Smart Phone Navigation (iPhone 6s)


Recently, I wrote an article on using your smart phone for photography, especially as it relates to the back country. In this article I want to explore the ability of the smart phone (the iPhone 6s in particular) to navigate in the Canadian Rockies and just about anywhere else. Just as with photography, the modern smart phone's capabilities with navigation are often confusing and misunderstood. There's a lot of misinformation out there due to the rapidly changing technology that these amazing machines contain.


NOTE: I would be remiss if I didn't add a warning up front that there is some good evidence that cell phones interfere with avalanche transceivers - obviously something you should be aware of during winter when you take an electronic device with you, including your phone. There are solutions such as keeping the two devices separated by at least 20 inches.


I read a great article recently that outlines a bunch of the things I'm going to talk about too. It's nice to see I'm not the only one who wants to use my phone for more than just social media and texting. :) Just like using the camera in your phone, you might be wondering if it's worth using the GPS / Altimeter in your phone, when you can buy dedicated devices that supposedly do the same job. Only you can determine how far to take the whole phone-as-everything-motto, but I'm continuously amazed at the technology I'm discovering in mine! For example, just a few weeks ago I learned that the altimeter in my iPhone is an actual barometric sensor. I had no idea and was under the impression that it only used a GPS altimeter. I was lugging my Garmin 62st up any peak close to 11,000 feet because I didn't think my phone was accurate enough. Apparently, it's pretty much as accurate as any other non-professional device with a barometric sensor. No more need to lug the Garmin 62st along - and that's a good thing because it's not light or small.


[The Pro Altimeter works pretty slick and even allows calibration with several data points from automatically discovering nearby airports to manually entering altitude.]


ViewRanger App

First let me talk about the app that I use. Wietse tried to get me to use this one already for a year and a few months ago I finally broke down and tried it when I got my new iPhone 6s. The app is called ViewRanger and is attached to an online presence as well. I'm sure there are many other decent GPS applications out there - ViewRanger works for me and has been around for awhile. The best part is that you can reasonably use it for free - including free maps if you wish.


[Using the free OpenCycle maps gives you many tracks that have been uploaded into the ViewRanger system. For example, these tracks around Mount Lougheed were already on the map - I didn't do anything special to put them there. Lots of cool trip ideas just from browsing an area!]


There are a few things I like about ViewRanger in particular. I like that there's an online component that backs up all my tracks and allows me to embed any GPS track in my trip reports (scroll to the bottom). I also appreciate the ability to follow a myriad of tracks and even discover hikes / ski tours on the free OpenCycle map that comes by default with the iPhone application. Just by navigating to an area of the map (i.e. Lake Louise), I can see many other tracks / routes to use as ideas. I'm not sure where ViewRanger gets all these tracks, but they are pretty darn handy.


[I like that all my routes are synced with the cloud and stored under my account in the ViewRanger app online. I can choose to make them public or not.]


Here are some of my personal notes about using ViewRanger, I'm still evolving my techniques so bear this in mind and take these suggestions with a grain of salt;


  1. Don't forget to download your map and any tracks you wish to follow BEFORE getting out of cell phone / WIFI coverage! You can still follow a downloaded track with no map, but it's not pleasant. I've done it several times. ;)

    [Don't forget to download the area that you are going to be navigating - BEFORE your trip!]

  2. Always put your phone in 'Airplane Mode' before heading out into the wilderness with it. You don't need WIFI or cell and if you do, you can always reactivate. These things will burn through your battery quickly! Remember to turn the location services back on in the ViewRanger app when you start it up.

    [When you put your phone in Airplane mode - the GPS will be Off. You also don't need to be 'Online'.]

    [Here I've turned the GPS on and made the application go Offline.]

  3. I use the following GPS settings for tracks and the GPS itself, in order to maintain a decent balance between accuracy and battery life. On Poboktan Mountain we were out for 15 hours and I had my iPhone GPS on the entire day. By the end of the day I still had over 70% battery, which I thought was pretty darn good. There are some complex and interesting ways to save even more battery power if you're doing multi-day trips - see this article for ideas or simply Google for many suggestions.


