Handheld GPS Units Are Out. Hunting Apps Are In

Taking a handheld GPS unit into the woods has always been a no-brainer for hunters. They offer peace of mind and are a good tool for digital navigation. Handheld GPS units also extend the boundaries of one’s comfort zone from camp. They allow hunters to focus more on hunting. All of that said, more and more folks are trading in their trusty old Handheld GPS units for Hunting GPS apps on their phone.

Hunting GPS apps are now taking the torch on digital navigation. They are easier to use, more practical, offer better map detail, and allow you to save weight in your backpack by leaving the Handheld GPS unit at home.

Does GPS work without Data?

When it comes to relying on a cell phone for GPS use in the field, the number one concern is access to cell service. Let’s face it, it’s not uncommon to lose service while out hunting. On the surface, one would think you need that in order to utilize a fancy app on your phone. These days, that’s just not the case.

Why buy an expensive handheld GPS for hunting when you can just use onX Hunt on your phone?

GPS stands for Global Positioning System. Your phone is constantly receiving signals from one of 32 GPS satellites. The beauty of this is that your phone doesn’t need cellular service or a data plan in order to connect to these signals. GPS navigation actually works independently from data connection. With the offline mapping services offered in hunting GPS apps, you can head afield and know where you stand at all times.

Phone GPS Technology and Trends

two hunters in camo looking at a hunting gps app on their phone

If there is one thing true about technology it’s that progression is imminent. The world of hunting GPS apps is no exception to this and the future is bright. 


In August of 2022, T-Mobile and Space X announced “Coverage Above and Beyond.” Using the industry-leading wireless network of T-mobile and the constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit that Space X deems “Starlink,” both companies intend on providing nearly complete cell coverage in most places in the U.S.; including remote locations that were previously unreachable from traditional cell coverage.

So, theoretically, a lack of cell service could cease to exist in the next 3-5 years. This feat could completely eliminate the need for a handheld GPS unit. T-mobile users would automatically have this coverage, with no action needed on their part. Other providers will inevitably follow suit.

Apple Satellite Feature

Apple recently unveiled a new emergency SOS via satellite feature built into the iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro. Users will have the ability to reach out for help anywhere in the world, far from cell/wifi coverage. In fact, this feature won’t even work if there is cell coverage and remains buried in the menu. Apple hopes that nobody will ever have to use this, but it certainly provides comfort when far off the beaten path.

The SOS button on some handheld devices is appealing for many. We want that sense of security in knowing that if something happens we can press a button and help will be on the way. Between this new emergency SOS feature from Apple and utilizing offline maps on your phone, the thought of carrying a handheld GPS for emergency communication and navigation starts to feel less and less necessary.

Convenience of Hunting Apps over Handheld GPS

A hunter using a hunting gps app in the field

Hunting GPS apps are much more convenient than handheld GPS units. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Easy access – Our phones are always in our pockets at the ready. This provides much easier access to hunting GPS apps than digging in the pack for a handheld GPS. Even if you wear the GPS on your backpack, turning on a GPS is not nearly as easy as swiping your phone to unlock it.
  • Carry one less item – Ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain.  Hunting GPS apps allow for carrying one less item. In the backcountry, efficiency is everything.
  • Constant updates to app – Hunting GPS apps are constantly being updated and improved, meaning that the sky is the limit for possibilities, literally. Handhelds get updated, but not nearly as much. There is a ceiling there that limits capabilities.
  • One thing, multiple functions – While a GPS does GPS things well, our phones do a number of useful and practical things: communication, photo/video, ballistics info, and onX Hunt, to name a few.
  • Feature-rich – The features within the onX Hunt app absolutely crush any feature in a handheld in efficiency, ease of use, and effectiveness for navigation.
  • More user-friendly – Hunting apps are more user-friendly than handheld GPS units. Phones are so familiar to us that they’re almost an extension of our bodies at this point. Exploring our way through a hunting app is easy, familiar, and not clunky in the least like a handheld GPS can often feel.
  • Bigger screens – We live in a visual age. The screen size and resolution of a smartphone is indisputably more visually appealing than that of a handheld GPS. The bigger screen and higher resolution offer much better detail and make navigating more seamless compared to a handheld GPS.
  • Touch screen – Touch screens on smartphones is the standard.  It’s what we’ve come to know and it is extremely easy to use. Touch screen is not the standard on handheld GPS units, and several of them don’t even offer this feature.  

Pros Who Use Hunting Apps Over Handheld GPS

“The OnX Hunt App makes things so easy with the ability to cache in the maps! There’s no worry if you run into zero cell service and no need to carry a GPS or Garmin anymore. One less thing to worry about charging, packing or losing! It’s all right there in the Hunt app.”Jana Waller – Skull Bound Tv

“At age 65 bringing new technology into the woods isn’t my forte, but the onX Hunt App has become a staple for me. Using it to mark buck sign, points of interest and track my hunts I no longer even bother to carry a handheld GPS, it’s become obsolete. With the Hunt App and an old school compass just in case, I’ve got all I need.” Hal Blood – Big Woods Bucks


When they reigned supreme, a handheld GPS unit offered confidence and peace of mind for any excursion. With the progression in technology, smartphones have grown by leaps and bounds, and their momentum isn’t holding up for anything. The hunting apps we use within them have begun to take the wheel from the handhelds we’ve known for so long. It’s a classic case of “out with the old, in with the new.” 


Are handheld GPS units more accurate than a phone?

With today’s advancements in technology, the accuracy between a handheld GPS and GPS on a phone is a lateral move.

Do people still use GPS units?

The use of GPS is an everyday thing for many people via their smartphones. However, the use of handheld GPS units is one that is fading away as smartphones/apps improve.

Which hunting app is best?

onX Hunt remains a leader in offline GPS navigation on your smartphone when in the field.

Turn Your Phone Into a Handheld GPS. Try the onX Hunt App for Free.

Josh Kirchner

Josh Kirchner is the author of the book Becoming a Backpack Hunter, as well as the voice behind the brand Dialed in Hunter.  Through informative articles and eye-catching/uplifting films, he hopes to inspire other hunters to chase and achieve their goals.  Josh is a passionate hunter that has been hunting with his family since he was a small boy. When he is not chasing elk, deer, bear, and javelina through the diverse Arizona terrain, he is spending time with his wife, daughter, herding dog, and mischievous cat.