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GaiaGPS App Setup and Battery Management Tips

Most commercial paper maps and this Caltopo map list the map datum used to generate them. An incorrect datum, can put you hundreds of meters from your actual position.
Most commercial paper maps and this Caltopo map (above) list a map datum. An incorrect datum, can put you hundreds of meters from your actual position.

GaiaGPS is the smartphone navigation app that I teach students how to use, in addition to map and compass, in the Backcountry Navigation classes I teach. GaiaGPS works on iPhone and Android smartphones, which makes it easy to use in groups that use a wide variety of devices. It’s also the best smartphone GPS app available for the USA, in my opinion.

When setting up GaiaGPS for the first time, its important to make sure that the app is set up in agreement with the compass and paper maps you bring with you on a trip. For example, if you’re using magnetic bearings on your compass, you want to make sure that the GaiaGPS compass is also using magnetic bearings and not true north bearings. Similarly, if your map is based on the WGS84 or NAD27 datum, GaiaGPS should be configured the same way. There are also several ways to make your cell phone battery last (much) longer when using GaiaGPS, which I explain below.

GaiaGPS Setup and Phone Configuration

The following are iPhone-specific tips, but the recommended methodology is device independent. I recommend you get in the habit of following these steps for any hikes where you use GaiaGPS.

Application Setup

When you start up GaiaGPS, click on the top left icon and select the “Settings” icon on the screen to setup the app. This will bring up the settings screen below.

It's important to make sure that your map, compass, and GAIA app settings are in synch with one another.

    It’s important to make sure that your map, compass, and GAIA app settings are in synch with one another.

Under “UNITS”:

  • select the datum used by your map, either WGS84 or NAD27 (which are the only two datums supported by GaiaGPS). If your maps don’t match those two datums, you should consider getting one that does. If you use Caltopo to generate your own maps, you can chose which of these two datums it uses when printing.
  • select the type of unit, metric or imperial, so that Gaia matches the contours (feet or meters) displayed on your map.

Under “COMPASS”:

  • select the north reference to match what you’re using on your compass, either magnetic, or true, if for example, you’ve configured a declination adjustable compass to compute add or subtract the declination for you.
  • set the map arrow to compass. This means that the map Gaia displays will turn as you turn. This makes it easier to match the map to the what you see in the world and is more intuitive.

Under “POWER SAVING”:

  • select no GPS until activated
  • select disable altitude lookup

There are the most important settings to initialize in GaiaGPS and it’s a good habit to check them at the start of each hike.

Phone Setup

In addition to setting up GaiaGPS, you need to make sure that the Location Service capability is activated on your phone. This makes it possible for GaiaGPS to access the GPS receiver on your phone.

Turn on your phone's Location Services, so GaiaGPS can access your phones GPS receiver.
Turn on your phone’s Location Services, so GaiaGPS can access your phones GPS receiver.

Battery Management Tips

When using GaiaGPS in the field, there are a number of things you can do to preserve your battery. The following are iPhone-specific tips, but the recommended methodology is device independent. I recommend you get in the habit of following these steps for any hikes where you use GaiaGPS.

Follow these steps to prolong battery life when using GaiaGPS on the iPhone.
Follow these steps to prolong battery life when using GaiaGPS on the iPhone.
  1. Run GaiaGPS in Offline Mode, unconnected to your cell phone and data network. (See this post for detailed instructions about how to download maps to GaiaGPS for offline use.)
  2. Turn on your cell phone’s Airplane Mode.
  3. Turn off all App notifications, including GaiaGPS.
  4. Under Battery, turn on “Low Power Mode”
  5. Reduce screen brightness as low as possible and set an short auto lock interval.
  6. Don’t use the tracking feature in GaiaGPS unless you need it or want to create a track of your hike. When hiking off-trail, tracking can be useful especially for backtracking, but if you’re on a trail marked on your map, it’s not really necessary. GaiaGPS can show you your current position.
  7. Close the compass bar in GaiaGPS so the app doesn’t compute your compass direction using Location Services
  8. In cool weather, put your phone into a pocket close to your body, so your phone stays warm.

