Showing results for 
Show  only  | Search instead for 
Did you mean: 
Membership now as great as the outdoors!
Already a member? Take a look at the Co-op Members section of the community.
Ready to join? Explore all of the benefits here.

Hiking Apps VS Dedicated GPS

I'm trying to figure out what is the most reliable method for recording a hike (distance, elevation, time)? 

I used a Garmin Oregon 450 for most of my hiking years but the button wore out and the technology is "outdated" by this point I assume.  I bought an Oregon 650t a couple years ago but discovered it was not consistent in recording accuracy and even had a bug in the software.  Now many people are using Apps on their phones so I've started trying that by using two of them simultaneously on my iPhone.  Also, I bought the Oregon 750t recently. 

Here are my comparisons from three recent hikes (A, B, C).  The Garmin is set to 7 seconds so it would stand that it won't be as accurate but setting it to anything lower creates huge files and drains the battery quickly. 

A = 6.45 w/ 1190’ gain (3h32m moving; 4h05m total)
B= 4.25 w/ 550’ gain (2h58m moving; 3h55m total)
C = 4.15 w/ 770’ gain (2h43m moving; 3h43m total)

A = 6.55 w/ 1400’ gain (1h52m moving; 4h05m total)
B = 4.35 w/ 1170’ gain (1h05m moving; 3h58m total)
C = 4.9 w/ 990’ gain (1h40m moving; 3h43m total)

Garmin 750t 
A = 6.4 w/ 1400’ gain (3h05m moving; 4h09m total)
B = 4.1 w/ 1000’ gain (2h12m moving; 3h57m total)
C = 4.2 w/ 1290’ gain (2h18m moving; 3h46m total)

The Strava is way off in terms of moving time. But AllTrails seems to be off quite a bit in elevation. But Garmin still has buggy software where my "B" Track has 1588 points but if I include all of them it reports (4.3 miles w/ 1275' gain; total time 6 days 4 hours 53 minutes) but if I delete the first or last point to make it 1587 points, it reports the numbers seen in the chart above. 

Any help on which is the most accurate or why they seem to vary but not consistently from hike to hike?  

19 Replies

Simple is usually best:  All this work and technology.  Just take a hiker with you and have them track it 🙂

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

So you've already received some replies from people who will forget far more about GPS and navigation than I will ever learn, so I'll just say that All Trails has been good for finding local day hikes but that's about it. Because its information is crowd-sourced, the data is often suspect at best.

(Trying to) follow All Trails has gotten me lost a couple times and it often is missing some of the smaller connecting trails so you come to a fork and it's not on the map.

I just bought the premium subscription to Gaia and still learning to use it properly so I can't say much about it yet. But I can say I would never trust All Trails in the back country.

“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.

I agree. The problem with All Trails is that no one vets the information it provides. I've personally read grossly incorrect information from All Trails and have heard stories of people being lost while trying to follow directions in it.


Trails change, become overgrown, washed out, etc.  Things change, even topography.  Even using a USGS topo map, look at the fine print and determine when the field work was performed.

I work routinely in an area mapped by aerial photography in 1938.  With a couple of prominent exceptions, the topography is quite accurate.  Cultural features like buildings, roads, and trails are a different matter.  There is also the matter of human error and diligence.  I have used recently issued maps based on recent aerial photography that were presumably field checked by diligent worker.  It is pretty evident that at least some of the field checking occurred in a tavern somewhere..

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

Here is a good discussion of factors that influence the accuracy of the position displayed by your device:

There are quite a few items in play, especially since not all GPS receivers are created equal.  I have been using GPS for many years, principally to record the location of archaeological sites and it works wonderfully, especially when contrasted with the technology previously used.  I have witnessed multi-path errors (signals distorted by canyon walls) so bear in mind that nothing is perfect, even electronics in outer space (heresy to some, I know...).



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

Believe me, Sonny.  Things were a lot tougher back in the old days......

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

I hear ya. I started out with a 4 channel GPS and when the error rate was purposely set to about 100' for civilian use. 


Thank you for all these responses. Very interesting discussions. I'm using the mileage & elevation just for personal records and data for planning future hikes.  

I understand about small differences in elevation but when one system shows me 770' for total gain and another shows me nearly double that gain for the same hike, I'd like to know which is closer to reality. I could get a detailed topo, trace a route over each bump & saddle to get an estimate. Does anyone know how the apps are getting their data since they don't ask for stride length they must be only using GPS (Lat/Lon) but then both apps should match each other at least but only sometimes (usually on miles). How often are the apps polling data (every 1 sec? every 10 sec? when detecting motion only? constantly?). I know the Garmin is adjustable and mine is set for 7 seconds currently.

I mostly use AllTrails for looking up possible trails that I may have missed or trails to link together other hikes I've done. But sometimes they show trails that are private but not marked that way in their system. We had an angry rancher threaten us in Chatsworth once even though we were still on a public trail according to AllTrails. But I find the AllTrails interface a bit clunky too.

Strava I like the interface more but to keep a running tally of my mileage & elevation, I have to set my hikes to "Runs" because their software was designed more for cycling and running.

Garmin seems to still be buggy. After a hike, I use Garmin BaseCamp to examine my route. It's a great program for really analyzing sections of hikes or planning future hikes. But that's where I've found issues. That's where I can highlight all of the points on a single track but get sometimes radically different results if I don't highlight the first or last point (doesn't matter which). Sometimes it's not too big a deal like 4.3 miles changes to 4.1 but the longer your hike the more that completely changes the data. I did San Jacinto a couple years ago with the Oregon 650t. My route (which was set to every 20 seconds back then) without the last point showed 10.2 miles & 2600' gain but when you include the last point it jumped to 14.1 miles & 2700' gain. The moving and stopped times also changed by 30 minutes. All of the hiking books show it is much closer to 10.5 than 14 miles. When I tested other hikes against book mileage, the Garmin usually matched closer when you remove the last point. And that hike the other day changed my total time from about 4hrs to 6days+5hrs if I didn't delete the last point.

It would be a good experiment to do those 3 hikes again but I try to never repeat a hike. I suppose I could for the sake of science or just to satisfy my own curiosity. But those three hikes would not be ones I'd choose to do over 2-3 times for data because they involved quite a bit of off-trail, overgrown, tick-infested portions. But maybe I will pick a couple nice trail hikes of varying terrain and test the 3 methods two or three times to see how the results stack up.

I don't use BaseCamp since I have found it to be rather lacking. I have been using ExpertGPS to download my tracks. It makes corrections for elevation gain/loss.  It costs a nominal amount to purchase initially, and you can subscribe to it annually and get updates.

As for AllTrails and private property, that is one of the issues I've seen with it, and also not listing trails that are closed. Plenty of people have gotten into trouble following an AllTrails hike onto private or otherwise off limits property.

Here in Colorado, the state DNR created their own app call COTREX (COlorado TRails EXplorer). It's a free app and associated website which only has official, sanctioned trails. Users can submit information about a trail, but the app doesn't get updated until the land manager for that trail confirms the information. If covers all public lands in the state (Federal, state, county and local) and also trails on private lands that are open to the public.  It's a model that other states should follow.

For years I've used a Spot Gen 3 GPS unit on solo treks and group trips in the backcountry, and set tracking to ping about every 10 or so minutes. I believe you can even narrow it down to shorter time intervals. Afterwards, in looking at either a topo map or even just cross-checking with pictures I've taken the accuracy using Spot's own online/app mapping interface works pretty well to track an adventure. Hope this helps!