Gaia GPS Hiking App 2020 | The Best Gets Better

It’s no mystery that Gaia GPS is the best hiking navigation App. It blows away other phone navigation Apps as well as handheld GPS units. But the Next Gen GAIA GPS Hiking App is vastly improved. The new GAIA maps are stunningly sharp and legible. It is much faster and easier to use. And possibly the best feature of Next Gen GAIA GPS is the full line of National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps. They are the most trusted and highly-rated maps for America’s top outdoor destinations.

Next Gen Gaia GPS Hiking App

2020 Specialty Maps

Additions of specialty maps like Cell Phone coverage Maps (to see if you’ll have service where you’re going) and Apple CarPlay Maps (to guide you to hiking trailheads) are likely the biggest recent improvements for 2020.

2020 International Maps

And GAIA’s list of international maps like Span, France, Norway, Sweden, etc. continues to grow as well.


Highly Regarded National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps

As you can see in the lead photo for this post, you get ALL the National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps with your GAIA Premium Membership! These maps are the gold standard for our National Parks. And you get the exact same level of detail and quality in GAIA GPS on your phone as paper versions of National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps. This is a game-changer for electronic maps and navigation in National Parks.

Tutorial | How to Use GAIA GPS + Your Phone as the Best Hiking GPS

Be sure to checkout our tutorial,  How to use Gaia and your Smartphone as the Best Hiking GPS to learn how to get the most of this amazing app. It will change how you navigate hiking in the backcountry and how you use electronic maps.

Video | GAIA GPS Navigation North of the Arctic Circle in Alaska

How we used GAIA GPS to navigate 10 days in the roadless/trailless Alaska’s Brooks Range.  Includes what maps we used and why. And the Gates of the Arctic is just part of an Alaskan roadless and trailess wilderness so vast and devoid of humans that it’s almost incomprehensible. Your navigational tools & skills need to be up to the task!

Overview of Next Gen Gaia GPS

In the past three years we’ve extensively used versions of the Next Gen Gaia GPS [now just plain GAIA GPS] in Patagonia, the jungles of Columba, the mountains of Cuba, technical canyoneering in Utah, all the way to north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. Here’s our take of the pros and cons of the app that turn your iPhone or Android phone into a superb hiking GPS.

Updated July 2020

Additions of specialty maps like Cell Phone coverage Maps and Apple CarPlay Maps are likely the biggest recent improvements for 2020

Pros

  • National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps available. The most trusted and highly-rated maps available for America’s top outdoor destinations. They give you current trails, distances, and other official park info. Vs. USGS TOPO maps where this info is 50 years out of date or just missing.
  • New vector-based maps look sharp and beautiful at every zoom level, with incredible legibility! The new vector map engine is much faster than the old raster-based one.
  • Fast download and smaller map file sizesDownload Yellowstone in 33 seconds.. January 2020 map files are much, much smaller, saving space on your phone and with faster download times.
  • Great battery life. In non-tracking mode, I can get 7+ days of average GPS use before recharging.  But more impressive, I can even run it in full tracking mode at around 2% battery drain per hour! That means I can generate 4+ days of beautifully detailed GPS tracks before I need to recharge my iPhone. See more detail how to best manage battery life…
  • A more intuitive and faster user interface with icon-based top and bottom control bars. (There is also an option to close all menus down to get maximum map area! See screenshot below.)
  • Worldwide basemap included so you are never without at least one map type!
  • Powerful search function that allows you to quickly jump to a location like “Yosemite,” or “Half Dome.”
  • Great Trip Stats Bar. At a glance know your mileage, speed, altitude and more

For more information see: How to use Gaia on your Smartphone as the Best Hiking GPS

GAIA Maps

Start of the JMT in Yosemite. Screenshot of NG Trails Illustrated Map in GAIA. [click to enlarge and see the full detail]

Cons

  • I am not a big fan of the folder management system for maps, tracks, and waypoints. It could use organizational improvements. I would like an “active folder” function where all the new tracks, waypoints, and maps are automatically added to it. And it needs a way to bulk select and manipulate waypoints. Moving them into folders one by one doesn’t cut it.
  • If you have a large inventory of maps and switch phones, the GAIA will attempt to automatically download all of them. Many users may be fine with this. Some may want more control to only download a few of the maps that were on your old phone. [A workaround: You can stop the automatic download, delete the old maps you don’t want, and then resume the download.]
GAIA GPS App | Picture of Hiking GPS Screen on iPhone

Showing the new user interface with icon-based top and bottom control bars. And the excellent Trip Stats bar. [click to enlarge]

Essential Info for GAIA Hiking GPS

gaia gps membership

GAIA GPS Membership

The new Gaia GPS has a free trial and two price levels. Basic Gaia GPS Membership $19.99/year and a Premium Membership $39.99/year.

