I have used both stand-alone GPS units and Smartphone apps on the trail and have yet to resolve which is better. For short day hikes – the Smartphone apps win hands down for convenience and their instant access to trail databases from companies like the North Face. But in the backcountry? I tend to agree with this assessment by Backpacker Magazine gear editor, Kristin Hostetter:
In a nutshell, here are the pros of using a smartphone with a navigation app: great for local hikes, daily activity mapping like runs and bike rides, perfect for snapping and georeferencing photos on the go. Maps are seamless and less expensive that what you will pay for expensive map packages from the standalone GPS dealers.
And here are the cons: Like with most smartphone, you can’t swipe the Defy with gloves; in direct sunlight the screen washes out; and the BLUR social networking software is a bit intrusive. And let’s face it: if you’re going for a week or more on a backcountry jaunt, you’ll want the convenience of replaceable batteries for your handheld GPS. Solar panel chargers need to pick up the pace to match the development of the phones they hope to power.
I only sporadically use my Smartphone as a GPS in the backcountry, but the software is improving and with some extended battery life – my stand-alone GPS may soon become a thing of the past.