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Is the stand alone GPS unit dead?

I was re-reading our earlier discussion on another thread about buying a GPS and the pros and cons of just using a smartphone when I had this epiphany.

Here’s my “thesis statement’

The smartphone has made the hand-held GPS unit obsolete.

There... I said it.

We tend to forget, or some never knew, that when the first hand-held gps models became affordable for the general public in the late 80’ to mid 90’s, the gps unit served one primary purpose for the backpacker/mountaineer, and that was to give a ‘grid coordinate’, (UTM coordinate) or a Latitude/longitude location.

You would then take that gps coordinate and use the UTM grid lines or lat/long lines on your map to locate your EXACT location.  Boom! Done!

Alas, many folks don’t know what all those lines on the map represent. 

Another phil-sophy I have is, folks today don’t have access to topographic map training unless they deliberately seek it out.  I, as have many others, learned (or started learning?) about map reading in the Army. (wanted to say military, but not sure about my navy and af brethren, sorry).


IMO a paper map is still mandatory!

This is not about beacons.

There are times having a gps, to get that grid coordinate, to pin point your EXACT location on a PAPER MAP, can be extremely helpful.  I wanted to say ‘life saving’, but toned it down, although several times getting an exact location fix would have ‘felt’ life saving, and sometimes reputation saving.

But now a smartphone  doesn’t need to give you just a grid coordinate, it will SHOW you your exact location on a beautiful map on that large HD screen you carry 24/7!

And, by the way, it is at this point where I turn off the phone and switch back to the paper map which was already in my hand.

I’m not going to lie, there are many times on my group trips, when even I get tired of the ‘are we there yet?’ questions and want to show that I’m not just guessing where we are (or am I?). 

Further, forest service and other maps are not always up to date (that’s another story) (paper and digital) and the trail network had been modified and it was absolutely a good thing we gps’d our position!

In conclusion, smartphones have killed the hand held stand-alone  gps. (hummed to ‘video killed the radio star’).

Unless gps units can provide competition for the smartphone map apps, with HD map viewing, easy downloads of literally hundreds of various outdoor maps, gps location service, and downloadable gpx route files, and easy setup/configuration, etc, etc, their business model is dead.

Maybe they need their own app to survive.


REI Member Since 1979
16 Replies

@OldGuyot  Thank you

REI Member Since 1979

@PhilreedshikesOn 5G I doubt it...It will be available first in high density areas where there are lots of people prepared to "pay" for it however they do.  It doesn't expand basic coverage.  It might make map downloads on the road quicker if you forgot to cache them via your home wi fi before you left.


W-e-e-ll, there's a kind of hitch with 5G, it doesn't go as far as 4G. 4G goes about 10 miles, 5G goes about 1,000 FEET!

So, I'm hoping they'll take all that 4G hardware out of the cities and place it strategically around (and maybe in?) wilderness areas. Then I can REALLY work away from home!! 😄


And BTW, cell phone [towers] can reach up to 45 miles, another reason I insist people br their phones!

OH! and BTW, when you call 911 from your phone (again, whether it has an active plan or not), the operator will automatically get your GPS coordinate along with your call. They will then pass that along to the closest rescuing agency with whatever info' you already gave them.

My reasoning for saying the InReach has sped up the demise of GPS is because it is closing the difference gap between smartphones and more traditional GPS units. Longevity for any particular technology tends to come from its differentiators. Even as technology evolves and improves, it the function and purpose (among other factors) that will keep it relevant.

Once two technologies start to converge, one will invariably win out. The InReach, by adding communication capabilities, starts to encroach on the outer edges of smartphone technology. Granted, I would be a very rich person if I could say with any certainty the direction that the technology will go but, based on past trends, I'm still thinking that smartphones will eventually will replace GPS units.

That being said, cell and WiFi coverage increase is probably a great next step because of the challenge in scaling down the transmission power for a smartphone to transmit up to even a LEO satellite. I just hope they just don't litter the landscape with ugly towers. 

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” (John Muir)

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

... as a "STAND ALONE" unit? ABSO-FREAKING-LUTELY!!!  It’s not about the "unit", it's about the function/feature.

As a wilderness soloist/survivalist, people are sometimes surprised when I insist they have a smartphone along. I explain they should consider them an electronic multi-tool, and since they are so ubiquitous and cheap (and practically an appendage for some people), you can count on people to have one. They just need to have it in a shockproof-waterproof case and bring a spare battery or battery bank.

The same goes for my/the InReach Mini, it's not just a "GPS unit" (obviously), communications, weather reports, etc., it's a more purpose oriented electronic multitool, but both the Mini and the smartphone have certain functionality EVEN IF they don't have active service; the smartphone can still call 911 (if you have reception) and both still have GPS.

But they both still have the same weakness, BATTERIES. That's why I still keep a map & compass! Getting lost CONTINUES to be a primary reason, for Search And Rescue missions, so it's prudent to take steps to mitigate that possibility, no matter your skill level. And having a handy GPS function is a quick and easy way to stay on track.