  • The Member Level lets you use the full app, and all but a few map sources – try it free for 7 days.
  • The Premium Member Level gives you access to sources like National Geographic Trails Illustrated, international maps, and other specialized maps.

GAIA Maps | So Many Great Maps to Choose From

One of the great strengths of GAIA is the wealth of maps available, free with your subscription (depending on level). Some of my favorites are:

  • National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps | the reference standard and most accurate for National Park trails and regulations, use zones, etc.
  • GAIA TOPO Maps Excellent vector-based topo maps | super fast & small file size!
  • USGS TOPO Maps | the standard for off-trail travel)

Other GAIA Maps

  • Satellite Imagery
  • Cell phone coverage Maps. Know if you’ll have service where you’re going.
  • GAIA with Apple CarPlay Maps. Quickly find and get directions to hiking trailheads (and then use GAIA trails maps to navigate your hike!)
  • USFS Recreation Sites Map | Quickly Find Campgrounds and Trails

International GAIA maps

  • New Zealand TOPO
  • A number of international, official country maps for Europe. E.g. Spain IGN Topo, Swiss Topo, Norway Topo, Sweden Topo, Finland Topo, Luxembourg Topo, France IGN Topo, Austria Topo, etc.

Disclaimer

This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products are listed. For product reviews: unless otherwise noted, products are purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.

39 replies
  1. Jay Menna
    Jay Menna says:

    Alan:

    I used Gaia and you GPX track to Do the hundred kilometers of new Patagonia national park. We were 6000 miles from home and these two things were all we needed. Thanks.

    Any chance you share the GPX track for this recent trip in Gates of the Arctic?

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Jay, glad Parque Patagonia worked out for your. Still thinking about the Gates of the Arctic and whether I would post a route. Subscribe to my site email and you will be notified if a guide comes out. Best, -alan

      Reply
  2. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Alan, I agree that Gaia GPS is a great app, but I’m curious to know if you’ve tried Topo Maps+ from Glacier Peak Studios? I find it to be superior to Gaia in many ways, and it has some great features for backpackers, like being able to tap on a trail, see your progress along the trail, and see trail elevation changes, for example. The Natural Atlas map that is available in Topo Maps+ is very nice, too. If you haven’t tried it, I’d urge you to give it a look, as I find myself using it more than Gaia these days.

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Jeff, will need to take a closer look at the Topo Maps+ feature to “[be] able to tap on a trail, see your progress along the trail.” Best, -alan

      Reply
  3. John
    John says:

    Hi Alan,
    Would you recommend Gaia for NH,VT, and ME. Currently peak bagging the New England 67. If so, which maps would you recommend down loading.
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      John, GAIA would be best. I would suggest, USGS TOPO and GAIA TOPO map layers. The latter because it has more recent use trails (likely there are trails to the top of your 67s that are not on the USGS TOPO). Also checkout our video https://youtu.be/ootF_gr7h4g that covers map layers. Good climbing. Best, -alan

      Reply
  4. Speedbump
    Speedbump says:

    Backcountry Navigator has a one time fee. It has Open Cycle, Caltopo, Thunderforest, and some more maps. You can download maps for use in airplane mode.
    I know this app is not as good as GAIA, but might be considered if on a budget.

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Yup Speedbump, BC Navigator is going to be adequate when on a super budget. And Open Cycle, Caltopo Maps will do in a pinch. That being said, we aren’t talking a ton of money. Most folks can afford a few $32 a year for the better maps and higher functionality of GAIA. After all what is your efficiency and accuracy of navigation worth? Best, -alan

      Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Robert, like almost every every other App and software, GAIA is now on an annual subscription model. It’s $32 with the discount from Adventure Alan. That’s 20% off the regular price of $40. Best, -alan

      Reply
  5. Marilynn
    Marilynn says:

    I use the GAIA GPS app. We are going to hike Machu Picchu and wanted to know if the app can be used there.

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Marilynn and apologies for the late reply. I’ve been guiding Alaska’s Brooks Range for the last two weeks and will soon head back in to Alaskan mountains for another two weeks. Yes, GAIA will work in Machu Picchu. I suggest downloading the following maps sources and see what works best, OpenCycleMap HD, MapBox Outdoors HD, and Gaia Topo. Right now I can see that OpenCycleMap HD has the basic trails around Machu Picchu. Best to look at all three before you go and see and see which works best. Hope this helps, and wishing you a great trek. Warmest, -alan & alison

      Reply
  6. Chad
    Chad says:

    Hey Alan,
    I cant find a place to leave a comment on the battery life with GAIA GPS article you just updated for 2018. I noticed there was no mention of Power Saver Mode (or whatever its called) on iOS or how since the iPhone X is OLED and the blacks take no power to display if you put your phone in Classic Invert and Grayscale color filter under Display accommodations and a white(AKA Black background) how those would affect the battery life? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Chad, I do see that there is a problem with the comments section. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll have to look into that. Not entirely sure about the battery savings of the configuration you suggest. Maybe I’ll try carve out some time and investigate it. But honestly, the iPhones (and other smartphones) have gotten a lot better about managing battery life. And when I am getting ~2% battery drain in tracking mode (almost all due to the GPS) and 1-3% per day when in sleep mode and not tracking, I haven’t had a lot incentive to find ways to better that. But maybe I should. At the very least I should see how battery save mode affects battery drain and accuracy when in tracking mode. All the best, -alan

      Reply
      • Chad
        Chad says:

        Thanks for the quick reply. Now that I think about it the grayscale thing and inverting colors might be a little too crazy… LOL at that point it would seem like I would be regressing to my base model Garmen eTrex… but the power saver mode is pretty cool and if it helps squeak out a little bit more battery if all you’re doing is tracking and taking pictures then it would be worth it probably.

        Also, I’m going to be going on a four day camping trip if I understand correctly let me know if I have this power saving set up correctly according to article. I do prefer to record the track constantly and I do have a couple little battery packs to compensate for the constant tracking.
        iPhone X
        1. Go into settings and turn on airplane mode ( which also turn off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi )
        2. Manually lower the brightness of the screen to the lowest I can stand, or turn
        auto brightness on.
        3. Close all background running apps.
        4. Turn off all unnecessary background tracking ( although it’s usually a bother I just leave it how it set up. And not open any unnecessary apps and close them immediately in the app switcher when I’m done using them )
        5. Turn on power saver mode
        6. Pause the gps tracking when we stop for the night.

        That combined should get me roughly 2% battery drain per hour correct? I do like to take a lot of pictures so I know that will drain as well. Any suggestions?

        Reply
        • Alan Dixon
          Alan Dixon says:

          That sounds about right. Altho here a few differences:

          I am currently not putting the phone into battery save mode.
          I leave bluetooth on for my inReach with no ill effects.
          You will likely need to bring screen brightness up a bit in the middle the day or you may not be able to read it.

          Finally I suggest you test your phone with whatever configuration you chose for a 3-4 hour hike and check your battery drain results when in tracking mode. Have a great trip. Warmest, -alan

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Good Q Don. And yes there are a number of worldwide maps. OpenHikingMapHD is worldwide and likely the best. It’s similar to Google Terrain but it has more info. E.g. I was looking at the very new Nat. Park in Patagonia and it has a number of the Parks’s standard trails on it. There’s also the similar MapBox Outdoors HD, and OpenCycleMap HD both of these also have a number of hiking trails.

      I will note that none of these worldwide map sources are as detailed as say USGS Topo maps for the US (altho they sometimes have more up-to-date feature info) or something like the British Ordinance Survey maps for England. For that you’ll need to go to the local country with the few country exceptions noted in this post and the iPhone GPS Post.

      Hope this helps. Warmest, -alan

      Reply
  7. joe anderson
    joe anderson says:

    My iPad was repossessed or will be within a week. I have/had the Gaia program download on it and have a number of tracks on the device. Can I transfer the program to my new device or do I need to purchase a new app for the new device? It is not so much the money issue, it is the tracks and the waypoints that I am going to lose.

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Joe, synch your GAIA with the cloud (it’s a GAIA option).
      Then, when you install the GAIA App on your new device and login it you can synch all your data to your new device. Wishing you the best, -alan

      Reply
  8. Hunter Hall
    Hunter Hall says:

    Hi Alan,


    I bought the Suunto Amit Peak 3 and have been playing around with it for the past week along with Gaia GPS, which I have been using for a few years now.

    There’s some pretty major discrepancies between the two that I’ve noticed thus far.

 Primarily, distance and altitude on the exact same hikes at the exact same locations is significantly different.

Take a look at these photos which I have put next to each other that were snapped at the exact same time and place.

    Still around 6K’ altitude, and a whole mile MORE than Gaia GPS. 

I am using the “Fused Alti” function on the watch and have calibrated it the couple of times now.



    The difference in altitude has consistently been around 100’ to 150‘ between the two devices. Today however, Suunto said I was at 6000 feet when I was really closer to 600’. 

Also, the distance on the exact same 3 or 4 mile hike was a whole mile difference. Huge variation considering it was only three, or at most 4 mile hike.



    Any ideas?

    Check out these photos: http://bit.ly/suuntovsgaia

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hunter there are going to be some measurement differences between the Ambit and GAIA. I have noticed them as well. And have even done some tests to determine what’s going on. In general tho the two have agreed within 10% on mileage. Mostly based on where they are plotting locations (accuracy) and the frequency of point recording.