  4. This is going to same strange, but do *not* follow a route when navigating unless you feel this is really necessary (i.e. navigating in a whiteout). Instead of following a route, simply download the track or map that you're interested in. For example, in the Mount Lougheed map that I showed earlier, if I download the maps around Spray Lakes, all those route lines will be on the map. I don't even have to download tracks or routes or anything! To go up "Little Lougheed", I simply turn on my GPS and start "Recording a track without following directions". By following the line on-screen and checking my position against it, I can reasonably follow the route manually. Why do this? To save battery. If you choose to follow a route, the application will not follow your GPS settings, but will chew through the battery extremely quickly by maintaining constant communication with the GPS satellites in order to ensure you stay exactly on the route line.
  5. I bought the Canadian topo map for a more accurate and widely-named map set. To be honest, the OpenCycle map is pretty darn good. I'm not sure it's worth buying the alternate maps, because you lose all the great route ideas if you do as they are all stored on the OpenCycle free map. I switch back and forth and use the Canadian topo for detailed navigation and if I have a downloaded track to follow.
  6. I linked my ViewRanger with Apple Health. This is a handy way of tracking your stats and calories burned. Another bonus of carrying my phone with me while I hike is that all those yummy steps get recorded and boost my average step count way up! ;)
  7. Experiment with the app and your phone in a non-stress setting to determine how / if it'll work for you. The OpenCycle map is free so there's no risk in trying it. Go for walks around your neighborhood or try it on a trail where you're not going to get lost anyway. Some people insist that they cannot realistically replace their GPS unit with a phone and you could be one of these people.


Myth Busting

There are a few myths regarding phones and their capabilities floating around, that I used to believe myself until I researched them a bit more. Remember - these apply mainly to the iPhone 6s since that's the unit I'm using. If you have a relatively new smart phone, it probably shares or exceeds these specs but you should double check yourself.


One myth that's critical to using the iPhone 6s for navigation is the one that states you need cell coverage to use the GPS. This is not true. The GPS in the iPhone is a true GPS and only needs satellite reception to work properly. Cell coverage can improve accuracy but not by much. Of course, just like any consumer grade GPS unit, the iPhone doesn't work great in canyons or really heavy tree cover (i.e. the jungle). I've used my phone in Alberta "trees" no problem. ;)


Another myth that I used to believe was that a dedicated consumer grade GPS unit (i.e. Garmin 62st) would be much more capable and accurate than the GPS unit in my iPhone. This is no longer an issue for most users, according to some sources. For increased GPS accuracy with your phone, there are devices available to make it extremely accurate while still offering all the benefits of a phone such as large screen, tons of apps and ease of use. The add-on device that I've linked (Dual XGPS150A) is only 51 grams and attaches easily to a pack or even your arm - and again, this is only if you need increased GPS accuracy due to the type of terrain or criticality of application (i.e. you're navigating around the North Pole in a blizzard, alone).


Using your expensive and delicate smart phone outdoors seems like a really bad idea at first. Is it durable enough to handle the rough housing? Of course, this is a non-issue once you look into rugged cases that are much more durable than any consumer grade GPS unit. The LifeProof cases have always worked pretty good for me.


Phone vs. GPS Unit

Only you can decide if you are willing to either completely or partially replace your dedicated GPS unit with your smart phone. I'm going to borrow some pros and cons for each from the Gaia blog to help you make your decision.


Smart Phone Pros;

  • More / better maps
  • Bigger screen
  • Better software
  • Cheaper (since you own it already and apps / add-on GPS receivers are cheap)
  • Multi-use device (can also easily be your camera)


GPS Unit Pros;

  • Battery life - not really though, as you can use battery cases or charging devices for your phone, plus I find that my phone will last just as long as my Garmin 62st does (about 2-3 days)
  • Precision - true, but with add-on units costing less than a GPS and being much lighter and smaller, this is a non-issue if you really need the extra precision of a dedicated GPS unit.


Hopefully I've introduced a helpful addition to your outdoor gear pile, by using a smart phone that you already pay for. As I wrote earlier in this blog, it doesn't have to cost much (anything!) so what's the harm in trying it? Let me know if I've overlooked anything obvious or have misrepresented anything in this article.


As part of a Standard GPS Operations document on, I've spent some time documenting ViewRanger. Backcountry Navigator and Gaia GPS. I found your article is quite friendly. I was especially interested in the settings that you use, such as recording a point every 20 meters, which I think is a good setting.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Enter the characters shown in the image.