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Tam McTavish | 03.05.2019

As an avowed cartophile, I am always disappointed by the high cost of GPS units. But the good news is you really don't need to fork out a lot of money for a fancy GPS.

These days, most smartphones are on par with any GPS device. In fact, since most phones have processors many times more powerful than any handheld GPS, they have a better user interface and higher functionality. The iPhone 7, for example, has receivers for GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, and QZSS systems that function perfectly fine without standard mobile network reception. This is now par for the course.

Of course, the battery life and fragility of smartphones continues to help Garmin justify its existence. But that leads to the question: Which GPS mapping app should you use?


A preview of Avenza Maps, which is only available on mobile devices. Jonathan Stull.

Avenza Maps

Avenza Maps is a tech-savvy alternative to costly map devices. Paired with CalTopo (reviewed below), a backpacker can plan long-distance thru-hikes on CalTopo's open-source system, create geospatial PDFs (read: they're tagged with GPS coordinates), and upload them to the user's account on the mobile app. Like other GPS apps, it uses the phone's GPS system to place a pin on the map to indicate where the phone is. It costs an annual subscription fee of $29.99, so it isn't free. And some might suggest that the extra work makes a full-service app like Gaia GPS more useful.

That being said, the CalTopo and Avenza planning system keeps intact the ritual of plotting and planning a route—an essential part of the backpacking process that builds a better understanding of the landscape backpackers seek to enjoy.

Yes, you could simply download a map of your hike and be done with it. But we think it's better and safer to plot a course on your own.

Building a route with Gaia GPS. The platform offers many layers and a deep level of functionality—clearly the most user-friendly phone app. Tam McTavish.

Gaia GPS

More expensive, Gaia GPS is nevertheless one of the better options. It offers a multitude of great options with a user friendly interface. At its simplest, it's still bit more complex than GPS-app alternatives, but if you are looking to create things like hybrid satellite topographic maps, it's the best option on the market and much easier to navigate while planning things out. Unfortunately, it takes a bit more negotiation with layers to create grid surfaces and display all the handy info that you'll need when you go to print.

Otherwise, it is a far more intuitive system. Plus—there are so, so, so many map options. NatGeo, Backroads Map Boot, OpenStreetMap, all the CalTopo options, and more. If you're a cartophile like me, this counts for a lot. I like to customize my maps and add in everything, like waypoints, cliff detailing, and hybridization.

The premium maps also have Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, and several other international destinations, so if you plan to travel it's a great way to get the info you need. Heck, there are even marine charts for the U.S. and aircraft charts.

The phone app is easily the best. Simple, intuitive, and fully featured with waypoint and tracking options, but it doesn't commit you to those.


CalTopo offers myriad options, but its interface is less pleasing to use. A great open-source option for those looking to cut cost. Tam McTavish.


A great system, CalTopo offers many of Gaia's best features, like customization and hybrid maps through layering. Unless you want those sweet, sweet premium maps, CalTopo will get you through most of your needs, particularly if you're more of a print-and-go guy.

CalTopo's biggest drawback is its compatibility. Offered only on Android, anyone with iOS, like me, is out of luck.

Bonus: TopoCanada

For anyone traveling in Canada, TopoCanada is a must. Provided that you have enough storage space, this is a superb phone-only app. It allows you to download Canadian government maps by the block. While not especially good maps, most new trails have been added by users. And by having lower quality, you can keep it there for that one time when you forget to pack the map—okay, maybe several times.

It's super, super easy to use, and the map quality is high. It also has waypoints, route tracking, and more.

I've been using these apps for several years on my phone, primarily as backups. It's rare that I actually navigate with the apps; I prefer to confirm my position then put the phone away. I plan my trips and regularly print from Gaia GPS, using their taped wrapped paper maps. These apps have supported backpacking, mountaineering, canoeing, ski traverse, couloir skiing and more.


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