Gaia App: Viable GPS Replacement?

by John Godino

I’ll always remember my first introduction to the navigation potentials of a smart phone. A few years ago on a North Sister climb, we ended up taking an unexpected route back to camp. On our cross-country bushwhack, we experienced a little of what might you call “positional uncertainty.” I called a halt for our team, got out my map and clunky old GPS receiver, waited for it to get fired up, and then started plotting our UTM coordinate on the map to find out where we were. One of the younger members of our climb team strolled over and said “Hey, can I show you something? Here’s exactly where we are.” And he showed me his iPhone screen, with a reassuring little blue dot directly over a high resolution map. That was when the lightbulb really went on for me: the holy Grail of navigation (a good map with a “you are here” mark) had arrived.

GPS smartphone apps can now go head-to-head with dedicated handheld GPS receivers. Along with increasing chip speed, screen size, and battery power, smart phones actually have several advantages: more intuitive user interface, much better screen resolution, a much wider range and better quality base maps, and a vastly lower price.

The two main potential problems with GPS smart phones, fragility and running out of batteries, are easily solved with a sturdy case and an auxiliary battery pack and extra cable. GPS works on your phone without cell phone coverage, and you can download free, high quality maps ahead of time for use when you are in the backcountry.

Most climbers already carry their phone. Why not add one more navigation tool that only costs $20, doesn’t weigh anything, takes maybe 30 minutes to learn, and might just really save the day sometime?

One of the leading wilderness GPS apps is called Gaia GPS. Gaia has a few key features that put it at the head of the pack. It’s really focused on backcountry use, and not recording every arcane statistic of your hike and letting you post it to social media. They have terrific technical support, a wide variety of base maps, including satellite imagery and open source map layers, and the interface is easy enough to get you up to speed in a few minutes. And, it’s only $20, compared with a standalone GPS receiver that starts around $200 and goes up to $600, ouch! Gais GPS has a version for both iPhone and Android users.

The Mazamas is partnering with Gaia GPS to introduce more of our members to this powerful tool. This is being done in two steps. One, all Mazamas climb and hike leaders are eligible to get a free copy of the app. This will be rolled out over approximately the next year, and will be coordinated within the climbing and trail trips committees.

More broadly, Gaia has generously offered the Pro version of their app to all of the Mazamas membership.

To access this offer, you first need to purchase the app for $20, but then you will get an upgrade to the Gaia Pro, which normally cost $40 a year. This opens up lots of new map layers, lets you plan trips and print maps from the Gaia website, and more.

There are a some good resources to learn to use this app. One, if you go to mazamas.org and navigate to Resources then Maps for Hiking and Climbing, you’ll see a video link for a tutorial on how to use the app. Watching this video for 10 minutes will give you the foundation that you need to go start practicing. If you’d like more in-depth training, the Mazamas have a skill builder class in smart phone GPS coming up in June that still has some openings.

But, you really don’t need a class. Watch the instructional video, go for a walk around your neighborhood for an hour or so, mark some waypoints, record a track, practice downloading maps for use outside of cell range, use the Guide Me function to get distance and bearing to an existing waypoint, and you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.

And now, next time you experience a bit of “positional uncertainty,”you’ll have a solid tool to get yourself unlost.

Author’s Note: Electronic mapping tools do not replace paper maps. We recommend always carrying a paper map with you on your backcountry adventures.


  1. Great info John, thank you for posting.

  2. I just tried it after using backcountry navigator for a long time. This app is easier to use, looking forward to the pro version.

  3. Great article. I'm convinced! I just bought the app. Can you now let us know how we can upgrade to Pro as Mazamas members? Thank you.