How to build your own hiking GPS unit for £7

You don’t need a super-expensive, dedicated handheld device to discover the joys of GPS navigation, recording your walks and sharing them with the wider world.

SVW D39 2021 0018

In this brand new monthly blog series, writer and hiker Phil Thomas shares the trade secrets of his passion: the Great Outdoors. He lives in North Wales and spends most of his spare time writing or walking in the hills with his girlfriend and their crazy Patterdale terriers.

Phil will be sharing his knowledge of the practical side of walking with real life tips than can help you enjoy the mountains more and maybe even save you if you get in a spot of bother. To kick of the new series he explains how you can make you own GPS on a shoestring…

Thinking about investing in a GPS but put off by the cost? Don’t be. You don’t need a super-expensive, dedicated handheld device to discover the joys of GPS navigation, recording your walks and sharing them with the wider world.

I’ve been using my ‘home-made’ device for more than three years now, and it’s never let me down. Best of all – it cost me less than £7. Want to know how I did it? Read on…

First, dig out that old smartphone…

Do you have an old Android smartphone lying around anywhere? You do? Well, that’s your starting point. It needs to have three things going for it:

1. Life in the battery;

2. GPS capability (and ideally a gyroscope or magnetometer, more on that later);

3. Access to Google Play.

You don’t need to be on a phone network, so forget SIM cards and mobile data. Your old smartphone is going to become your GPS device.

My trusty smartphone-turned-GPS is a Samsung S3, all the rage back in 2012 when it launched but now old news. Yet it works like a charm.

It has GPS capability (most smartphones do) and a gyroscope/magnetometer, which acts as a compass. Not all smartphones have this ability (notable exceptions include Moto’s otherwise excellent G4 phones).

If you’re unsure, you can use Virtual Reality(VR)-checking apps via Google Play store (VR needs a gyroscope/magnetometer to work properly).

Assuming you have an old Android phone with battery life, GPS and gyroscope/magnetometer capability, you’re good to go.

First thing to do is to get rid of all those apps you don’t need. I recommend ditching everything that can drain the battery, including email accounts, social media apps, games and everything else you’re unlikely to want or need on top of a mountain (or stuff you can do on your main phone).

Once it’s clean and fresh, hook the phone up to your home WiFI network, head to Google Play store, and choose your GPS app…

Which GPS app should you go with?

There are plenty to choose from, and everyone seems to have their favourite. Some apps let you download free trials, and others offer ‘lite’ versions of premium, paid-for variations.

I’m not going to review them all here, but will single out a couple – one of which is my navigation companion of choice. Right now I’d like to point out I haven’t been paid for these reviews – they’re purely based on my experience!

1. AlpineQuest (Android)

Some users love it, others think the user interface takes a few too many screen taps. I think it’s great and have been using it for three years.

For less than £7 you can use it to do all the things you need from a GPS: pinpoint where you are on a map, create tracks of where you walk, set waypoints, see how fast/slow you’re going, get walk lengths in distance and time, and do all the editing, exporting and sharing you want.

It supports the two main geographic data types – GPX and KML (the latter is Google’s preferred file type) – which means you can share your walks with others and you can import them from other users into the app and follow them yourself.

Lots of walking websites offer GPX and/or KML files of popular (and not-so-popular) walks. One of my favourites is Walking Britain, where most walks come with photography, map and GPX download.

What about the maps themselves? As well as Google’s maps and OpenStreetMap, you can grab more free map ‘layers’ (as they’re called) in the Community area. Or you can purchase map ’tiles’ (which they’re also known as!) and import them.

AlpineQuest supports Memory Map‘s file types, which means you can buy Ordnance Survey map licenses (good for 5 devices, so you can use the maps on your laptop or desktop for planning your walk and reviewing it at the end of the day).

2. OS Maps App (Android and iPhone)

When I started using AlpineQuest, Ordnance Survey was only just waking up to the world of mobile phone apps. How things have changed.

The agency’s app is winning awards and with good reason. It is available on Apple and Android phones and at £20 a year for a recurring subscription, is a bargain if you’re a regular walker.

As well as access to all the OS maps for Great Britain (and being able to record, share and import tracks as you would expect), another selling point is its ‘VR’ feature which adds labels to skylines (think of those plaques at viewpoints that detail the features you can see across the landscape). As it works like a compass, you need a gyroscope/magnetometer for this to work.

Yet the most eye-catching feature must be the one that actually doesn’t feature on the app – the 3D Aerial View that is bundled with the app subscription, but which will only work through your browser on a laptop or desktop (it needs fast Internet and processor power to work).

Even so, you can surely have great fun previewing your walk at home, flying along valleys and over hills, or review it when you’ve put your feet up at the end of the day.

While the OS App was severely limited when I originally bought AlpineQuest, it’s now a far more attractive proposition. I think I’m going to give it a go…

Ready to hit the hills? Get your GPS ready…

So your phone is good, the app is working and you’re ready to go. There are two things you need to do before you leave the house.

First, make sure the battery is fully charged. Maybe the biggest disadvantage between using a smartphone and a dedicated GPS device is battery life. Yet if your battery is in good order, fully charged before you leave, and you turn off Wi Fi (so it isn’t hunting for signals) and the GPS (for now), it ought to give you enough juice for a day-long walk.

Conserve power and have the device turned off until you get to the start of your walk. Unless it’s a really bright day, turn the screen brightness down.

My advice would be to test the battery life before you take it out into the hills for the first time. Turn the GPS on and leave it on – and see how long the battery lasts.

The second thing you must do, before you leave your home WiFi, is to download those maps!

AlpineQuest ‘stores’ the map layer just by you navigating to your walk area and then moving around, downloading the map as you scroll. Test it. Download an area, then take your smartphone offline and check the map shows.

With maps added to your phone and a full battery charge, you’re ready to go. Once you reach you starting point, power-up your device, select the app and turn on GPS.

Why not add a GPS app to your “current” phone?

Well there’s nothing to stop you doing this, but consider a few things first.

Do you want to be wafting your pride-and-joy phone around in all weathers, stumbling over rocks out on the hills? Better keep it wrapped up, dry and safe in case you need to make an emergency call.

Plus, using a second device gives you a valuable ‘back up’ option. And anyway, isn’t it a great use of your forgotten, old phone?

Know the basic skills anyway

Regardless of technology, compass and map navigation are basic skills you need if walking in the high hills and mountains.

Don’t rely on a smartphone app alone – you can drop it, the battery can run dead, or it can just stop working. At least have a back-up, be that your main phone or preferably a paper map and compass.

Next month I’ll be starting a three part mini-series explaining how to read our landscapes ancient history… and what better place to explore than historic North Wales? Happy hiking!