Gear Review – Gaia GPS app

In my earlier days of backpacking, I learned to read maps and use a compass in the wilds of the Arcadia Management Area of Rhode Island during a Narragansett Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club workshop.

Despite not being a remote area and having only 10′ contour lines, those basic skills  I learned twenty years ago are with me to this day.

Be it walking the Appalachian Trail or navigating through Utah; I was thankful for that initial foray into map reading and compass use.

Map reading is an essential skill all outdoor users need to know. Be it with traditional paper maps or in electronic form.

To again refer to an article I’ve referred to multiple times:

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.

Which brings us to the Gaia GPS app I’ve been using for about the past six months and extensively on my last trip.

Available for both iOS and Android (with a discount) platforms with Free, Member, and Premium membership levels.

The Free version allows basic topo maps on the phone, where the Member level for $9.99 allows off-line maps being the practical option or most.  This review goes over the $19.99 Premium level version that will enable me to download the most layers (map versions)  including the very useful USFS 2016 maps and USGS Topo maps from CalTopo in addition to the NatGeo Trails Illustrated overview maps used by many backpackers.

So why use an electronic app when paper maps work well?

My view has softened over the years in regards to apps esp. as phone technology has become more versatile and useful.  Chris Townsend’s common sense article linked above was the primary catalyst.  A GPS app, among other apps, on the phone, are valuable tools, why not make use of them?

Gaia GPS App screenshot. From the Apple Store.

The Gaia GPS app on my phone has not replaced my paper maps, but instead has complemented it for various reasons:

  • I can take a more extensive variety of maps without a weight penalty. My go-to maps are the 7.5′ scale ones printed out for much of my backcountry travel.  But being able to look at an even smaller scale was very useful in canyon country. Or to go the opposite way when a broader scale was desired. I am still map reading, just using an electronic version of the maps.
  • Helps with the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot factor if needed.   A quick assurance in the sometimes tricky side canyons is always helpful.
  • Seeing my route ahead for the following day was easier on the phone than my print topos above. I could scroll as needed.
  • Set waypoints for information such as water was very helpful. The info is on the topos of course, too, but with a broader overview, I could plan my water carries ahead of time.

And that is how I used the Gaia GPS app.

So, how does this Gaia GPS app compare to other similar apps? After using this tool for a few months now and having used the AllTrails, Backcountry Navigator, and PDF Maps in the past, I have to say the Gaia GPS tool is superior overall.

The user interface is more powerful than the competition, in my opinion,  the available map layers are far more varied versus other options, and the importing of KML and GPX data to create routes and tracks is very easy. I was able to import map tracks, water points, and other information to create one large map. The app now has the ability to print maps so both the new and old technology may be combined as needed.

The Gaia GPS cloud tool (website) is a joy to use when working in conjunction with the app. I can create PDF maps to share for trips or generate print maps for my use. With my road trip, making use of this feature will be done extensively as I do not plan on buying maps for everywhere I go. But I’ll need print maps for sure!  The addition of the NatGeo Trails Illustrated overview maps will be esp. useful for planning when on the road, too.

Where I will be on a winter hut trip. I shared this map with friends. We’ll be schlepping in lots of food and wine with a sled hence the road route. 🙂

Which brings me to one last point. Often print vs. electronic maps is seen as a debate. But I think that is silly at this point. Both print and electronic maps have their limitations and their uses.

As written earlier:

Of course, using a mobile device has limitations. I like the wider view of printed maps at times  (presumably a lightweight tablet in the future would remedy that somewhat), a map is more robust, does not require batteries, does not fail in very cold or very hot weather and I treat a map a lot more rough than the mobile device. And since the device is dependent upon satellite coverage, some heavy tree cover or using in a narrow canyon could make device use problematic. And a mobile device and possible accessories are some more pieces of crap to potentially make a simple activity less simple.  … An electronic navigation app is undeniably a useful tool for certain situations. As with any tool, the key is to make proper use of the device and having the skill set to make effective use of the information obtained from the device, too.

