View topic - Using smart phones and tablets as GPS devices on canoe trips

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PostPosted: March 15th, 2016, 4:20 pm 
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I started a thread recently seeking input regarding the possibility of replacing my current Garmin GPS with a more modern Garmin. It was a great thread and the input I received caused me to completely change my thinking. I have decided, at least for the time being, to use my iPhone and iPad as my GPS on canoe trips. I have embarked on the learning curve associated with the transition. I have learned a few things that others making the same change might find helpful. I am by no means an expert - far from it. I'm hoping this thread will attract folks with experience in this area to help me develop my skills.

I come at this with a bias for map and compass. I will always have map and compass and I believe it is extremely important to keep your map and compass skills alive. This is your ultimate back up, and sometimes it is the #1 choice. GPS is a frill, a luxury. It can make things quicker and easier and with an iPhone or iPad with a big screen you can get an outstanding view of things. However, if you rely on gps skills alone, and if your device goes south, you are potentially in a bad situation unless you have a map and compass and the skills to use them. GPS is great for getting you into the middle of nowhere - but if you don't have the navigational skills to get out if the device dies you are in a pickle.

I will start it off with a summary of what I have learned from you all so far, combined with my reading. I will be talking iPhone and iPad because that is the realm that I am living in and I don't want to make a major change. I know that Android devices probably also will function as GPS devices but I have no experience with them so I will leave that to others. One downside of the iDevices is that they do not have a usb port which may come in hand from time to time.

It turns out that newer iPhones and iPads that are both wifi ready and cell ready (not wifi only i-Pads) have a gps chip that enables them to function quite well as gps devices even where there is no cell service or wifi available - ie. in the bush. (You need not activate the phone service on your cell ready iPad - it is not necessary to do that.) You can test your device by putting in airplane mode which turns off cell data and wifi data and then start up an app that displays your position coordinates. Google Earth for example. One nice little app for the iPhone is called "UTM Grid Ref Compass." Go outside with a clear view of the sky and walk around - is your phone reporting the changes in your position as you walk? If so you are all set and your device will work as a GPS in the bush.

I come to this from the perspective of a paddler which almost always means there is a good view of the sky easily available. I have no clue whether the chip in the iDevice is better or worse or the same than a dedicated Garmin or other gps device as far as pulling in a gps signal under a canopy. I would be interested to hear the experience of others on that issue. My experience though is that the iDevice chip works well if there is a good view of the sky and so it meets 99% of my needs.

So at this point you know that you can carry your iDevice in airplane mode which dramatically improves battery life and you can get your UTM coordinates and place your self on a paper map. Frankly, on river trips, that is all you really need to have. But, there is more, much more.

The next step is to get yourself a good gps app. For the iDevices (and I think also for the Android devices) the program that has come forward as a leader is Gaia GPS. There are others. This app has a good interface. You will quickly be able to locate and download free canadian and us topo maps and other maps as well. Recently I downloaded the canadian topos for a trip in the Yukon. They work really well, seamlessly zooming from the 1:250000 scale to the 1:50000 scale. Very good function. There are other maps out there and this is where I am working now to improve my knowledge. But these topos are great and they are free (the app costs about $20 US for a one time download).

The next step after that, for me anyway, is getting arieal shots off google earth or google maps and importing them, geo referenced, into Gaia. With this, I expect to be able to look at my position in the field with a google map or a topo map separately, or together, or maybe with some apps on a split screen. This to me is pretty much the ultimate. This is the area that seems a bit technical and over my head but I am quite confident it can be done. Once you have that - you have got one heck of a gps device - especially if you use an iPad or iPad mine or similar tablet.

There are issues with this. First, battery life. Second, waterproofing. Third, glare.

Battery life. There are a lot of things you can do in the field to dramatically improve battery life and make it so that the iPhone, and even the iPad, is a workable solution. Also, there are new, light weight and small, recharge batteries on the market today. Also, on some long trips, a solar panel can be used. Bottom line, with some care and thought and the right equipment the battery life issue pretty much evaporates. Anker makes some really lightweight recharge batteries, there are others.

