We use the GaiaGPS app for our hiking adventures (see our 2023 review of navigation apps for hiking) and to plan adventure motorcycle rides. But is GaiaGPS also the best app for finding our way on off-road 4WD adventures?
We researched several devices, apps and map layers to find the best choice for navigation on our 4WD adventures. We found that the choice of what is most suitable for 4WD depends on where you are exploring.
If you are tackling the great 4×4 desert tracks of central Australia, then the Hema Map books with their detailed touring information might be your choice. For the Victorian high country, you might prefer the Rooftop maps and Boiling Billy’s 4WD Treks of the High Country.
But for our 4WD travels in north-east NSW, our experience is that NSW Topographic maps offer the most information, GaiaGPS is still our favourite app, and HemaX Premium is an additional bonus.
Let’s dig deeper.
Table of Contents
TLDR: If you are exploring north east NSW by 4WD, GaiaGPS is the best GPS navigation app with NSW LPI topographic maps. If you are heading for the remote desert tracks in outback WA, SA or NT, consider either Hema books or Hema maps on Memory Map, as open source maps may not be adequate.
SatNav, device, book, or smartphone app?
Let’s get the SatNav option out the way. Your vehicle may include a manufacturer satellite navigation system, but if the map is anything like ours, forget it. It has no idea about 4WD tracks, let alone some recent freeway upgrades.
Then there are special devices like Garmin or the Hema HX-2 Navigator ($800). Both Garmin GPS and Hema devices are expensive, and the negative product reviews for the Hema device are concerning.
We prefer to use the powerful multipurpose devices we already own : our smartphones, together with a choice of suitable apps and map layers. And we have some built in redundancy – if one of our phone’s should break, we have a second phone with apps and maps installed, and sometimes travel with a tablet too with routes synched to all devices.
While our phones are our best friends, we still like to carry a humble printed map or map book. Printed maps give a good overview, and the travel information and photos nicely complement a digital navigation app. And you can have the satisfaction of ticking off each trek on the index page in your book as you complete it! Check out our guidebook for 4WD Treks in northeast NSW.
Apps and Maps
Some applications, such as ExplorOz, try to be all things – cartographer creating local maps, developer of navigation app, curator of information on campsites and places of interest (POI), and 4WD community. A big ask for a small team.
We use a mix of specialist apps such as WikiCamps (for campsites, $8), FuelCheck (NSW, free) or FuelMap (nationwide, free), Google Maps (for major routes, local businesses etc, free), Garmin inReach mini (safety), and social media including YouTube (community).
Similarly, we use more than one navigation app and multiple map layers. When travelling long distance on highways and well-marked roads, Waze (free) is good for crowd sourced information about speed traps and other hazards.
But once we slow down and get dirty on 4WD bush tracks, we need a quality navigation app and a topographic map with good local detail. We switch between the LPI NSW Topographic map (for information on gates, property boundaries, forestry tracks etc) and open-source maps (less cluttered, easy to read). Occasionally, we also refer to satellite imagery to see what the land looks like.
Maps and routing information need to work offline for 4WD exploring, as there is seldom mobile coverage in the hills where we play.
We prefer vector maps as these don’t lose crispness as you zoom in and out, unlike raster maps which tend to pixelate. A small challenge with vector maps, however, is that minor 4WD tracks can “disappear” if you zoom out to see the map at a high level. Gaia’s new Overland map layer handles this better than most, but a simple trick we use is to mark a route along a minor road so that it is clearly seen at all zoom levels.
Dark mode and high contrast map styles are also useful to easily read the map while driving.
Phone, tablet, CarPlay or Android Auto?
For navigation, we prefer an app that offers choices across multiple devices: phone (iOS for her, Android for him), CarPlay and Android Auto (depending on whose phone is plugged in), tablet, and website.
We use the larger screen available on a tablet or website to research our routes and plan ahead, but the phone is our primary tool when travelling in the 4WD. Of course, the app needs to synchronise seamlessly between all devices and backup automatically to the cloud.
Given there are usually two of us in the vehicle, the passenger can focus on navigation, leaving the driver to watch the road. For those travelling alone, the larger screen offered by CarPlay or Android Auto makes a navigation app much easier to use. If you have an older vehicle, you might want to install a mounting bracket or head unit with your phone or tablet.
Warning – please obey rules and regulations for mounting a mobile device in a vehicle, and the use of a mobile phone or tablet while driving.
Review of 4WD GPS Navigation Apps
For the style of 4WD adventuring that we do, map quality is essential. The most accurate and informative maps for exploring north-east NSW are the NSW LPI Topographical maps, HemaX Premium, open-source maps, and state forest maps available at a scale around 1:25,000.
Other maps such as Getlost and the EOTopo map offered by ExplorOz lack detailed information and are not accurate for our area, so are of limited use to us.
We’ve compared the map coverage of the various apps for the popular Mount Coramba 4WD tracks near Coffs Harbour, including Rocky Trail, Hopes Road, Morbid Trail, Army and Commando Trail and Taylors Creek (Dump Trail).