An extensive overview of the area is far more straightforward with print maps. But I am finding electronic maps do offer a lot of versatility. And sometimes Murphy raises his ugly head: Electronics can fail; maps can blow away.

The Gaia GPS app and cloud-based software not only help me navigate in the field but allows me to easily create, share, and print out the paper maps I still use and need for daily navigation.

Having both electronic and traditional tools (and the skills to use them effectively!) is assurance and wise when these types of tools are not heavy and easy to obtain.  I will not give up my paper maps. That would be silly and foolish. But I will continue to make use of electronic maps and value their use.

I love maps be they print or electronic in form.

And the Gaia GPS suite has been an efficient way to let me use maps in the modern era.  For $20, the extensive array of map layers available, the ease of making routes, the ability to import and sync up data points and tracks, and being able to print maps from the web-based software or the app itself has been beyond useful. All these features make the Gaia GPS app another navigation and planning tool I will also make use of on my trips.

Over 600+ miles of backpacking in Utah proved the utility and effectiveness of the Gaia GPS app. And I suspect this tool will prove itself to be useful going forward as well.

All these apps take up some juice. A downside for sure. But here are some ideas to keep the device charged!

Disclosure: The Gaia GPS app, Premium level, was provided to me free for my review.

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2 years ago

You mentioned you can create PDF maps using their online tool, do you know if those are geospatial PDF’s?

2 years ago

I’m pretty sure that the Nat Geo maps are only available if you get the subscription service, which is $5.99 a month on top of the app. A bit disappointing since that’s a great set of maps to have .

2 years ago

Looks great. I’m trying to find out what worldwide maps are available. Looks like France and Switzerland are, but wondering about Australia, Sweden and Tasmania, as well as the Balkans. I guess I’ll have to buy it to find out. (have my doubts on the Balkans as the ex-communist countries don’t have many topics maps available

Glenn Burns
Glenn Burns
2 years ago

I tested the free version for a simple task, tracking, and found the app to complicated for my use. I’m not a novice, I spent most of my adult life supporting major hardware and software systems.
It is a very powerful app if you want to spend the time to learn how to use it. I have a simple test for app’s, If it’s not “intuitively obvious” I reject it.

2 years ago

I’ve used Motion-X for years. It’s only $10 and allows you to download all your maps and GPX files. Unlike most dedicated GPS units, it also plots elevation changes live. Unfortunately, it is only available for iPhones.

2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

It includes a MotionX Terrain, NOAA Marine and a MotionX Road layer. I’ve climbed all the 14ers and hiked the Colorado Trail with it and it has always had the detail I needed. But I’m not doing the mostly undocumented trail hiking that you do. You can add any layers you want by entering the URL for a map server. Also the correct name is MotionX-GPS

Doug K
2 years ago

I bought the $20 version based on Andrew Skurka’s recommendation on his weblog.. It is so much better than my old Garmin handheld, interface and display, and with much better maps too. The only problem is it’s a battery hog on my cheap Android phone, so carry a 6oz backup battery as well. That’s only an ounce more than the Garmin, a price happily paid. The Garmin was mostly used on hunting trips where it was possible to get blacked out (snow/fog/night) somewhere way off trail, figured it would be a good safety net. It’s also helpful when nearing the… Read more »

2 years ago

I used Gaia in the Pyrenees, absolute life saver in Basque country in the fog/clouds with 20 – 200 ft visibility for days on end. Used the French and Spanish IGN base maps under the old Gaia subscription model. The printed maps were great and what was saved on my phone was critical in keeping me “found” in the fog.

2 years ago

I have tried this app and am shocked you gave it such a positive review. When searching and finding trails, the app does not identify the beginning and end of a trail, or does it show the mileage of a trail, nor does it show the elevation profile of a trail. Basically, when you search and find a trail, this app points to a somewhat random midpoint on the trail…that is it.

2 years ago

Can I create a georeferenced map (of, for example a specific property/tract or a trail on an existing georeferenced map) and upload it into Gaia? If so, what level (subscription fee) do I need to do this?

Thanks in advance,