In 2019, Joan and I took two weeks to drive from Moab to Reno.
We loved our road trip and combined camping, hiking, and backpacking through a state we want to see more of in the near future.
Among these places we went? Great Basin National Park.
This lightly visited national park offers a lot to see with much variety. Though Joan and I each use Gaia GPS, we enjoy having a print map for various reasons, including a more extensive overview and not relying entirely on one navigation tool.
However, the book shop no longer had the appropriate map in stock, and the person at the gift shop said the map no longer gets produced, or the publisher was out of business (She did not know for sure).
This fate, unfortunately, is the case with many producers of print maps.
With fewer people using print maps, the small map publishers (and non-profits) find it more difficult to publish their maps economically feasible.
This result is a shame as the smaller publishers will have maps updated, done at a professional level, and typically more accurate than the older USGS quads, USFS maps, and even commercially produced maps rarely updated, often inaccurate, and just plain wrong in some cases (Cough! Cough! NatGeo maps).
When Joan or I use Gaia, the tool itself works well for us  vs. CalTopo (The app still not quite up to prime time use IMO. The desktop app, of course, is the best in class.) due to its wealth of features, easy downloading, and intuitive UI. However, we still get beholden to the layers and mix and match to get optimum maps with varying accuracy.
We do not wholly trust the NatGeo layer (road missing still in obvious use, trails not on the maps that have existed for 20+ yrs, etc.) and the USGS maps topographically accurate and key for off-trail technical travel, but lacking modern details. The USFS maps, of course, only cover USFS lands (and not continually updated, either). Finally, the Open Street Map layer (Gais GPS default) only ends up as accurate as the input provided.
Some wags may say, “Just use print maps!” but a modern outdoors person should know how to use all tools; including GPS-enabled devices.
As well-known author Chris Townsend stated, it’s not either/or. The tools complement each other, and sometimes it’s easier to use one tool over another (a quick compass bearing comes to mind vs. futzing with a GPS!)
As Chris said in an earlier article:
To conclude: good navigational skills are of course essential in the hills and wild places. And the key one of these is being able to read a map, whether it’s on paper or on a screen.
So we use a print map and electronic resources appropriately.
For the La Sal Mountains, the only maps I find accurate end up being the Lat40 maps. These maps get updated regularly, have correct info(including single-track MTB routes) and valuable information about the trails. Frankly, the NatGeo La Sal maps provide mainly a broad overview for general info. Only a step or two up from the trifold-style maps you get for free at NPS booths.
What is the Avenza app?
Note: I am looking at this app from the viewpoint of an experienced backpacker. GIS professionals, who use this app frequently based on reviews, will have a different take. It’s almost a separate tool for the advanced subscription models.
The Avenza app (formerly PDF maps) is a backcountry tool for your GPS-enabled smart device to navigate in the field. You can download the map for both Android and iOS devices.
If you are not familiar with these apps, the short answer is that your device uses the built-in GPS of your Android or iOS device to navigate on a pre-stored map; no cellular connection necessary if you download the appropriate maps ahead of time.
The allure of Avenza for many is two-fold:
- You can upload your maps (created with something such as CalTopo) for your use with the app or for sale or use by others. The basic subscription model allows three maps; the next tier allows unlimited map uploads.
- You can download many of these specialty maps for prices ranging from free to the price of a print map.
I find the open-source nature of Avenza useful for these specialty maps. Many non-profits such as the Cohos Trail or the Continental Divide Trai Coalition offer their maps via the Avenza store for your use where otherwise may not be an economically feasible option for print maps or with a larger company.
And, as mentioned, many small map publishers also take advantage of the Avenza store to publish their electronic maps.
How well does Avenza work in the field?
Avenza works well enough with making waypoints, plotting out a route in the field, finding your location, etc. But not as elegantly as other tools.
What I found is that the tool works fine, but nothing extraordinary.
Gaia GPS makes for a much-refined tool overall. Even the free version with the OSM layers would work surprisingly well for most people in many situations. And if you purchase the premium subscription at just over $30 a year (Shameless plug – it’s a discount link from me), you get a more full-featured tool with many layers of maps available.
If you use CalTopo, you can import your tracks into Gaia GPS, the CalTopo app itself, or similar; and the web-based Gaia tool works well enough for many map creation uses, too, if with less than optimal printing vs. the CalTopo desktop app.
In other words, I don’t think you’ll gain much by purchasing a subscription from Avenza vs. the free version. You can import unlimited maps from the Avenza store vs. only three of your maps directly (at least according to their subscription link) with the free version.
Additionally, Avenza maps are only available in electronic form for an Android or iOS device; there’s no readily apparent way to print them out unless the publisher offers a print version or PDF alternative for private use separately.
So, why use Avenza?
I feel Avenza works best for specialized uses.
- GIS professionals or those who employ that skill set, similar map publishers, and non-profits like this map tool for various reasons vs. an end-user like myself.
- The free or low-cost maps or maps available are handy and more readily available vs. some of the maps offered from Gaia or similar.
- And my personal use – Commercial or specialized maps for a particular trail, route, or area. I often hike, camp, and backpack in the La Sals, where accurate maps make a worthwhile investment. And I still hope to do an across New England walk, and the Cohos Trail maps are only available electronically in the Avenza map store. If I did the CDT or a similar trail again, I could see myself using the free maps as an adjunct to other resources such as Atlas Guides (Guthook).
Purchasing individual maps will get expensive. Unless you have a specific use, I will use CalTopo, Backcountry Navigator, Gaia GPS, or similar tools instead for the greater variety and more cost-effective use vs. the ala carte model of individual map sets.
In the end, use Avenza for specific needs or maps. I’m pleased to use Avenza with the Lat40 Moab maps and will probably use Avenza for specific trails or routes in the future.
A final tip – The search tool for the maps in the Avenza store makes for some clunky use. I find it easier to get the maps I need directly from a web resource that links to the Avenza store for you. Here’s an example of the well-known J Ley maps of the CDT.
 With the buyout of Gaia GPS in Feb 2021, I question how much longer Gaia will work as a viable tool for more experienced backcountry enthusiasts. When they get bought out by a larger corporation, many small software companies tend to get less innovative as the new parent company leverages their new property to fit a broader consumer base. In short, I hope Gaia GPS does not become more like All Trails as Outside tries to make it a tool for their more general consumer bases. Most of their new consumer bases desire a less backcountry-focused tool and more typical of the Outside customer experience.