Waterproofing. iDevices and water don't mix well. But, in the modern world, it turns out that there are really good rugged waterproof and floating cases available. I have a Lifeproof Fre on my iPad mini and my iPhone. I also carry an accessory for each by Lifeproof called the "Lifejacket". They are both really excellent and provide solid waterproofing and protection against rough treatment which is the norm on canoe trips. Not absolutely fool proof I suppose. But pretty darn good if you ask me.

Glare. There is one other issue using a screen which is glare. This is something I am not yet sure how to deal with. There are glare reducing screen protectors, but how they actually perform I do not know. Everyone is different - but I tend to look at this device mostly in camp under the tarp so glare is not a big problem. But yes, when paddling and looking for way-points of interest for example - glare is an issue to deal with.

Anyway - there you have it. I think I have most of this right but I will gladly stand corrected if I'm off base with something. I expect to use this system on a trip in the Yukon this summer so we shall see!

P.S. Another related device is the deLorme inReach. This device will turn a wifi only ipad into a full gps device. Also, your iPhone and iPad will connect to the inReach and can be used as an interface to draft and send and receive short text and e mail messages over the reliable iridium satellite network where you have no cell service or wifii meaning virtually everywhere in the Canadian north. The ability to use the iPhone or iPad in conjunction with the inReach device, and to have various resources available such as bird books and the like, is a real luxury.

P.P.S. A related issue has to do with keeping the wild in the wilderness and the impact that all these devices - garmin gps units, iDevices, etc. - can have on that issue. Something to think about. It calls for life style practices. Use the device sparingly. Save the aesthetic of the northern river and save battery all at the same time.

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PostPosted: March 15th, 2016, 7:51 pm 
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Aren't you worried about dropping these expensive items on rocks or into the water?

I know lots of folks use smart phones for geocaching. Some use both phone and gps.

The improvement of the gps chips in phones has improved immensely, according to those who use them.


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PostPosted: March 15th, 2016, 8:35 pm 
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No I'm not worried. They are not more expensive than a typical high end GPS. For example, you can buy an excellent used iPad or iPad mini that makes for an excellent GPS device (plus all the other apps you can have on your iPad) for around $250 to $350 US. The high end Garmin GPS devices are at least that much - or more. Also, the water proof hard cases that are available are quite good. I decided to go with an iPad mini to start. I like the size. Some like the bigger screens. I find this easier to handle in the canoe and around camp and compared to my old GPS the screen is HUGE.

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PostPosted: March 15th, 2016, 9:50 pm 
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For those of us used to the iOS interface, the GPS capabilities of an iPhone with a good app are amazing. I have no idea how to navigate around my Garmin.. I do already know how to use my phone. If I were in a stressful situation where I couldn't quite figure out where I was, I would definitely have an easier time using my iPhone than my Garmin.

I agree with you 100% about being able to use a map and compass. I love paper maps.

I have not found glare to be an issue with a matte screen protector. The one I have now is called "bulletproof" and thus far it seems pretty indestructible. I'm not too easy on my devices but I've found that a good quality matte screen protector, a soft case, and occasional waterproofing and shock proofing (during whitewater runs, with a pelican case or similar) works perfectly fine for me. I do notice that with polarized lenses, I tend to see a bit of an "oil patch" on the corners of the screen, but nothing as bad as my Garmin screen under the same circumstances.

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PostPosted: March 16th, 2016, 7:00 am 
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My habit with paper maps is to have the map in a see through case attached to my portage pack right in front of me in the canoe with my garmin tethered to the pack setting right next to the maps. (I generally paddle in the stern). I want to figure out a way to do the same but with my ipad mini in my waterproof case tethered to my pack right in front of me. I would prefer to do it in a way that permits me to quickly and easily pull it off the outside of my pack and stuff it inside my pack if it starts pouring rain or if I am running a stretch of whitewater. My iPad mini case has tiny little attachment points on the four corners. I'm not sure yet how or whether to incorporate them into a simple attachment system. I'm not sure how strong those attachments are.

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PostPosted: March 16th, 2016, 2:25 pm 
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I think you have it correct.

