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How To Use Your iPhone GPS For Backpacking In The Wilderness


What are the best iPhone GPS apps for Wilderness backpackers?

The three most important rules of real-estate are - Location, Location, Location.  Those just so happen to be three of the most important rules for long haul backpackers as well.  Forget about cellphone service.  Forget about electricity.  You are tens if not hundreds of miles from civilization, and you need to know how to get from where you are to the next point on your hike reliably.  Your life depends on it, so you want to make sure whatever you choose for your location/gps device, it's reliable.

Option 1 - Google Maps

Google maps is, perhaps, the most widely used gps/mapping app on the planet; and for good reason.  It has more features, accuracy, and real-time updates than almost any other gps app available.  But does it fit the bill for the off-grid adventurer/backpacker?  

Strengths - 

  • Extremely up to date satellite imagery.  
  • Realtime data updates (if you have a network to connect to)
  • Terrain maps available in some locations
  • Timeline keeps track of your previous locations
  • Downloadable map data is available for offline use
  • Price - Free

Weaknesses - 

  • Offline map download is manual.  If you don't download the map before your trip, you are out of luck.
  • No easy way to view exact lat/long location information.
  • No topographic maps.
  • Downloading satellite map data is separate from regular maps.
  • Downloaded map data can expire after 30 days.

Download - Google Maps for iphone

Option 2 - Gaia GPS

Gaia GPS is customized for outdoor adventurers.  Many features for those who are really off the grid.  

Strengths -

  • Record altitude, speed, and many other datapoints
  • Leave waypoints and create tracks
  • Fantastic topographic map support
  • Offline maps can be downloaded (topo/satellite/etc.)
  • Pre-planning routes available
  • National Geographic maps available (for a fee)

Weaknesses - 

  • Price - $9.99 per year (basic membership).  $29.99 per year for premier membership.
  • The user interface is not as polished as some other map apps
  • Offline maps can sometimes be blurry.

Download -Gaia GPS for iphone

Option 3 - Topo Maps+

Topo Maps+ continues to improve and could be a viable option for your backpacking GPS needs.  

Strengths - 

  • Downloadable map chunks for offline use
  • Elevation profile, useful for determining climbing/descending routes and progress
  • High resolution topo maps
  • Sharable, pre-planned route designer
  • Compatible with mac (OS X)
  • Customer support available

Weaknesses -

  • Price - $19.99 (1 year basic map access).  $47.99 (1 year advanced topo map access)
  • Occasional bugs, such as elevation data not displaying, app becomes non responsive.

Download - Topo Maps+ for iphone

 Which iPhone GPS app is right for you?

So, which of these apps is right for you?  Possibly all 3!  If you can afford the memberships, it might be worthwhile to download all 3 apps to your iphone.  That way you have a number of sources of data to triangulate with.  If you prefer not to purchase multiple apps, then Gaia GPS is probably the best app available for long-haul hikers.  

JRR Tokien was right, "Not all those who wander are lost"...if they have their GPS enabled smartphone and a great GPS app to go with it.  

Happy Glamping


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