      I happened to have used both today on a moderate hike.
      GAIA 8.7 miles 2450 ft elev. gain
      Ambit 8.3 miles 2630 ft elev. gain
      Personally, I am not going to worry about those differences.

      1) ELEVATION – GAIA is likely doing elevation lookups based on position and 3d earth terrain/altitude models. But the Ambit is using a barometric altimeter with all that entails. So not at all surprised that there are differences. 2) DISTANCE – GAIA waypoints (on my iPhone 6+ and X) are more accurate and placed more frequently. The Ambit in best accuracy (low battery life) mode is very close to GAIA in waypoint locations and accuracy. But I if I set it to “good” accuracy (better battery life) then it is less accurate in placing waypoints and therefore, less accurate on mileage. And this is the accuracy mode I usually use.

      But the only way to truly tell what is going on between the two units to to export and compare their .gpx track filex on something like caltopo.com. Hope this helps. Warmest, -alan

      Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi P,
      There are a number of World Maps available in Gaia. And they work pretty durn good! The new vector based HD versions are very good. They are all variants of Open Cycle Maps, Open Street maps, etc. that are essentially the Wiki’s of online maps. They have contours, features, and a surprising number of trails. I use them whenever I can’t get the “official” county maps online. You can see what they look like here https://www.opencyclemap.org/. All the best, -alan

      Reply
  9. John Godino
    John Godino says:

    Hey Alan,
    This is a very nice complete to get concise report of the new and improved version of this wonderful app.
    Here’s another nice thing that Gaia just added – a new map layer called open topo.
    It’s based on Open Street Map, which means it has a similar look and feel to Open Cycle, but it has several significant cartographic improvements.
    – Better shaded relief
    – Up-to-date trails
    – International coverage
    – Better use of colors and symbology to show features like roads and trails.

    Check it out and let us know what you think!

    It looks like they just added it in the last few days, showing once again the development team is commitment to constant improvement of this app. I’d be curious if you give it a look and share here what you think.

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Thanks for the heads up John, and indeed some of the “Open” maps provided by Gaia are invaluable for international travel. I have used them extensively where sometimes even paper maps are difficult to obtain. Best, -alan

      Reply
  10. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    Hi Alan, I agree, a very significant improvement. Printing maps out for an upcoming Pyrenees trip, it is astonishing how much detail you get from French IGN maps for the trickier bits.

    I am not a great fan of the “snap to trail feature” of the route planning routine. It appears to snap mostly to trails that are not going to be the trails or routes that I want to hike.

    Thanks for the response to John above, the “baseball stats” were driving me batty and I had not yet found the place where this little trick was described in the documentation, such as it is. Getting rid of that bar cleans up the screen nicely.

    Thanks for all you do on this site.

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      You are quite welcome Thomas. Have a great trip in the Pyrenees. It’s on our short list–Atlantic to Mediterranean. Best, -alan

      Reply
  11. John
    John says:

    Hi Alan, thanks for the review! I’m checking out the new features with the trial, and was wondering how you close all menus to max out the map area like on your image. I still have the record/altitude/distance, etc info bar showing when I hit maximize. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      It’s a long press on the “expand/collapse” icon, 2nd from the left on the top menu. This will reveal a new menu box. In it you can display or not display things like the compass and trip stats bar. Best, -alan

      Reply
  12. Matthew Herron
    Matthew Herron says:

    Just thought I’d let you know that I bought this on your recommendation. I have been using Backcountry Navigator, so I’ll be interested to see how this compares. Base map and vector maps seem like big pluses; I can’t wait to try it out.

    Reply
  13. Cathie
    Cathie says:

    Thanx Alan; how do you keep your cell phone charged? Im hiking the PCT and the solar chargers out there are too heavy and so I won’t be able to keep it charged to use this.

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Cathie see How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS and Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear. They will have all the info you need. Have a great PCT hike. Best, -alan

      Reply
    • Adrian Casamonte
      Adrian Casamonte says:

      Oh hike … so much time without doing a good one :( ! … btw: this rugged phones were great for its time; expensive but worth it… ruggeds were rare not so much time ago,,, Have you seen the agm line ? They remember me this one: but since they are waaaaaay cheaper but still pretty good and waterproof ! ip68 and now the x1 has a Gold version or so with a 5k battery :O Nice article! TY for sharing

      Reply
      • Julián Casamonte
        Julián Casamonte says:

        With my agm x1 i can use as a GPS on my hikes without needing a weatherproof case and still have battery left over; you know: rugged phone! The cool thing about it is its price: really cheap for the specs. Well, great note ! Thank you for sahring

        Reply

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