Gear Guy

Which Cell Phones Might Replace My GPS Unit?

I'm in the market for a new cell phone that will stand up to some rugged adventuring. Is it possible to find a device that will replace my GPS unit?

Bob Parks

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Last time I checked out Bryce Canyon National Park, I dutifully lugged along my colorful, “ruggedized” electronics—a Garmin handheld GPS and a bulky Casio watch with a digital compass. But during the trip I realized that both items are usually made redundant by another piece of electronic gear: that non-ruggedize, urban tool, the cell phone. I use my cell during the work week to set headings between parking lots. Nothing beats the dead-simple practice of following the little blue triangle on your phone. 

Until now, the problem with your phone’s GPS has been its dependency on cellular coverage. Many great hiking areas have a trickle of cellular service. (Only one percent of the land mass of the U.S. has no signal but that’s where they put all the fun mountains.) When you don’t have coverage, the maps don’t load on your phone. Android and Apple screens both show the pulsing triangle in the middle of an empty field. 

On June 27, Google started offering a new feature on Android cell phones: the ability to store a street view map before you leave the house. It goes a long way toward making the Android phone a viable GPS device for hiking. Even with no coverage at all, it gives you the “street” view of the area (sadly a “terrain” view is still not available offline). With a street view, you can judge your location in reference to service roads and labels that mark mountain peaks. (For instance, when I captured Stratton Mountain Ski Area in Vermont, the mountain itself was a flat expanse of green but I could see where I was on the north side.) 

Using your phone is a matter of convenience. Yes, as always, you’ll need to stuff some trusty topo maps in your pack. That’s the same as with a handheld GPS. And if you want better maps you can always pay for specialized topo and hiker-friendly apps in the Apple and Android marketplaces. Apple won’t have offline mapping for the foreseeable future because of its split with Google Maps, and because its iOS 6 (due out in fall 2012) lacks offline mapping, but like its rival, it has plenty of options for apps to buy and install. They typically cost less than $10 for the software and an additional couple of dollars to upload the specific maps you need. In the meantime, handsets with the Windows Phone operating system—admittedly an operating system about as recreation-friendly as a fax machine—will get offline mapping by the end of the year with the introduction of Windows Phone 8. 

The death of the dedicated GPS gadget has been greatly exaggerated. Handheld devices from Garmin, Magellan, and others are still easier to use with more powerful GPS features than the phone apps. In most cases, they are rugged, waterproof, and have much longer battery life. But the old economics of selling the gadgets for a modest price then charging customers more money to upload maps of individual regions is dying. In other words, these manufacturers better catch up, or more hikers, bikers, and outdoors people will have one message for them: Get lost.

The following cell phones and cases are a step in the right direction.

Cell Phones Step Into the Wild: Casio G’zOne Commando

Whether you’re going in the woods in summer or winter, you have to prepare for water, shock, and dust. Casio makes one of most durable Android-based phones on the market. At 5.4 ounces, it’s just an ounce or so heavier than a typical Android phone (like the HTC One X), but with a five-megapixel camera and military specs it’s got all the basic features of a phone with the brawn of an outdoor tool. $99; Verizon.

Cell Phones Step Into the Wild: Caterpillar CAT B10

The maker of heavy equipment, Caterpillar released this waterproof, rubberized Android phone in Europe last month, and will bring it worldwide shortly. The phone is heavy, about an inch think, and built like a brick port-o-let. It has a 3.2-inch screen, five-megapixel camera, a massive battery and a screen with durable Asahi glass. Sold as an off-contract phone; around $500.

Cell Phones Step Into the Wild: TAT7 iPhone Scuba Case

The TAT might be overkill for protecting your iPhone while camping, but with a rigid plastic construction waterproof to 100 feet, you certainly won’t worry about a little rain. The case, which weighs 5.6 ounces, is built for iPhone 4/4S with buttons for launching the camera app and a construction that allows you to operate Siri to send texts. $85.

Cell Phones Step Into the Wild: Gumdrop Cases Drop Tech Series Case

The three-layer Gumdrop case is only water resistant, but it has some nice features to protect your phone in rough conditions. The treaded pattern on the side makes it easier to grip with gloves on, and there’s extra protection for the home button. Best of all, the case gives good access to the headphone jack. $32.

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