Navigation with Gaia GPS

Smartphones as GPS units

  • Smartphones contain GPS chips that do not rely on cell or wifi signals
  • Using your smartphone provides a larger and higher quality screen, faster processors, and a full line of accessories like waterproof cases
  • Baselayers can be downloaded, providing high-resolution topo, satellite and other options
  • The major disadvantage is battery life, especially in cold weather. I’ll list some battery-saving tips at the bottom of this page.

Gaia GPS

I’ve tried a few navigation apps, but after working with Gaia GPS, I haven’t felt the need to try anything else. This is an incredible app. There are two components, the Gaia GPS app, and, and two levels of subscription, Basic and Premier. Premier includes a few base layers that are really nice to have (ESRI Worldview and Slope-Angle Shading), as well as making multiple layer downloads easier. But that’s about it, in my opinion.

Promo/Discount Codes

Video Tutorials

These videos provide a summary of all the app features. Equivalent text directions are below the videos.

Top Four Features
All Features
Integration with Google Earth

Text Tutorial:

Uploading tracks and points, the website, is a good option for basic route drawing. If you draw a route in, it will automatically sync to your phone. If you draw a route in Google Earth, CalTopo, etc., you will need to upload your route to Gaia as a .kml or .gpx file.

  • From, click on your username/account, then Upload
  • Name the upload and select the .kml/.gpx file
  • If the uploaded features don’t show up on the app within minutes, you can force sync by going to settings → AccountSync/Backup
  • I sometimes see the route but not the associated waypoints. From the app, go to SavedFolders, then toggle visibility on your folder

Custom load Google Earth imagery

Gaia stopped serving google earth imagery, presumably due to “terms of service” conflicts. I like having Google imagery because it is what I am familiar with from the route-planning stages, and is sometime higher resolution than ESRI World Imagery. You can still get Google’s imagery, you just have to load it manually.

  • From, click on your username/account, then Map Sources+ Import an External Map Source
  • Label the Map, something like “Google Earth” seems appropriate.
  • In the Copy and Edit Link to Map Tile field, paste the following link:{x}&y={y}&z={z}&s=Ga
  • If you pasted a correctly formatted link, you will see thumbnails of the imagery at the bottom of the page.
  • Note that you can adjust the min/max zoom levels. 16 is a good default max zoom, and bumping it up any higher will create tiles that will swamp your phone’s memory. However, for some applications (small aerial extent), you might want to bump the resolution up to 19.
  • Click Add this map source
  • The Google Earth layer should now be visible in the map view on the website.
  • Once you phone, click on Map Sources (upper right icon) → EditCustom Imports → select your new map source.

Many map sources are available in this format. Here are a handful of potentially useful layers. ESRI Worldview is available to Premium subscribers, but can be loaded for standard subscriptions by this same process.

Android users: You might need to use “https” instead of “http”.

ESRI Worldview:{z}/{y}/{x}

Stamen Terrain:{z}/{x}/{y}.png

Stamen Watercolor:{z}/{x}/{y}.jpg

Strava All:{z}/{x}/{y}.png

ESRI National Geographic:{z}/{y}/{x}

Google Maps:{x}&y={y}&z={z}

Google Terrain:{x}&y={y}&z={z}

Google Terrain Hybrid:{x}&y={y}&z={z}

Google Satellite Hybrid:{x}&y={y}&z={z} 

Text Tutorial: Gaia GPS App.

Downloading basemaps

Download basemaps before leaving wifi coverage. There are two options:

  1. From the ⊕ icon, select Download Maps. Adjust the bounding box and Max Zoom settings accordingly. For the Basic subscription, what you see is what you get… only the visible layer will be downloaded. For Premium, all of your Visible Layers will be downloaded.
  2. If you already have a route on the map, click on the route → ⓘ → three circle icon in upper right → Download Maps for Track. This option gives you control over which layers and resolution level to download.


Line of Sight

Press the location cross hair twice to enter line-of-sight mode. Approximate bearing can be read from the compass window.

Bearing and Distance

You can read the bearing and distance off a point by going through the motions of creating a route. There are two options:

  1. Long press the area of the screen that you want to drop a point.
  2. From the ⊕ icon, select Create Route

You can move the blue dot by dragging it to a new location. If the blue dot doesn’t show bearing and distance, either your phone doesn’t know your current location (wait until location is found), or you just need to tap on the blue dot again.

Note that you can add more points to your route by long pressing on the screen, and each leg will appear with a distance label.

