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 YouTube.com/philreedshikes

Obsolete is premature but it is certainly a diminishing market.  

I have never bought a handheld GPS device until this year...It's a Garmin InReach Mini and my principle reason for having is not GPS as such but Satellite Messaging.  However that does combine with position tracking.  In addition it can receive weather reports.  These services require a subscription.   It also provides a backup GPS position and local tracking.  It is not a mapping device except in combination with a smart phone.  While it is standalone for messaging it is fairly inconvenient to use for custom messages without using your smart phone.  However it can be done...with some planning you can use the quick messages and preset messages for most purposes.

I have otherwise always used paper maps and prefer them in general as my principle mapping "device".   I now use the phone as a backup and extension to paper maps.  However paper maps are not always practical and I do not agree that paper maps are mandatory .

As I said in that other thread,  I think there is still a strong case for a device that combines the satellite messaging with on device mapping for redundancy.  Smart phones are not very rugged. Electronics in general requires management and a "system" to keep things working for long enough in the back country.   If you go all electronic, you should seriously consider having a redundant system.  

and if you add Guthook app and download the appropriate trail, you have very specific information as you hike 🙂

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I have spent my career in IT and dealing with obsolescence. I agree with you, @Philreedshikes although I wouldn't mark it as completely obsolete yet.

I usually call this the "Fresh Cut Christmas Tree" effect: A freshly cut Christmas tree is a dead tree but it hasn't finished dying yet. With infusion of water and nutrients, you can slow down the dying process but the tree's eventual demise is assured.

I think this is where we're at with traditional handheld GPS units. Items like the InReach and others have definitely sped up the downfall of GPS units but I suspect that even those devices will become less attractive within five years and here's why: this pandemic has created a lot of new outdoor enthusiasts who are hiking, backpacking, camping, running, etc. Try to find a new tent or kayak. Or, just for fun, try to find a decent camper (used or new) right now.

The point is this - with all these people now exploring the outdoors, they're typically wanting to take their phones with them because they've likely never thought about physical maps, GPS communicators, etc. They have their phone and have probably "discovered" that they have built-in GPS. So they will create a demand for apps and functionality within their phone instead of carrying a second device. Even the existing community of hikers and backpackers want the same thing because one less device is shedding some weight.

Google and Apple will respond and start building in the ability to communicate the same way that you can with the InReach. I remember a few years ago when Apple came out with iMessage - unlimited texting that circumvented your carrier's text plan. So they've already done it with that and they'll figure out how to add GPS communication (and charge for the service).

And this should happen - look what it's done for GPS in the car. When was the last time you saw an actual GPS unit instead of a smartphone mounted on the dash? Now it's the handheld's turn.

All the functionality of the older GPS units with greater location accuracy and high-definition screen to show where you are on the map built into the same lightweight device that has my camera (both video and stills), my music, a book to read while camping at night, and lets me order a pizza to my hotel room after coming off trail so I don't have to go out and offend non-hikers with my "eau du trail" cologne?

I still take paper maps because they don't have a battery that will die but my having my phone has become critical. In fact, I would suggest that the smartphone become part of the "10 essentials" that get carried all the time.

“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
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Wow, well said. On the topic of a smartphone eventually supplanting the satellite beacon, can a smartphone do that? Do the beacons W satellite messaging and gps use the same satellites? 

my inner voice says just google it, but hey, one person’s thought lead to another...

REI Member Since 1979 YouTube.com/philreedshikes

My knowledge and experience with the architecture of these systems is pretty darn low. I know that most PLBs use the Iridium sat system and that's a separate system from GPS which uses the NAVSTAR system.

But the Iridium system is designed to handle both voice and traffic (hence the Iridium line of sat phones) so if I were to guess, I could see the smartphone companies trying to partner with Iridium. But it would probably depend on whether Iridium sees a partnership as good for its own business or if it sees it as a way for a competitor to sneak in the back door and grab proprietary data. Personally, I would think Iridium should welcome such a partnership because they will never enjoy the same market share as Apple and Google.

However, let's say that such a partnership happens. That still only gets us halfway - our smartphones become highly accurate sat receivers. The smartphone companies still need to figure out how to scale down the transmitter technology so that they can send data to the satellite while still keeping the physical size small.

I still say it will happen but that's not a small hurdle to figure out.

“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.

Not sure how "InReach"  has sped up the downfall of GPS units since, in my view, satellite messaging is the main feature that keeps them alive.  Spot did not have much effect and other vendors have been much less successful than Garmin/Delorme and Garmin is pretty much the only significant vendor left.

What has sped it up is light weight rechargeable battery banks that make smart phones practical in the backcountry and the maturation of smart phone mapping applications that are innovating the use of GPS at a much faster cycle than handhelds can keep up with.

Personally I don't see SMART phones getting satellite messaging anytime soon because unlike GPS positioning,  it is not free to send messages over satellites and it requires an additional radio.  Adding the hardware support for an optional paid service is too niche for the major phone makers. 

Making cell phones into beacons would be counter productive.  Few people really need beacons and you would overload the system if everyone got one for "free" just from accidental activation let alone irresponsible use.

It is much more likely that there will be increased cell and probably wifi coverage which will render satellite messaging unnecessary for most areas in the US...probably still the main market.  Even today you can get cell phone service in a lot of places in the US backcountry.  

will the coming '5G' change anything, wilderness related?

REI Member Since 1979 YouTube.com/philreedshikes

Still want an In Reach mini ($350).

but I'm also looking at getting a free standing tent ($350+/-)... (my zpacks duplex has apparently passed its 'life expectancy' and I have to coat it literally before each trip with some sort of silicone spray from walmart).

and new exped shoulder season pad ($150+)

and some new hokas for my daily training walks (again $150+)

being a backpacker is hard on the budget.

REI Member Since 1979 YouTube.com/philreedshikes

@Philreedshikes InReach minis do seem to go on sale about twice a year. 

For me I was practically force to buy one at the last minute because I was told to.  I had to pay full price and go elsewhere because REI had none in stock...everyone went camping...or at least bought camping gear...this year.

InReaches are not that cheap to run though.  The minimum cost is about $25 per year "enrollment"  plus $15 per month for the most basic service... SOS...10 messages...1 weather and everything else is pay as you go.   Once you pay the Annual fee and first month,  you can suspend it until you need it again that year.   You can upgrade the plan immediately and then downgrade it or suspend it for the next month.  I did one month "Recreation" @$25 to get the unlimited tracking for my wife and others to follow us on our trip but I downgraded it to "Safety" for this month just to see if I will use it..so far looks like a bust so I may suspend it for next month...but you have to stay on top of it which is a bit of a pain.  I guess setting InReach "appointments" on your cell phone calendar could help with that.