doesn’t download ads.

    I think reading all this stuff is turning me into a Borg drone. Resistance is futile!

  44. stephen June 18th, 2013 9:42 am

    There appears to be a way to turn Android A-GPS on or off documented here:

    The Borg phone is getting closer for me. 🙂

  45. mark June 18th, 2013 10:34 am

    Aside from emergencies, I use my smartphone 90% of the time for photos (if an slr is too heavy – almost always!!).

    I also use it for timing/mapping a route through GPS.

    Navigation wise I rarely use GPS but I do often use photos of specific faces etc to help with line selection/cliff avoidance rather than outright navigation.

  46. RobinB June 18th, 2013 10:43 am

    For those who haven’t found there way there yet:

    Tons of info on the use of Android devices as nav.

    I have been playing with a Nexus7 for car navigation; loading topo maps, backroad maps, and satellite imagery. A bit of a learning curve but very useful.

    So far Locus has been my app of choice.

  47. Martin June 18th, 2013 10:49 am

    Stephen, I dont have the pro version of Gps status. But it shows the IDs of the visible satellites along with position accuracy and DOP values. That should do for a side by side comparison with other devices. Might do just that with my Garmin – you got me hooked!


  48. Jesse June 18th, 2013 11:12 am

    Ji, iPhone airplane mode turns off GPS, so you should never be able to get a fix.

    I’ve used my iPhone in zero-coverage areas (with saved maps) and had no problem acquiring a position. However, the phone still wastes batteries trying to find a tower. The iPhone won’t let you turn the cellular radio off but leave GPS on. Does anyone know if the galaxy series allows this?

  49. stephen June 18th, 2013 11:17 am

    ^ I don’t have a suitable device to check with me but one of the screen shots at the page I posted a link to above implies it might be possible. It is certainly possible to turn off GPS, and it looks to me that Wireless Networks is just another box which can presumably(?) be unticked. I will check tomorrow if I remember.

  50. Lou Dawson June 18th, 2013 12:28 pm

    Turning cell radio OFF but leaving GPS ON is critical for backcountry nav using smartphone! Props to you guys for honing in on this issue. Please experiment!

  51. Rimtu June 18th, 2013 12:50 pm

    )Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry?
    *Yes, so I can see the routes I’ve taken.

    )Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?
    *I use Android phone with this googles app My Tracks

    )If you don’t use a smartphone, could you see it in your future?

    )Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos?
    No, I have an old phone, and the picture quality is bad.

    )Anything else oh esteemed Wildsnowers?
    *when buying smart phone with GPS, It’s a good thing to look at an phone that supports GLONASS -
    It will have much better reception, as it will have access to more sattelites.

    also, i think the “Motorola RAZR MAXX” is much better for backcountry. It has 3300mAh batery, and an CPU that isn’t power hungry. It will probably have 30% better batery life. with lite use It can go over 5 days without recharging. Plus it’s an old model, so it’s much cheaper

  52. Martin June 18th, 2013 2:45 pm

    So, I just did a bit of research, went to my rooftop terrace and compared my phone (LG optimus 4X HD) to my Garmin Oregon 450.

    *) Number of fixed satellites is similar, but not identical. One device will see a satellite that the other device misses and vice versa.

    *) GPS accuracy is similar, but on average a tad better on the Garmin. But it is quite possible that the two devices use different definitions of accuracy.

    *) The phone can use GPS while in airplane mode.

    *) Fix time (time until the device gets its first position) is a couple of seconds on the garmin.

    *) Fix time on the phone is about 150 s when I deleted any old AGPS data (the GPS status app lets you do that), but only 5-15 s when AGPS data exists (all done in airplane mode).

    *) I was quite shocked to learn that the Oregon 450 is NOT compatible with glonass satellites. Some other garmin devices are. Not sure about the phone, but I doubt that it can read glonass. This might be something to keep in mind when shopping for a new device, one that can do GPS and glonass has simply more satellites to choose from (and hopefully galileo will go operational any time soon).

    *) The Garmin can do WAAS/EGNOS which can give you better accuracy. Not sure if the phone can do that. But anyway, that won’t help you if you don’t get a fix at all.

