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Using a GPS Phone for Your Hiking Trips?

written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 5/31/2009

The GPS capabilities on a cell phone are quite handy when it comes to finding your way around a city or on the highway. However, can they be utilized effectively when you get off the roads and onto a trail system? Find out what a GPS enabled cell phone for hiking is all about below.

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    Major carriers that have the GPS capabilities include Verizon, Sprint and AT&T. You’ll have to check with your carrier to make sure you can get it where you are going. Because a GPS phone must be enabled to work as a receiver, the calling plan must support the transmission of maps and provide those maps, too. Verizon customers have Verizon VZ Navigator software to activate their phone's GPS while Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile use Telenav's GPS Navigator.

    A GPS-enabled phone utilizes a combination of cell tower triangulation and satellite fixes. It is different than a dedicated standard GPS device because the maps and Points of Interest (POIs) are on a separate server that your phone constantly communicates with, which is why the maps are the most current.

    By downloading software or buying the service package from your carrier that makes it possible, your cell phone GPS can pinpoint exactly where you are and show you on the on your cell phone screen. Since the GPS information on cell phones updates quickly, that is a great advantage when navigating and locating streets, businesses, POI’s and such.

    Hiking trails, however, seldom change, so updates are not as important. If you do get service where you are hiking, you will have the added benefit of weather and everything else on the web to aid you on a walk-about. You will likely have a built-in camera too. One drawback is that a cell phone screen is extremely small and seeing the big picture, which is what a lot of hikers and back packers prefer to see when trekking, is difficult on a tiny screen. However, it is light for the same reason, which bodes well for a backpacker, and some dedicated GPS devices are just as small anyway.

    For the places you are going to go hiking, we are talking about a very different set of maps that are not available on such a wide scale as the navigational aids for cities, towns, and the highways and byways that connect them. I’m sure that’s because there’s far less money to be made off of hikers in the woods than there is off than the staggering number of people by comparison who are driving or walking in cities and need navigational assistance.

    Trimble Outdoors

    When it comes to using your cell phone as a full-featured GPS device to navigate hiking trips, one of the best resources to use is Trimble Outdoors. Primarily because you want to know the GPS is going to work on your phone when you are out there and Trimble has the kind of maps with marked trails, contours, and the designated best routes that you will need.

    Here’s how Trimble Outdoors works. You go to their website and click on the cell phone carrier/plan that you use and the particular model you want to enable the GPS service on. Download the maps and routes off their website to your phone wirelessly and navigate with waypoints and all the other features you would expect from a standard GPS device. Some great features they offer are tracking your performance/speed by the mile, learning where the tricky spots and POIs are from hikers who have already been there, plus you have the ability to create multi-media presentations of your trip. The rates for this service, depending upon your carrier and phone, are relatively cheap at less than $10 a month.

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    Find out more about cell phones and GPS by reading Cell Phone Navigation vs. Portable GPS and How Well Does a Cell Phone GPS Work?