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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

One other trick I have not done myself but seems like it could be useful is to take a photo of the area of the larger printed map that you actually need that while you may carry the larger map,  you can use your phone to look at your current area.   

@OldGuyot,  I suppose I am a bit of a cheapskate. That said, I personally find it helpful to spend time researching, manually plotting locations and routes, and building my own customized maps in a more hands on fashion.  I tend to slow down and study things more intently and it gives me a better sense of familiarity when I go someplace new.  My approach certainly is not for everyone and it takes more time, but for me it is part of the fun of planning a trip. 

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

I misspoke.  CalTopo is a browser app not a "PC App" and it appears there is both an Android and iOS version.


Phil - after about 50 years of backpacking I’m finally getting into electronic navigation using my Apple phone GaiaGPS app and CalTopo. I’ve been looking for a way to put it all together mentally and your reply did that. At least for where I am right now. Thank you!

@PapaGarrettP  wow, just seeing this, so sorry, but thanks!'s it working so far?

REI Member Since 1979

I'd recommend guthook


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Don't rely on electronic gizmos for navigation. I use a Garmin Fenix 5S, which works great, but depending on gizmos is a dangerous endeavor. I use It allows you to make, customize and print maps of exactly where you will be. If going on a well established path, then REI sells lots of local maps. The ranger may also have local maps that you can purchase. 

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

Paper maps are always my primary, much better than any screen based display.  Electronic devices can malfunction, run out of power, or break and are not something I want to rely on in a critical situation. 

I carry a Garmin GPS for backup which I mostly use to keep track of distance covered/time elapsed as well as document trips and routes to improve the quality of my paper maps by overlaying the route tracks on digital versions of USGS 7.5' quads that I can print in hard copy.

I fold my paper maps to fit in a sandwich size zip-top bag and carry them in easily accessible shirt or pants pocket. On multi-day backpacking trips I also keep an extra set of maps (and backcountry permits) in my pack sealed in a gallon size zip-top bag in case my primary set gets damaged.


Caesar Creek State Park Trail Map (Perimeter Trail).jpg



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

Get PAPER MAPS and a real compass.   You really do not need anything else.   

About GPS.   Your phone uses two radios, the cellular radio, and the GPS receiver.   If the phone can't get GPS, neither can your hand-held GPS.   The phone only needs the cellular signal to pull down the maps, not to find your location.

The bigger problem with a phone is keeping it charged.  When there is no signal it uses power to search for a tower and can kill the battery in one day.  But you can always get a GPS signal if you find a spot with a wide view of the open sky

The paper maps should NOT be a "backup" but rather the primary and then maybe, only if needed you turn on the phone or GPS to get a quick location fix then turn it off.  Leaving it powered on for only a few minutes.

Could not agree more @ChrisA . Paper maps, compass, landmarks and high ground with good vis. 

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