Review of GPS hiking navigation apps – why I use GaiaGPS

Poring over a map on the kitchen table is a joyous thing, but these days we use navigation apps on our phones - but which one?

Who doesn’t love looking at a map? What secrets hide between those closely spaced contour lines? Is there a route to that peak? The paper map still has a place in your pack, but now we are more likely to plot a route by joining the dots on a navigation app or upload a GPX track our friend has sent us. Then we print out a map of our route, stuff it in a pocket for emergencies, and download the digital map to our phones to use as we walk.

TLDR: If you are a regular bushwalker who loves maps and exploring – consider GaiaiGPS or ViewRanger. If you are a social butterfly following well worn trails in a big city, you might prefer AllTrails. If data privacy concerns you, consider OsmAnd.

A map for bushwalking or hiking must show contour lines, this is called a a “topo” or topographic map. A navigation app needs to support offline topo maps, as there is often no mobile coverage on bush trails. GPX support is useful for sharing tracks. Land ownership, vegetation, map grid lines and satellite imagery are also useful when exploring new areas.

Testing 5 navigation apps

I made an initial list of nine navigation apps to review, based on what people most said they used in a Facebook hiking group.

I knocked out Maps.Me (no topographic map, no support for GPX files), PocketEarth (no Android version, what universe do they live in?) and Memory-Map (might have been nice once, in 2004 perhaps, but we’ve all moved on). Wikiloc looked promising but I culled it as they only offer one Australian topographic map which was out of date and inaccurate: streets in my local area didn’t exist.

I installed each of the remaining apps, purchasing the level that gave me essential topo map detail and offline access.

Why can’t I use a free app?

How much is your life worth? More than a Big Mac with fries and a coke?

Prices vary, but you will need to pay for quality maps – sometimes this is an annual subscription, sometimes you pay per map (or bundle of maps). Buying a good map is cheaper than the cost of an SOS callout when you get lost. None of these apps support family sharing but you can install the app on all your devices (phone, tablet) using the same login credentials.

GaiaGPS is currently on offer for USD36 annual subscription (less if you use an affiliate token) but this is excellent value as it buys you the government topographical maps for NSW, SA, VIC, QLD, TAS and NZ, as well as fun layers such as geology for rock-lovers. ViewRanger is cheaper with a topographical map bundle at USD20, but that does not include SA or NZ.

AllTrails is cheaper at USD30, however this doesn’t include official topographical maps. AllTrails are a closed system and only provide open source maps. Aren’t open source maps good enough? Yes and no. If you hike in a densely populated area on well known trails that are accurately mapped, then open source maps may suit you. Where I walk, on the Coffs Coast, its a lot rougher. Open source maps don’t include old snig tracks that we use. Topo have these, as well as rich detail on man made infrastructure (such as power lines), vegetation (rainforest full of lawyer vine or swampy), all the creek lines etc. This added information is essential to help keep us out of trouble.

Avenza appears a good deal at USD30, but requires you to purchase many additional maps from their Map Store to get coverage – it very quickly adds up and becomes expensive.

OsmAnd is priced like a fast food store – for $11.50 you can have a bottomless cup of coffee! Can we up sell you a croissant? Or cross-sell you some steak knives? The in-app purchase menu of plugins and maps and live subscriptions is confusing, but may still be a good deal.

Let’s all be friends!

Facebook built a big business on social connections, collecting and exploiting your data to sell you stuff.

So why am I surprised when the first thing I notice when I open up AllTrails and ViewRanger is the emphasis on the social connection? Let’s show everyone where we’re hiking! Give us your tracks, photos, reviews for free so we can build valuable community content! ViewRanger also has challenges so you can compete with others.

The benefit to you of course, is that you can search for trails in an area. AllTrails certainly has a lot of trails where I live, but sifting through the noise to find the good trails takes time. ViewRanger has hardly any local trails in my regional area, but has better coverage near large cities.

This ageing cynic notes all your AllTrails data is public by default, everyone can see them. You can make your tracks private one by one, a tedious slow process. ViewRanger allows you to make your routes free or chargeable on a 50/50 revenue split between you and them.

Both offer location tracking to your friends, they call it Lifeline and BuddyBeacon. I think I’ll stick with an old fashioned Aussie “cooee!” Suffice to say, although I’m a chatty hiker, these two apps aren’t really my thing, but maybe you like the social public aspect.

OsmAnd, by contrast ticks all the privacy boxes. Data is encrypted when transferred. Your personal data is not collected, there is no sharing. The service is transparent (the code is open source). You can even pay with bitcoin.

GaiaGPS is somewhere in between these privacy extremes. Your data is private by default, but you can share and make public selected routes, tracks, waypoints if you choose. Uniquely, GaiaGPS allow you to set up a folder and give read or write access to the content in the folder to selected people – very useful for sharing routes among your bushwalking club or meetup group.

Oh and to be fully transparent, there are no affiliate links on this page, nor am I’m being paid by anyone for a review. Seems I don’t have enough friends to be considered an “influencer”.

Let’s go for a walk!

You could find a walk that someone else has done that looks fun, on CoffTrails maybe? Once you’ve chosen your walk, you need to get the track information and load it into your app. All these apps support importing GPX files, as well as some other formats.

