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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 website is used for pre-trip planning and post-trip sharing, however we use 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.

Bird Guides

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.

techniques-iphone-sibleyThe Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America

Learn more at the App Store.

techniques-iphone-birdsaustraliaThe Morcombe & Stewart Guide to Birds of Australia

Learn more at the App Store.

techniques-iphone-soafricaSasol eBirds of Southern Africa

Learn more at the App Store.

techniques-iphone-collinseuropeCollins 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.

techniques-iphone-birdseyeBirdsEye 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.