Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
I’ve always been directionally challenged. My sister, especially, loved to poke fun at me when I got lost in our childhood neighborhood, wandering around the same tree-lined blocks over and over until I stumbled upon our street. As a hiker—even after learning to navigate with a map and compass—I’d lose my way back to the trail, returning from far-flung bathroom breaks or at ambiguous three-way intersections. When I downloaded Gaia GPS* for the first time in 2012 on my blocky iPhone, it was nothing short of a miracle: here was an intricate, USGS-quality map that magically located me without cell reception, in the middle of the wilderness.
Gaia (like other navigation apps) uses the GPS chip in your phone to locate you on a grid—all you have to do is download the map(s) for the area you’ll be exploring in. After that, you can switch to airplane mode and start cruisin’. It clearly and accurately gives you the basics, like tracking your route, moving speed, time, and elevation, among many others. Some 250 downloadable map layers are a godsend for everyone from cartographers, who can nerd out on defunct, historic charts to anglers, who can check flow rate and water temperature on nearby rivers.
Among the many impacts Gaia, launched in 2008 by founders Andrew and Anna Johnson, had on outdoor recreation, its accessibility might be the most significant. A decade ago, a standalone Garmin GPS cost roughly $400, weighed as much as a grapefruit, and had a comically small, unnavigable screen. The app, which was one of the first of its kind, was completely free and worked on a device you already brought into the backcountry. Along with early competitors like Topo Maps+, Backcountry Navigator, and GPS Kit, it made standalone GPS devices nearly obsolete for recreational users and brought precise navigation to anyone with a smartphone.
Now, 12 years after it was developed, Gaia GPS is still an essential part of my kit, no matter the activity. Its maps and features have expanded to be used by a wide swath of recreational and professional groups, from pilots and nautical users to wildland firefighters and mountaineers. Skiers can see avalanche prone terrain en-route, overlanders can navigate Motor Vehicle Use Maps, and vanlifers can pinpoint public lands for overnight camping. Sure, there are scads of other other navigation apps, but Gaia is a one-stop shop for nearly any form of backcountry travel.
I’ve used the app in the field to navigate on shorter trips, but the desktop version is invaluable as a planning tool for longer, more complicated treks. Years ago, I charted my entire Colorado Trail thru hike, allowing me to avoid above-treeline campgrounds during storm season and to make sure I cameled up at water sources when crossing long, dry stretches. I’ve used it on multiple mountaineering trips in the Cascades, playing with different routes to the summit to suit my fellow climbers’ experience levels. A relatively new 3-D mapping feature enables you to view elevation gains and slope angles to better visualize mountain approaches.
And Gaia adds new features seemingly constantly. In the Anthropocene, wildfires are one of the most serious impediments to outdoor adventurers, from day-hikers to Triple Crowners. Several recently available map layers allow users to see current fires as well as smoke forecasts up to 48 hours into the future. Beyond the basics of navigation, as extreme weather continues to reshape the way we get outside, Gaia is becoming more essential than ever.
Editor’s Note: Gaia GPS is owned by the same parent company (Outside Media) as Backpacker