Gaia GPS is one of the best apps available for navigation on the iPhone. It’s got maps that cover most of the world and all the features you need to navigate outdoors with your iPhone.
It’s not a free app, but the features make it worth the $19.99 investment. In this tutorial, I’ll cover all the basics of using it out in the backcountry. You might find it useful to read my tutorial How to Use an iPhone Outdoors.
If you’re reading this, I’ll assume that you have some understanding of how to navigate using a map. If you don’t then How to Read a Topographic Map, from Art of Manliness, covers the basics although you should take a course from some local Scouts or Mountain Guides. It’s a skill that everyone should have.
Changing the Map Layer
Gaia GPS comes with dozens of different map sources that cover most of the world. Different sources cover different areas.
To change the map layer, tap on the Maps icon on the right side of the toolbar and select the map you'd like to use. I find Gaia Topo and OpenHikingMapHD to be the most useful for areas that aren’t covered by a specific map.
To add maps from more sources, click More Layers. Select the sources you want and they’ll be available in the main menu.
Gaia GPS has pretty good cover worldwide so you can use it wherever you are. It’s got sources that cover the Sierra Nevadas and the Himalayas. If you want to check out a particular mountain or area, tap the Search icon.
You can search by name or GPS coordinates. I’d recommend using coordinates. Searching by name returns some interesting results: a search for Mount Everest takes you to a small town in Ohio. It is called Mount Everest, but it’s probably not the one most people are looking for.
Saving Maps for Offline Use
Out in the backcountry, you rarely have mobile signal. You won’t be able to download maps when you’re out there; instead, you need to preload them before you go.
To download a map for use offline, tap the Maps icon and scroll to the bottom. Tap Download Maps and drag the control handles so the shaded area covers where you want to download. Tap Save and the tiles will be saved offline in the My Maps folder.
There’s no limit to how many different maps you can download. I’ve got maps of my local area and places I frequently visit saved so that they’re ready to go.
Creating Routes to Follow
The big reason to use a digital navigation app like Gaia GPS is that you can create routes to follow.
Tap the + icon and select Create Route. Long press on the point you want to start your route.
Long press on a second point and Gaia GPS will connect the two using any trails or paths between the two. If there isn’t any, it will create a track as the crow flies.
Continue placing route markers and letting Gaia GPS generate a trail. If you misplace a route marker, tap and hold on it to reposition it. To delete one, tap on it and select Delete Waypoint.
When you’be finished, click Save. The route will now be available for you to navigate.
Select it, and tap Guide Me and Gaia GPS will give you a bearing and distance to the next route marker.
Navigating With Waypoints
If you don’t want to create a full route, you can just navigate using waypoints.
Tap the + icon and select Create Waypoint. Place the waypoint where you want to go to. Tap Save & Guide. Gaia GPS will give you a bearing, distance and expected time to the waypoint.
Once you reach it, you can create a new waypoint to navigate to.
Tracking Your Hikes
As well as creating routes and waypoints to follow, you can also use Gaia GPS to track your hikes. Tap the Record button in the bottom left corner and just start walking. When you’re done, tap the Record button again and click Finish Track. It will get saved to the Tracks folder.
Tracks are a great way to create a route from your favourite hikes or to see how your fitness is improving by timing yourself on the same route.
Sync Everything With GaiaCoud
The GaiaCloud is a way to sync everything between all your devices. Sign up for an account on the Gaia GPS website or your smartphone.
To login, tap the Menu icon and then Account. Enter your email address and password.
All your routes and tracks will automatically be uploaded and synced to the cloud. This means that even if your smartphone goes for a swim or falls off a cliff, you’ll still have all your old routes and hikes.
On the Gaia GPS website you can also use the map to build routes, just like you can on your smartphone. Any you create will be synced across.
Find Hikes With Trips
If you’re in a new area and not sure what hikes are good, go to the Gaia GPS website and select Trips. Use the search and filter tools to find a hike that works for you and select it.
You’ll be able to see the map route and way points. If you want to follow one, click Add to My to save it to your account. All the route details will get synced to the smartphone so you’ll be able to follow along when you get there.
Gaia GPS is a really powerful navigation app. It’s got more features than some dedicated GPS devices. I’ve covered the basics in this tutorial. Whether you’re going for short day hikes are multi-day backcountry adventures, GaiaGPS is a great tool to bring along.
Just remember, tech can fail in the field so don’t have it as your only navigation tool. Bring paper maps and a compass, and always be familiar with where you’re going.