While knowing how to read a map and understanding which way is north is very important once you start doing some challenging hikes, we want to chat about mobile phone navigation as it is quite likely that that is what you will be using to navigate when you are starting out on your hiking adventures.

Mobile phone navigation has become significantly more utilised over the past few years with a plethora of navigation apps to assist you to get around outside. These range from street-based Google Maps to high-calibre topographic and wayfinding apps such as Advenza. 

Most of them are pretty simple, turn on the app and it shows a dot that indicates ‘you are here’, easy. However, there is more to learn if you want to understand what you are looking at, how your phone is actually working, and the limitations of this navigation. 

Many people say that phone navigation should only be used as an addition to navigation and that you should also carry a map and compass just in case. I disagree, you wouldn’t have a typewriter sitting on your desk just in case your laptop stops working. HOWEVER, you should understand the limitations of your laptop and realise that if the battery level dies you could be in trouble.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with using a phone for day walk navigation and here the way to go about it:


Firstly, it doesn’t matter what you use to navigate. Safety is always at the top of the list and you should be following those tips before you even leave the house. Know the area you are going to and let someone know, prepare your food, water and clothing for the activity. Be prepared for the weather. Know the limitations and expectations of your group. Once you satisfy these requirements then you can decide how you are going to navigate around the bush.

How they work.

The simple English version – Phone apps use a combination of a base layer map, usually downloaded to some extent and stored on your phone, plus your phones in built GPS (signals from satellites to tell your phone where on the planet it is). The phone then correlates these two things and says to the map, I am here and shows it all on your screen as a nice map with a blue dot on it. Great. When you start walking the signal says you moved and the blue dot moves on the screen. 


There are so many phone apps for both iPhone and Android users and they vary depending on their intended use.  This is by no means a definitive list but I have included apps that I have personally used in exercise, hiking, riding and running, plus full blown off-track navigation through swamps and snow. Here is a short list of apps and what I find they are useful for.


  1. Some of these apps cache (store the map on your phone for you to use when you don’t have any more reception) and this must be done before you run out of reception. ie: open the app and zoom into the area you are going to walk before you go there. This is sometimes referred to as having the map offline.
  • Pocket Earth Pro

This App is my ‘go to’ for a day walk. The Pro version comes complete with full high resolution topographic maps for every part of Australia. And I have even used it for navigating around other Countries instead of using precious data roaming juice. The base version does a perfect job of pinpointing your position on a map and I’ve found it has an accurate base layer. It also has a number of features for route planning and tracking. 

  • Wikiloc

Similar to above, except I find it is better at actually recording where you have been and saving a route rather than naviating. It seems to have less navigation features but comes with other peoples walks that you can download and follow. 

  • Advenza

This pretty awesome app allows you to import your own pdf based topographic maps and the app then locates you in the app and provides real time movement similar to the ones above. The advantage here is that you can import many maps if you have the tech skills. There is a base version and a pro version. 

  • Compass55

This app leans more towards complete navigation and gives a lot of data about your location, plus your speed, bearing, altitude and a compass, plus latitude and longitude. It can also voice guide you to the next location so you don’t have to keep opening the phone. I suggest that this is beyond most people’s needs for day walks but if you like data and the more technical aspects of walking and navigation then this is a good option to have.  

  • Footpath

This app has some wonderful features, in particular, I love the ability to plan routes just by tapping on the screen and the route automatically snaps to the nearest tracks. Very neat. The app also has very accurate turn by turn voice guidance with the pro version which is great as you do not need to keep opening your phone, however, this annual price can be a bit much for some. Great app for route planning.

  • Memory Map

Great app for normal day navigation but my issue with this is the need to buy the base topographic maps which is free or pretty cheap in other apps is $60 in this app, plus another amount to get the upgraded version of the maps. So whilst a good all round app, there are cheaper options.

  • MapmyWalk

Another app that blurs between hiking and exercise, this app can plan routes in the pro version and can track routes, plus calories and workouts etc. Useful for planning a walk but better as an all round exercise app that you can walk with rather than a navigation app. 

  • Strava

The same as above, Strava is one of the most widely used tracking app available. Good for tracking your route, distance, pace etc, but not so good for actual navigation. Again this is a great all round app for the merge between walking and exercise.

How to use your App.

  1. Now that you have downloaded a few apps, please get to know that they do and how to use them before you go to the bush. At least know where you started, how to track your route, and possibly make a route to follow if you are keen. Make sure to cache the area you are going to walk or have the base map loaded for use offline. 
  2. Open your app when you get there and make sure it is up and running and your little position indicating dot is on the map.
  3. Walk and use your phone to assist navigating. More below

Managing your Phone

This section should probably go first because you need to manage your phone to be able to navigate with it. No phone = no navigation = no idea! And that’s not good.

Managing your phone means that you know what your phone can and can’t do and how to take care of it. You wouldn’t hold your paper map out in the rain, similarly you shouldn’t hold your non-waterproof phone out in the rain. Here is a quick list of do’s and don’ts:


  • Start with a 100% phone battery
  • Keep your phone dry and away from extreme temperatures.
  • Carry a battery charger and cord. This is an absolute must! And make sure the charger is charged.
  • Have a rough idea of where you are going. 
  • Turn your phone off at 30% battery left. Your phone is now for emergency only.


  • Have your phone on high screen brightness as it will drain the battery quickly
  • Don’t walk all morning with your phone on, staring at your screen.
  • Use your phone unnecessarily, Don’t Facebook, Snapchat, chat on a call and use up the battery.
  • Go out into difficult to navigate terrain without reliably testing your phone, its battery and your skills.

There is lots more to know about phone navigation, navigation in general, and the pros and cons of using a phone versus a map and compass. As I mentioned right at the start, a laptop is far more accurate, intuitive and useful than a typewriter, but you have to know what it can and can’t do and what to do if it fails. I love navigating with a map and compass and have been orienteering for over two decades, however the accuracy and simplicity of my phone, and the ease of navigating with it is simply excellent, especially for day walks and mini adventures. Have a great hike and stay safe.

If you are keen to know more about navigation we have a Navigate With Confidence course available.