For nearly every purpose, people will find an iPhone or Android performs better than a Garmin or other outdoor GPS unit. We believe Gaia GPS is the best app to use your smartphone as an outdoor GPS, but there are dozens of other apps you will likely find preferable to a Garmin, as well.
Both Garmins and iPhones are suitable for getting GPS information, offline, without cell service. Both devices allow you to save map data for use out in the field, and track your location using satellites. But an iPhone has access to better maps, better software, at a price that can’t be beat if you already have the phone.
Below, we’ll discuss why an iPhone or Android is better than a Garmin, and also talk about what Garmin and its proponents will tell you.
Why to Use an iPhone
Proponents of smartphones point out that they offer better maps, larger screens, better software, for a fraction of the cost of a standalone GPS unit. Hiker, hunters, offroaders, skiers, and even professional firefighters, rangers, and researchers have adopted smart phones for outdoor recreation and work.
- Better Maps – With Gaia GPS on an iPhone, you can download a variety of topo, satellite, and special purpose maps, and import trail data too. With a Garmin, you’re locked into expensive, proprietary Garmin formats, and you can’t get the quality of maps you’ve come to expect from your smartphone.
- Larger Screens – If you want to get a good awareness of your situation, then an iPhone, Android, or even a small tablet is going to be vastly superior to a Garmin out in the field, simply because the screen is larger and can show a large chunk of map.
- Better Software – With a traditional Garmin, you have almost no choice in the software you run – it’s all one package. With an iPhone or Android, you can choose from Gaia GPS and dozens of other apps. And because app developers don’t have to worry about shipping hardware, we have room to continuously iterate on and improve the app itself.Gaia GPS, in particular, works on your phone, tablet, and computer, synchronizing data for planning and exploration. Try and get a Garmin to do that.
- Less Expensive – Garmins are also simply an unnecessary expense. You’ll pay hundreds of dollars for a Garmin, and potentially hundreds more for the maps to go with it. If you already have an iPhone, then you’ll get a better system by getting a Gaia GPS Membership ($9.99/year or $29.99/year), maps included.
Reasons to Use a Garmin
Proponents of Garmin and other standalone devices may cite the battery life, accuracy, and ruggedness as reasons to prefer these units. However, these needs can all be addressed, while still offering the benefits and low price of a smartphone:
- Battery Life – As with a Garmin, you can provide near unlimited power to an iPhone using double AA batteries, through a cheap case.
- GPS Precision – Garmins typically have a higher GPS precision, but this ends up not mattering for basically any activity. If this does matter for your use case, then you are still likely better off getting a high-precision GPS to work with your phone or tablet, such as the Dual XGPS150.
- Ruggedness/Reliability – You can outfit an iPhone with a durable, cold-proof, and/or water-proof case to provide the same rubberizing and other protective measures a Garmin has. Try the ToughCase from Magellan or the Mophie Juice Pack.
For my money, a smartphone with Gaia GPS is the best outdoor GPS for backpacking and backcountry skiing. Along with a paper backup map and awareness of my surrounding, I always get where I want in the woods, and I always come home again.
What do you use for wilderness exploration? Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll post your story.