Or you can plot a walk yourself on the map using the app. All apps support route planning and creation of waypoints, although some are easier to use than others. In the ideal world, a route is plotted in advance at home on a big desktop screen using the website and then seamlessly synced to your phone. But worst case, you may need to plot an emergency exit route on your phone if someone is injured or the weather turns foul. Avenza and OsmAnd do not support route plotting on a website, and AllTrails doesn’t offer route plotting on the app. ViewRanger and GaiaGps offer both web and app route planning.

Now your route is planned, you’ve printed a copy of the map, you arrive at the track head and press the “record” button. All these apps do an acceptable job of recording the track, show statistics such as distance, elevation and time, geotag photos etc. This is core functionality.

If you want turn by turn directions (where’s the fun in that), GaiaGPS makes an attempt with “guide me”, ViewRanger has arrival alerts and like AllTrails will beep if you are “off route”. GaiaGPS and Avenza allow you to save a waypoint as you walk, which can be useful to mark an old mine hole or a nice campsite .

When you are done you can save your track and export your GPX file. GaiaGPS allows you to organise your track data into searchable folders, which is very useful as you start to accumulate a large collection of tracks. AllTrails allows you to make lists.

Where did I put my glasses?

Perhaps you are like me – lots of hiking in your youth before family and work got in the way. And then you get back into it about the same time you discover you need reading glasses.

A well designed app is easier to use. If you can’t figure out how to use the app, or don’t enjoy using it, move on. Life is too short for clunky ugly apps.

Have a closer look at a map on the app – does it zoom in and out smoothly? Can you see the contour lines, are the fonts readable? Can you customise the track colour, change the location marker, does it support dark mode? When the map is too hard to read, I don’t look at it as often, its easier to just keep walking and hope I’m right. And we won’t mention the ahem interesting “discussions” between two co-leaders both struggling to read a poorly legible map on their phones.

Only you can decide which app and map design lights your way.

But wait, there’s more!

ViewRanger seems to have entered a Best Features race – we have 3D flyover! Virtual skyline! Others support integration with Apple or other watches, CarPlay or Android Auto. AllTrails stores your personal bests and lifetime stats, kind of like a pedometer on steroids. Heatmaps (or OSM Traces), hill or slope shading and various other bells and whistles are available in Gaia, AllTrails, OsmAnd and ViewRanger. All arguably useful and fun, but probably not the main course for hikers.

GaiaGPS provide features that hard-core bushwalkers used to reading paper maps will love. Such as a compass bearing (true or magnetic north), map grid lines and grid references (you can even search by grid reference!), you can set the datum and coordinate type (eg UTM WGS84). These more advanced features together with Australian topographic maps is what clinches the deal for me.

Love the one you’re with

Its relationship advice applied to apps. If you already own and use one of these apps, and have built up a nice collection of maps and tracks, then stay with it.

But if you haven’t committed yet, my recommendation would be either GaiaGPS, which I use, or ViewRanger.


Understanding navigation app lingo

Software marketing departments like to come up with Cute Words when there is already a well understood ordinary word.

I have used these meanings. A map is a flat representation of the features of an area of the earth. A route is a way of getting from one place to another, and is usually something you are planning. A track is a collection of breadcrumbs showing where you actually went. GPX is a common GPS format for recording tracks.

Reading maps

Of course, these navigation apps assume you know your way around a topographic map. If maps aren’t your strong point, but you are keen to understand more, I can recommend the free booklet Map Reading guide: How to Use Topographic Maps Edition 4. Geoscience Australia, Canberra. Lotsafreshair has an excellent three part series of posts on How to navigate with with a map and compass and has published a book.

There are also practical hands-on navigation courses you can take, try your local bushwalking club or commercial courses such as those run by Ashley Burke (MountainSphere Adventures)..

Orienteering is an effective and fun way to practise and improve your map skills – search out your local orienteering club or look at the app MapRun which has some local Coffs Harbour routes.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Kerry Neighbour

    As a long term Viewranger user, I am a bit puzzled why you did not find the turn by turn navigation function. It is the primary reason why I used it. It even has a connection with a GPS watch (only one brand, unfortunately).

    You say Viewranger has hardly any local trails? Where I live in SE Qld it has heaps. I guess this could be location specific and may also depend on the map you are using. In my experience, the OpenStreetMap system has the most hiking or cycling trails and they are not tied to any one app specifically.

    If you are only using dedicated topo maps, then perhaps you are looking at doing more off track hiking and not on trails? In that case your comments are probably correct.

    You did not mention Locus, which has an even better navigation system. It can use a voice!

    1. Coffs Trails

      Hi Kerry – I’ve seen many described “Routes” on ViewRanger near the cities, but few in regional areas like Coffs. Open Street Map is helpful if you live in a populated area with well known and maintained trails. Where we walk, I find the government topographic maps to be essential as they have so much more information that is critical to staying safe and finding our way. Trails here are not as well maintained or signposted, can be overgrown or obscured by treefalls, and mobile reception is poor or non-existent.The govt topo maps include cliff lines, locked gates, vegetation types (swamp, rainforest, cultivated land etc), streams that may be dry vs perennial, logging roads not on OSM, grid lines (useful for estimating distance), grid references (useful in the absence of signage) etc.

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