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How To Use Your iPhone GPS For Hiking In The Wilderness

iPhone GPS Hiking

Using Your Smartphone GPS for Hiking

Travel Tips

Would you be surprised if I told you my favorite piece of backpacking gear is my smartphone? I love using my iPhone’s GPS for hiking in the wilderness. Here’s why.

If you’ve been following me on Facebook & Instagram, you’ll know that I recently returned from an epic trek in Greenland on the Arctic Circle Trail.

There’s no cell-service on this hike. It was a 10 day adventure through remote Greenlandic wilderness. However I was still able to use my iPhone’s built in GPS capabilities to help me navigate the long-distance route.

My battery lasted 7 days before it needed recharging too!

I’ve been using a great app called Gaia GPS for hiking trips in places like Turkey, Norway, Israel, Greenland, Canada, Iceland, and the United States.

If you are an adventure-lover like me, you need this application.

GPS Hiking App

Gaia GPS in Greenland

Smartphone GPS For Hiking

Did you know that cell service is not necessary to use your smartphone’s Global Positioning System (GPS) chip? However to track your progress effectively without cell service, you must pre-download maps of the area you’ll be hiking before the journey.

There are a few different smartphone GPS mapping apps out there, but my favorite (and the most used) is called Gaia GPS.

This amazing app allows hikers to pre-download different types of maps from around the world for use with your iPhone’s GPS. You can also record altitude, speed, leave waypoints, create tracks, and produce all sorts of other detailed information about your backcountry trips.

Better Than Dedicated Device?

Why spend hundreds of dollars on a dedicated GPS device for hiking when you can get the same functionality with a $20 app for your smartphone?

Using your smartphone as a GPS unit saves you money, reduces the amount of weight you pack, and is multi-use (taking photos, keeping a journal, etc.).

A GPS app like this is a wonderful backup along with regular paper maps, and can save your butt if you happen to lose the trail or get caught in bad weather.

Both have happened to me a few times over the years, and whipping out your phone is far easier than pulling out paper maps during a wind and/or rainstorm!

GPS Hiking App

Pre-Downloading a Section of Map

Gaia GPS Settings

To get the most out of Gaia GPS, there are few settings you need to be aware of. First, there are many different map layers you can use within the app. The two I use most often are the Open Hiking Map and Google’s satellite view called Imagery + Roads.

These are probably the best maps for hiking. The Open Hiking Map includes basic topographical features along with known hiking trails, while Satellite Imagery gives you a better picture of the landscape.

If hiking somewhere without cell service, make sure to pre-download sections of the map that cover the area where you’ll be.

Pre-downloading maps is explained in the YouTube tutorial below.

Gaia GPS also allows you to record tracks as you hike, but don’t do this unless you have a specific need, because it drains battery life and requires the phone to be powered on the whole time.

I only use the app to confirm my GPS location or navigate in bad weather.

Close the Gaia app after each use (double tap the home button and swipe the app up to close). This prevents Gaia from continually updating your location. Turn the phone off to further reduce battery drain.

iPhone GPS Hiking

Hiking in Norway with the LifeProof FRĒ Power

Protecting Your Phone

As you might already know, I’m a huge fan of the water & shock-proof smartphone cases from LifeProof, and they’re one of my sponsors too.

Using the LifeProof FRĒ POWER gives me double the battery power for long-distance treks like the Arctic Circle Trail.

So when my phone’s battery eventually dies, I simply press a button on the back of the LifeProof case to recharge it completely.

Battery Conservation Settings

While hiking through Greenland for 10 days, my iPhone 6 battery lasted for 7 days using the settings below. I turned off the phone when not in use, and only powered it up to compare my GPS location with the paper maps I carried.

  • Enable Airplane Mode (turns off WiFi/Bluetooth)
  • Close all apps except Gaia
  • General > Usage > Battery Percentage = ON
  • Privacy > Location Services = OFF (except Gaia)
  • Privacy > Advertising > Limit Ad Tracking = ON
  • Privacy > Motion & Fitness = OFF
  • General > Siri = OFF
  • General > Accessibility > Reduce Motion = ON
  • General > Date & Time > Set Automatically = OFF
  • General > VPN = OFF

One more important tip is to keep your phone warm when it’s cold out, like in a pants pocket. This includes when sleeping too. Nothing drains the battery faster than cold weather! ★

Watch Video: Gaia GPS Tutorial

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(Click to watch Gaia GPS Tutorial on YouTube)

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I hope you enjoyed my guide on how to use your iPhone GPS! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:

Have any questions about using your phone’s GPS for hiking? Do you use Gaia? Let me know in the comments below!


Saturday 16th of March 2019

Great article and tips. However, the problem with using the iPhone 6 for hiking is that it doesn't have a "hiking mode". What I mean is that when it goes into power save mode you then need to use your password or thinner print to unlock it. Which, if it's raining and you have it in a waterproof container holder means you have to get it out of it all the time. A " hiking mode" would mean you could just press the home button and it would only go to your hiking app without needing the password.


Thursday 23rd of August 2018

Hi all I have been using GPS for hiking with Memory map software since 2004, and started with a PDA and Emtac Bluetooth receiver before my HP travel companion with built in SIRF 3 GPS, running Windows Ce and carried in an armoured case which has so far given me over ten years of good service but now I need to replace it. The new one must have a removable battery so I can carry a spare. First units to be discounted were Garmin and Satmap for various reasons. Next I looked at the smartphone but with back to back trials with the HP it was awful, and accuracy varied unpredictably. The big issue is that smartphones use assisted Gps that uses the mobile phone mask. So the only way forward was to use a Ruggex smartphone from Mantistech as the display device and use a dedicated GNSS receiver from Ublox with an external active antennae . The Ruggex receives the GPS data from the Ublox via Bluetooth because the Ublox data is on a serial port and this required an interface module. This system gives repeatable accuracy better than a metre but is not as compact as the old hp but with the Ublox software on a Pc the unit is fully configurable. Cost is also OTT because the Ublox is about £180 plus the Ruggex.

Daniel Jurmann

Tuesday 3rd of December 2019

why not just carry an extra battery pack and 86 that limitation?

Linksys Support

Tuesday 26th of June 2018

This is also happening to me. The smartphone is the thing which I love the most in my life and thank you for the post, as I also use the iPhone, this information really helpful.

Glenn Morris

Friday 13th of April 2018

Thanks I will give it a go. When I was hiking in East Greenland a couple of years ago my altitude App showed as -40 m at sea level. I figured this was because I was above Arctic circle. This year I am off to Kamchatka Peninsula and wonder if I will have the same problem there?

Adrian Casamonte

Thursday 8th of June 2017

Thanks for the article! To me Strava is the best!! i hope there released a version for hikers too... I love the social component of it :) I use it now n my AGM X1 ... cool rugged cheap phone: check it out!! It has (Octa-Core 1.5 GHz, 4GB ram, 64GB mem :O ) ; i got it as a gift and cant leave it alone , didnt knew a phone could endurance taht much... and is really cool since in my hikes i tend to kiss the floor quite usually xP

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