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Hiking Maps - what app do you recommend?


My wife and I are slowly getting back into hiking and are setting a goal to possibly hike the AT by September 2021, which is close to her bday. We are hiking small trails in local state parks. We have talked about getting a paper map/compass and handheld gps to take with us when we do the AT. I have been venturing into digital maps on smartphone, however, I can’t decide what the best app is. I have All Trails and Gaia GPS loaded, but haven't bitten the bullet to pay yet.

Of the two, which has the best usability and understandability? I have been reading that most people like Gaia best.

Will Gaia allow you to see your location on the trail or give you some indication that you are on the right path like a handheld gps?

The reason for handheld gps is because if we get into an area where we have no smartphone signal, the phone may not give us a reliable gps signal, and we also want as many options as a backup.

I am open to all suggestions or if anyone has better options as well.

Thank You for your time,

44 Replies

GPS works without phone service.  You just have to make sure you have cached the maps on your phone while you have data service or WiFi. 

You can test this by putting your phone into airplane mode which will disable the cellular and wifi.  Generally this does not turn off the GPS receiver although that may vary by phone and you may need to switch it back on.

I have no opinion on Gaia vs AllTrails but Guthooks is another app that AT hikers use.

Also you may be interested in non electronic maps for the AT...


Make sure to place the phone in airplane mode so your battery lasts.....

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

first of all, like @OldGuyot said, put the phone in airplane mode to conserve battery.  The gps function operates in airplane mode.

I've used Gaia for about 5yrs after using similar apps, it is hands down the best you will ever get, and about 1000X better than a handheld gps, because it does everything a gps does (it is a gps), plus you get the screen visibility of your phone.

When you pay for the app you get to download a basic set of maps for free, and several hundred more with a yearly subscription, the best being the nat geo trail maps, which are probable some of the best on the market.  Just getting those is worth 'the price of admission'.

What I do is go into, pull up the map of my hike, draw lines of my intended route and draw in things like trailhead, campsites, other features I'm interested in and then:

1. export the stuff I've drawn to a gpx file to my pc, then email that file to my phone and save it.  Gaia picks it up (magic) and shows it on the map you've downloaded to your phone before you left for your hike and lost signal (that's why you can keep your phone on airplane mode and still use the maps)

2. download that same map (you used in, i.e. forest service trail topo maps) or similar topo to your phone using your gaia app. (as I just said above)

now then, you go into gaia, pull up that map for viewing and your route will be displayed and when you're actually there, the gps arrow will/should follow your walk showing you your exact position.

That map you created in caltopo, use the 'print map' function and save a fantastic map as a pdf file.  I create the map as 11x17 1:24,000 scale, with UTM grid lines, then send it to my local UPS store for high quality printing, about $1.00, et voila! I'm all set for the trip.

I know, it sounds like a lot, but it's much....when do it a few times

did that answer the question?

good luck


REI Member Since 1979

@Philreedshikes, yes, answers my questions perfectly. I kind of knew the gps feature would still work on my phone. As I mentioned before, I have been reading reviews about gaia and believe it will me my ultimate gps app.

Thanks for the suggestions about downloading the map from caltopo and saving it them importing into to gaia. I also love the idea of printing the map at the ups store to have a paper copy as well.

I am gathering that you do the yearly membership with gaia and get the nat geo maps?


@Cdawley4 Yes I have the yearly subscription. I’m able to research the heck out of any popular or remote wilderness backpack, and translate that research into a safe and enjoyable experience and become the defacto “route “ expert.

REI Member Since 1979

You do not need to buy any app to get the map.  All the USGS topo maps are available for free from the US government as full-resolution PDF files.   You can download them all and have them printed or buy a USGS-issued printed map.  

The USGS PDF files are of the highest available quality.  This is the source of data for the companies that sell maps.  You paid once already when you paid taxes, no need to pay twice.


REI Member Since 1979

The USGS PDF maps are an excellent, high quality, resource that can be downloaded for free from the USGS website:

The U.S. Forest service also has topographic maps for the 7.5' quadrangles in which there are national forest lands. These maps, while not always as current as the USGS maps, often contain additional Forest Service trail and facility information not included on the USGS maps.  You can find and download these maps here:

The nice part about having these resources is that with a little work (and no extra cost) you can create customized maps covering only the area necessary for a specific trip and then overlay details and information as you need.


Get outdoors, stay safe, and happy trails!
Todd the Hiker

@Todd_the_HikerThese maps are also available at no extra cost in apps like CalTopo and USTopo.  I think Gaia may the feature too.

CalTopo is both a PC app and an android phone app (not sure if there is an iOS version).  You need a paid subscription to cache maps on the phone last I looked.  There are various levels.  It has all kinds of layers including fire activity and snow data etc.  It provides a printing facility so you can print custom maps for your trip although I have never needed to do this.

USTopo is an inexpensive paid android phone app (not sure if there is an iOS version) that allows caching of a number of mapping and aerial photo layers and also allows online access to both Google and Bing mapping and satellite layers.

Both are worth the time and money imo