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5 of the Best GPS Thru-Hiking Apps

5 of the Best GPS Thru-Hiking Apps

Getting on trail has never been easier with the advent of GPS hiking apps! But, as they get more popular to use, which are the best GPS thru-hiking apps?

I’ve been thru-hiking for the last 16 years and I’ve personally seen this change happen.  Each year, newer technology has made thru-hiking easier than ever before.  From paper maps to GPS apps, I’ve got you covered because I’ve used them all.

Not all GPS hiking apps are the same: some are more user-friendly, and some do significantly more than others.  This post will help you find the GPS thru-hiking apps for you!

This post contains affiliate links.  I have used every product mentioned and if you purchase one of these products I can make a small commission at no cost to you.

GPS Hiking Apps VS Paper Maps

While GPS thru-hiking apps are fantastic, they don’t fully replace paper maps for three main reasons.

First, you should always have a backup for digital technology!  GPS thru-hiking apps are only as good as how much battery power you’re packing.  Furthermore, they’re only as good as your phone case is waterproof in bad weather.

Second, to get the full backcountry use of GPS hiking apps, you need space on your phone for downloaded maps.  Almost every time you need a GPS app for hiking, you won’t have cell service.  Therefore, your ability to navigate depends on how large your downloaded maps are.

Third, some GPS hiking apps are more complicated than others.  Your ability to use the features of the app will affect how you navigate on trail.  Some apps just take longer to become proficient on.

Therefore, as utterly fantastic as GPS hiking apps for your phone are, I will always advocate for paper maps as a backup.  Especially if you’re on a route (instead of a trail) or learning how to navigate off-trail.

That being said…below are the 5 best GPS thru-hiking apps!  They’re in the order that I prefer to use them.

Gaia GPS

In my opinion, Gaia GPS is the BEST OVERALL phone GPS hiking app.  It does just about everything.  You can work with pre-existing routes or make your own.  The pro version is unparalleled in its abilities.

Favorite Features:

  • You can upload pre-existing GPS tracks and download map tiles around them.
  • Downloaded tiles can be any size you’d like.
  • Snow depth map layer (premium version)
  • Public lands lap layer (premium version)
  • Makes all USGS topo maps, Gaia Topo maps, and Satellite maps readily available with a few swipes thus removing the barrier of finding them in stores.

Downside: Because Gaia GPS has just about everything, it takes a bit longer to learn.  Some features are easy to figure out right off the bat and other features take a little more time to learn.  It also has a subscription, however, I believe it’s 100% worth it.

Basically, this is my favorite GPS thru-hiking app, but you need to take some time to set it up properly and practice with it.

FarOut Guides (Formerly Guthook)

If you’re hiking a trail that FarOut Guides (formerly Guthook) has mapped, you need this app whether you like it or not.

FarOut has taken over what used to be known as the “water report.”

Basically, if you want current, crowd-sourced information on water sources, you need to have this app.  You can isolate and look at all the water sources at once in order of trail direction (nobo/sobo).  Or, you can pull up the map and click on specific water sources, and read the comments.

FarOut includes an elevation profile with the same map icons to find water, campsites, junctions, and towns. 

This GPS thru-hiking app does a lot but also leaves a lot to be desired. 

Favorite Features:

  • Updated information on not only water sources, but town lodging options, new trail angels, trail closures, and really any current information.
  • Easy interface
  • Can filter for towns, water, campsites etc

Downside:

There are actually several downsides.

First, some people try too hard to make a name for themselves in the comment sections.  Often to get the information that you actually need, you have to sort through a litany of bullshit comments.  It can get exhausting sorting through comment threads for the information you need.

Second, while you can download USGS topographic maps to use offline, they’re dumbed-down versions.  It forces you to only follow the red line or alternates that FarOut has mapped in different colors. 

Third, when you download maps for offline use, you’re only downloading a very narrow corridor around the GPS track lines.  If you get off-trail far enough, whether on purpose choosing another route or you’re lost, you may have a hard time navigating back.  They only give you 1-3 miles on either side of the GPS track line. 

Fourth, it does not actually teach you how to navigate without a GPS track.  Yes, it provides easier access to the outdoors for beginners.  However, it will not help you advance your skills from there. 

In the end, I still use this GPS hiking app, but it will never be the only GPS hiking app I have on a trail.

