The ability to use a paper map and compass remains an essential skill, especially for multi-day bushwalks. But there are a multitude of mobile (and desktop) apps that make it much easier to plan a hike, and help you navigate when you’re out in the bush.
A few things to consider before you hit the trail:
- Even if you’re likely to have mobile range for the entire hike, download the map/s you are likely to need (some apps require a premium subscription)
- For longer of multi-day hikes, using Airplane Mode considerably extends battery life (another reason to download maps in advance!)
- You can use more than one app at the same time – for example, I’ll use Avenza to work out where I’m going or navigate to a waypoint, and Routie in the background to track my route.
Here are what I consider to be the best hiking apps, which all have a good reason to be on your phone…
1. Avenza Maps
Platform: Apple (IOS), Android Cost: Free for app. Maps vary in price (some are free) www.avenzamaps.com
Avenza Maps is a mobile map app which allows you to download topographic maps for offline use on an iOS or Android smartphone. It pinpoints on the map where you are the map, and lets you track your route. You need to remember to download the map/s before you set off, which you can do from the app or any brower (but the maps themselves only work on in the mobile app). Over a million maps are available.
- Maps are always available off-line
- Huge range of maps available (>1 million)
- Easy to import tracks or waypoints (KML/KMZ and GPX)
- Can view or enter coordinates in almost any format (latitude/longitude, Easting/Northing, WGS 84, UTM, What3words)
- Trails limited to those on each downloded map (ie. no community-generated trails)
- Tracking is clumsy across multiple maps
Platform: Web browser, Apple (IOS), Android. Cost: Free for app. Premium subscription $30/year or $2.50/month www.alltrails.com
AllTrails is one of the most popular and versatile hiking apps, with over 20 million users worldwide and hundreds of thousands of trails across just about every country. There are “curated trails” as well as user-submitted trails , so if a trail exists… it’s probably in the app! It’s great for planning, as you can search/filter by different criteria, read user reviews and every trail has a community rating. You can also draw your route (using existing trails or off-track) or import a track in a browser, then save and download the trail to use in the app version when you’re on the trail. You can choose to record your route, which is then available to view in the app, or you edit and download the route in a Web browser.
- One of the largest selection of trails, catering for all levels of experience
- Trails have a description, user reviews, photos and a rating
- Eight map types or overlays available, including topographic, satellite and 3D
- Easy to record and save your route
- Provides directions to start of a trail (using Apple Maps or Google Maps)
- Intuitive interface (in a browser) to create or import a trail plot and download in the app (premium subscription)
- Need to remember to download the trails you need (this requires Pro subscription)
- Only shows your position as latitude/longitude
- Can only enter waypoints using latitude/longitude (when planning a hike).
Should you get the Pro version of AllTrails?
Yes, it’s definitely worth it if you decide to use the app on a regular basis. The annual ($29.99) or monthly ($2.50) fee for AllTrails Pro gives you these features over the free AllTrails app:
- Ability to download maps (for offline access).
- Lifeline feature which sends nominated contacts a summary of your route (and you can send updates on your location during your hike)
- Alert system which notifies you if you go off-route
- Ability to create/customize maps and print or export to PDF (you can select the scale and the grid coordinates can be decimal or UTM).
3. Gaia GPS
Platform: Web browser, Apple (IOS), Android. Cost: Free for app. Premium subscription $39/year www.gaiagps.com
GaiaGPS is an alternative to AllTrails, providing similar functionality. While AllTrails is more popular and has a simpler user interface, GaiGPS has more sophisticated features and many experienced hikers swear by this app. You can create or import a route or waypoint in the app, as well as in a browser, which can then be used when navigating.
- Very granular options to customise map appearance and controls, including key info when navigating
- Compass (bearing) can be displayed while using the app for navigating
- Many different map types or overlays available
- Easy to record and save route (with details including moving speed,
- Provides directions to start of a trail using Apple Maps
- Can create route in the app (although it’s a bit clunky) as well as in a browser)
- Coordinates (waypoints) can be viewed or entered as decimal or UTM.
- Need to remember to download the trails you need (this requires Premium subscription)
- User interface not as intuitive as ohikes ther hiking apps
- Not many curated trails (but many tracks shown that allow you to create your own route)
Should you get the Premium version of GaiaGPS?
As with AllTrails, the Premium subscription is definitely worth it if you decide to use the app on a regular basis. The annual ($39) fee for Gaia Premium gives your these features over the free version
- Ability to download maps (for offline access)
- Download additional map layers – over 250 maps and overlays
- Ability to create/customize custom maps and print or export to PDF.
AllTrails versus GaiaGPS – which one is better?
