Apple Watch vs iPhone for GPS

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    Nick Gatel
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southern California

    Well I hope you aren’t hiking where there is cell phone coverage :-)

    which would make a cell enabled watch not very good, I would think.

    I played around with an iPhone on a few trips years ago. It isn’t for me.

    But . . . I can sure list a LOT of things an iPhone can do, if you want the features. Talk about a multi-purpose tool! I don’t think there is any item that can boast multiplicity like the iPhone can. The thing really is incredible unless you are a curmudgeonly luddite, which I am.

    I doubt the Apple Watch can hold a candle to an iPhone, which leads me to wonder what advantage  it would have over an iPhone, other than saving a little weight. I bet I could find other ways to reduce your weight more than even leaving the iPhone at home.

    My wife has a new Apple watch, doesn’t use most of the features at all . . . mostly it is a piece of jewelry and she has to charge it almost every night.

    Kevin Babione
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pennsylvania

    There was cell coverage where I was hiking – I left my phone in the car simply to tell me what the watch could do without the phone.  My wife had her iPhone with her too.  I cannot imagine taking a overnight trip without my iPhone.  I use it for a bunch of things:

    • Navigation (Gaia and the Guthook app)
    • Texting my wife to let her know I’m well
    • Photos
    • Listening to an audio book if I’m dragging a bit while hiking
    • Jotting down notes while on the trail
    • Connecting to my inReach Mini
    • Playing with new knots when in camp

    The OP was wondering if he could leave his iPhone and the larger battery required to charge it home when doing a trip.  I was doing some testing because I’m curious too.  We’re spending this weekend at a state park with a number of trails and I’ve already loaded them into Gaia and will transfer them to my watch to continue the “experiment”.  I think I now have a better understanding of what the watch can do with Gaia.  We’ll see!

    Kevin Babione
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pennsylvania

    Okay – Here’s an update on using the Apple watch with Gaia for a hike.  Our family did a walk around a lake yesterday.  Here’s the area we did:

    Gold shows the planned route and magenta is what the watch recorded as our actual.  The straight lines are apparently where the watch lost our GPS location.  Cell service is weak here so I suspect, but don’t know, that the watch was relying first on what it could derive from cellular coverage.  We did NOT swim across the lake.

    I did learn a lot since last weekend.  If you flick the watch one more screen to the right you do indeed see a map (at least in “Navigate” mode – more on that in a bit).  At the most zoomed in here’s about what you see:

    It’s usable, but you cannot scroll to see anything else on the route, nor can you see your actual track of where you’ve been.  You get a nice little green dot that shows you where you are and the watch tells you if you’re On Route or Off Route (and if off route it tells you by how much).

    Gaia on the watch has two modes:

    • Navigate – This is where you pick a route that you’ve previously sent from your iPhone to the watch.  While in Navigate mode you have four different screens:
      • Directions – which tells you when you have turns – distance to the turn and which way you’ll be turning
      • Status – How far you’ve hiked, how long you’ve been hiking, how long it’s taken you to go a mile, and an elevation profile
      • Map – This shows the trail (you can zoom in and out by rotating the crown) with a green dot showing you where you are
      • Music – This takes you to the standard Apple music controls so you can control your tunes (or audio book in my case) without leaving the Gaia app
    • Record – This mode is used to record where you are hiking.  It shows you the same info as the “Status” screen in Navigate mode (distance, time, etc) but you cannot see a map of where you’re hiking nor can you see any tracking of where you’ve been.

    I’ll be doing some more hiking today and will put my watch in airplane mode to see if the GPS track improves at all.  At this point I’d be inclined to describe the watch as a convenience (it’s nice to see the map if you’re on a pre-planned route) but I don’t think I’d count on it as my sole navigation device.

    Kevin Babione
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pennsylvania

    We did another hike today on a pre-planned route and I hiked it with my watch in Airplane mode.  The GPS seemed to do well on part of the trail but the same places that gave me fits (we basically added a 1.8 mile hilly loop to the lake walk we did yesterday) gave it issues again today.

    My final conclusion:  For now it’s a fun gadget that’s good for day hikes, but I wouldn’t rely on it for my primary navigation for an overnight trip.

    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member


    Being in cell phone range should not improve GPS accuracy. Even for 911 emergency calls made indoors, without GPS coverage, the FCC requires mobile system operators to provide only 50 meter (55 yard) accuracy, only 80% of the time. Even law enforcement use of reported cell phone locations is notoriously messed up.

    Inside at home, my old iPhone 6 often placed me about 200 miles away.

    Here’s an old but good explanation of how cell tower triangulation works – if you can see three or more towers.

    If you are connected to a stationary WiFi system and that system was geolocated by one of several companies in that business, you might get a more accurate location. That’s how Google and others seem to know exactly where you are indoors at home, work, and coffee shops. Big Brother is watching, but not everywhere – yet.

    Sorry for the diversion, but determining the location of smartphones and watches in the absence of GPS is complicated and messy.

    It’s even messy with GPS.

    — Rex

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