You wrote, quoting: I have no clue whether the chip in the iDevice is better or worse or the same than a dedicated Garmin or other gps device as far as pulling in a gps signal under a canopy.
It is my understanding that a high quality GPS device will give you better accuracy as well as work better under canopy or other areas without clear sky access. But as you stated, most paddlers have open sky.

I've used the same iPad for at least 4 years in the Far North, basically without issue, on canoe trips up to 50 days travelling 500-1000 km per summer, from something like 60-74 degrees latitude N, including along the Arctic coastline (salt water and sea ice), and paired to an inReach device. I'm sure more paddlers break carbon paddles than handheld electronic devices. Of course an iPad/iPhone is not as tough out of the box as an inReach so get a case to protect it.

Screen viewing would be my downfall. So far I have not investigated screen covers because my usage is similar to yours--in the evening in the tent or bug shelter. I find shade helpful but in short supply on the barrenlands.

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PostPosted: March 16th, 2016, 2:31 pm 
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Brian - what do you use for gps software and maps? Do you use google earth or google maps?

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PostPosted: March 16th, 2016, 3:18 pm 
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I'd like to understand the technology behind this a bit more. If you are in airplane mode, what type of transmission is being sent to locate your position? and to what? These might be important questions to answer when being in the 'bush'. Do you need to be within a certain distance to a cell tower for this function to work?

Btw, I'm not questioning that this works, because I tried it and you are right.


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PostPosted: March 16th, 2016, 3:55 pm 
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Its a GPS signal. Same as a dedicated handheld GPS device. No cell tower needed. No wifi needed. Just plain old GPS signal.

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PostPosted: March 16th, 2016, 5:43 pm 
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goose wrote:
I'd like to understand the technology behind this a bit more. If you are in airplane mode, what type of transmission is being sent to locate your position? and to what? These might be important questions to answer when being in the 'bush'. Do you need to be within a certain distance to a cell tower for this function to work?

Btw, I'm not questioning that this works, because I tried it and you are right.


GPS works by *receiving* signals from the gps satellites, not by transmitting anything. The satellites send out "pings" which your receiver gets and uses to calculate the distance between the satellite and itself. With three satellites, you can only have one spot (on earth) that matches the distance between the receiver and the three satellites. Airplane mode shuts of the wi-fi and cell radios, but does not prevent the gps chip from receiving the "pings" from the gps satellites.


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PostPosted: March 16th, 2016, 6:19 pm 
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Yea, what he said! :-)

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PostPosted: March 16th, 2016, 6:30 pm 
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DarrylJ wrote:
With three satellites, you can only have one spot (on earth) that matches the distance between the receiver and the three satellites.
Technically correct, but practically you need a minimum of 4 satellites for a consumer grade GPS to pinpoint a spot on the surface of the earth. The reason is one of timing... you need nano-second time accuracy for any reasonable location accuracy, only obtainable with an atomic clock, which you could not afford nor fit in a small package. The 4th satellite in effect provides a correction that your GPS mathematically calculates to pull the other 3 timings together and hence marks your location in space. Essentially it takes the place (mathematically) of the missing precision nano-second clock on your device.


Last edited by nessmuk on March 16th, 2016, 10:41 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: March 16th, 2016, 9:16 pm 
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It's a bummer Snowden doesn't belong to this forum, he might have some super cool undocumented features we could us.


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PostPosted: March 17th, 2016, 7:59 am 
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rpg51: I have deleted my post because Google Maps is NOT useful or reliable when beyond cell service. The background satellite image is often out of focus and not usefuI for navigation at a detailed level. There are times when the satellite background image is in reasonable detail ( I have used it when on a 200 km power boat trip on Lake Superior to double-check where I am but I also am using a marine chart navigation device), but not enough detail for navigating canoe routes.


Last edited by JCooper on March 17th, 2016, 10:06 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: March 17th, 2016, 8:30 am 
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I just tried google maps. I downloaded my home area and went into airplane mode. I do get the map and satellite image. However the image is not nearly so detailed as it is when I have a data connection. Am I doing some thing wrong?

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Last edited by rpg51 on March 17th, 2016, 9:46 am, edited 1 time in total.

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