I’ll start with a disclaimer: I believe you should first have and know how to use a map and compass when backcountry hiking. The advantage of a map and compass is that it never needs batteries, works anywhere, and is simple to use after you learn some basics. With that being said, I do carry a map, compass, AND a GPS. I try my best to navigate by map and compass and just use the GPS for data collection which I’ll explain later.
An often asked question is which GPS or GPS Application I use on my smartphone or which do I recommend. For the record, where I normally hike is a National Forest with absolutely no/very little cell coverage, heavy canopy especially during the spring/summer, and is riddled with deep canyons which makes Cellular coverage extremely difficult but GPS signal possible. Your hiking environment may be totally different, but this is my frame of reference for my experience.
My “go-to” GPS device is a Garmin e-Trex Venture HC. This device can be purchased for under $100 and has the ability to view the map and track on the device. I have downloaded the topo maps from gpsfiledepot.com for the entire state of Alabama as well as the Southeast United States. There is also a download available called “My Trails” and all three are absolutely free and very useful. I use the Garmin supplied interface “Basecamp” and “MapSource” which can also be downloaded for free. While “MapSource” is an older interface, I am familiar with this program and prefer it. It can be found for free with some Internet searching.
The Garmin GPS has never failed me in the terrain that I typically cover. I make sure to turn on the device at trailhead and wait until it has connected to the satellites and has a good signal to begin tracking my adventure. I have used this GPS on all of the trails in the Sipsey Wilderness in the Bankhead National Forest as well as many off trail adventures. I have never had a dropped signal for more than a few minutes or difficulty obtaining a signal. As I stated earlier, I use the GPS to track my adventure to compare planned miles versus actual miles. After the adventure, I look at the elevation gain/loss, speed, actual track on the map, and waypoints of items that I have marked during the hike.
I have been using the Garmin GPS for several years without any issue. However, I decided to try a smartphone GPS app in addition to my actual GPS to research the accuracy for a backup device. Through trial and error I realized the free apps did not have the features I desired. After using a couple of different apps, I have settled on the Gaia GPS application.
The Gaia GPS app is not free – it cost $19.99 for my Android device. It has a couple of features that I desire for a GPS app. The user can download maps to be used “offline.” When I put my phone in airplane mode the GPS feature still works and I can record my hike to view later while saving battery power. It gives me data after the hike and one neat feature is the ability to share the information with others (even those without the application) via a link. Here’s an example from a recent hike: https://www.gaiagps.com/public/Ga22vX2IaiT39VVOLX5OTemc
Gaia also has a very extensive help section that will walk you through many topics. Of course, this has to be done when your phone is connected either by Wi-Fi or cellular reception.
How does the Gaia app compare to an actual GPS device? In order to find out, I used both on the same hike. I powered up and set the record track on at the same time and stopped recording and powered off when I completed the hike. Here is the comparison:
Gaia app data:
Total distance: 5.3 miles
Points recorded: 1028
Moving time: 3.0 hours
Overall Pace: 45.20 minute/mile
Total time: 4 hours 1 minute
Stopped time: 1 hour 1 minute
Moving speed 1.8 mph
Average speed 1.3 mph
Ascent: 740 feet
Descent 751 feet
Garmin etrex Venture HC Data:
Total distance: 5.2 miles
Points recorded: 399
I also used the feature on the Gaia app to export to a gpx file and loaded both into the Garmin MapSource to compare.
The GPS track from the Gaia App:
The GPS track from the Garmin GPS:
The elevation profile from the Gaia App:
The elevation profile from the Garmin GPS:
After reviewing the data above, I was totally blown away. This was an out and back hike. The elevation profile should be close to a mirror image from the middle out. The Gaia reflects this and the Garmin does not. The Gaia provided more data and the ability to share with other users. The Garmin only took 399 points (set to normal) while the Gaia provided 1028 points and I don’t see a way to change that particular setting.
With all of this being said, the Garmin does have the advantage of replacing the two “AA” batteries when needed, while I would have to charge my phone for the Gaia App which isn’t quite as easy, but not impossible. The Gaia does provide more data easily and seems to be more accurate.
I expected the data to be almost identical with possibly the advantage going to the “REAL ” GPS. So, what do you think? Are you as surprised as I am about the difference?
I’ve been toying with the idea of purchasing Gaia bug wondered about the cost of maps. Whats your experience?
Once you purchase the app, the offline maps can be downloaded for no cost.
Sounds good to me! Like you I’ve used other free apps but never have been overly thrilled with any of them.
Great article. I have a Garmin Montana- it’s heavy and I’d prefer not to take it if I don’t have to. Lately I’ve been using CalTopo to download maps and Avenza on my phone and it’s worked well, but I’d like to sreamline the process. Can you print maps from the Gaia app?
I haven’t thought about that because I already have paper maps of the areas I’m currently exploring. I’m not sure either way to be perfectly honest.
Used Gaia for the first time two weeks ago. I couldn’t believe how well it worked. The cost of the app and even the premium upgrade was still much less than an entry level GPSr. It also has a nice feature if you want to blog about your trip as it can push all of your GPX data to the cloud along with geotagged photos. I’m a fan too.
Yes. It’s pretty awesome and thank you for your input.
I do not own a gps device/app, but was thinking of getting Gaia for my phone. The issue I have is the battery usage, how do you preserve your battery (if you are out for all day) and still maintain a track? Using gps depletes a battery in a few hours, you would have to carry a charging battery to
recharge your phone in order to use your track or car’s waypoint to get back (if lost). Also I have looked at a gps watch, a Garmin/Suunto watch battery doesn’t last very long either. I could see turning on the device to make waypoints during the hike, but what I don’t understand is how a phone works with gps in airplane mode. There is a lot of info I need to answer questions concerning battery life on these devices before I would trust using them.
In Gaia you can download maps and then put the phone in airplane mode. It does save the battery, but you are correct – GPS does drain the battery faster than not using the GPS. on my phone (Samsung Galaxy S6), the GPS does work when the phone is in airplane mode. I always carry a portable battery pack that recharges my phone twice.
Its great for dayhikes, but less than ideal for longer (multi day) hikes. For those, i have a dedicated Garmin GPS that takes AA batteries. And I highly recommend using a GPS for data only (elevation, actual distance, hiking speed, etc). The batteries in a map and compass never die. Those are my primary tools for navigation.