How long will your battery last? It depends, but I can get my iPhone 6 battery to last for multiple days following this methodology, but I have to be disciplined about not using it for anything else, like taking notes, reading, photos, etc. However, I also carry a backup USB battery on most trips where I may need to recharge my phone’s battery.

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17 comments

  1. While I like Gaia GPS, and agree it is the best smartphone app, it pales in comparison to a stand alone unit like the Garmin Oregon 600. With user replaceable lithium batteries, the Garmin will run for days before it drains. Plus, if your out in the field and depending on the smartphone to get you where you want to go, you need to carry a backup battery pack, which negates the extra weight of the Garmin. Also, the Garmin 600 has really come down in price. I got mine for around $200. Lastly, a smartphone is such a multi-functional item, it’s a shame to use it exclusively as a gps unit. The last episode of American Gods is too tempting to pass when your cooped up in your tent in the rain!

    • Why buy another device when you have to carry a phone already and all the maps come for free. Garmin’s just don’t make any economic sense anymore. Gaia is easy to learn because it’s a phone app and Gaia does everything I need.

      • I’ve been using my Garmin GPSMap 62 for navigation and tracking, but I agree with you, the Gaia experience is far better. I like having tracks after my hike, but may have to live without it as tracking could kill my battery quickly.

      • It doesn’t kill it that fast. I make tracks all the time on day hikes. It’s multi-day hikes where you need to watch your energy consumption.

  2. OK, getting there, but another dumb question. What is this WGS84 vs. NAD27 thingy and where would you find it ?

  3. Under Battery Management Tips, Tip #7 advising to close compass bar. Was is compass bar and how do you close it?

    • The compass bar is the small rectangular window displayed at the top of the current map which contains the degrees representing compass bearings. Tap it with your finger and it will close. Top open it, tap the little blue arrow on the right side of the screen.

  4. I have been using Backcountry Navigator on Android and love the app.

  5. Great article. I’ve had GaiaGPS for almost a year now and love it, but haven’t delved very deep into the bells and whistles. I use it mainly for tracking, but it does so much more. I just need to buckle down and do a youtube tutorial or something.

  6. I like the snap to grid feature when planning your trail route. Also when your cell phone loses an internet connection google maps will not function, but Gaia gps will locate you on preloaded maps.

  7. I use other map apps but i carry a small goal zero solar panel to charge a battery for charging my phone it’s light and small but there needs to be sun which sometimes in the mountains might not happen

  8. I used the GAIA app this weekend on my Android. My smartphone is no longer that smart because it is nearing the end of its life and experiencing the usual geriatric problems – charging port problems and poor battery life. I was mostly testing the battery usage of the app in airplane mode. I used the instructions above and was blown away by how little power it used. Over a 6.5 hour hike, it used about 15% of the battery’s power. If the phone was newer, I expect we could be using this for several days. I hadn’t loaded a tile with the trails, but I am looking forward to my next trip to try that feature. My Garmin eTrex has served me well, but I think I see GAIA as a replacement.

    • It’s a wonder, isn’t it? I’m so glad I’ve been able to turn you onto this after all you’ve taught me over the years.
      Confession. You once wrote on my website, something along the lines…”This isn’t the stone age. We should use new navigation technology if it’s available”..referring to your Garmin GPS. That comment led me to explore Gaia and the GPS phone apps. You continue to inspire.

  9. I use Gaia on the PCT with Half miles maps to create the trail on Gaia. It has worked well over the last year.
    I will continue my hike in July.

    That said, I don’t understand Gaia tracking or how to turn it off or even if that is a good idea for me.
    Or what I need to keep or save to run Half Miles maps or other overlay type maps.

    I see hundreds if not thousands of waypoints on the maps page in Gaia gps.

    In tracks I have all Half Miles tracks for all of California and will be using them Kennedy Meadows to the Oregon Border.

    I did not set this up, it was done for me and honestly I don’t know where to go for help to understand it.

    Bill

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