5 best GPS hiking navigation apps reviewed – GaiaGPS, AllTrails (2023 update)

Poring over a map on the kitchen table is a joyous thing, but these days we use navigation apps on our phones - but which one? Find out why I use GaiaGPS for bushwalking.

Who doesn’t love looking at a map? What secrets hide between those closely spaced contour lines? Is there a route to that peak? The paper map still has a place in your pack, but now we are more likely to plot a route by joining the dots on a navigation app or uploading a GPX track that our friend has sent us. Then we print out a map of our route, stuff it in a pocket for emergencies, and download the offline map to our phone navigation app to use as we walk.

Read our review of five different navigation apps to understand why we choose GaiaGPS Premium to find our way on the trails.

Table of Contents

TLDR: If you are a regular Australian bushwalker who loves maps and exploring – you absolutely need GaiaGPS Premium. If you are a beginner hiker following popular trails near a big city, you might prefer AllTrails. If data privacy concerns you, consider OsmAnd

Should I use a GPS navigation app on my phone for hiking?

Until recently, bushwalkers navigated using a compass and printed topographic maps they purchased from a shop.  A printed map and a compass are undeniably useful, particularly if your phone fails, and we recommend carrying both as a complement to your navigation app.   

GPS navigation apps on your smartphone have various benefits over a compass:

  • Figuring out where you are using a GPS navigation app on your smartphone is much quicker than triangulating bearings on a map.  
  • Apps can be used to track your route progress, providing not only statistics about distance covered and elevation but also the ability to backtrack on your recorded trail if you cannot proceed further. 
  • GPS navigation apps provide more map layers and information than you can possibly carry in printed form, and allow you to zoom in and out.
Of course you will need to protect your phone from the weather while hiking, and manage your battery use.  

 

Choosing a short list of GPS navigation apps to review

I made an initial list of nine navigation apps to review, based on what people most said they used in a large Australian Facebook hiking group.

I used the following criteria to screen the apps for suitability for bushwalking:

  • The app should be available for iOS, Android, and on the web allowing use of a larger screen for planning 
  • A map for bushwalking or hiking must show contour lines, this is called a a “topo” or topographic map
  • A navigation app needs to support offline maps, as there is often no mobile coverage on bush trails. 
  • GPX support is useful for sharing tracks with your hiking friends.  

I knocked out Maps.Me (no topographic map, no support for GPX files) and PocketEarth (no Android version, what universe do they live in?). Wikiloc looked promising but I culled it as they only offer one Australian topographic map which was out of date and inaccurate: streets in my local area didn’t exist on the map.  Google Maps is great for driving to the trail head, but lacks key features for remote bushwalking (also see our review of GPS navigation apps for 4WD adventuring).

I installed each of the remaining apps for review, purchasing the level that gave me essential topographic map detail and offline access.

Why can’t I use a free navigation app, why pay for a navigation app?

How much is your life worth? More than a Big Mac with fries and a coke?

Paying for a navigation app with a good offline map is cheaper than the cost of an SOS callout when you get lost

Some apps, like GaiaGPS and AllTrails+ charge an annual subscription but give you maps for free.  Others such as Avenza and MemoryMap offer the app for free, but charge for maps. OsmAnd Pro charges an annual subscription and has in-app map purchases. 

None of these apps support family sharing, but you can use the app on all your devices (phone, tablet, website) using the same login credentials.

The limits of Open Source Maps used in apps like AllTrails

Open Source Maps (OSM) are used as a base in many apps, including OsmAnd and AllTrails.  The alternative is more detailed government maps, such as SixMaps in NSW, or maps produced by private companies, such as Hema (popular in the 4WD community). 

Are open source maps good enough for hiking? 

If you hike in a densely populated area on well known and well marked trails that are accurately mapped, then open source maps in an app like AllTrails may be accurate and sufficiently detailed. 

Where I walk, in north east NSW, the country is a lot rougher and we often go off-track. Open source maps don’t include old forestry snig tracks that we use. The official state government Topo maps have these tracks, as well as rich detail on man made infrastructure (such as power lines), vegetation (rainforest full of lawyer vine or swampy), all the creek lines etc.  Land ownership, vegetation, map grid lines and satellite imagery are also useful when exploring new areas. This added information from the state Topo maps, combined with online satellite imagery, is essential to help keep us out of trouble when exploring.  GaiaGPS Premium has state government Topo maps for much of Australia and New Zealand.

Use the slider to compare the quality if information in the maps shown below, both showing the same area (Mount Coramba).  On the left is an Open Source Map, on the right is the government NSW Topographic Map.  I know which map I’d rather rely on!

ViewRanger Open Source Map for Mt CorambaNSW Topographic map showing Mt Coramba

Sharing your trails and privacy on hiking apps

AllTrails has a focus on social connections.  You can follow other users, share trails, photos and reviews. The benefit to you of course, is that you can easily search for trails that others have recorded in your area, and create lists of trails you have completed or want to do.  Although the AllTrails filters and user reviews can be helpful, crowd-sourced data may not alway be reliable and someone else’s idea of an easy walk might be hard for you.  

