The Top Hiking GPS Apps for iPhone and Android
Looking for the best GPS apps for your iPhone or Android smartphone for your next hike? As a solo hiker and pilgrim, I never leave home without a GPS map and guidebook. Since your phone contains a GPS chip that does not require cellular or wifi to operate, using a GPS mapping app on your iPhone or Android device is a great way to be more prepared when you’re hiking or exploring.
Better Than A Dedicated Device?
While smartphone apps and handheld GPS units use the same technology, there can be some substantial differences in their functionality.
One key advantage of your smartphone GPS app is the versatility of your iPhone or Android itself. With a GPS app, you can carry just one device for navigation, photography, and communication. Another advantage for your smartphone is the ability to load multiple GPS apps onto your device which allows you to better match your needs on the trail. And – perhaps best of all – many of the best smartphone GPS apps cost less than $20.
That said, of all the gear I own the only item I will NEVER leave home without is the Garmin Inreach Explorer 2-Way Satellite Communicator. Not only is it one of the top-performing handheld GPS units but it also a two-way satellite communication device – meaning that you can contact friends or signal emergency services anywhere in the world, even when no cellular service is available. As a solo hiker, rescue and redundancy are key and this GPS gives me both with great battery life. You can read my review of the Garmin Inreach Explorer 2-Way Satellite Communicator online.
THE BEST SMARTPHONE GPS APPS FOR HIKING
I’ve used Gaia on the Camino de Santiago, Florida Trail, Appalachian Trail, across the USA, Europe, and China… and never found it lacking.
Gaia has exceptional accuracy, detailed route planning, plus a multitude of map and map layers that allow you to use the GPS to your specific needs. Need to overlay snowfall forecasts on a trail? No problem. Hiking without cell service? Simply save the map to your phone memory and your maps will be visible wherever you go. GaiaGPS allows you to search for hikes/trails in any map area, leveraging public trail data and user-uploaded routes to help the hiking community. GaiaGPS allows you to record and share the track with others and layering photos by location on recorded paths. You can access your maps and tracks on multiple devices, including the internet, device app, and even smartwatches.
GaiaGPS is free to download for iPhone and Android. Some more advanced features and map layers require a membership, which is most highly recommended for backcountry hiking.
Looking for a place to hike? Alltrails uses crowdsource technology to catalog, rate, and map hike throughout the world so a new adventure is always available to avid hikers.
While not as robust or configurable as GaiaGPS, this app shines by combining photos reviews of trails and conditions from millions of users with mapping and route recording technology, making it one of the most popular smartphone GPS apps for hikers. Similar to GaiaGPS, Alltrails offers map layers and a number of map types for premium members. Honestly, the default maps are sufficient for most hikers; however, a side-by-side of offered maps make Gaia the winner hands-down.
I always have Alltrails on my smartphone. It’s like the Yelp or TripAdvisor of hiking, giving timely reviews and current information on trails. Even though I don’t use it for the GPS features, there really is no better way to quickly find new hikes to try.
One of the most robust apps for distance hikers and section hikers, Guthook combines good topographic mapping and elevation studies with exceptionally detailed route finding to give hikers a reliable guide of what lies ahead. By using crowdsourcing to detail conditions on the trail – such as water and shelter availability – Guthook has become an indispensable GPS app for both thru-hikers and casual hikers alike.
In my section hikes along both the Appalachian Trail and the Florida Trail, I’ve used Guthook not only as a GPS but also as a planning tool to help understand trail conditions ahead and to prioritize my stops, such as when to refill my water or what to look for at trailheads and towns. I really like that it works just as well offline as online when no cellular or wifi service is available.
Unfortunately, as a specialized guide, it is a rather limited app globally in that it only features a specific number of (very popular) routes, including the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Pacific Coast Trail, and Spain’s legendary Camino Frances. In this regard, Guthook is akin to a highly specialized guidebook with real-time GPS features.
One of the coolest outdoor apps available, Spyglass is also by far the most visually impressive. A complete GPS toolkit is available with the usual tracking features but combined with a stunning augmented reality view.
The app also incorporates a heads-up display, a high-quality compass with map overlays, a gyrocompass, speedometer, altimeter, astronomical object finder, a sextant, inclinometer, an angular calculator, and more.
This is a great app for day-hikes, especially with kids or scouts as they will really enjoy the virtual reality-style navigation. That said, the app itself does use more battery than any other GPS app by incorporating the camera functionality so this is probably not the ideal app for section hikes or distance trails.
Conserving Your Smartphone Battery
While I always carry a backup battery to charge my phone, I use the below settings to maximize my phone battery charge during long treks, with a goal to get 5-7 days per charge on my phone.
- Enable Airplane Mode (turns off WiFi/Bluetooth)
- Close all apps except your GPS app
- General > Usage > Battery Percentage = ON
- Privacy > Location Services = OFF (except GaiaGPS)
- Privacy > Advertising > Limit Ad Tracking = ON
- Privacy > Motion & Fitness = OFF
- General > Siri = OFF
- General > Accessibility > Reduce Motion = ON
- General > Date & Time > Set Automatically = OFF
- General > VPN = OFF
Two more tips for conserving battery life are to use your phone GPS as the “backup” against your paper map so that you’re powering it infrequently and to keep your phone warm, especially at night. Nothing drains the battery faster than cold weather!
Redundancy and Preparedness
A quick note on preparedness: learn how to use your GPS app for navigation, route finding, and tracking your location before you hit the trail. Even using your smartphone GPS around your hometown can help you understand its functionality, strengths, and weaknesses. And always take a navigation backup such as a map and compass so that a broken or lost phone doesn’t put you in a dangerous situation.
Not sure how to use a map and compass? Take a free navigation class at your area REI store or check out some of these introductory videos on YouTube.
Husband. Father. Backpacker. Pilgrim. Author.
My recent treks include the Camino de Santiago through Portugal and Spain as well as section hiking along the Florida Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Provided I can do so safely, in 2021 I’m walking the California Missions Trail in the United States, as well as England’s ancient Pilgrims’ Way from London to Canterbury. Afterward, I’ll begin the Via Francigena, the historic way in Europe connecting Canterbury to Rome.