We all have our ups and downs, but some of us like to measure our vertical measurement above the Earth. This can tell reveal much about the weather and living conditions wherever you are. While you may often use your phone’s location for 2D street-level navigation, those same satellites can also help you find your distance above sea level (altitude, not to be confused with elevation, which is the earth’s distance above sea level). Paired with a barometric pressure sensor and a data connection (if there’s one available), your phone can provide surprisingly accurate altitude readings.
Difference Between Altitude and Elevation
The terms “Altitude” and “Elevation” are usually used interchangeably, but there’s a major difference between the two. An “altitude” is the vertical measurement measured from a specific datum or plane, which is mostly sea level. Hence, an altitude is your height from mean sea level (also known as 0 feet.) On the other hand, “elevation” is generally used to specify the height to which something rises, such as ground level, or a building, etc. Any height is measured above a specific ground elevation, and is usually published on specific maps or charts.
An example: the elevation of a specific landmark can be 700 feet above mean sea level. If you were at the exact location at a a height of 2000 feet, your altitude would be 2000 feet above mean sea level (MSL), but your height would be 1300 feet above ground level (AGL) (2000-700 = 1300 feet).
How do phones measure altitude?
Phones are able to measure altitude, and if you know the elevation of the ground below, you can calculate your exact height above ground. The most important altitude measurement tool in your phone’s arsenal is the GNSS/GPS receiver. If your phone can find at least four satellites, with one directly overhead, you can usually get an altitude reading accurate to within 10 to 20 meters (35 to 70 feet). Having good satellite reception isn’t always guaranteed, though, and while GPS-based altitude works most of the time, it can still be subject to fairly large errors.
That’s why many modern phones are also equipped with barometric pressure sensors (barometers). Because gravity pulls everything down towards the Earth, including the atmosphere, pressure gets lower as your altitude increases. Measuring this change helps your phone figure out how far up or down you’ve gone.
Shifting weather can also affect atmospheric pressure, though, so most altimeter apps will try to get the most current pressure data from a nearby meteorological station. This gives the app something to compare the pressure changes to. Barometer-based altitude measurements can still work without a data connection, but you may have to calibrate it manually.
1. Altitude Using the Compass App (iOS)
The quickest way to get the altitude measurement on an iPhone is using the built-in Compass app. If your phone is able to connect to a satellite and get a good connection, the Compass app will show your exact location coordinates and altitude.
Unfortunately, there’s no such app present in Android by default. Fortunately, there are multiple third-party apps to view your altitude. Usually their accuracy doesn’t vary much since they use the same method to calculate altitude, so you can use them as well:
2. My Altitude (iOS/Android)
My Altitude is a complete solution for most of your altitude needs. You’ll get to see the altitude, coordinates, barometric pressure, water boiling point, weather – even NOAA data you can download to use the app offline. It doesn’t come with any tracking or graphing features, but it does have a tool that lets you take a photo with attached coordinates, altitude, and other details. My Altitude is available to download on both iOS and Android.
3. Altimeter & Altitude Widget (Android)
This app from DS Software (only on Android) uses location, barometer, and geospatial survey data to help you get accurate elevation and altitude readings, plus it comes with an array of maps and a feature that allows you to record and graph your altitude trends. Being able to switch easily between elevation (the SRTM and USGS settings are both for elevation) and altitude (GPS and Bar) is a great feature, since comparing the two readings can help you get a sense for how accurate your altitude is.
If you have an onboard barometer, the app also provides an array of calibration options, allowing you to get the data from the nearest airport or set it manually. Its level of detail, variety of elevation/altitude settings, and tracking features make it an excellent choice as a workhorse altimeter.
4. Altimeter GPS – Hike & Trek (iOS)
This iOS app comes with the standard altimeter, barometer, and compass, plus a pedometer and journey tracker so you can visualize your distance and altitude changes. There’s even an SOS feature that can automatically send someone your location in an emergency. It’s the trip tracking that sets this app apart, though, as many iOS altimeters don’t come with that feature.
5. Altimeter Ler (Android)
This app’s design makes you feel like you’re in an airplane cockpit, but you can’t argue with the rich data you get out of it. Altimeter Ler (available on Android) gives you a full readout of your location and environmental conditions plus a variety of maps and good tracking features. It can calculate altitude based on both GPS and barometer readings and even tells you the estimated error of the GPS data you’re getting. It doesn’t have visualization tools to track your altitude changes or elevation data, but it comes with enough other features to make up for those shortfalls.
6. Altimeter (Android)
EXA Tools’ altimeter for Android doesn’t provide a lot of extra data, but its interface is easy to read, and its tracking feature might actually be one of the best on this list thanks to its nicely-presented altitude-change graph. It comes with many ads (you can get rid of them by going premium), but they’re not unmanageable, and the app itself works well.
Should I just get a real altimeter?
If “ain’t no mountain high enough” is less of a song lyric and more of a life motto for you, you might have your eye on a non-phone altimeter. The good news is that this probably isn’t necessary if your phone has a decent GNSS chipset and a barometer, as tests have shown smartphones and altimeters to have roughly similar accuracy. What you probably need, though, is a good GPS app and maybe one that can be used offline.