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GPS necessary for the CDT?
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Jeff Howell
(swimming) - F
GPS necessary for the CDT? on 12/12/2013 22:33:23 MST Print View

I am planning to hike the CDT with my boyfriend this coming year and we're trying to decide if it's worth investing in a GPS. I know a lot of people carry the Garmin etrex 20, but we like the idea of using paper maps only. Is this a stupid idea that we will regret?

I do have an iphone and realize that the gaia app is a possibility, but I am worried about battery life.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: GPS necessary for the CDT? on 12/13/2013 01:49:50 MST Print View

There are some of us who never bother with a GPS. We use a map and compass, and never run out of batteries. And there was once a time when walkers went happily wandering around the globe - pre-GPS.


Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
GPS on 12/13/2013 06:31:44 MST Print View

You do not need a GPS for the CDT.

It can make things easier at times, but needed? No.

I did the CDT just with a map and compass. Even in 2006, though, I was the minority. :)

Still don't own a GPS for whatever that is worth.

Edited by PaulMags on 12/13/2013 06:32:32 MST.

Terry Sparks
(Firebug) - M

Locale: Santa Barbara, CA
GPS on 12/13/2013 08:15:33 MST Print View

I've always considered a GPS an un necessary toy and have never bought one, especially considering most every iPhone 4 and 5 series already has that function built in. Learn how to use a map & compass and practice with them by triangulating for your position on your hikes. Last summer, while hiking in the desert, I was asked by a motor home camper if I had a GPS. I told him "no" and was told "with this, I know exactly where I am and can't get lost! You should get one." I just replied, "I would have to forget which way the earth is spinning for that to happen" and hiked on.

Robert Blean
(blean) - MLife

Locale: San Jose -- too far from Sierras
Map is fundamental on 12/13/2013 08:33:55 MST Print View

In my experience the fundamental thing is being very good reading a topographic map. The only way to get to that stage is plenty of practice. Do things like at every rest stop and every high point pull out your map and identify everything in sight. The point is that you must ensure you get plenty of practice.

Being able to find yourself on a map is a valuable skill, but an even more important one is always knowing where you are on your map to begin with. It is a lot easier to stay located than to need fancy compass work to find yourself. It is quite rare that someone skilled with a map cannot stay located without referring to anything else.

I do also carry a compass, but only a very simple liquid filled one -- no base plate, no sighting mechanism. I have only rarely needed to use even that one -- such as the occasional navigation in a white-out.

A GPS may be a fun toy (I do not own one, but am tempted to get one), but is no substitute for the above.

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Many have hiked the CDT without a GPS on 12/13/2013 08:44:49 MST Print View

Here's why I carried one on the CDT and would again:

I navigated for decades successfully without a GPS. They are, however, an extremely valuable tool and made my hike more enjoyable.

Regardless of whether you carry a GPS, you will do considerable navigating and should know how to navigate without a GPS should yours fail. I often hear people say "what if your GPS runs out of batteries, my map never runs out of batteries!" On the CDT my GPS didn't run out of batteries, but it did fail, completely, as in inoperable. That's the only time that's happened to me. A couple days before I'd been walking in screaming winds across the Red Desert and reached for my maps, kept handy in my jacket pocket, and they were gone. Blown away. Completely, forever. As far as I know the only time my maps have disappeared on me as well. I had an "overview map" but eventually walked off it and ended up hiking with no maps or GPS to the next town and it still didn't kill me. (I had maps for the next stretch of trail waiting there and bought a new GPS as well.)

I do not hike staring at my GPS. I try to stay aware of where I am on the map, and tend to use the GPS to verify my position or to straighten me out when things get confusing, like where views are short and the map doesn't seem to match reality. It's especially nice where there is an ocean of snow. With a GPS I can spend a lot more time enjoying my surroundings and less time looking at my maps and wondering if, perhaps, I should have taken that last left?

I have GAIA GPS on my iPhone and it's a great tool. If you want a GPS to occasionally verify your position it should work fine. If you plan to use your GPS a lot, you're right, GAIA with the iPhone is a battery hog, I'd get a dedicated GPS.

