GPS-Enabled Trail Guide Apps vs General Purpose GPS Navigation Apps

While General Purpose GPS Navigation Apps like Gaia GPS come with a lots of free maps, the maps are often not up-to-date and don't include the detailed information that hikers want to plan trips.
While general purpose GPS Navigation Apps like Gaia GPS come with a lots of free maps, the maps are often not up-to-date and don’t include the detailed information that hikers want to plan trips.

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 Trail Guides have preloaded Trails and Information
GPS Trail Guides have preloaded trails and information that hikers need to plan routes and follow trails

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.

Guthooks Guides

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.

Maplets includes freely downloadable maps from city, state, and national parks, bike trails, hiking trail, mass transit routes, ski resorts, you name it.
Maplets includes freely downloadable maps from city, state, and national parks, bike trails, hiking trail, mass transit routes, ski resorts, you name it.

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.

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  1. I have several apps on my phone but almost exclusively use GAIA. I also use Maps3D which are excellent. My experience is only in Washington and Oregon though and Gaia and Maps3D have been fine. Having said that though, my primary maps are paper type that I get laminated. Using all three together keeps me out of trouble.

  2. So the takeaway is that a trail guide and a trail map are still not the same thing. Got it.

  3. Call me old school…a paper USGS map with compass is primary and backed up by a GPS app if I really need it. A trail guide app, or paper, takes the fun out of it for me. Personal tate, but I want to find camps and water myself based on my map interpretation and not know what’s around the next bend.

    • A compass only works if your maps are accurate. Most printed USGS maps are way out of date at this point because they stopped checking all trail info and most of the pre-90′ detail due to budget constraints. For example, the USGS maps including in Gaia are NOT the latest National Map versions and date back to the 50’s (just like Garmin’s maps). That doesn’t matter that much if you can see the trail under your feet, but try it in winter when there’s 4′ of snow on the ground and it’s a very different story!

    • If you lose the trail or end up “lost” somehow under dense forest cover, how would you re-orient yourself with just a map and compass (no GPS)?

      My understand is you usually take a bearing to large, far off topographic feature and use three of those to triangulate your current position, but I can’t see that working when your visibility is limited to 50 meters due to trees and vegetation.

      • You only use triangulation when you have a clear line of sight, which happens rarely in dense forest. We never do it in the Whites. The way you reorient yourself is not to get lost in the first place. You maintain situational awareness constantly. If I did somehow get lost, you can recognize the landforms around you on the topo. But the point is not to ever get lost.

  4. I am a regular user of Gaia, and I have a fair amount of experience with the guthook apps both for the AT and the IAT. There is no comparison between them, the amazing amount of info available in the Guthook apps makes on trail navigation a cinch. The only drawback to the trail specific apps is that they do not have a lot of off trail detail if you need to bail and find an alternate route. That is when your paper map and/or more general app will be very valuable

  5. I use Gaia some. Starting in about 2 months, most of my hiking for the next 2 years will be in GSMNP. Can you recommend a specific App for the Park trails?

    • Zachary G Robbins

      I live in NC and I use Avenza Maps on my phone which is free. I would recommend downloading this over any paid app. You can download USGS quads for free that are specific for GSMNP, with GPS-enabled trail overlays. The NPS USGS maps have current trails, campsites, overlooks, campgrounds, and parking icons. For example, if you are looking for the Clingmans Dome NC-TN quad, you will find a free NPS Clingmans Dome 2017 quad. Every USGS quad that includes the national park has these free NPS maps. When you download the app, click on the cart icon to search for the quad name.

      • Zachary G Robbins

        You can also purchase National Geographic GPS enabled trail maps on Avenza if you like. However, I would recommend the local Pisgah Map Company which produces waterproof plastic maps and corresponding Avenza maps. Pisgah Map Company also has free maps, including one for Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness Areas and other random small parks like the Rough Creek Watershed. Additionally, on Avenza, there are excellent community updated maps for Linville Gorge Wilderness and Wilson Creek Wild and Scenic River. Both are updated with community input annually.

  6. Thanks! Good info

    • Fred Wijnen-Riems

      I use Gaia to keep track of my hikes, distance, elevation, etc. I also run Guthooks of whatever particular section of the Whites I am hiking. I found that Guthooks was useful and right this winter. Lost the trail a few times last Friday, without it I would still be wandering. Both apps are also good because they run even if your phone is on airplane, if you are concerned about battery life I carry a Anker Powercore battery that will charge my phone up to 3 times.

  7. I’ve found Maprika quite useful for navigating less popular parks and other areas.

    In essence, your GPS location shows up on a scanned image of the official park map, which often has trailheads, water, and other points of interest. No route planning features, but it’s great for getting oriented or unlost, and recording your track. It’s relatively easy to add a map if it’s not in Maprika’s library, or add the latest version.

    Perhaps Maprika is in a third category – neither a full-featured GPS-Enabled Trail Guide, nor a general purpose GPS navigation app based on topo maps.

  8. I like maps 3D and topo maps plus they have great maps the others i use are all trails view ranger and gaia but their maps aren’t as good . All these are free versions the best one was by Trimble but they stopped supporting the app. The have a great site to use called my topo which has the topo and satellite view and you can print the maps are like the usgs topo maps i like these apps because it shows speed and elevation the trail you make and more. Good for mountain biking too

  9. A much needed discussion and probably one that needs to be updated frequently.

    My issue is with trails near the AT, but not on the AT. Not always finding up-to-date information about wilderness areas state parks and national forests etc. I was interested in seeing others respond to what is working for them. There are a lot of confused hikers and hike leaders out there.. Hoping that apps can better note changes … eventually. There is so many app to download too. I have several on my phone. I know that I need to get a better grasp of what apps can best help and in what situation. Thanks.

