If you’re a hiker, backpacker, mountain biker, skier, or anyone who’s outside frequently, you know you need a map. These days you have your paper maps and your phone apps like Gaia.
However you slice it, a good GPS app is one of the most important pieces of gear you can take on a hike or backpacking trip (along with a paper map for backup), and Gaia is one of the best hiking and backpacking apps on my list.
I personally like Gaia and have the paid version. It’s been reliable on and off trail. Honestly, it’s not perfect, no GPS app is, but it works for my needs 90% of the time and since I’m often responsible for other hikers and backpackers, I need something that works.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about the pronunciation. Named for the earth goddess, it’s pronounced Guy-Ah (hard g- like “what a guy”).
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Key Takeaways for Gaia App
There is a free version and two different paid versions. The paid versions are the only way to download maps for offline use.
The first paid version is Gaia Premium, the second is Gaia Outside+ which partners with Outside who purchased Gaia.
You can find deals for the paid versions.
Gaia’s search function to locate routes is not as good as AllTrails.
The user interface is not as intuitive as other GPS apps.
The routes are backed up with On Street Maps (OMS) for better accuracy than other apps.
You can track your route as you go and save it for future use.
Regardless of whether you’re using the free or paid version, you’ll be required to fill out a membership. This is where your routes and information will be stored.
The app is available for both Android and iPhones.
If you’d like to explore other apps, check out my comparison of AllTrails vs Gaia.
Why Users Like Gaia
There are a few reasons Gaia is one of the top GPS apps. It has several different map options including Topo, Native Land Territories, current wildfires, air quality, and smoke forecast.
But what it’s most known for is the accuracy of its maps and routes.
While the interface appears simple at first glance, accessing the more powerful features that really make the difference with Gaia can take a little time to learn.
You’ll also find it’s helpful to have basic knowledge in how maps work and know how to read a paper map.
That being said, pulling up a route and tracking where you are is easy.
Gaia has a decent search for finding your routes. It will locate the trail if it’s in the system and provide you with basic information, photos, and links to web pages with more information.
Tracking Your Route
Where Gaia shines is its route accuracy. Because it validates the information and has a variety of maps, you can feel confident you’re on track and mileage is correct.
Even if you couldn’t locate the trail prior to heading out, once there, pull it out and have it find your current location. You’ll likely find that it has the trail system you’re on. The downside is that you won’t have your route saved, but you will have a map of your current location and any trails nearby even without a signal.
This, to me, has been a powerful tool. I can’t tell you how many times another app has let me down and Gaia came to the rescue.
Additional Trail Features
One aspect of Gaia I really like is that it notes nearby attractions. I’ve found waterfalls, overlooks, odd rock formations, and other fun finds thanks to little notes and icons on the app.
And the trail names are in larger print. I don’t have to zoom in to find the name of the trail, it’s easily readable which is nice.
Areas Where Gaia Can Improve
Gaia is made for people who go off trail frequently and know how to use maps. They just want a map on their phone to make things easier. It assumes you are using other tools to plan your route and the app is there to help guide you in-field.
This means the user interface isn’t as intuitive and it may be more powerful than what most people need.
I would love a back button, or a menu that easily allows me to move from search to map and back. Currently, this is a little clumsy.
The search feature is clumsy. I’ve found trails eventually by typing in a variety of different names. Whatever database it’s using simply doesn’t have the power of other apps.
Free Features of Gaia
If you opt to try the free version of Gaia, there are several features to help you through your day. And it doesn’t hurt to ask or give the paid version as a gift. It’s one of my favorite backpacking gifts.
- Search for Trails
- Access to a variety of different maps to help plan your trip
- Record your route in real-time and share with friends.
- Back up your route on gaiagps.com
Gaia Premium and Gaia Outside+ Features
There are two different paid versions of Gaia, Gaia premium and Gaia Outside+. For some reason, when Outside purchased Gaia everyone on Premium got the Outside benefits for the same price. Then they added a new tier.
After three years, they haven’t raised my rate, but we’ll see if that continues. There are always deals going on so see if you can find one before upgrading.
- Ability to download offline maps.
This is key for anyone heading out. Cell signal is iffy in many outdoor areas and having a trail downloaded on your phone is a feature you’ll need.
- Access to additional maps including NatGeo Trails Illustrated, Private and Public land overlays, and US Hunting Maps.
- Apply overlays to maps including hill-shading, contour lines, slope angle, etc.
- Print maps from gaiagps.com
Gaia GPS Premium Outside+
The Outside+ Premium versions has everything in premium plus online courses through Outside Learn, access to Outside Watch TV, digital access to the Outside Network publications, and other benefits from the Outside Network.
Wrap Up: Gaia Review
Gaia is one of the most popular GPS apps for outdoor enthusiasts. If you want an app that can show you where you are and allow you to track your progress on a trail, this is a great option.
While it’s not as powerful for planning a trip with other apps, it makes up for this with its accuracy.
When it comes to in-field use, Gaia simply can’t be beat for its reliability.
Remember that your phone isn’t 100% reliable. You should always have a non-electronic dependent means of navigation.
And if it looks odd, check a second source. Don’t head away from the trail, bushwacking down a steep incline while a blazed trail is in front of you just because the app tells you too. Like all GPS apps, there’s some error and you should always use common sense and your own gut.