My CDT hike:

Brian Lewis
(brianle) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
I'm with Buck on 12/13/2013 11:24:35 MST Print View

Count me in with Buck on this one. On the PCT and the AT I had a GPS on my smartphone (just built in) but didn't use it much. On the CDT I bought and brought a dedicated GPS and was glad that I did.

To those that say "you don't need one" --- they're right, you don't, or at least shouldn't. But navigation on the CDT is indeed a much bigger challenge (it's mostly not a challenge at all on most other trails I've hiked on). That's not hype, that's just the way it is. Factor in also that if you're truly thru-hiking, then you can be certain to be spending considerable time in snow. More than the couple of weeks or so that I had considerable snow to deal with in the Sierras on the PCT (okay, to be fair, some in Oregon later on too).

I hiked most of New Mexico with a fellow who did the CDT with no GPS. This guy had a pretty strong set of direction skills and intuition and from talking to him I think he also had a few (more) cases of going the wrong way and then having to adjust/backtrack later that a GPS could have prevented.

It's possible it could be a safety issue. The vast, vast majority of the time not, but getting out of the south San Juans in Colorado I ended up quite high and in close-to white-out conditions. It was sleeting hard and even fairly well covered up parts of me were getting numb and I was wet through --- had to keep moving to generate body heat. So not having to mess around with navigation at that point was a very good thing.

There's also the issue of finding water in New Mexico. It's not something you want to get wrong, i.e., realize that the solar still you were relying on actually was that thing you passed a couple of miles back.

Beyond issues of safety and efficiency, there's also a certain comfort level in being able to get a quick fix and know for sure where you're at. It also made me happier and more willing to consider alternate routes along the way (Ley purple routes). The CDT offers a huge selection of alternate routes along the way.

It's certainly do-able to hike the CDT without a GPS. I was glad to have mine, and glad also to always have a spare set of (fortunately quite light) lithium AA batteries for it.

If nothing else, I suggest that you carry a smartphone with GPS capability and put something like Backcountry Navigator on there and spend the time to cache a lot of maps and put the (a) trail plot on there (the Ley plot can be found via web groping). As an aside, a phone/GPS that also can receive the Russian (GLONASS) satellites wouldn't be a bad thing for the northern parts of the trail, but probably not a big deal either.

The reason I liked having a dedicated GPS for the CDT was that I was using it a lot more, and could power it separately (AA batteries). This meant that it was always available, and I could still use my phone to blog daily, take photos, infrequently get a weather report, even read on occasion (it got dark early when I finished in Oct/Nov). Without worrying that I was using the phone battery so much that I would have to restrict GPS use.
Well, and also the GPS I went with was pretty weather resistant; if I use my phone GPS in the rain, I do so inside of a ziplock bag, with is a PITA. The standalone GPS I had was waterproof enough that I didn't worry about using it in any conditions.

Scott S
(sschloss1) - F

Locale: New England
Smartphone only on 12/13/2013 13:27:16 MST Print View

We had a smartphone as our GPS on our thru. We used it only when we were really lost, as in "I can't even figure out where I am on the map." This happened maybe 15 or 20 times on the entire trip, so battery life was not an issue.

But here's the caveat: my partner and I were good with map and compass before we started the trail. If you get lost easily or aren't skilled at reading topo maps, maybe think about bringing a separate GPS.

BTW, a 2013 thru-hiker created an awesome set of Ley maps that you can use as an overlay with Locus Pro on Android phones. This lets you see your exact location on the Ley maps. If you're going the smartphone route, use these! (I'm not sure if there's an iphone version of locus pro; you might be able to use the Google Earth app but I had trouble with it on my android phone) Files are at

Kevin Burton
(burtonator) - F

Locale: norcal
Galaxy S3 or S4... on 12/13/2013 13:49:54 MST Print View

I'd recommend using Backcountry Navigator and a Samsung Galaxy S3 or S4... apparently the S3 has longer battery life.

The KEY thing is that it supports removable batteries and charges with standard micro-USB...