    Next step would be to do the same comparison in some difficult terrain like in a dense forest. So far (rooftop, very good sky view) the two devices are about on par, though the phone is much slower to get a fix without AGPS data.


  53. Lou Dawson June 18th, 2013 3:24 pm

    Very cool Martin, thanks!

  54. Scott June 18th, 2013 6:31 pm

    Android very easily let’s you independently power the gps, the cell radio, the blue tooth, and the wifi.

    To do so, put your phone in airplane mode, then turn back on the wifi, gps, and/or bluetooth.

  55. Lou Dawson June 18th, 2013 7:09 pm

    Thanks Scott, perfect! I’m convinced I want Android… now I’m after the Razar, but trying to wait till Verizon has the Galaxy Active… then the harsh reality of immature tech shall be blogged, or is it mature…?

  56. stephen June 18th, 2013 9:13 pm

    I love this site! 🙂

    More helpful and useful information is to be had here than at many other places, and the people are nice(!), and don’t post just to argue – which is often the case at for example.

    Well done everyone…

  57. Lou Dawson June 19th, 2013 5:32 am

    Thanks Stephen, it’s great you appreciate the level of discourse. Some folks hate that they can’t just drop in here now and then and bully everyone else with their spew, but we like the peace. Plenty of other places for flame wars. Well stated polemic is ok, however, so keep that in mind. Main thing is that we keep the personal attacks to an absolute minimum, that’s what really makes the difference.


  58. Ru June 20th, 2013 3:50 am

    A little late, perhaps…

    )Do you presently use a GPS unit in the backcountry?
    Yep. I have an old Garmin 60CSx, with openmtbmap/openstreetmap sourced maps (which are free and better quality than Garmin’s offerings, though contour support is poor in some aspects)

    )Do you use a smartphone for backcountry GPS navigation?

    )If you don’t use a smartphone, could you see it in your future?
    Not in the near future. They’re much more delicate than my Garmin, more expensive, have a worse battery life, are less convenient to operate in bad weather and I’d *still* need to carry a spare phone with me anyway.

    )Do you primarily use your smartphone camera for your photos?
    No. It’ll be a little while before someone makes a smartphone that’ll focus and shoot as fast as my dSLR!

    )Anything else oh esteemed Wildsnowers?
    The antenna on my Garmin is quite substantial. I suspect it’ll get a better signal than a phone in adverse conditions, like under tree cover.

    None of the current navigation offerings will beat a good paper map, which will operate indefinitely, generally give higher quality mapping and let you get a good overview of the area. Maybe one day flexible electronic displays that keep the last shown image even with the power off will replace maps. Won’t be any time soon.

  59. Lou Dawson June 20th, 2013 6:21 am

    Communicating information on paper was invented for a reason, that’s for sure!

    But digital mapping _will_ become the norm in the backcountry at some point.

    For me, the worst part of digital is indeed the small screen as compared to a nice folded paper map. Scrolling around on the Garmin tiny LCD is a joke.

    On the other hand, using the Garmin Mapsource software on my netbook to look at the same maps is quite practical. Quick zoom in and out, quick scrolling around.

    The form factor of the handheld GPS is all wrong. I’m not sure why they all ended up with the tiny screens, perhaps this was caused by the design taking hold when LCDs were super expensive. At any rate, the handheld GPS should be flat, with at least a 5 inch LCD like a Samsung Galaxy Note.

  60. Ji June 20th, 2013 7:29 pm

    Actually my dream electronic GPS would be something like colour e-paper with a GPS dongle (you might be able to do it in gray-scales … not sure if it’d be good enough) . You don’t need the continuous updating of an LCD screen, which uses a lot of power, when traveling around a map, it doesn’t need to constantly refresh itself to centre you.

    So something very light, very long lasting – days v. hours – 7″ in size, waterproof, and sunlight readable. Add a nighttime glow and you’ve got your nighttime books, comics, map research. If it updated once every 30s – 2 minutes at skinning / walking speed youd never really notice – skiing and biking you’d want a quicker update.

  61. Jim December 23rd, 2013 1:00 am

    I use Garmin Vista and mark the car and a few waypoints to get home in a whiteout.