Avenza Maps

Once you get off of the more popular thru-hikes that FarOut does not have, you may need Avenza Maps.

Avenza Maps is a different GPS thru-hiking app than all the other apps in this post. 

Instead of downloading base maps to navigate on, you’ll download PDF maps that have been geolocated. 

What does that mean?  It means that you’re getting a PDF of a paper map that has 4 different points that have GPS markers on them.  With these 4 points, your phone’s GPS and Avenza can locate you on that PDF map.  You’ll get a little blue dot with an arrow that points in the same direction as your phone is pointing.

Favorite Features:

  • It can allow you to carry “paper maps” in digital form and geolocate yourself on them.
  • You can learn a bit more about navigation because you’re PDF maps will be legit topo maps.
  • Those who make the PDF maps can add notes directly on the map.

Downsides:

  • You now have to pay a subscription to add more than 3 PDF maps at a time.  But, you can always have more in an external folder and shift them with cell service.
  • Once you’re off the PDF map, you’ll have nothing to go on except the arrow back to the map.

Personally, I use Avenza Maps on harder routes so I can have digitized paper maps.  I’ve used this on the Continental Divide Trail and Brett Tucker routes like the Grand Enchantment Trail and the Desert Winter Thru-Hike.

Garmin Explore

I use a Garmin InReach Mini 2 when thru-hiking and even bring it out on day hikes.  Personally, I like having the safety net of contacting friends and family if I need it.  I pay for the Safety Plan which includes the SOS button just in case. 

When you activate your InReach Mini 2, you’ll download an app called Garmin Explore.  There, you can download the entire state’s maps and use them to navigate. 

Depending on the plan you use, you can track your own progress and see where you’ve sent messages from.  I love sending a “camping here” message to parents and a fellow thru-hiker who watches out for us. 

This GPS hiking app is super helpful to have as your last-ditch emergency plan.

Favorite Features:

  • I like having a whole state map downloaded to see things like roads easier for hitching into town. 
  • It’s very satisfying to keep track of your campsites by sending a message from them each night.
  • You can add tracking if you’d like and allow your friends and family to track your progress.

Downside:

  • I don’t love the maps for actual navigating because the topographic lines change as you zoom in or out.
  • I feel like the arrow is fairly clunky and reminds me of the first renditions of Garmin GPS devices back in the day.
  • For it to work best, you need a subscription.

While I don’t use this app very often, I enjoy having it available.  It’s well made and should be in your GPS thru-hiking app list for trail.

MapOut (iPhone only)

If subscription fees are killing you and you have an iPhone, I recommend checking out MapOut.  At the moment, it’s iPhone only.  However, it’s still a one-time (inexpensive) fee app that does a lot.

You do get what you pay for with MapOut.  That is, you get a solid, easy-to-use GPS hiking app, but without all the frills.

Once you pay for the app, you can upload GPS tracks and waypoints, track your own movements, and download maps in tiles for offline use.  You can also easily trace a track to see mileage and elevation.

Favorite Features:

  • It’s less expensive than its competitors.
  • Easy to use and learn.
  • Can download and delete tiles fast.
  • The tracing feature works very well for mileage.

Downsides:

  • The topographic lines are less detailed when zoomed out and you have to play a zoom in/out game to read the map well.
  • You can only download a specific-sized tile (not adjustable tiles like Gaia GPS).
  • Only iPhone.

I have not used MapOut as a GPS thru-hiking app on major, well-known trails.  However, I have used it on routes like the Grand Enchantment Trail and the Desert Winter Thru-Hike.  I felt like it gave me a slightly different perspective that helped me navigate better when other maps had a lot going on.

Final Thoughts on GPS Thru-Hiking Apps

GPS thru-hiking apps are definitely the future of thru-hiking whether we love it or not.  They’ve all come leaps and bounds since 2015 when I personally started using them. 

My MAIN RECOMMENDATION is to always have a backup. 

If you’re solo, bring paper maps and a battery pack.

If you’re with a partner, you can get away without paper maps because your partner essentially becomes your backup.  However, you’ll have to trust each other to ration your own battery power and your power banks. 

While these are the best 5 GPS hiking apps, more are likely to come out in the future.  For the time being, my personal go-to is GaiaGPS.  I think the premium version is 100% worth it.  My partner and I use it on trail and in the van to find public land as we travel around the US.