GaiaGPS has curated “hikes”, and a map overlay called “public tracks”.  Unfortunately there is no way to filter the green public tracks, for example hikers only and excluding vehicles. The lack of a filter limits its usefulness compared to AllTrails.

AllTrails is the clear winner among the apps for finding finding new trails, but it comes at a cost – privacy.  Your AllTrails data is public by default, so everyone can see what you are doing, unless you pay attention to your settings and switch to private. AllTrails offers location tracking to your friends, they call it Lifeline. I think I’ll stick with an old fashioned Aussie “cooee!” 

OsmAnd Pro, by contrast, ticks all the privacy boxes. Data is encrypted when transferred. Your personal data is not collected, there is no public sharing but you can export your GPX tracks and share with the selected friends. The service is transparent (the code is open source). You can even pay with bitcoin.  However OsmAnd still has community at its heart – you can directly edit Open Source Map data from the app to improve track and point of interest information for everyone. 

Similarly to OsmAnd, Memory Map allows you to export your tracks and share the GPX file with your friends, but has no public sharing. 

GaiaGPS is somewhere in between the privacy extremes of AllTrails and OsmAnd. Your data is private by default, but you can share with your fiends, and make public selected routes, tracks, waypoints if you choose. 

Route planning on an app or browser

You can find a walk that someone else has done that looks fun on these apps and on websites like CoffTrails. Once you’ve chosen your walk, you will need the GPX track information. All these apps support importing GPX file.

Or you might plot a walk yourself on the map using the app. All apps support route planning and creation of waypoints, although some are easier to use than others. In the ideal world, a route is plotted in advance at home on a big desktop screen using the website and then seamlessly synced to your phone. Worst case, you may need to plot an emergency exit route on your phone if someone is injured or the weather turns foul.

Avenza and OsmAnd do not support route plotting on a website, and AllTrails doesn’t offer route plotting on the app.  GaiaGps offers both web and app route planning. While Memory Map does not have a website you can log into, you can download an app for your PC or Mac for route creation.

GaiaGPS has a handy “snap to trail” feature, allowing quick creation of routes, including when offline if you have downloaded routing data. OsmAnd and AllTrails  also produce intelligent routes based on your chosen profile. Memory Map produces straight line routes, which you can then optimise from a menu. 

Track your hike using a GPS navigation app

With your route planned, and a printed copy of the map in your pocket, make your way to the start and press the “record” button. All these apps do an acceptable job of recording the track, showing statistics such as distance, elevation and time, geotagging photos etc. This is core functionality.

If you want turn by turn directions (where’s the fun in that), GaiaGPS makes an attempt with “guide me”, while AllTrails will beep if you are “off route”.  All allow you to save a waypoint as you walk, which can be useful to mark a nice swimming place or campsite.  

When you are finished your walk, save your track and export your GPX file if you wish. 

GaiaGPS allows you to organise your track data into searchable folders, which is very useful as you start to accumulate a large collection of tracks across different activity types (hiking, kayaking, cycling etc). AllTrails allows you to make lists. OsmAnd conveniently stores your GPX tracks in the Files app on your device.

Where did I put my glasses? Ease of use of navigation apps

Perhaps you are like me – lots of hiking in your youth before family and work got in the way. And then you get back into it about the same time you discover you need reading glasses.

A well designed app is easier to use. If you can’t figure out how to use the app, or don’t enjoy using it, move on. Life is too short for clunky ugly apps. 

Have a closer look at a map on the app – does it zoom in and out smoothly? Can you see the contour lines, are the fonts readable? Can you customise the track colour, change the location marker, does it support dark mode?  

When the map is too hard to read, I don’t look at it as often, it’s easier to just keep walking and hope I’m going in the right direction. And we won’t mention the interesting “discussions” between two co-leaders both struggling to read a bad map on their phones.  

Also consider your phone – is the screen clear, or is it cracked?  Do you have an old phone with a small screen and a battery well past it’s use by date? Have you toggled the accessibility settings for extra large fonts?  Any of these factors will make using a navigation app hard.

I found OsmAnd to be highly configurable, but at the price of a steep learning curve. The Memory Map user interface design seems quite dated and confusing to me, but regular users of the app like it. I found both AllTrails and GaiaGPS intuitive and easy to use, but GaiaGPS is more customisable. GaiaGPS, unlike AllTrails, has a tablet app as well as a mobile app, which is useful for planning and review on a bigger screen. 

Only you can decide which app has the best user design to light your way.

CoffsTrails review of the 5 best navigation apps for hiking

We reviewed five navigation apps, including cost, supported platforms, map layers, routing features and privacy.  We list the top three pros and cons for each app. Finally, we list the stand-out features and explain why we think GaiaGPS Premium is the best choice for Australian bushwalkers. We also use the free version of AllTrails for desktop research. 

