Is there a decent hiking GPS app for the iPhone?
July 20, 2016 4:41 PM   Subscribe

My dad and I are now in the planning/training phase of the Presidential Traverse that I asked about earlier this month. I'm hoping to bring my iPhone plus a recharging pack and make that my total electronics solution. However, the one hiking GPS app I've tried is unsatisfactory and the others cost more than I'm willing to spend just to try them out. Review and comparison sites are not helpful. Is there a hiking GPS app for the iPhone that will do what I need?

So, thanks to the folks who answered my previous question. Dad and I are now planning to head out next week for our Presidential Traverse, and we're working on the final details of our plans and our kit. It's going pretty great, and I'm convinced that we're going to have an awesome time. Please be assured that we're well covered in terms of safety training, proper dress, trail research, navigational materials, escape routes, contingency plans, water solutions, weather considerations, hotel reservations, drive times, hike times, medical supplies, first aid skills, and all that good stuff. We've thought this through, promise.

I just have one tiny question that boils down to whether I am going to have to bring my trusty-but-clunky Garmin GPS plus a bunch of spare AAs, or whether I can get away with using the phone and charger that I am already planning to bring.

Currently, my electronics suite looks like this: headlamp, flashlight, spare lithium batteries, 13000mah USB charge pack, iPhone 6s Plus. The goal is for the iPhone to serve as camera, GPS, backup trail map, nature guide, emergency communication device (yes I know about the limits of cell phones for communication in the backcountry) and GPS unit all in one. I'd really prefer not to bring my dedicated GPS (I am not interested in just not bringing a GPS period) because it's extra weight and bulk, and I'd need to bring about eight extra AA batteries to run it for the whole trip, plus the interface is really clumsy and the screen is garbage and I just don't care for it very much.

However, I don't know if there is an app that will do what I need a GPS to do. The current one I have, MotionX-GPS, is OK but not really satisfactory as it's missing some key features. Here's what I'm looking for in a GPS app:
  • Downloadable terrain maps for offline use. Contour maps with marked trails, ideally.
  • Ability to easily see my current coordinates and altitude
  • Ability to set my coordinate system and datum so that they match my paper map
  • Ability to see my track on the map
  • Ability to set waypoints and plot a course along them
  • Ability to see my bearing and distance to the next waypoint
Those are the core features that I need. MotionX-GPS has most, but not all of them. Some other apps look potentially promising, but they cost money and the sites that review and compare these apps are pretty crappy—they seem to mostly just regurgitate whatever the app publisher has to say, and then enthuse about how great and useful they all are, with no feature-by-feature breakdown from the perspective of a person who has experience with trail GPSes and actually wants to use the damn thing as a navigational tool.

My Garmin does all of the above things and more (though getting decent maps onto it without paying through the nose is quite the production) so if I can't find an app that can cover the basics I'm just going to bring that. I'd be willing to pay up to, say, $50 for an app plus whatever maps I might need—if it was good enough. It would have to be a pretty polished and feature-rich experience for me to be willing to go that high, but basically I'm willing to pay as long as I know that I'm getting what I need.

Does anybody have any recommendations? Have you personally done something like this on an iPhone? Does anyone make a GPS app for the iPhone that can compete with traditional, standalone GPSes features-wise? I'm aware that in terms of things like ruggedness and antenna gain I'm better off with the standalone GPS, but this isn't mission-critical. We're going to be on or near the Appalachian Trail, with good map and compass skills and a well-studied trail map, during the busiest part of the year—so I'm not afraid of us getting lost. I'll be using my GPS as a complementary navigation tool, and for fun. I just want it to be worth a damn in terms of what it can do.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Technology (7 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
GaiaGPS + Topo Maps
posted by OsoMeaty at 5:04 PM on July 20, 2016

+1 on Gaia
posted by splicer at 5:17 PM on July 20, 2016

Response by poster: Can you give me any more information about Gaia? Does it do what I need it to do? I'm looking at dropping $20 to $40 for Gaia GPS plus maps. Can you give me any specifics at all?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:12 PM on July 20, 2016

I've been very happy with Topo Maps
posted by bajema at 6:25 PM on July 20, 2016

I use ViewRanger, which should do everything you need, I think… I haven’t made much use of the routing features and I don’t know what US maps it has available, but you can check out the manual online to get an idea of the feature set.

Using the phone as a GPS can be pretty hard on the battery, especially if you have it running in the background the whole time (which is optional but obviously turning it off compromises the features a bit).
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 2:26 AM on July 21, 2016

The app is free and you pay for offline maps, so you can download it and try it out with OpenStreetMap maps to see what it’s like.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 2:29 AM on July 21, 2016

+1 TopoMaps - just make sure you get the high resolution maps loaded before you go.

In the backcountry, if I set the my iPhone 5s to Airplane Mode (very important!) quit all other apps, and use TopoMaps for frequent but short position/map checks, and take a fair number of pictures, the phone only uses about 20% of battery per day. (I leave TopoMaps running, but I don't use automated tracking, but just manually drop pins at points I feel interesting.)

I bring a 3000mah spare USB battery pack but have yet to use it. I also have a 13000 mah pack and decided it was too heavy to bring on a short trip.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 5:20 PM on July 22, 2016

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