What if your best GPS was a phone?

During a recent ski tour where poor weather scuppered our main plan, we found ourselves at short notice contemplating a little day tour we found on skitourenguru.ch. With only a mobile for web access, we tried to sort for the following morning. The lack of paper map and poor mobile access made following the route more than challenging! There had to be a better way.

What I wanted was;

  • A GPS with a screen large enough to navigate.
  • A device with the ability to download maps from the internet and store for offline use.
  • Software that could import a downloaded .gpx file and follow it.
  • A device that could do the above without needing to be plugged into a laptop or desktop. A fully mobile solution.

I quickly discovered that none of the main stream GPS manufacturers offered such a device. It was the maps that were the sticking point. I wanted to be able to download map tiles for an area anywhere in Europe directly into the device. No manufacturer offered enough options for a reasonable price that I found.

What about some other device rather than a dedicated GPS? I searched for a touch screen handheld computer with built in GPS. I found plenty of options…they are called mobile phones!
Wait, you can’t use your phone for this task, we all know that. What happens when it gets wet / goes flat / breaks etc etc.
So my heretical solution is… use a phone to navigate, carry another phone as back up.

I’m always going to have a paper map when one is available but I know there are times when it won’t be possible. I’m no purist either, electronics are faster and better as long as they are working, the paper map is the 2nd back up.

From here on, for clarity, I am going to use the terms GPS Phone and EVERYDAY Phone. My GPS Phone is what I have in my hand and use when I am on the hill. My everyday phone is as the name suggests the phone I use in daily life.

My EVERYDAY phone currently is an iPhone X. Now iPhones aren’t great for navigating because they don’t have full GPS chips sets only A-GPS (assisted by wifi and cell towers). Android phones mostly do have full GPS and if you check the specs you can find ones that work with every satellite network (GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou).

So when on the hill my EVERYDAY phone is fully charged and turned off, in my pack ready to make emergency phone calls and as back up to my GPS phone (Because it’s an iphone I carry a Bluetooth GPS receiver to supplement the iPhone A-GPS, this would not be necessary if both phones were Android). Total redundancy and out of harm’s way.

My GPS phone is my primary GPS, primary Camera and back up telephone. The GPS phone (more on model later) has an enormous 10,000mah battery (2.5 times most phones). I used the GPS phone for 7.5 hours with the screen active the whole time, GPS on and getting google maps via mobile internet and only used 40% of the battery. If you were only turning the screen on every now and again to nav whilst touring and taking some photos, a single charge would last days. For even longer use a battery pack could be carried.

The GPS phone has a SIM card which I generally keep turned off but can be used for calls / texts and mobile internet (weather forecast, map data, etc). I originally intended not to have a SIM and to hotspot it to my EVERYDAY phone but this proved to be a hassle, so I now use a PAYG data SIM which also adds the back up phone feature. Two of everything!
The GPS phone is IP68 waterproof and built to some military toughness spec so seems up to the job. Just because it’s tough doesn’t mean I’m not careful with it. Not having any personal data on the GPS phone means I don’t need unlock security and the mapping app comes on with one touch of a button.

The GPS phone is an Ulefone Power Armor 14 and cost £180. It’s a small Chinese brand that specialise in tough phones with large batteries. There are several brands doing this, Doogee and OnePlus being the other obvious ones. I trawled a lot of reviews and specs as some previous models have been quite poor from all the brands. I also bought my phone via amazon to give me some protection. So far (3 months in) it’s been faultless and amazing value for £ 180, compared to hundreds more for a flagship GPS. Having a large 6.7in screen and a massive battery mean it’s a brick (370g ish) but that’s OK because it’s not in my pocket all day, every day. It’s generally in a pocket or pack pouch. I also stuck a universal Quad Lock adapter to the back and got a stem mount for my bikes. The phone itself does not need a case and came with a screen protector installed.

So all good news for hardware but the BEST reason for using a phone is the apps. Rather than being stuck whatever your GPS brand installed you have the whole of the Playstore to choose from, and the continuing development that goes with that. I use Supercycle for biking, Garmin Boating app (was Navionics) for sailing and OutdoorActive (was ViewRanger) for the mountains. Always getting the features I need for free or a reasonable subscription. The flexibility is great. If I went to the States I would switch to TopoGPS, which is better for US online maps. Then there is Komoot, OpenStreetMap, Google Earth, etc etc. Many of these apps sync to a cloud account and are cross platform so routes and tracks from my GPS phone appear in my EVERYDAY phone. More redundancy. In OutdoorActive I paid the £ 25 Pro subscription to have OS maps for a year. I looked to see what my problematical day tour would have been like with this set up and the topo maps I needed are included in the Pro subscription, so I would have been good to go with no extra costs.

The only negative I have found with the Power Armor 14 is the lack of air pressure sensor. Most new phones have one and there are calibratable altimeter apps which are independent of GPS altitude. The apps work much like a watch altimeter. A small thing as I have a Suunto watch but would have been nice.

Hope you find this info useful when considering your next set up. Or have you done something similar but different?

One thought on “What if your best GPS was a phone?

  1. Hi – interesting blog I found when looking for a new phone which is good for GPS. I also use a phone for hike/bike/ski navigation – I find Locus Maps a lot better than Outdoor Active and even better than the sadly departed ViewRanger.
    I currently use a Samsung A320 (2017) but it has a few hardware problems (as well as restrictive 16Gb internal storage). But I’ve not found anything new which is as functional e.g. physical button on the front to wake it up, small size, headphone socket.

    The A320 is my main phone and if going on a long trip I use an older phone for backup. But maybe I should adopt your approach of getting a bigger, more rugged phone for navigation. It would be useful if you could have 2 SIMs with the same phone number – I think Vodafone offer this, but it’s not cheap.

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