The Complete Guide to GPS

To most, hiking the backcountry means escaping the crowds and the rush of the city, but those looking to escape the tech-fueled world should rethink leaving their smartphone behind.

Critics say smartphone GPS technology is great, until you’re in the backcountry away from cell service, rendering your maps useless, but in reality, lack of cell service is not an issue when using GPS in the backcountry.

Understanding GPS

Cell towers are needed for making phone calls and using data, but smartphones come equipped with an internal GPS and, when location services are activated, receive signals from orbiting satellites. All your GPS needs to function is a clear view of the sky.

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No cell service required. Public and Private Landowner Boundaries, GPS Tools and More. Try the onX Hunt App for Free.

GPS technology was developed by the military in the early 70s as a means of navigation not limited by weather patterns. The more open, unobstructed, view of the sky means more satellite signals can be picked up by your phone regardless of weather conditions.

Certain natural features can inhibit your GPS’ ability to retrieve satellite signals, however. Canyons with steep walls don’t allow for an open view for satellites or prevent a strong connection by bouncing signals off the walls.

With locations services on, your phone’s GPS looks for signals from the satellites and only needs three satellites to display your precise location on your screen. The more satellite signals picked up, the more accurate and efficient your GPS will work.

A flat representation of earth with latitude and longitude lines.

A look at the earth with latitude and longitude lines.

Coordinates Are Key

Your exact position in the world is found through the use of latitudinal and longitudinal lines, which cover the earth in a grid pattern.

Latitudinal lines run east to west along the equator and help specify your northern and southern position, while longitudinal lines run north and south, specifying your east to west location.

Your exact position on a hunting GPS is represented numerically as coordinates, which are your location in regards to where the latitudinal and longitudinal lines cross.

Latitude lines are based on the equator, which has a latitude of zero degrees and longitude lines are based on the prime meridian which has a longitude of zero.

Every line of latitude moves north and south by one degree, until they reach the North and South Poles at 90.

Longitudinal lines run vertically, north to south, and are based on the prime meridian, which holds a longitude of 0 degrees. Longitudinal lines moving east of the prime meridian go up by one degree, all the way to 180 and lines moving west of the meridian also move by one until they reach 180. When displayed via coordinates, all lines west of the prime meridian have a negative sign preceding them.

Because many areas on the map will inevitably fall between latitude and longitude lines, coordinates can be broken down one of three ways for even more accuracy.

Spherical representation of Earth including latitude and longitude lines with the Prime Meridian, Equator, North and South poles labeled.

Latitude and longitude lines with the Prime Meridian, Equator, North and South poles labeled.

Breaking Down Coordinates

46° 52′ 44, 113° 27ʹ 64

Spaces between each line can be measured to the nearest decimal of one.

46° 52′ 44.44″N , 113° 56′ 27.64″W

The above coordinate reads 46 degrees, 52 minutes and 44.44 seconds north/113 degrees 56 minutes and 27.64 seconds west.

46° 52.44’N , 113° 56.24’W

You can also represent the time measurements in the form of a decimal.

Spaces between each line are measured in time. The space between each line is 60 minutes and the measurements can be measured by 60 seconds.

With the onX Hunt App you can toggle between all three setting types in the map settings feature.

Your exact coordinates will be displayed on your Hunt App in the top right corner with the first number being your latitude and the second as your longitude. When a negative precedes the first number it means the coordinates are south of the equator and a negative preceding the second number means the coordinates are west of the prime meridian.

Going Off-Grid

You don’t need cell service to access your maps while using the Hunt App, either. Before setting foot on the trail, open the map of your destination and, using the Off-Grid feature, you can save hundreds of miles of land and have it available when it’s time to set foot on the trail, with the GPS displaying your exact position. All your waypoints, markups and layers you had displayed when saving the maps will still be accessible.

Saving Battery

The Off-Grid feature also keeps your maps available during your whole trip by conserving battery life. According to, an iPhone carries up to 225 hours of standby time, or time the phone isn’t in direct use. This equates to slightly over nine hours of use. Your amount of hours will be less than that when using your GPS, but other factors can also be applied to conserve your power. When using your saved maps, always switch your phone to airplane mode first.

Screen brightness is one of your phone’s largest drains on battery life. By lowering the screen brightness all the way down when you’re hitting the woods, your phone should last you the entire trip.

Temperature can also have drastic effects on your power. Keeping your phone shielded from extreme temperatures will help keep your battery alive and your maps available.

Technology has found its rightful place in the woods and it’s by your side, showing you the way to that next special place or moment.

Make sure you don’t get lost or left behind by keeping the most accurate maps on the market in your pocket every time you set foot off-grid.

Reliable, Detailed, and Accurate
No cell service required. Public and Private Landowner Boundaries, GPS Tools and More. Try the onX Hunt App for Free.

Written by Cavan Williams