AllTrails and GaiaGPS are the two of the most popular navigation apps for hiking, and both do a great job at enabling you to find, plan and navigate a trail. AllTrails has a much simpler interface, and harnesses user-generated trails and reviews to provide one of the biggest collection of hiking trails. It’s arguably the best one to use for finding a hike, and you can download and start using the app without much of a learning curve. It’s also very easy to share your hike on social media – which perhaps explains some of the popularity of this app..
By comparison it will take you a bit longer to get used to the GaiaGPS interface, but once familiar with the how it works you’ll find it offers more powerful navigation capabilities. If you’re prepared to put of a bit of time into learning the app, you’re walking off-track or you want to navigate to specific waypoints you’ll find the GaiaGPS functionality and customisation options indispensable.
Try both, and get a premium subscription for the one you prefer. Or have a look at some of the more detailed comparisons of the two apps:
- Coff Trails – Review of GPS hiking navigation apps – why I use GaiaGPS
- Territory Supply – AllTrails vs Gaia Reviews: Which Hiking App is Worth It?
Platform: Apple (IOS), Apple Watch Cost: Free www.routieapp.com
Although not in the same league as AllTrails or GaiaiGPS, Routie enables simple tracking of any activity, including hiking. Designed for the iPhone and Apple Watch, it allows you to easily record and share tracks, which can be exported (as GPX or KML) or shared on social media. It also provides useful stats on each activity and allows you to add photos or waypoints.
- Simply interface to track and share any sports activity
- Easy to add location (waypoint) with notes
- Limited functionality compared to other apps
- No topographic maps
Platform: Apple (IOS), Android Cost: Free https://maps.me/
With over 100 million downloads and over a million ratings worldwide, Maps.Me is one of the most popular offline map apps for travel. It has some major limitations as a hiking app, but it also has one major benefit. The bad first: there are no topographic maps, you can’t record your route and there is very limited hiking functionality. But why I still consider it essential part of my mobile hiking toolkit is that Maps.me uses OpenStreetMap data, a vast collection of user-generated routes, and the map sizes are fairly small. Which means you can download just about every hiking trail for a relatively large area – perfect for shorter impromptu hikes when you’re travelling, or if you’re overseas and don’t want to use mobile data. In short, it’s a great “backup hiking app” that lets you work out where you are you and where to go when you’re out of range and haven’t downloaded the maps you need.
- Maps always available off-line and free (but you need to download them for a state or country)
- Large number of hiking tracks
- Easy to create a route on mobile device
- Can import tracks (in KML format) into app
- No topographic maps
- Doesn’t record tracks
- Not purpose-designed for hiking (more a general purpose travel app)
Other Useful Apps
Of the many hundreds of hiking apps you can download, here are a few more I use and recommend.
Displays the name, elevation, and distance of any peak in augmented reality – the app can identify over one million peaks all over the world. The free version is limited to one peak per day; the premium version is $29.99/year. An alternative is PeakFinder, which at $4.99 (once-off) is a bit cheaper – it also works in a Web browser, if you’re trying to work out what you’ve taken a photo of from a mountain peak!
Far Out Guides
Guthook Guides were started in 2010 by a couple of thru-hikers who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (USA) together. They have since been rebranded as FarOut Guides. The app is available in the Apple App Store and Google Play, with the guides available for a number of long-distance hiking and cycling trails. The app is free, but you pay for each trail (or collection of trails). The app is designed to work offline and has detailed information on the hiking trails.
Developed in Australia by Anthony Dunk (who has released a number of other hiking apps), Handy GPS is a simple but powerful navigation app. It displays and records your location in either UTM or lat/lon coordinates using a number of datums, or you can enter (or import) waypoints whch you can then navigate to.
Also useful for planning is AusDatum, which is a Windows application (not an mobile app). It performs high precision coordinate conversions between Easting/Northing and Lat/Lon coordinates in a number of different Australian and global datums such as AGD, GDA94, GDA 2020 and WGS84 (it can also convert multiple coordindates by importing and exporting a spreadsheet).
Katrina Hemingway · February 28, 2022 at 5:49 am
Great overview Oliver. Having done the PCT I am a great advocate for FarOut (Guthooks in my day). They have branched out from primarily US trails. You may want to highlight the long distance trails in Australia/NZ that are now covered by this app. Cape to Cape and Bibbulmun WA, Walk the York and Heysen Trail SA, Australian Alpine Way Track NSW, Wilsons Promontory VIC, Overland Track TAS, Te Araroa NZ etc.
oliverd :-) · February 28, 2022 at 9:24 pm
Thanks Katrina – I’ll add some of the trails that you mention they cover!
Yvonne (CoffsTrails) · March 1, 2022 at 5:15 pm
Thanks Oliver for the shoutout for my review of GaiaGPS and AllTrails!