  10. > 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’m curious which trail guide app you’re using for hiking in WMNF.

  11. Does anyone know anything about AllTrails ? You subscribe to their pay service and then get access to all the maps for all the hiking trails in all the national/state/local parks. Is their data any better than the free Avena data ?

    • They’re just reselling the maps published by the USGS which are freely available for download and viewable using Avenza. Your tax dollars pay for the USGS maps. Might as well use them. They’re free.

  12. I’ve also had a good experience with Avenza, but you do have to go through the effort of finding and downloading the correct maps, which wasn’t a problem for me once I got the hang of it. Was thinking of switching to GAIA since it is running a special but will hold off. As always, thanks Philip.

    • CalTopo is another good web service and app for pulling together USGS topics, Forest Service maps, satellite imagery, and other things. Most of this is free, with some additional sources available with an annual paid membership.

      The slickest feature if CalTopo is the ability to stack multiple layers from different sources, adjust transparency to blend them together, then print the resulting map. I like to use USGS topos as the base layer and superimpose MapBuilder Hybrid to clearly show updated trails and roads.

  13. Your statement in the opening paragraphs of this piece states : “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.” That is true but ignores all the free maps that can be downloaded onto your Garmin GPS. Sites like GMapTool and GPSFileDepot offer lots of options that are quite detailed — and free. Many are based on the Open Streets Maps. I’ve used them for bike touring all over the country (and Canada) and am starting to use them with my hiking GPS. When used in conjunction with Garmin’s Basecamp, they can produce very useful and interesting maps. No tool is perfect, but these are quite helpful.

    I’ll take rechargeable AA batteries (and a couple spares) over smartphone batteries anytime.

  14. Really helpful posts–thanks. I’m hoping to do the PNT this summer (depending on how and how soon things shake down). there is some bushwhacking involved, so I want to up my game a bit. I’m a map and compass guy too and the PNTA has terrific maps (unapologetic plug!). Still I want something to back them up. I’ve had some good experiences with Guthook, but I don’t to be dependent on something that has to be recharged. SO, agreeing with what someone said earlier, I want a GPS that runs on batteries. I’m looking at the Garmin e-trex 22 (?). I think that is what it’s called. Any thoughts?

    • Once you buy the etrex you also have to buy the maps. It’s more expensive than it looks.
      If the maps are good as you say, I’d just use a map and compass as my primary and then use a phone with Gaia GPS App as a backup if you need a position fix.

  15. Chuckaroo The Buckaroo

    I am researching phone apps for a friend. I do not own a smartphone, but my wife does and, as her tech geek, know my way around it just fine. My experience with her phone and the phones of MANY others I travel with is that they simply do not have what it takes, battery-wise, to act as a reliable navigation device for more than a couple of days—especially if the battery is a few years old. When my Garmin Montana runs out of batteries after about 15 miles of constant use, I simply slap in 3 more rechargeable Eneloop batteries or the recharged lithium battery that came with it. The Eneloops are good for many, many recharging cycles so are cost effective compared to regular Duracell or other brands. So, the ability to add new batteries that can be charged from any source (solar, 12 volt, AC) on the fly as needed is a HUGE consideration for me.

    As far as maps go, it has already been mentioned here that the Garmin devices can take maps and imagery from many sources, paid and free. Most come with 100k maps of the entire US pre-installed. To me, compared to a $40 membership for 1 year of premium service of Gaia, spending $80 ONE TIME on a Garmin Hunt Oregon chip is pretty affordable. I have full 24k map coverage of the entire state PLUS satellite imagery. Now, the imagery on the chip is nothing to brag about. But Garmin now offers higher-res satellite images via their free-for-one-year Birdseye service (images do not expire after the one year membership is up). In addition, the user can create custom maps from Google Earth or any other source available to the user (including scanned paper maps). Is Garmin’s database of roads and trails and other landmarks 100% accurate? Absolutely not. But over all they do a pretty good job and I find them accurate enough to get where I am going, on- or off-trail, and I travel mostly off-trail.

    As far as device cost goes, $400 (or less) for a dedicated device that has pre-installed 100k maps of the entire US, can accept micro SD cards of detailed maps of other locales including satellite images, can hold custom maps internally, that has a camera (a crappy one I’ll admit), that can operate for a day or day and a half on easily replaceable batteries obtainable at almost any general retail market, that easily records tracks and waypoints which are exportable to a computer plus— are shareable with other Garmin devices via Bluetooth, and has a water-resistant rugged exterior, seems pretty affordable. Especially when compared to mid- to upper-end smart phones that run over $1,000, require very expensive usage fees not to mention the subscription costs of the more fully-featured GPS apps and maps.

    At the end of the day, what is most important is not getting lost (by staying found), meeting your exploration goals, and keeping a record of your adventures. For me, my Montana GPS is a perfect match. I have a pre-paid flip phone for communication, a PLB for emergencies, and a better camera than on any phone. Besides, where I go there is very seldom any cell service. So why buy an expensive smartphone and pay all those monthly fees? And have you ever dropped a smartphone from horseback? Onto rocks? I have dropped my Montana and it survived just fine.

    No matter how you navigate—paper map and compass, dedicated GPS, or smartphone app—if ya don’t know how to use them and use them WELL, you’ll always be among the the list of possible search and rescue victims. I hope everyone who reads this post stays safe no matter where their adventures take them!

  16. Have you checked out Hiiker? Seems like it is only exclusive for long-distance trails but offers print maps. Not sure what it is like for US trails but has tons of UK trails.

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