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Tam McTavish | 02.21.2021

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?



OnX Backcountry's web map interface with snow mode (avalanche forecast and slope angle) and list of built-in guidebook adventure content for the region displayed.

onX Backcountry GPS Trail Maps

onX Backcountry is the newest GPS map and navigation app offered by onX Maps. Catering to backpackers, hikers and backcountry snow enthusiasts alike, onX Backcountry offers a multitude of next generation GPS app features and intuitive functionality packaged within a user friendly interface. With a free basic membership version and a full feature premium membership running $29.99 for the first year, onX Backcountry is introducing a sophisticated suite of planing and safety features for those looking to get further away from the trailhead. 

Users can switch between satellite, topo or hybrid base maps and access navigation tools from tracking to dropping and sharing photo waypoints. However, where onX Backcountry really stands out is in its offline map functionality, built-in library of guidebook adventure content, 3D map view, and option for toggling between trail and snow mode. Snow mode, as shown in the image above includes real time avalanche forecast areas and information, as well as slope angle coloring, assisting wintertime recreationists in the process of critical safety decision making when planning for and out in the snow. Premium users get access to unlimited offline map downloads and a growing list of high quality guidebook content for planning across the seasons.

The app also comes paired with a web map for desktop/laptop at-home planning that stores all of your data when logged into your account. While relatively new, onX Backcountry is quickly becoming a force to reckon with in the GPS map app space.


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

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. 

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.


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


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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