FAQ: Do I need a GPS on the Kalalau Trail?

gear gps Jan 15, 2022

People are wondering if they need a GPS device on the trail. Good question! The short answer is no, or rather not necessarily. The longer answer is it depends. Confusing? Well, hear me out…

The trail is, as is somewhat obvious from the map, mostly linear and straightforward. The risk of getting totally lost and wandering off into no-man’s land is somewhat low. 

However, there are a few spots where it’s easy to get turned around as the trail is more faint or spur/alternative trails branch off. (Let’s assume, BTW, that you’re not hiking in the dark, which is not a great idea for various reasons.)

With a GPS, especially if you have the track pre-loaded, it’s easy to confirm that you’re headed in the right direction and on the right trail. Usually, if you find yourself unsure if you took the right path, it’s not too hard to backtrack if needed and find your way again.

So based on this, you can probably get away without a GPS.

However, I personally find a GPS useful to answer questions like this:

  • How far have I hiked?
  • How much further is it until I reach Hanakoa Camp, Crawler’s Ledge, Kalalau Beach, etc.?
  • What’s my pace?
  • What’s my current elevation?

With that, I’d say a GPS is at minimum helpful on the trail, even if the navigation itself isn’t overly complicated.

Where it gets interesting is when you’re in camp, have finished exploring the immediate surroundings, and decide you want to go up the Kalalau valley. There is an “official” valley trail, but it quickly becomes clear that up in there, navigation is much more confusing than on the main trail. That’s because there are a lot of small, sometimes faint, social, and inofficial trails forming a trail network. And since there’s lots of vegetation, sometimes dense, it’s much harder to use natural points of reference for orientation. 

Therefore, I feel much better having a GPS with me in the valley, so I always know where I am and can trackback where I came from if needed.

Now, let’s talk about “GPS device” for a minute. Until recently, that often meant a dedicated device/handheld unit, which means extra weight and having to worry about batteries and recharging. I have been using a Garmin Oregon 750, and while it’s mostly functional, I’ve never really liked it (sorry, Garmin). Compared to a modern smartphone, it always felt slow and clunky, but I did like having a more rugged, independent device in case I run out of cell phone battery and as a contingency.

But I am starting to change my mind. Now I’m considering putting all my eggs into the phone basket and using it for GPS purposes as well. Equipped with a waterproof and rugged case, I am experimenting with the AllTrails and Gaia GPS apps to see which one is better and easier in terms of battery drain. Speaking of battery drain, I might just trade the weight of the Garmin for an extra 10,000 mAh battery pack. 

Alternatively, I’m also looking into whether using the Garmin InReach Mini (a much better device than the Garmin GPS units!) in combination with the companion phone app might be sufficient, although the map resolution is not as high and the frequency of GPS measurements is more coarse. 

So while the jury is still out on the exact device, my personal conclusion as to whether a GPS is needed is yes, mostly to err on the side of caution and peace of mind and since I like having it around in the valley. Is it absolutely critical? No.

What do you think?

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