Phone-based navigation apps like Gaia GPS, ViewRanger, and Backcountry Navigator are an incredible value compared to the old-school GPS-units sold by Garmin because they include a wide variety of highly detailed maps for free. Garmin still charges you extra money to get high resolution maps, although they still don’t offer anywhere near the variety provided in most phone navigation apps.
But phone-based GPS apps have their own set of limitations and often aren’t the best GPS navigation tool if you’re hiking on a well-known trail or within a well-known trail system. While Gaia GPS (as an example) is a very powerful GPS navigation tool, it’s arguably too map-centric and lacks a lot of the guidebook-type of information that hikers and backpackers want about water sources, campsites, views, trailhead parking lots, local transportation, lodging options, and local businesses. When push comes to shove, Gaia GPS really just a less expensive alternative to a Garmin GPS receiver, but it doesn’t really make navigation or trip planning that much easier.
GPS-Enabled Trail Guides
If you hike within a well-defined trail system or along a National Scenic Trail, you’re often better off using a navigation app that’s published specifically for that area, with preloaded maps, that are curated by the app publisher to ensure they’re accurate, up-to-date, and annotated with important information like water sources, campsites, campgrounds, views, waterfalls, lakes and ponds, and trailheads. You can think of them as GPS-Enabled Trail Guides.
One benefit of using a GPS-Enabled Trail Guide is that you can load an entire trail system at once so that it’s resident on your phone in the app, instead of downloading individual maps every time you want to take a new hike. Plus, trail updates and reroutes are automatically propagated to the app when they become available. For example, I hike and backpack on the trail system in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest and have an GPS-Enabled Trail Guide loaded on my phone that has the entire trail system preloaded, so I can pull it out whenever it’s needed without any advance preparation. I still use Gaia GPS to navigate to places when I’m bushwhacking (hiking off-trail) where a GPS-enabled topographic map comes in handy, but Gaia’s trail map data is simply not as up to date or complete as the trail information in my GPS-Enabled Trail Guide app.
Where can you find GPS-Enabled Trail Guides? I’m a big fan of the GPS-enabled Trail Guides published by Atlas Guides and Guthook’s Guides. They have excellent coverage of US National Scenic Trails and trail systems, available for iPhone and Android, with a growing list of international titles in the UK and beyond.
If you’re just dipping your toes into the GPS Smartphone Navigation space and you’re primarily an on-trail hiker, I recommend you start with one of these GPS-Enabled Trail Guides. They’re a lot less confusing to use, correlate well with locally produced paper-based maps, and provide much more comprehensive planning information than a general purpose mapping app like Gaia, ViewRanger, or Backcountry Navigator.
If a GPS-Enabled Guide is not available for the trails where you hike, check out an app called Maplets (see my overview), which supports GPS navigation and such basic functions as current location, way points, and route creation without the learning curve associated with of an higher-powered, general-purpose navigation toolkit.