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iPhone GPS vs GPS Device

I met a guy on the trail this past weekend who apparently uses his iPhone on airplane mode to act as his GPS navigation while backpacking. He swore it was reliable but I am hesitant to put any sort of trust in Apple products. I was wondering if any of you use an iPhone like this. Does it work when there's no cell signal? I was just about to buy a Garmin Instinct Solar, but if this is reliable then I'll save the money I guess.

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10 Replies

Hi @m_andreas10 - This is a great question! 

I'm hopeful others will weigh in because it is a popular topic here in the community, but I also wanted to point you in the direction of a few other threads on this subject. These might have some of the feedback you're looking for:

Hopefully this helps!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

great topic and for good reason, who wants to get lost!

This has come up about 20 times at least (I wish I could just link my responses, lol)

I'm using gaia app on my iphone, but gaia has been available for android for a while, I think.

I've experienced several apps and imo this is the best one, hands down. note: I pay for the premium membership which gives me download access to hundreds of maps, including NATGEO TRAIL ILLUSTRATED, which by themselves is worth the price of admission!

I advise folks to skip getting a stand alone gps unit, and since you are going to take your phone anyway, use that as a 100% reliable gps/map/navaid unit.

Let me there is too much...let me sum up;

The phone is better because the screen is MUCH LARGER and easier to read and work with.

Put your phone on airplane mode to save battery, yes the gps works in airplane mode.

download your maps before you leave home and lose service.

as a bonus: create a 'route' - or your trip, on third party software, (as a gpx file) I highly recommend, then send that to your phone, that will magically appear as an overlay on your downloaded map in gaia, so you can match your progress against your intended plan.

there will be comments about battery life, water proofing, tracking (gaia does that and everything else you could ever think of), taking a paper map, knowing how to use a paper map...yada yada yada.

Your screen on the phone is going to be about 5 times larger than all but the most expensive gps unit - and you are already taking your phone!!!! do you really need two devices!

REI Member Since 1979

Using a cell phone for GPS is commonly done and is reliable enough for many purposes.  Generally you will want to carry a battery bank to recharge your phone.   Phones are not as robustly constructed as dedicated handheld GPS devices so if you will want to protect your phone with a case, waterproofing etc.

Generally I used my phone, printed maps and a compass.  I use the phone as a secondary device but most of my trips are on well maintained trails where "navigation" as such is not so critical and I prefer the broad overview a printed map can provide.

The phone GPS works with no cell service but you have to make sure you have cached the maps for the area you are in with whatever mapping app you use.    There are various mapping apps available which can present all kinds of maps.  Even Google maps can be cached for offline use although they are not really recommended for backcountry navigation.  Generally you will want to use a paid app for offline mapping.  There are several good options depending on your purpose. 

That said, if you are going into the backcountry out of cell phone service you should consider getting a satellite messenger such as a Garmin InReach (active paid subscription required).  These devices also have GPS and at the very least allow you to send your location and summon help if you get into difficulty.  Some require your phone to do more than SOS which is why I prefer the Garmin InReach models.  They are self contained and can act as a backup to your phone should it cease to work.  Even the Mini which does not have mapping, can provide you with a location which you can find on a printed map should you need to.


Yep, for long, backcountry treks (example - We will be doing the Unita Highline Trail this July), we take a map, a compass, and a downloaded AllTrails (or CalTopo is good too) map upon which we have made all sorts of notes. Put the phone in airplane mode, use the map on the phone, and go. 

Works like a dream...


I also use the premium version of Gaia on an Iphone 7. I make up my maps/routes/waypoints on a laptop, and download to phone. Sometimes I print maps from my laptop, then they exactly match what's on my phone. I can get a week or more from the phone battery, taking a dozen or so pics a day, using Gaia to check my location a few times, and taking it out of airplane mode once a day to send a few texts. I do carry a power bank, and recently added a Zoleo satellite messenger because I know my next trip will be where there is a vast lack of cell service. I had a dedicated gps device, it was hard to use, clunky, and heavy. Unless you're not planning on taking your phone, or it's battery life really sucks, there's no reason that I can see to have a dedicated gps for hiking/backpacking.

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Totally agree -I have a Garmin mini that is more for my wife than it is me. I use it to send pre-written messages, and text from my phone if interested/needed, and as a way for her to know where I am, esp on solo hikes and long treks.


Hi, I have an iPhone 12 and also the Garmin Fenix 6 pro solar. I would recommend both. For Garmin, I started off with the Instinct Tactical but found that you can only set a waypoint with no maps. It’s great to have as a backup. I do a lot of shed hunting (moose antlers) in the winter up in Northern Maine, and the Instinct Tactical has the option to go back to your waypoint, but its only in a straight line with no maps. I always set a waypoint with the Garmin and the iPhone where i park my vehicle; of course a compass is a must as well for backup. Shed hunting has no trails, its simply tromping through miles of woods looking for antlers, so I’ve had the chance to use both extensively and yes the iPhone will work without cell service IF you download the maps ahead of time. The reason i went with the Garmin Fenix is because it has maps so i can see a better way of getting from point A to point B but a majority of the time I use the iPhone. Also, if you do end up getting that garmin watch, there is an app called Explore that is amazing. You can add layers from hybrid to satellite mode and terrain mode to see the elevation around you. Plus it lets you download in grids for offline mode. The regular iPhone map app is a little more confusing and picky when it comes to that. The garmin and the phone will stay synced all the time so you can see your activity on where you’ve been. Excellent for doing a search grid for shed hunting as well. If you do buy the Garmin watch, both the Tactical and Fenix are good buys. If you just want a straight line back to your waypoint and save money, than the Tactical is the way to go. I personally love the Fenix a lot more and it’s more comfortable to wear as well, but I had to save a bit to get it as it’s not cheap. I’ve heard that there is a Garmin app for 2 dollars for the iPhone if you don’t get the watch at all, but I’ve never tried that particular app. Hope this helps!!


As others have said, yes, it works great as a GPS unit. I will even go so far as to say it is better in almost every single way than a stand alone GPS other than battery life and robustness. Phones are way easier to work with, much faster (processing-wise), and something most of us are WAY more comfortable using. Furthermore, as a trail runner I have found since about iPhone 8 that the GPS outperforms my various Garmin watches for tracking runs. IMO Garmin/Sunto/others really need to step up their game. 

I have both Gaia iPhone app and Garmin Inreach.   Both are reasonably accurate; neither is perfect.   Of course, even with electronic help, I still have paper map and compass with me, as they are not dependent on battery power.   However, in addition to navigation, Garmin Inreach provides two way communication from anywhere, which is important on my solo trips.