I’m often asked whether Smartphone GPS Navigation Apps like Gaia GPS can work when they’re not connected to a cell phone network. Most Apple and Android Smartphones purchased in the past 3-4 years can operate in what’s called offline mode without access to to WiFi or a cell phone network. This is because GPS signals operate on a different network that can be received by the GPS-chip in your phone, even when you’re in power-saving airplane mode. You just have to activate the setting on your phone that allows your GPS App to access “Location Services” under the Privacy Setting on iPhones, or the equivalent on Android.
Offline Mode Preparation
For offline mode to work, you need to download the map you want to use for the area you plan to hike beforehand. It’s faster to download this data while you’re connected to a WiFi network, but it will also work over a cell phone network. You’re not actually downloading the entire map, but the region you plan to travel through. When you start hiking, you’ll load the region into the Gaia GPS app, so it will be resident in memory.
In Gaia GPS, this is an easy process. Open the app and navigate to the area where you plan to hike. Click on the rightmost “layer” icon on the top right and choose the map that you plan to use for your hike. I almost always use the USGS basemap although the USFS 2016 map has a little less clutter and can be easier to read (unless the clutter contains useful navigation information.)
Click “Done” one the map source window and return to the map view. Tap the circle icon with the plus in it to load the Download Maps dialog.
Use your finger to resize the area covered by the pink box, click save, and give it a name.
That’s all the prep you need to store a map for offline use.
At the Trailhead
When you get to the trailhead, start up the Gaia GPS app and load this map into your phone. You can be offline when you do it, since it’s already stored on your phone.
Bring up the map and click on the saved folder at the bottom of the screen. This will show you all the saved maps in the phone. You can collect quite a few and download far larger areas if you need to.
Click on the map you want to load. Then click on the three small circles in the right hand corner of the screen to bring up the “Show on Main Map” popup menu. Select that item and it will load the map for use.
That’s all there is to it.
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Written 2017. Updated 2018.Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the affiliate links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.
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