Which is Better a Handheld GPS or a Mobile App?

In my teens and early twenties, I used a handheld GPS unit on almost all of my hiking and hunting excursions. Those units saved me from getting lost multiple times. Nowadays, every smartphone and tablet comes equipped with a GPS chip that can pinpoint your location even without a cellular signal or network connection. Developers have made a lot of apps that make outdoor navigation with mobile devices possible. So which option is better when you’re in the outdoors and the backcountry. Should you use a traditional, handheld GPS or convert to the modern mobile application?

In most cases, your mobile device is a better outdoor navigation tool than a handheld GPS unit because you can download multiple map sources and boundary data layers to your device while having the same functionality as a dedicated GPS unit. Most handheld GPS units have smaller screens and require additional purchases or subscriptions for map sources. Battery life, durability, and better support for coordinate systems and projections are the only potential advantages of handheld units over mobile devices.


Subscription costs (USD) for most mobile GPS applications range from $0 to $150 per year. Many GPS apps suitable for outdoor navigation cost $10 to $40 per year. Any paid option should provide you with the essential features for outdoor recreation and navigation. For this article, I’m going to assume that you already own a smartphone, and would own one even if you didn’t use it for the GPS functionality. Thus there is no initial cost to purchase a device.

The cost (USD) of handheld GPS units ranges from $75 to $700. A unit that provides important hiking features and is durable will probably run about $250.00.

Let’s assume I purchase a GPS app subscription that costs $40 per year. After six years and three months of the subscription I would have spent $250.00, the same price it would have cost to buy the initial handheld unit. The difference is that the handheld unit may not have come with maps preloaded, whereas a $40 per year mobile app will allow the download of multiple map layers throughout the world. Let’s be conservative and say I spend an additional $100 on maps and accessories for the handheld unit. Now it will take 8 years and 9 months before my app subscription totals the $350 I spent on a handheld unit.

Handheld GPS units are quite durable (more on that below) and could easily last for a decade. But by then the technology will likely have improved enough that you may upgrade before getting the 9-year mark with your device.

If you regularly upgrade your phone, then you’re getting the GPS technology updates at the same time you make those upgrades, and just paying a little extra for the outdoor navigation functionality.

Mobile devices win the cost category, with the assumption you would own a mobile device whether or not you wanted a GPS unit.


For most users, there will not be any functions in a handheld GPS that are not available in a mobile app. GPS units do have some added functionality. If you are collecting data for a scientific study and need to collect the data in a specific coordinate system or projection, or need to record the GPS accuracy error, then you may want to use a handheld unit. If you don’t know what a coordinate system or projection is, then a mobile app is just fine for you.

A $40 mobile app will allow you to mark points, record tracks, upload data, and sync data you record on your device to your online account. For most folks (myself included) those functions will meet the majority of outdoor recreation and navigation needs.

One important function mobile apps provide that most handheld units don’t have is the ability to sync data to the cloud. Most mobile apps will automatically upload any tracks and points you’ve recorded offline when you reconnect to a network. These data will back up to your online account, and can often be viewed online. Handheld units can be backed up, but it must be done manually and it is up to you to find a cloud storage location.

Some handheld units have buttons instead of a touchscreen. I prefer buttons on handheld units because they are easier to operate in cold temperatures without removing gloves. There are many touchscreen-compatible gloves, but I always seem to have trouble with them. Maybe I’m just too cheap to buy the ones that actually work.

The functionality category is a toss-up. Handheld units have more functionality with coordinate systems, projections, and cold weather use, but mobile apps are better for data management.

User Experience (Usability)

This is where mobile apps really separate themselves from handheld GPS units. With a mobile app, you can download multiple maps and view them on your device. For example, Gaia GPS has at least four different aerial imagery sources, topographic maps from the USGS, the Forest Service, the National Parks Service, their own topographic and base maps, weather maps, and loads of other boundary data, worldwide. All of this is included in the annual subscription and can be viewed on any mobile device or computer.

By contrast, a handheld unit might come with a pre-installed topographic map that covers a portion of a country. Additional maps must be purchased individually and aerial imagery often requires a separate subscription. Maps and other data must be viewed on the handheld device, which will most likely have a screen that is much smaller and less detailed than a smartphone.

I’m giving this one to mobile devices. There are simply more maps and data options for mobile devices and the larger screens make the maps much easier to view.


Both handheld GPS units and mobile devices can be quite durable. Especially when they are fitted with a protective case. However, given the specific purpose of handheld units, I think they edge out mobile devices in durability. GPS units are specifically made to be used and perform, in difficult, backcountry conditions. Most handheld units feature a rugged design and a high degree of water resistance. I have a Garmin GPS Map 62 unit that I beat up for over 5 years with no performance issues. I still have it and it still works like new (if you ignore the scuffs and scratches).

Mobile devices can also be rugged, waterproof, and durable. Cost-efficient, lower-end devices often do not meet the same impregnability standards (waterproof, dustproof) as higher-end devices, and may be susceptible to damage when used in difficult outdoor situations. Of course, this can be remedied with a protective case. I’ve carried my phone with me for hundreds of tough backcountry miles on hikes, hunts, and backpacking trips and haven’t had any issues.

I give handheld units the durability edge because they are built specifically for the purpose.


This is a tough one to assess because many different battery configurations exist for both handheld units and mobile devices. Battery life may generally be longer for handheld units unless a mobile device is used in airplane mode. Generally, my device is in airplane mode when using a GPS app because I usually don’t have any cell or network signals available. Battery life may not even be such a big consideration now that small battery packs can recharge a phone multiple times. Using airplane mode and a small battery pack I can get a week of battery life while using my phone as a GPS.

The thing that may give handheld units a slight leg up is the number of battery options. On one end of the spectrum, handheld units come with integrated, non-removable batteries, just like smartphones and tablets. On the other end they can run on the cheapest AA batteries you can find (though maybe not for very long). With a handheld unit, you can most definitely find a battery configuration that will meet your needs.


I give the nod to mobile apps because of their usability. It is so convenient and helpful to seamlessly switch between multiple base maps and layers, and have all my tracks and points automatically synced and backed up as soon as I connect to a network. There may be a slight loss in functionality, but I honestly have never missed it. With a phone, I am more careful to not drop it, especially onto rocks or into streams, but protective cases help with that. If you’re really hard on equipment you may opt for a handheld unit so you don’t have to replace your phone too often.

At first, I was skeptical of GPS apps on mobile devices. Now, after using a few different apps for the last three years, I’m sold. I’ll probably never go back to a handheld unit.

Konrad Hafen

Konrad is a natural resource scientist who spends much of his free time hunting, fishing, hiking and backpacking on America's public lands.

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