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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

And for people who think you have to be a master with the calculations on a compass----not so.  Learning only the degree of declination of the area you are hiking in, how to orient a map to North, and understand the lines and symbols of a USGS map is all you need. 

A big paper map that shows you the whole area in one place is so much easier to plan for camping sites or river crossings or rock formations.   A 7 and 1/2 minute map is the best if available because a common toothpick length = 1 mile.

The only other thing needed is for more than one person to be observant of your surroundings and check the map often to match what you see.   In canyon country check even more often, it can be unforgiving country where all turns in the rocks look the same. 

@ChrisA @Bradyparr  It's been a while since I've on this thread, but...wrong wrong wrong.

There are or will be times when circumstances will dictate that you unable to pinpoint your exact location on a paper map just when you need to do it the most.

I have personally experienced such circumstances and being able to pinpoint myself on a gps and move back over to the paper map has prevented much pain and anguish, not the least by following an off course group who where determined and 100% sure they had relied on their paper map skills enough to keep pushing on in the wrong direction, for hours (them, not I, because I, being skeptical, double checked my gps)  Do you know this happens all the time?

You can check your gps, all you're going to get is utm grid coordinate, but I bet most folks don't know what to do with that, you know, go plot that on your paper map, can use your map app and on that fantastic iphone screen clearly see where you are on that map you downloaded and then go back to your paper.

I was crossing the the concordia platz glacier, on my way to the Hollandia hut from the konkordia hut when engulfed by a white out, with still several miles to go, and getting late in the afternoon, I sure wished now I had a gps, especially when we veered to the right up the wrong valley following an azimuth as best we could. Another story about how we got out of that jam.

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REI Member Since 1979

The only thing I'll interject here is that it doesn't need to be an either/or situation. Either you use an app on your phone or you use paper maps.

I love the Gaia app and, since I have my phone with me anyway, why not use it? It's what I am used to and comfortable with. But, even day hiking in a new area, I still carry a paper map and compass.

Yes, your phone could break or run out of battery if you're not careful. A paper map could also get wet or otherwise damaged if you're not careful.

So, yes, always carry a paper map and compass (along with the knowledge on how to use them as well as storing them carefully) but if you're going to have your phone and you prefer to follow along on an app, go for it. An extra app or three on your phone adds zero weight.

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” (John Muir)

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I guess this still applies today, not really sure, one main point of getting into the backcountry is to get away from all the electronics (dependency) in our lives.  Why look at a phone when the real world is out there in front of you.   Stop, sit and notice the silence and the details. 

32 years backing with a paper map and they were never unreadable.  One can enclose them in clear shelf paper if going into a rainy area.  

With all due respect, getting into the backcountry to get away from all electronics is not the point for everyone. For some it is and I can totally respect and support that. But I believe it's a mistake to imply that that's one of the primary reasons for everyone.

Yes, I carry a paper map and compass. Yes, I know how to use them and do so on occasion to keep my skills up. But a wholesale rejection of electronic wayfinding dismisses all the advantages that we now have and that's something I am just not able to comprehend.

Can a phone fail? The greatest risk is battery depletion. But everyone who carries a phone knows that and addresses that concern by carrying a power pack or solar charger. Yes, I can drop a phone and it can break, so I use a more rugged case to reduce that risk and keep it on a lanyard.

But a paper map can get wet or the ink can fade or the paper get torn or...  But those of us who carry paper maps know that and address those concerns as well. With every piece of gear, we try (or should) to practice risk abatement.

Further, here are a few things my paper map and compass cannot do but my electronics can:

  • in case of emergency, summon SAR with the push of a button
  • if I am conscious, communicate with SAR to describe my location and condition
  • let my wife know when I'll be arriving at a trail head so she can pick me up
  • let my wife know that I am safe at camp - we have two kids and it's selfish of me to leave them wondering and potentially worried about my well-being.

