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Gaia GPS – Hiking, Offroad Maps
I have been studying iPhone map apps geared to hikers since 2011, and Gaia GPS has emerged as hands-down the best general purpose map app. We use it as the primary mapping tool on all of our trips. In addition to having all the necessary functionality, it has two features that set it apart from the other apps: a very rich selection of map sources and the ability to “download maps for a track”. The app is mature and not buggy, and the customer support and user documentation are top-notch. It works worldwide.
Gaia offers two different and integrated tools: an iPhone app, and a website.
- The iPhone app is used while on the trail; this is the app we love and recommend.
- The GaiaGPS.com website is used for pre-trip planning and post-trip sharing, however we use CalTopo.com exclusively for those purposes. Using the Gaia app without the website works just fine; that’s what we do. Users who do not already have pre-trip planning tools that they know and love can explore CalTopo and Gaia’s website and make their own choice about which meets their needs.
Maplets – The Offline Maps App
Nearly every park publishes a pdf map showing park boundaries, trails, roads, campgrounds, and points of interest. These will usually have the most current trail information and are often more detailed than the map views available in elsewhere. Maplets is a great app for finding and viewing these park maps. Most maps (those drawn to scale) will show your actual location on the map. Download maps when you have an internet connection for subsequent offline use. They have over twelve thousand maps in their inventory, but if the park you want is not already available, submit a request and they will attempt to add it. Maplets does not have a map of the world like Gaia, rather it offers thousands of individual maps. We use it in conjunction with Gaia, as they are different and complementary. In addition to park maps, Maplets has a rich inventory of maps of transit systems, bike routes, airports, museums, university campuses, etc. We love this app and it is easily worth a few dollars.
We use this every day when we’re hiking. It is the entire Wikipedia database, except images, offline. The world’s information, in your pocket. Amazing. Sometimes we just need to read about John Cleese’s Dead Parrot Sketch or look at Bob Dylan’s discography. The free version has a few articles so you can see how it works. Then you choose the size you want to purchase. We purchased the whole 5 gigabyte English language Wikipedia database, but if you are price or capacity sensitive you can opt for a subset of the database for as little as a few dollars. But the smaller database versions probably do not include the entry for the Quokka, and it would be sad if one walked into your camp and you couldn’t read about it.
Classic Weather HD
Of the seven weather apps we carry this is the one we use 95% of the time. It has no extraneous crap and clearly presents the forecast information we care most about: temps; precipitation likelihood and amount; wind direction and speed. It stores the entire forecast, including the hourly views, so the data remains available for offline use. Many of the weather apps we tested did not store the forecast for offline use, which is critical while backpacking. We use the feature-rich weather apps when we are in the midst of a storm and want to see animated satellite imagery, but that’s only possible with a data connection, so is not viable for backpacking. Well worth a few dollars.
We are avid birdwatchers, and we invest $20-30 for a good bird guide app for each location we visit. In addition to the images and range maps and textual information, these apps include very useful audio. These may be too expensive for people not very interested in birds, but absolutely worth it for anybody who likes them. Each of the apps listed below is the best available app for the applicable region.
The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America
The Morcombe & Stewart Guide to Birds of Australia
Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa
Collins Bird Guide – The Ultimate Field Guide for Britain & Europe
This app has a different user interface than the others so it took some time to get used to it. Now that we are familiar with it we like it very much. Of the four Europe bird apps we own, this has the best plates and its method of comparing similar species is better than any app for any continent. Learn more at the App Store.
BirdsEye Bird Finding Guide – Global Birding Tool
Uses Cornell’s eBird data to provide real-time information about bird sightings world-wide. Unlike the other apps described here, this one can only be used with internet access. Useful if you are looking for a particular species, checking to see whether what you think you saw is likely, or seeking a species checklist for a specific area. eBird is arguably the planet’s largest citizen science project and birders worldwide have adopted it. The app and most functionality are free, but you must pay a modest amount for access to all the data and features for a particular region. For example, access to all South America data is $2 per month, so if you are spending two months hiking in South America it would cost $4 to get full access. Based on our experience, all serious birders use this app extensively and we can’t overstate this app’s usefulness to birders, from beginners to professional field ornithologists. Learn more at the App Store.
I can’t believe you made me copy and paste “Quokka” into a new browser window to find out what it was! Cute.
Is Spot Buddy app for iOS still available? I can’t seem to find it in the App store.
Apparently Spot Buddy was temporarily removed from the App store but is back now.
Mike, I checked it on the 10th when you posted and I also didn’t see it in the App Store, but like you I see it there now. Go figure.
Hi Guys. Have you ever used any of these apps on a smartwatch or something similar? I know many of these apps work on android/ios phones but am unsure if I can get them working on smart watches.
Sorry, we are completely ignorant about smart watches and their associated apps.
Hi Amy and Jim, This post appears to be from a few years ago. Are you still recommending Gaia? Others that seem to be recommended in various spots on the internet are Topo+ and AllTrails. Any experience or thoughts about them vs Gaia? Thanks! Sandy
Sandy, thanks for the question. Yes we definitely still use Gaia while we are on the trail. It is by far the best application for the things we care about. In particular the selection of map sources and map overlays is second to none. There are about 20 different map sources that we use regularly, including things like fire history, fire activity, private land boundaries and ownership, Verizon Cell Coverage, and Historic 1900 USGS maps. Gaia is not our primary tool for trip planning, but that may be simply because we have other tools we know and love and have not spent much time investigating the gaia website’s trip planning tools in order to compare them to the tools we use.
Sandy: I would like to add a bit of context to Amy’s reply. We use GoogleEarth and Caltopo as our primary tools for planning routes prior to a walk. Each app has its strengths and weaknesses so files get swapped back and forth many times. During trip planning, we use many internet sources to research trip concepts and download gpx files of possible routes. We import these files into GE and Caltopo and then check them against both OpenStreetMap files and satellite imagery to confirm a possible trail actually exists as mapped. Often gpx files of the same route from different sources will not match each other. A lot of time is then spent modifying the downloaded gpx tracks creating our our route based on personal preferences, published trip reports, and other available outside route information.
When we have a final version of a planned route, we transfer the gpx data into Gaia GPS and use the “download maps for track” feature to save maps for offline use. We usually save 5 or 6 map sources for each trip, such as high resolution satellite imagery, USGS, one or more renderings of OpenStreetMap, and sometimes land ownership information. Here Gaia shines because it has data in so many formats and from so many sources, including many foreign mapsets. Sometimes we use Caltopo to make paper maps as well as that app has an excellent printed map creation tool. Gaia is the only electronic navigation tool other than GPS that we use while on the trail.
Dear Amy and Jim,
Thank you so much! for the detailed response. That amount of detail is exactly what I was looking for. 🤓🧐 We are heading out on a variation of the SEKI Big loop in a couple weeks, and have the GTA in our sights. I so appreciate your generosity, attention to detail, and articulate communication skills.
Hi James and Amy;
Thanks for your comments. We recently stared using the CalTopo iphone app in parallel with Gaia. That may well be our future favorite. More on that later.