All the apps reviewed provide core functionality for creating routes, tracking and setting waypoints. What sets one apart from the others is the range of maps layers, depth of features and ease of use.
Best choice for 4WD adventures on the east coast of Australia – Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania.
Caveat emptor. GaiaGPS Outside+ is heavily promoted, but offers little of value for Australians. Choose GaiaGPS Premium instead.
- Excellent organisation tools for tracks, routes and other data using folders, search, and filter
- Interesting map layers including geology, first nations (aboriginal country), Gaia Overland map with good contrast, Public tracks and OSM heat-maps
- Routing information can be downloaded for offline routing, smart routing (snap to trail)
- No WA or NT government topographical map, complement Gaia with Hema atlas for these areas, or HemaX Premium maps on another app
- Limited POI information, complement with WikiCamps
- Search requires internet access (doesn’t work offline)
Links to GaiaGPS are affiliate links, I earn a small commission at no cost to you. This does not affect my recommendation of this app that I use extensively.
A good choice if privacy is your major concern, and not venturing off major routes.
- Highly customisable, different map styles, many features
- Includes Open Places for comprehensive POI information, and street imagery
- Offline routing, automatic re-routing, has an option to favour unpaved routes
- Initial learning curve
- Data does not synch between devices, manual backups are required
- Offline maps limited to Open Street Maps
Memory Map (for All)
If you have already invested in maps from the Memory Map store, and are comfortable with the user interface, you might want to stay with Memory Map.
- Only option that provides both state topo (NSW, QLD, VIC, TAS, NZ but not WA, SA, or NT) as well as Hema 4WD Maps, but limited to raster maps. Maps are initially expensive but may offer good value over time.
- Can georeference and import printed maps in TIFF format, such as Rooftop
- Search works offline. Overlays allow organisation of your track, routes and waypoints in nested folders with sorting
- New cross-platform Memory Map for All app has some stability issues that are being addressed
- 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!?
If you are travelling on one of the well known routes in the outback (WA, NT), ExplorOz is a alternative to Hema
- Australian owned family business
- Additional app (Tracker, free) allows you to share your track logs with friends/family, but requires internet access to upload your tracks to their server
- Crowdsourced POIs, but the content in NSW is weak and of limited use
- Limited choice of map layers. EOTopo Maps use OSM and additional data curated by ExplorOz. Local errors observed and inadequate information when testing for north-east NSW
- Must pay annual membership fee to use browser version of Traveller on desktop computer, and to download GPX tracks for use outside the app
- Due to the significant cost, I did not purchase this app to test on my mobile, but reviewed the EOTopo 2023 map on the website and read the user manual to get a feel for operations
A good choice if you need coverage for adventures all over Australia, including the outback, east and west coasts.
- HemaX Premium Maps can be viewed on HemaX Cloud with a free account. These are the most accurate maps for north east NSW that I have found, with roads, 4WD tracks and MVOs clearly identified. However the 4WD track ratings are less accurate than NewTracs (Morbid Trail is Easy, for example).
- Large POI database, but some local sites I tested in north-east NSW on HemaX cloud were unreliable with limited or inaccurate information.
- Folders for organising tracks in HemaX cloud and in HemaX Adventurer, and Live Tracking to HemaX Cloud (Adventurer app)
- Creating and editing a route on HemaX Adventurer is clumsy, straight line only, no snap to trail
- HemaX Adventurer requires location services to be set to “Always”, even when the app is closed or not being used, and keeps popping up a notification if you have set it to “While using app”
HemaX Adventurer is the most recent Hema app. Other older Hema apps are:
- Hema 4×4 Explorer ($50 app, plus $50 for HemaX Premium vector maps)
- Hema 4WD Maps ($100 app, raster Hema Explorer maps at 1:150k scale). Built on Memory Map, this is probably the most popular of the Hema apps
- Hema Explorer app which was discontinued
Hema Explorer maps can also be accessed from the Memory Map app ($100, raster maps at 1:150k scale) or in print in various Hema guidebooks.
Not the best choice for your primary app, but a good secondary app for finding some fun routes in Victoria and NSW.
- Crowdsourced information about track difficulty, obstacles, average speed of travel, snow line etc. 4WD Tracks graded green, blue, black as per Victorian 4WD methodology.
- Good way to find new local tracks to explore, easier to use and more useful than Public Tracks on Gaia or searching AllTrails
- Privacy is a concern. Insists on having Location Services set to “Always” and keeps popping up a message if you have it set to “While using app”
- Fonts on maps are very small, hard to read
No one app, or map, is perfect, choose the tools that best meet your 4WD adventuring needs. For us in north east NSW, that is usually GaiaGPS which is competitively priced, with a good collection of maps and fully developed features.
How good would it be if we could also get HemaX Premium maps bundled as a map layer on the GaiaGPS app? But since that’s not possible, your best bet for remote outback tracks is either the Hema maps on Memory Map, or give the new HemaX Adventurer app a try.
Which apps and maps do you choose, and why?