Additionally, at camp I like to meditate and some of those meditations are guided and have been downloaded to my phone. Or if I have trouble falling asleep, I'll read a book. While I am eating dinner, I'll write in my journal (details of the hike, a piece of gear I wish I had brought or left, or write a new meditation). So, I could carry a book that's an additional 8-12 ounces, a portable radio that's 8 ounces or so, a paper journal and pen that's 12½ ounces (I actually weighed it last night). Or instead of carrying 2 pounds of physical stuff, it's on my 7.75 ounce phone that I have anyway.

And, of course, that same 7.75 ounce phone replaces my multi-pound dSLR kit whose primary lens on it costs more than the replacement value of my phone,

I think it's truly wonderful that you go totally analog in the backcountry and if that's how you find your peace, I'll be the most vocal and ardent supporter of and for you. But, for me, having my phone and using it for navigation along with all its other uses for how I like to hike is paramount and it's how I hike my own hike.

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” (John Muir)

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

Hello everyone. Long time.  I actually bought a compass, I believe it was one of the Suunto 10 model, over the past few months. Really haven’t had a chance to use it or download a good topo map to use it with. Need to do that and become familiar with using one again. Been a long time since I used one.

As far as apps on phone go, haven’t really ponied out the dough to get a good app. I agree with most here that a paper map/compass is king, and knowing how to properly use it will get you out of any sticky situation.


First off if you are hiking in a national part, even on a week-long backpacking trip the trails are so well marked that you can hike around for days and never need to look at GPS or a map.  Especially if you are familiar with the general layout of the park.   It gets harder if you are hiking off-trail or in winter when all the trails and signs are under snow and everything looks the same.  But summertime hiking in a park is dead easy.

That said, I've met more than one other backpacker who was staring at a phone with a little 4-inch tall map on the display and had to ask where some nearby places were in relation to "here".  Apparently the green and black lines on the display did not look anything like the natural environment.  You do need some basic skills or even a GPS app on a phone is no help to you.


As for getting a real map.   Yes you can print them but why bother when you can buy the real deal from the US government for $8?   There is NO WAY you can print a map of that size and quality for $8 yourself.  This is a taxpayer-subsidized service the USGS provides to everyone.

Check out the link below as an example.

It looks like you've received some wonderful feedback from everyone, so I'll try not to repeat the same info.  There are two things I do for navigation on my multi-day paddle trips

1.  Paper Map and Compass (I keep in a waterproof map case)

2. I download the geoPDFs from the DNR website for the respective water trail I plan on visiting and upload it to the Avenza Maps app on my phone.  This allows for offline navigation along my route.  I can pre-pin my proposed camp spots ahead of time and track in real time along the route 

Keep Calm and Paddle On

@KayakTony Great suggestion. I believe someone posted a similar idea to yours that I very much liked as well, involving printing off a paper map, as well as uploading the map into their map app.

"I have never been lost, but I've been might confused for a few days"  - Daniel Boone

I wondered at the outset if the problem was compass declination or simply finding a trail when one might have strayed from the track.  I don't thin declination is the issue here.

Trails vary wildly in their character.  Sone, like the Bright Angel or Kaibab at Grand Canyon are virtual highways, impossible to miss, and heavily trafficked.  There are others, built sketchily many moons ago, and now over grown with brush and grass, but still shown on maps.  Thse may be obliterated by landslides or heavy growth.

5 did my first hikes in the sky islands of southern Arizona back in the 1950's.  Many trails had been constructed by the CCC about 1930 or so, were heavily obscured and lightly, if ever, travelled.  My mentor knew the score and gave me several tips.  Sometimes there were blazes, but even more useful were the axe cut limbs of trees bordering the trail.  Also look for water bars, the tiny diversion dams that take water off the trail.  Realize the the most common error is walking off the end of a switchback, especially if you suddenly lose the trail.

I have used these pointers to good effect, and these tips were important in making my first seasonal job with the NPS a success.

A compass is rarely of any use in these circumstances.  Stop, look around, especially behind you, for that missing switchback.  When were you last on the trail.  It probably pays to return to that point and scout carefully.  You will find it eventually.

If all else fails, check your map.  Where is the trail headed - toward a pass east of you?  Can you see thee pass?  Any obstacles?  This borders on desperation, but head toward the local objective, keeping your bearings - eventually you and the trail will intersect

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