Hiker Smartphone Navigation App and GPS Device Use Trends

Use of Analog and Digital Navigation Aids
Use of Analog and Digital Navigation Aids

Digital Smartphone Navigation Apps and GPS Devices have eclipsed the use of physical maps and magnetic compasses in terms of usability although their full scale adoption is still hindered by lingering battery life and network connectivity limitations. But how widespread is their use?

We recently surveyed 543 hikers across of wide range of abilities, experience, and locales to find out which navigation tools they carry on hikes and found that the full adoption of Smartphone Navigation Apps and GPS Devices is far less widespread than one might expect given the enthusiasm and hype surrounding them.

Map and Compass Use Remains Strong

Most hikers still use analog map and compasses to navigate or augment them with a Smartphone App and GPS Devices, despite the fact that they serve redundant functions. You can see this in the pie chart shown above, where 52.9% of the hikers we surveyed use a map or a map and compass to navigate, while 9.3% use a smart phone app or GPS device as their sole navigation tool. A full 34.3% use both analog (map and/or compass) and digital devices (Smartphone App and/or GPS device) to navigate in combination.

In order to understand the use of Smartphone Apps and GPS devices in conjunction with physical maps and compasses, it’s important to remember that they complement each other, even though they can have overlapping functions. For example, hikers use Apps and GPS units to collect tracks and waypoints, or measure distance hiked, time hiked, or cumulative elevation gain which are all functions that complement map and compass use. We speculate that the use of these complementary functions helps apps and GPS devices get traction with map and compass users, providing an “on-ramp” for further exploration and experimentation.

Navigation App Use is Twice GPS Device Use

Drilling down further, we see that 85% of the hikers surveyed use a physical map, while close to 56% use a compass, by itself or on conjunction with a map.

Hiker Navigation Aid Use by Tool
Hiker Navigation Aid Use by Tool

Smartphone App use is also more than twice that of GPS Device use, an interesting finding considering how recent Apps are compared to dedicated GPS Device units. Some of the hikers we surveyed, close to 4%, don’t carry any navigational aids, primarily because they hike on well-known or well-marked trails.

Most Popular Smartphone Navigation Apps

Here is a list of the most popular Smartphone Navigation Apps we identified in our survey. Which ones are your favorites?

About the Survey

This survey was run on the SectionHiker.com website which has over 280,000 unique readers per month, so a large pool of potential respondents. Readers were incented to participate in the survey in exchange for a chance to win a raffle for a piece of backpacking and camping gear. There were 544 people who responded to the survey, but 7 responses were removed as being incomplete or irrelevant, reducing the number of recorded responses to 537.

While we’re confident that the results are fairly representative of the general hiking population based on the size of the survey results where n=537 people, we can’t claim that the results are statistically significant because the population self-selected.

There are also a number of ways in which the results could be biased including: hikers who read SectionHiker.com might not be representative of all hikers, hikers who read Internet content might not be representative of all hikers, hikers who respond to raffle incentives might not be representative of all hikers, our methods for recording responses might have been unconsciously biased, and so on.

The author is an expert in statistical analysis, survey, and experimental design and is sensitive to these issues. However, given the size of the respondent pool and the strong consensus among user responses, we believe that the survey results published here will be useful to backpackers and hikers who are interested in learning about the navigation aids used by their peers.

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