I have minimal experience but i am considering getting certified by the ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) in the far future. It says i need hikes with a minimum of 700 m elevation gain/loss.

Should i buy a GPS? or are there cheaper alternatives to calculate my elevation that is reliable?

If GPS is the way to go, any recommendations?

  • 35
    Are there cheaper alternatives? Of course, they are called maps. And I am 100% sure that any kind of mountain guide qualification will require you to be uber versed in reading maps and navigation in all kinds of conditions, including night. No offence, but the fact that you have to ask this question suggests to me you are not experienced or qualified enough for an MG cert. I suggest you approach a local instructor who can give you the guidance and training you need.
    – Darren
    Aug 30, 2020 at 20:41
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    @Darren I looked it up and this is actually a prerequisite to enter the program...so presumably the OP will become more educated by completing the program. Aug 31, 2020 at 16:44
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    @user3067860 in UK mountaineering programmes there is a certain level of experience required before you can even enter training. Familiarity with maps and navigation is certainly in there.
    – Darren
    Aug 31, 2020 at 17:36
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    If you want to measure height and height alone, you don't need GPS. You need an altimeter. They are built for measuring heights. GPS-height is quite unreliable in mountainous terrain.
    – Mast
    Sep 1, 2020 at 9:36
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    @sam remember, you would be taking responsibility for other people’s’ lives, not just your own, and would be expected to be the one to act with a cool head in an emergency. Tonnes of experience is rightly required. But good luck on your (literal and figurative) journey.
    – Darren
    Sep 1, 2020 at 16:39

4 Answers 4


Vertical difference to summit: If you are just interested in reaching a minimum, it is often sufficient to compute the difference between the start and the summit, e.g. start at 1000m summit at 1800m means at least 800m elevation gain. Given the fitness level that is expected of a guide, this should already be enough in most places

Vertical difference along waypoints: A more fine grained version of the difference to summit. Can be made arbitrarily accurate by choosing more waypoints and summing the vertical differences. There are lots of maps available on the internet for free in sufficient quality

Phone app: There is plenty of apps that track sports activities with the phone GPS. Most of them have a free version. Battery of the phone should be more than sufficient for a half-day hike

Mountaineering watch: Many mountaineering watches have an integrated altimeter and a GPS that can be used to track your activitites. While this is not the cheapest option, it is something that one would probably buy anyways as a guide.

  • 7
    Phone GPS is comparable in accuracy for altitude to a dedicated unit, assuming neither has a barometer. A cheap waterproof phone costs less than a GPS unit, and just tracking in aeroplane mode should run for 2-3 days (I've had 14 hours navigating on mine, mostly in aeroplane mode, and using the screen with backlight)
    – Chris H
    Aug 31, 2020 at 9:56
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    @ChrisH Opinions differ on the suitability of smartphones as replacements for dedicated GPS units. I last a week in the wilderness with my Garmin, and can replace the AA batteries after that, meaning I could last a month without recharging if I need to. I've literally dropped my unit in a mountain stream and recovered it from there downstream without problems.
    – gerrit
    Aug 31, 2020 at 10:05
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    @gerrit, that's true, and I've been known to use my ancient etrex despite the battery life being less than the phone. But for the specific use case in the question there's no need to spend the money. If guiding in the mountains the OP is likely to want a decent GPS anyway, so maybe they should hang on until they know what other features they want, and make do for now
    – Chris H
    Aug 31, 2020 at 10:33
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    @ChrisH I agree; if OP is serious about becoming a mountain guide they anyway need to train to not need a GPS at all under normal circumstances (possibly bringing a basic model one emergencies).
    – gerrit
    Aug 31, 2020 at 10:39
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    When vertical meters are given as a requirement they are normally meant on the ascent as this is the more exhausting part. The ACMG is not really specific on their requirement for a hiking guide: "10 [hikes] with a minimum 700m elevation gain/loss" (tapacmg.ca/hikingguide.php) but I would be surprised if 350m up + 350m down would be accepted
    – Manziel
    Aug 31, 2020 at 18:29

Should I buy a GPS?

Maybe (or rather probably yes), but you don't need one to estimate elevation gain or loss, and they may not be very accurate for this purpose. There are good reasons to buy a GPS; I use one mostly for fun (geolocating photos with a track), but a track can also be a life safer to retrace your steps if you get lost, and a dedicated GPS may produce a longer and more accurate track considering battery life. If you do estimate elevation gain or loss with a GPS, make sure to download the track into a computer and remove measurement errors first, as a couple of bad points can easily inflate the integrated climb estimate significantly.

Or are there cheaper alternatives to calculate my elevation that is reliable?

Canadian topographic maps are available free of charge through the National Topographic System. They cover the entire country (!) at a scale of 1:50k, but may not include all hiking trails in remote areas. They may also be decades old and in black and white. In popular areas such as Jasper or Banff National Park, commercial alternatives exist such as by National Geographic or (in slightly less popular areas) Go Trekkers (they reportedly also sell enhanced versions of official topographic maps, adding shaded relief and colour where applicable, I have no experience with those). Their scale may be less good, but they may be more complete for currently maintained hiking trails (they may or may not include decommissioned or unofficial trails).

It is easy to tell elevation gain or loss from a topographic map if you are competent in reading them. Competence in reading a topographic map is certainly a prerequisite to become a mountain guide.

  • 1
    thank you gerrit! this was helpful. i did not know about the national topographic system website that is great! i was asking the question because I've had trouble finding maps of the hikes i have done with elevation (i guess i haven't gone high up then lol) so i will definitely be using this website in the future as i get more advanced
    – sam
    Sep 1, 2020 at 16:21

As someone who wants to guide through the mountains, I would think you should have a GPS regardless. Just like you should have a radio, maps, food, water, a first aid kit, knife, etc. It's a necessary tool of the trade. If you need to call for a rescue, the precise coordinates from your GPS will make you very easy to find.


You don't need on-site GPS to know the elevation profile of your hiking trip. You can* plan the trip at home. Any modern map application will be able to show you the elevation profile of your trip.

That being said, you should have GPS with you for other reasons as well as a map.

* Actually, I highly recommend this

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