    I can’t see the Samsung Note II screen out side. The snow is always too bright. Same for pictures with the Note. I did try the GPS software and its great, but I’ll stick with the Garmin, which Ican see in bright light.

  62. Jim Milstein March 31st, 2014 8:16 pm

    Once again, late to the party.

    This ski season I’ve been using the new DeLorme inReach SE coupled with a 5th Gen iPod Touch which has Gaia GPS installed for mapping. The iPod’s display, while small, is very high quality and is legible in bright sun if kept shaded. Using GPS topo mapping is very useful when skiing complex wooded terrain. Otherwise, I have a regrettable habit of wandering off course.

    I use the iPod for photos as well. Not very good for action but really good for swing panoramas. The HDR option is effective in bright sun.

    The inReach SE also does two-way Ir satellite texting, so it is an important safety device in addition to its use for random communication.

    Total weight of SE and iPod is ten oz. I carry a triple Li AA recharger that works on both devices, which weighs another three oz. Never had to use it for day trips. The SE goes for about one hundred hours on a charge. The iPod not so long, but with good management (sleep, when not being looked at) can go for a couple of days, maybe more depending.

  63. Lou Dawson March 31st, 2014 11:05 pm

    Jim, thanks, need more reader feedback as my smartphone experiment has fallen flat on its face due to problems with being able to see smartphone screen well enough in bright snow-reflected light at 11,000 feet elevation, in order to actually use GPS for navigation. Glad to hear the iPod display might be better, we’ll check it out. Lou

  64. Jim Milstein April 1st, 2014 9:10 am

    The iPod’s display, Lou, is the same as on the iPhone 5 or 5s, I think. With those you get a builtin GPS, but many think that smartphone GPSs are inferior to dedicated units. I wouldn’t know, never having had a smartphone. The GPS in my iPad (3rd gen) has seemed to be quite competent, but the thing is too big and weighs way too much for regular backcountry use. Fabulous big display, though. The DeLorme inReach SE’s GPS is first rate. (So is its Ir two-way sat communication)

    Touch screens don’t work as well in very cold environments, so I keep the iTouch caseless in a pocket close to my body. Another issue is touching its screen when the weather’s cold. Best results are with bare fingers. I have glove liners that have some conductive thread in the index fingers and thumbs for use with touch screens. They work, sort of. I bought a bobbin of conductive thread to enlarge the active areas on the glove fingers, but I haven’t got around to doing it yet. So far, I just take a glove off, when needed, to do touch-based navigation.

    A big advantage of a smartphone or an iPod for navigation is the versatility. You can display photos, different versions of topo or aerial-photo maps and anything else that people dream up to assist navigation up there in the wild snows of the earth. If there already isn’t, there will be an app for that.

    For those who prefer paper maps, don’t forget the anguish of using them in wind or sleet or dark of night. Yes, they don’t run out of electrons, but paper can blow away or disintegrate. I bring extra electrons for the devices, just in case. Li AAs are a weight and power efficient way to do this. They are expensive if bought in local stores, but much less so when bought via the Intertubes. Since they are seldom or never used except on a many day outing, the expense is not much of an issue.

  65. Lou Dawson April 1st, 2014 9:34 am

    Jim, thanks, valuable to get the details from a ‘real’ user… I have tested GPS of iPhone as well as Galaxy in comparison to Garmin dedicated unit. They’re just as good in a practical sense, though perhaps for doing things like faux land corner surveying the dedicated unit could be slightly better, if for no other reason than it having more powerful GPS software that sits there and averages out the signal to keep improving accuracy if the unit is stationary. Of course the smartphones are dependent on software as well, so perhaps I’m bringing up a non-issue. Main thing is that yes, I agree, with the right maps, software and smartphone model, it works as a backcountry GPS — only big issue is visibility of the screen in super-bright ambient light, such as in a snow bowl above timberline at noon on a spring day. As for touch screen, I’ve found the work-around I like is an app that turns the touch feature on and off, so I don’t get any accidental “touches” freaking out the unit. For waterproofness, a transparent case that’s touch screen compatible works fine. Lou

  66. Jim Milstein April 1st, 2014 9:45 am

    The reason, Lou, that I use the ‘Pod caseless is so that body heat will be more efficiently transferred to it. As for visibility in the brightest of conditions, be sure to take off dark glasses. I wear clear glasses most of the time, so that is not a problem for me, but I’m an insensitive brute.