This means you could buy 3-4 batteries and use the phone EXTENSIVELY for a week without any power issues.

This is what I do... I can use it as a GPS but I also use it for books, podcasts, movies, and other backpacking apps like knot explanation apps, and constellation maps.

You need to pre-cache all the maps you need BEFORE you leave though.

Also get a 64GB SD card so you have the required space.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: I'm with Buck also on 12/13/2013 14:03:17 MST Print View

Agreed. A GPS receiver is an excellent tool, but you don't need to use it as a full-time crutch. On a normal backpacking trip, I carry a GPS receiver, but I typically use it only about once per day. I navigate almost purely by printed topo map. So, why do I take the GPS receiver?

It is an excellent tool for when things go wrong. I've been skiing along a trail when suddenly a fog settles in, and you can't see anything, much less find multiple landmarks for triangulation with a compass. If it isn't fog, then maybe darkness. Whenever your visibility is lost, a GPS receiver can be quite handy. Your alternative may be to hunker down and wait for visibility to return.

So, I don't bother taking one with a battery supply to run it continuously for days. Mine lasts for maybe 24 hours of continuous use, but if I run it only once per day for five minutes, that is a long battery life.


Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: I'm with Buck also on 12/13/2013 16:10:42 MST Print View

As Bob wrote:

> I've been skiing along a trail when suddenly a fog settles in, and you can't see
> anything, much less find multiple landmarks for triangulation with a compass. If it
> isn't fog, then maybe darkness. Whenever your visibility is lost, a GPS receiver can
> be quite handy. Your alternative may be to hunker down and wait for visibility to
> return.

Yes, a GPS can be very useful in a howling storm in a total whiteout. It can tell you excatly where you are. Trouble is, it cannot tell you that you are about to ski over a cornice - where you could break a leg.

Having skied over a number of cornices, and fallen through some too, all in the fog, I incline towards the 'wait for visibility' option these days.


Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Re: I'm with Buck also on 12/13/2013 16:24:03 MST Print View

"Having skied over a number of cornices, and fallen through some too, all in the fog, I incline towards the 'wait for visibility' option these days."

+1 Up here in the Cascades, or down in the Sierra for that matter, you'd consider yourself lucky if you emerged with only a broken leg.

peter vacco

Locale: no. california
Yup, go with Buck. on 12/13/2013 17:23:55 MST Print View

" Is this a stupid idea that we will regret? "

no. it's not a stupid idea. but it will prove though in practice to be a cumbersome and costly (from the missed work time that you wander about lost).
sans gps, there is any number of great CDT spots to stroll about not having clue one as to where you actually Are on the map.
a gps makes easy work of those situations.
to carry, or not to carry : is not really a decision based upon economics. you're already looking at a gloriously selfish and luxurious (compared to how most people live) adventure. so half a day's wages one way or the other will not skew the outcome. the moral issue is a question of endless loops, useless to ponder and with no solid answer.

i'm with Buck on this one. carry a gps.

since you posted gps/cdt as a question, it shows you are perhaps not yet the experienced long trail hiker you'd want to be. that's all fine and nobel. because in This instance, with This bit of gear, the less experienced you are, probably the More you'll be helped by it, and the greater chance of successful walk far outweighs the 3.1oz increase in base weight.

you'll still want maps and compass. the gps is not used all day long. probably more like "taking the occasion reading when baffled, and once at night to verify where you are camped". in that mode one set of LiLion batts might well go the entire summer.

you get down there in NM, and miss a water source in the morning, by evening, a gps is going to start look'n Real Darn Handy.

relationship wise. if your partner balks at it. just go ahead and buy one, learn to use it (takes a few hours for some proficiency) and tuck in in your kit , to be used in the dire situation that Will Inevitably Occur. when it happens, and partner whines about you not trusting their abilities, tell them you packed it "because it's your mission in life to take the best possible care of them" or some such drivel. such indicators of friendship "help to create the illusion that you care". now ... if that fails, i won't be within a thousand miles of you, so just blame in on peter.


Edited by on 12/13/2013 19:37:04 MST.