GaiaGPS Premium

Best choice for experienced bushwalkers in Australia

Pros:

  • Advanced features for bushwalkers such as grid lines and grid references, supports UTM and lat/long
  • Excellent organisation tools for tracks, routes and other data using folders, search, and filter
  • Interesting map layers including geology, first nations (aboriginal country), public tracks and OSM heat-maps
  • Very easy to create a route on the app on the fly while out in the field, and rapidly share it to your hiking buddy if they also use GaiaGPS

Cons:

  • Learning curve to get the most out of the app
  • Doesn’t support GeoPDF maps (use Avenza for this) 
  • Caveat emptor. GaiaGPS Premium Outside+ is heavily promoted, but offers little of value for Australians, other than a higher bill in year 2 and no downgrade option to the cheaper GaiaGPS Premium

AllTrails+

Best choice for beginners walking popular hiking trails.  The free version is a useful second app for experienced hikers doing desktop research.

Pros:

  • Easy to use, polished interface
  • Social app that is great for finding new trails, but be cautious about trusting crowd-sourced information
  • Many import/export formats are supported

Cons:

  • Closed map system, no government topographic maps
  • Need to manage your privacy settings
  • Cannot create routes on the app

Avenza

Advanced features are useful for commercial and professional users, or those needing specialised maps

Pros:

  • Map Store offers maps from publishers that are not available on other apps, such as Hema, Spatial Vision (eg the Grampians Peaks Trail). And you can publish your own maps.  
  • Import of GeoPDF, GeoTIFF.
  • Can share map data with a buddy who is also using Avenza out in the field

Cons:

  • No website version
  • Map purchases add up, it gets expensive. Free maps (such as GetLost) are poor quality not suitable for hiking. And planning and tracking across maps sold in sheets is not seamless.
  • Can’t use it to find trails

OsmAnd Pro

Not the best choice for Australian bushwalking, but may be a helpful if you are travelling the world, mixing road trips with hiking.

Pros:

  • Protects your privacy
  • Additional map features include wikipedia place information, weather etc.
  • Highly configurable and extensible, but unless you are a techie, OsmAnd is not easy to use!

Cons:

  • No website version, although OsmAnd.net is in development
  • The flip side of tighter privacy is that sharing data with a buddy is difficult

Memory Map for All

If you have been using Memory Map for years, and have already purchased a library of maps, there may be an argument to stay with Memory Map.   

Pros:

  • Can organise route, tracks and waypoints data in nest folders with sorting 

Cons:

  • Maps are expensive, free base map is unusable for hiking so must pay for a map.
  • Steep learning curve, user interface appears dated (Memory Map began on desktops back in 2000)
  • No browser app for route planning, and for those of us with a Mac, the recommendation is to use the old version of Memory Map on Windows in Parallels, as the Mac version lacks functionality!?!

Features that make a difference – why we use GaiaGPS

There are various bells and whistles in the different apps – some fun and arguably useful, such as 3D Flyover, but probably not the main course for hikers.

GaiaGPS provide features that hard-core bushwalkers used to reading paper maps will love. Such as a compass bearing (true or magnetic north), map grid lines and grid references (you can even search by grid reference!), and you can set the datum and coordinate type (eg UTM WGS84). GaiaGPS also supports CarPlay and Android Auto and is good for navigating to the track head to start your walk.  See our review of GPS navigation apps for 4WD adventuring for more.

These advanced features, together with excellent route planning abilities and synch across cloud and all devices, and the extensive set of map layers that includes the local government topographic maps at an affordable price is what clinches the GaiaGPS Premium deal for me, and why GaiaGPS is my first choice of GPS navigation app for hiking in Australia.  

If you already own and use one of these apps, and have built up a nice collection of maps and tracks, and are familiar with its use, then stay with it. But if you haven’t committed yet, my recommendation is GaiaGPS Premium.

Links to GaiaGPS are affiliate links. In theory I earn a small commission at no cost to you, but Outside+ (the owners of Gaia) have yet to actually pay me any money. The possibility that Outside+ may one day send a few dollars my way does not affect my recommendation of the GaiaGPS Premium app that I pay for myself, and use extensively. 


Software marketing departments like to come up with Cute Words when there is already a well understood ordinary word.

I have used these meanings. A map is a flat representation of the features of an area of the earth. A route is a way of getting from one place to another, and is something you are planning. A track is a collection of breadcrumbs showing where you actually went. GPX is a common GPS format for recording tracks.

Reading maps

Of course, these navigation apps assume you know your way around a topographic map. If maps aren’t your strong point, but you are keen to understand more, I can recommend the free booklet Map Reading guide: How to Use Topographic Maps Edition 4. Geoscience Australia, Canberra. Lotsafreshair has an excellent three part series of posts on How to navigate with with a map and compass and has published a book.

There are also practical hands-on navigation courses you can take, try your local bushwalking club or commercial courses such as those run by Ashley Burke (MountainSphere Adventures)..

Orienteering is an effective and fun way to practise and improve your map skills – search out your local orienteering club or look at the app MapRun which has some local Coffs Harbour routes.

 

About our guidebooks

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Best Walks on the NSW Mid-North Coast has 40 walks from Port Macquarie to the Coffs Coast and Clarence Valley.

Go exploring with 4WD Treks of Northeast NSW on the coast, mountains and forests.

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