It seems I’ve been on a search for one good, multi-use hiking app for a long time. I’ve been through them all, and Gaia GPS is the one I’ve stuck with for the longest amount of time. It seems I’m always finding more uses for it. Gaia is Greek for “earth.”
This is an unsolicited, unpaid review of Gaia GPS.
Rundown of Gaia GPS features
Gaia GPS – base app $19.99
Many hikers love CalTopo. Gaia GPS includes CalTopo maps. Some of the maps available to you are:
- National Park Service maps (awesome!!)
- US & USGS Topographic maps
- U.S. Forest Service maps
- OpenCycle, OpenHiking, & OpenStreet maps
- MapQuest & USGS aerial imagery
- NOAA boating charts
- Aviation IFR & VFR charts
And what can you do with these maps?
- Create preplanned routes
- Download publicly-shared routes
- Save maps to your phone to be available offline
- Record your own tracks to share publicly, if you desire
- See every statistic you could think of for your hike
The great thing about the Gaia hiking app is that it’s cloud-based. You don’t need computer software or cables, just the app. It’ll work on any Android & iOS device.
You can find routes or create your own on your computer, and they’re automatically transferred to your phone. Any tracks that you record with your phone will be available on your computer.
One other thing I’ve noticed about Gaia, compared to some other hiking apps, is how smooth it is. The map is totally smooth while you pan it, and doesn’t blink as it does on some other apps.
Gaia is very intuitive and easy to use. Creating waypoints and tracks is easy, you can quickly switch between UTM & Lat/Long, and data is easily saved & organized.
Need more info than just a map? Gaia will also show you the weather forecast, show a radar overlay for storms, and give you the tides.
GaiaPro – extra subscription
- $5.99 per month
- $39.99 per year (40% discount over monthly)
A few more impressive features are available to you with a GaiaPro subscription.
Additional maps available for subscribers:
- MapBox Aerial
- MapBox Outdoors
- MapBox Streets
You can stack maps and adjust the opacity. From a SAR standpoint, this is cool because I can see both a topographic map and satellite imagery on top of each other when trying to find a road or trail that might not be mapped.
You can also create areas and calculate their size. This is another handy feature for SAR. I was recently assigned a very odd-shaped search area in some treacherous terrain. I drew the outline in Gaia – it told me that the area was 4.18 square miles. During the search, I referenced the map to see where I had been to ensure coverage of the entire area. I’m sure you could find some non-SAR uses for this feature.
I’m in the process of drawing drone no-fly zones around the Tahoe area (done!). The FAA app doesn’t include all restricted areas like wilderness areas and state parks. It’ll be nice to quickly glance at the map and immediately know if I can or can’t fly.
Land use is depicted by additional overlays. Is it public land? Are you in a designated hunting zone?
Using Gaia on the phone
All screenshots here are from the iPhone SE. Other phones and tablets will be slightly different.
Let’s look at the main map first. In this grab, I have the MapBox Aerial at 75% opacity with a USGS Topo as the base map, overlaid with a recorded track. You can control which maps and overlays you see in the menu accessed by the upper right corner of the app.
Much more is available when you go to the main menu, accessed in the upper left of the app. You can:
- see trip statistics
- check out the current and forecasted weather
- look at tides for coastal areas
- load/edit other routes, tracks, or waypoints
- get driving directions to the trail with your phone’s default navigation app
- export the track to GPX or other files compatible with different computer programs
I’ve minimized it in these screenshots because it shows my current location (eek!), but there are a few buttons at the bottom of the map screen. A Record button will initiate recording of a track, and a Camera button will access your camera to take a geotagged photo.
You can download maps to your phone by going to the Download Maps option in the Maps menu screen. Adjust the corners of the map and tell it which type of map you want! You can see how much space this will take on your phone in the upper right.
Using Gaia on the web
As mentioned earlier, the Gaia app and Gaia website are connected via the cloud.
Let’s look at this example.
Say I wanted to go backpacking to Star Lake. I go to gaiagps.com and pan to Star Lake, then turn on the Public Trips overlay. I can draw it on the map if no one has saved that route before, and it’s saved to my phone. If someone has shared this route, I can click on it to see information on the hike. Then I can save it to my phone if I want to use it. Here we see a Gaia user has already shared this route, so let’s check it out.
If it looks good to us we can just hit “Add to My Tracks,” and it shows up in our phone’s Tracks folder!
You can also create Routes and Waypoints on the web. You can’t create areas, but there’s a way around this. Just create a route and then when you go to that route on your phone you can convert it to an area at the bottom of the Trip Information screen.
Compatibility with Apple Watch
Gaia GPS is available for the Apple Watch! See where you’re at with literally a flick of the wrist!
Some commonly-used features are available on the three different screens this app has on the watch. This is excellent because you can do a lot of common tasks without taking your phone out!
- Start/Pause track recording
- Create waypoint
- View map (zoom in/out, locate position)
- Course & altitude information
Drawbacks of Gaia
This app is of no use to you when your phone is dead. Constant access to the GPS will drain the battery faster. But this is true of all phones & apps, not just Gaia. Ways to minimize this problem:
- Dim the screen
- Put the phone in Airplane mode to turn off other radios; GPS will still function
- Keep the phone warm
- Carry a portable power device
I’ve also noticed some instances of the connection between the watch app and the phone app terminating. This has prevented me from pausing a recording from my watch – I have to do it from the phone app. First world problems, amiright?
Gaia GPS for photographers
I’ve found this to also be a very useful GPS app for photography. Aside from the normal hiking functions…when I go out on a photo venture I hit the Record button. When I’m done, I stop recording. Then when I get home, I log on to Gaiagps.com and download that track, then import it into Adobe Lightroom, and voila, all of my photos have GPS coordinates written to their metadata. More information about that in this post.
Give Gaia a shot!
It’s the cleanest, most intuitive hiking app I’ve ever used. Definitely worth the price of a dinner out.
I’m curious to hear what you think.
Also curious if you think you know of something better! If you’ve used this app, how do you think it stacks up against others? I’ve been looking for the best hiking app for a long time, and I’ve stuck with this one!