Sitting front and center in my gear room [sorry guests, the toys come first] is a box full of paper maps for parks mountains around the world. There’s something I really like about unfolding a map, scanning contour lines and forest service roads to scout out an area. But, while the print version may accompany me as an emergency backup, let’s be real, it’s 2019 and there’s an app for that. A GPS hiking app to be exact.
Still, tech and the outdoors have had a rough relationship and I’ve tried all sorts of apps over the years in search of the best option: easy but full of features, with a good community and solid tools. So what’s is best? To save you the trouble of downloading — and paying for everything yourself, I’ve compared 3 popular paid GPS hiking apps on the Apple App Store that I’ve used, owned and loved. And let’s go:
First up, the incredibly popular AllTrails
I don’t know the metrics but with 282k (yes, that’s right) reviews on the app store, I suspect AllTrails is far and away the market leader for hiking apps. Most everyone I know uses AllTrails for some of their hiking research here and there and the community driven content makes it extremely handy for getting a sense of recent conditions, trail obstacles and details not covered by blogs like mine. The ability to download multiple top map types to best get a lay of the land is great (so is their offline printing) and their newer weather and “lifeline” alerts / eta function are pretty cool too. Clearly the leader in functions.
I’m certainly share to their site regularly myself but the app has always had some big downsides to me. Like most of the GPS apps, you have to pay to download anything and while more and more of nature seems to be in coverage areas, it’s hardly predictable and thus pro is really required to get the full functionality.
But that’s not unique. The speed however is — I find AllTrails to be reaaaaal slow to load up, especially when you’re offline or in weak signal area which is like exactly when I use it (and yes, I’ve worked with their support team to try and fix this but same result). The stability of the app has come along way over the years but it still crashes more than others. Also, I’ve yet to find a way to import external GPS files in to make it truly all-trails? Finally, the sharing feature co-mingles reviews and trail logs which I’ve always felt decreases participation and the best part of their offering.
Price Tag: $29.99 / year, $59.99 / 3 years and occasionally on sale.
My verdict: Great functionality, easy to use, but slow to load and limited customization.
Second up, Carin App
Named after those little piles of rocks some trails use to mark the way but which you’re not suppose to make yourself, Carin is clever. It wasn’t for the name but this was my go to trail app for a couple years.
I liked (and still like) Carin mostly for it’s right to the point approach. The app does a few things but it’s the quickest to load up of the apps I’ve tried and easy to get right into the trail, download, record, whatever. Overlays of cell coverage have come in handy for finding a place to check in or chill out and while I never used the function, they also have a feature for notifying your contacts of your plan.
Where the app falls short for me however is in pro-level flexibility. Trail selection is fairly limited and you can’t import your own maps (last I checked) to add anything else. The trails they do have calculate total elevation change and ignore effective gain (the actual amount of elevation you climb) which is just not helpful on anything other than straight up, like say longer hikes with lots of up and down. Once again, you’ll have to go pro to download a map and even then, have just one topo profile or a satellite view to use. So when they moved from free to pro model and my year long trial ended (seriously, they gave a free year for the change, awesomeness!), I couldn’t justify sticking around versus alternatives.
Price Tag: $26.99 / year or $4.99 / month
My verdict: My recommendation for a first hiking app, fast, light, effective but hard to justify the pro version.
Last but certainly not least Gaia GPS
When I first saw Gaia’s GPS app, I tried it and tried to ignore it. I’ve got maps, I’ve owned GPS devices, one of the big perks of a phone based GPS was suppose to be the slick interface — that’s not Gaia, not at all.
Eventually, I gave it another try and, to cut to the chase, it became my new go to and has been ever since. Sure, it may not be as visually easy to understand but it gets the job done and done well. The app is almost as light weight as Carin, map downloads are probably quicker and with several layer options (including NatGeo now) to pick from, it works and works well.
Unlike the previous apps, plotting and sharing seems to be a core part of the app and my hiking / climbing friends and I will share, source and beg for GPS files to load on in to Gaia before a climb. Tracking is solid and customization (again, pretty unique) and it doesn’t wreck the battery life or flipout in airplane mode.
That all said, and as I said initially, the interface and I have never got along. Also, there’s a lot less default trails than AllTrails has with little detail and it’s the most pricey of the apps on this list. Nothing is perfect.
Price Point: $39.99 (10% off for the first year)
My verdict: This has been my go to for 2019. Fast, feature rich, powerful, but not cheap — of course.
And my winner is: Gaia
I’ve used all these apps in their free mode and paid for (or had a free trial of) each in pro a couple years. Sure, Gaia may win for me today but I wanted to share all 3 of these apps because I think they all do something a little different that may make each the best one for you. Insert cheesy: they’re all winners in my books but for real, there’s a lot of other apps out there, I kept using these ones for a reason so give them a spin!
Bonus App: PeakFinder
Ever wonder what mountain that is you’re looking at from another summit? For $4.99 forever (not a pitch, I paid it too), you can figure it out with a visualization of mountain ranges around the world. It’s fast, works offline with single downloads for large areas (i.e. Alaska), has constant updates and is lots of fun when chilling out up top.
Have a favorite app of your own? Please share it in the comments!