  67. Lou Dawson April 1st, 2014 9:50 am

    The thin flexible plastic cases work fine in transferring heat, but they do add quite a bit of bulk as they’re like big ziplock bags. I really don’t recommend field use of smartphone without some kind of case, as water vapor from sweat, if nothing else, will get inside the phone workings, condense, and possibly fail the thing. More, what happens when you drop it in the snow, or have to use it when it’s raining? Lou

  68. Jim Milstein April 1st, 2014 9:56 am

    So far, so good with the naked iPod. Fifty plus days in the wild snows of Colorado.

    It’s an Apple product. Does that make a difference?

  69. Lou Dawson April 1st, 2014 10:09 am

    So long as the antenna works (grin).

  70. Billy Balz September 4th, 2014 5:41 am

    Any up to date thinking of viability of galaxy S5, S4 Active or Note 3/4 for navigation (or iPhone)7? Is the S5 screen big enough to navigate with or do you really need the Note size (0.7″ diag screen size diff between note and galaxy).

  71. Lou Dawson 2 September 4th, 2014 5:48 am

    Billy, any of the average sized smartphones seem to be working good for people doing GPS. They’re so much bigger than lame stand-alone GPS screens the difference is remarkable. Personally, I like the size of the Note even better but it’s a bit klunky with add-on battery. Despite problems with seeing smartphone screens in bright sunlight, they seem to be putting stand-alone GPS out of business the same way they have decimated sales of point-shoot digital cameras. Lou

  72. Jim Irving September 9th, 2014 10:30 am

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time this summer in and around Yosemite and in NY’s Adirondacks with a Samsung Galaxy S3. I ran Maverick Pro initially but switched to BackCountry Navigator. (GPS Test by ChartCross is a good test-and-fix app.) I found an 11 oz. 9000 mAh battery that allowed me to use the phone GPS for several days. Biggest problem (maybe dedicated units have this too – I have no experience with them) is that apparently heavy cloud cover and humidity makes it impossible to get consistent readings or sometimes ANY reading, especially when I’m also under forest cover and/or in a steep ravine.

    After all this I was shocked to find out just today that my little S3 includes a barometer and GLONASS support. That explains the elevation readings in BackCountry Navigator and the two distinct types of satellite nomenclature in GPS Test.

    For a while this summer the phone had this quirk where it would wake itself up from power-off and emit a pitiful-sounding, groaning set of tones, typically in the middle of the night (once at 1am in a tent at Vogelsang). I cleared some software and this appears to have stopped.

    But now the charge port seems to be worn and I’m having trouble getting this 2-year old phone to charge reliably. I’m trying to figure out what to replace it with, which is how I landed on this discussion. Something waterproof, more rugged, and with a brighter screen would be nice but possibly beyond my means – the S3 is a company-provided cell phone. I’m also going to look seriously at map packs; downloading free maps to cache from a place with service can be a pain and I may not know ahead of time where serendipity will lead me.

  73. Nick January 2nd, 2018 10:32 am

    Lou- curious about your current opinion on smartphone app (Gaia) vs. handheld GPS for navigation, esp. in Europe.

    I have used GaiaGPS for 4 years now on my iPhone with excellent results. However, this has always been stateside and in areas that I’m already somewhat familiar with.

    We’re headed to the Alps this spring and am wondering if I’ll have the same experience there.

  74. Lou Dawson 2 January 2nd, 2018 10:59 am

    Hi Nick, I like Gia and Backcountry Navigator on phone, especially on my huge Galaxy Note with mega battery. But I still use my handheld stand-along when things are critical because it is )waterproof )easily visible in bright sunlight )ultra long battery life. Pretty much everyone I see using GPS in the Alps is on a smartphone, for what that’s worth. Fact is, when you’re there it’s pretty likely you’ll be on an existing ski track and/or seeing guides here and there you can shadow. Just be careful if you do use a phone that you have the battery life problem licked. Lou

  75. Nick January 2nd, 2018 11:07 am

    Thanks Lou!

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