|Which way do I go? Photo by Jan.|
If you have hiked well-established long distance trails like the AT and PCT, it might be hard to imagine why navigating on the Arizona Trail could be challenging. For being such a new trail, the Arizona Trail is remarkably well-signed and we were impressed by all the good, clear trail there was.
|Brown carsonite Arizona Trail signs were always a welcome sight.|
|Faint, indistinct tread sometimes can make it hard to distinguish the Arizona Trail from cow paths.|
|Paved roadwalks were often unsigned, and were where we used our smartphones often.|
|Which trail is the Arizona Trail?|
|Arizona Trail sign pointing in only one direction. What's a southbounder to do?|
|The databook (from the AZTA) and water report provides a rough guide for where to get water.|
Using your smartphone as a GPS
Many experienced northbound hikers that we met were also frustrated by navigation on the Arizona Trail. They’d gotten off trail frequently, and been confused at unmarked trail junctions. Several of them had hiked the AT or PCT using Guthook’s Guides on their smartphones, and wished they had a navigation app on their smartphones that would work without cell service. I was surprised so many experienced hikers didn’t know that they can use their smartphones as GPS units and store topo maps for offline use!
Smartphone can function as a GPS unit offline (i.e. even if you don’t have cell phone service) by using one of several navigation apps. I will not review the various apps here (I use Gaia GPS and Jan used Trimble), but their use is similar. First, download the GPS tracks and waypoints (usually a .gpx file) onto your smartphone. We got the GPS files for the Arizona Trail by becoming members of the Arizona Trail Association. Then you transfer the GPX file to your smartphone (I save it in my google drive folder for offline use) then open the GPS file using the navigation app. The interface then looks very similar to a GPS unit. Next, download the topo map files to the smartphone manually so they can be used offline.
Then on the trail, you can use the smartphone like a GPS to locate your position on your topo maps. This is because even without cell service, your geographic location is still figured out once you take your phone off airplane mode.
|Even without service, I could checked my location (yellow triangle) to find I was not on the right trail (light blue solid line and red dots), and had missed the turn and had to backtrack.|
Learning to use your smartphone as a GPS requires a bit of a learning curve, so we suggest you try it well before you head out for a trip. It took me months to learn the finer points and become a skilled user (and to figure out how not to rapidly drain my battery).
|The topo maps on my smartphone show exact locations of water sources relative to the trail.|
When you download the topo maps manually, you choose how much coverage you want and how far out from the trail you want to download. You also need to select the type of topo map to download (each “layer” shows different information). For a long trail, you will end up with a bunch of different saved maps, all with potentially multiple layers. If you download a larger area, it requires larger file sizes. If you end up hiking further away from the trail beyond the extent of your downloaded topo maps, you will literally be in a gray zone- you will see your position relative to the gps tracks, but you will not have the topo lines or map for where you are. This is why it’s important to practice using navigation apps before you hit the trail so that you can learn how much map to download and which layers you find useful— there is definitely a learning curve to this. File sizes for the maps may be large, so you may need a system for downloading them during resupply stops.
Navigation apps are notorious for draining smartphone batteries. This varies by app, smartphone, and usage. There are many articles written about this topic (see below). Again, practice before you hit the trail to learn how to reduce battery usage. When used efficiently, I had no problems. But this is because I know what settings to use and I also only use the app sparingly, checking location only a few times a day and never leaving it on for more than a moment.
The GPS tracks are not always right
Several times there was conflict between what the GPS and our instincts indicated was the trail. Follow your instincts over what the GPS says. The GPS tracks and waypoints contain errors. The first time we noticed this was on passage 15 (between 15-123 and 15-125). Cow paths and dirtroads crisscrossed this area, but we were following dirt road and rock cairns. At an unmarked dirt road junction, both Jan and I check our location on our phones, and both of us saw we were off the GPS track. We backtracked all the way to our last trail sign, and saw that the GPS tract couldn’t be right- it led off into the cactus and scrub. This convinced us that the tracts were wrong, and to follow our instincts and the cairns. Of course it would have been easier if there were actual trail markers at junctions, but for areas like this one where there were so many indistinct old roads and animal paths, that would be tough.
|Following the rock cairns, not the GPS tracks.|
|Here I was on the trail, but the GPS line is wrong.|
Take home message: Know your pace, be able to estimate your mileage, and trust your route-finding ability over your electronics.
|The Arizona Trail follows lots of dirt roads where we'd cruise and be prone to missing turnoffs.|
Using your smartphone as a GPS provides a good solution to the navigation challenges of the Arizona Trail. If you are already used to using your smartphone as a GPS to supplement your databook and paper maps, you can still do so if you can find GPS tracks for your trail. For the Arizona Trail, these can be downloaded from the Arizona Trail Association website (if you become a member). You still have to use your brain, but using navigation apps can make your hike much less frustrating when the junctions are ambiguous or when you get off-trail.
Note that dedicated apps are coming out for the Arizona Trail, and that the Arizona Trail is constantly changing. I hope that this article serves as a useful guide for those interested in planning a trip on the Arizona Trail or other long trail without a smartphone app.
Also, remember that it is always advised to use paper maps and not rely solely on electronics. We navigated with the databook primarily, and used our smartphones for navigation only a few times every day. For a less well-marked trail, better topo maps and a dedicated GPS unit would have been a better choice.
|Helpful signs are being added all the time to the Arizona Trail as this trail develops. We're happy this trail is improving all the time due to the efforts of trail maintainers, volunteers, and the Arizona Trail Association.|
Adventure Alan’s how to use the iphone as gps mapping device (provides details and is an excellent reference for how to save battery life)
Guthook gives tips on how to get the most from your smartphone battery.
Discussion of GPS device vs. Smartphone navigation on Section Hiker
Gadget’s Guide to selecting a smartphone for long distance hiking
Support the Arizona Trail by becoming a member of the Arizona Trail Association or by volunteering!