Recording Tracks

From the ⊕ icon, selectRecord a Track

Exporting Points, Tracks, Routes

There are several ways to share tracks, routes, and points.

Folder method: Place everything in a folder, Select SavedFolders. Then:

Select the share icon in upper right, and invite by email or send a link via text/email. If you send a link, the recipient will have to open the link in (the website) and then add the folder to their account.


Select the three dot icon in the upper right → Export, and send kml or gpx via text, email or Air Drop. The Air Drop function is particularly valuable because it can be used without WiFi or cell. This is of relevance to Search and Rescue teams that want to record search effort and identify zones with less effort.

Managing Battery Life

Gaia settings

Gaia includes a few battery saving options in SettingsPower Saving

Phone settings

A not-too-outdated reference

  • Airplane mode → on (major factor)
  • Leave phone on unless it won’t be used for ~16 hours (major factor). Powering my phone on/off is a major draw.
  • Cellular, Wifi, BlueTooth → off
  • Battery → Low Power Mode
  • Background App Refresh → off
  • Brightness → down
  • Touch ID → off
  • Enable Lock screen (after 30 sec?)

External power

Solar panels (with built-in battery) and external batteries or cases work very well.

Other Tools

It would be careless to rely entirely on a phone for navigation. We carry paper maps, compasses, and a stand-alone GPS unit (my preference is the inReach Explorer+) on each trip.

Stand-alone GPS units

You can transfer kml or gpx files between GPS units, route planning software, Gaia, etc., using:

  • Garmin Basecamp: save the folder as a .kmz or .kml, open it in Basecamp, right-click the ‘list’ and select ‘Send to your device.’ Be sure to select the ‘tracks’ box.
  • GPS Babel: an incredibly powerful (though not as intuitive) tool for managing various geospatial data


  1. Great information Luc – my skills are improving! I shared this with several friends. Thanks for putting your time into your blog!

  2. I have an iPad that is WiFi only, which means no GPS antenna. With a GAIA subscription could I download to my iPad a map of a location where I want to take an off-road trip then use that map when I’m out of WiFi range? If so, will my position on the map be shown as I drive along a route?

    1. Hi Dana- I’m not familiar with iPads, but I think some, or all, have a GPS chip. You need to figure that out for your model (google it). I suspect ‘wifi only’ means no cellular, not no gps. If the iPad doesn’t have a GPS, it won’t show your location when you are out of wifi range. If it does have a GPS, then it will. Maybe you can turn off wifi and use a different app to test if the iPad still shows your location.

  3. F.Y.I. I was not able to effectively get the external map sources working on Android UNLESS, I used HTTPS instead of HTTP. Finally got it working after this, what a huge help to have Google Map sources, AND custom maps that one can “rectify” themselves using services like:

  4. Hey,
    So I used Gaia primarily during AlaskaCross this year, and it worked almost flawlessly. Where it fell short was near the end on a super brushy ridge with no frame of reference. Long story short, the directional feature was flaky and led me in some pretty nice loops. It worked for 24 hours up till then and then it went kaput. I had to resort to using the compass feature on my inReach and following the bearing to get into the drainage I wanted.
    Have you ever had this happen? I tried resetting the phone, restarting the app, airplane mode off and on, and it was just unreliable from then on. I haven’t tried it since, but the location was accurate, just not the heading.


    1. Hi Jacob- I’ve had issues with the phone navigation at short distances. The GPS accuracy is often only at 100 ft or so, and if you combine that with tall trees or steep topography you get a lot of noise. One thing you can try is setting a waypoint at your destination and using the ‘guide me’ option. This method has the advantage of holding the basemap steady, just showing the location icon pointing to different directions, which can be less jarring than using the line-of-sight mode to navigate.

  5. Great article,

    CalTopo is my favorite custom Gaia Map:{z}/{x}/{y}@2x.png

    Also the Strava Heat Map was a very useful tool, but it seems their request API has changed since this was written:
    My attempt to add this looked like:,mapbox.mapbox-streets-v7/{z}/{x}/{y}.vector.pbf?sku=your_sku&access_token=your_token
    with your_sku and your_token being custom for each user.
    My guess was that Gaia didn’t like the .pbf format, any ideas on how to resurrect this?


  6. I’ve had Google Earth on my iPhone 7+ Gaia app for several years, but recently it went completely black. I did report it to Gaia service tech, and he stated he started a bug report, but it has been weeks and I haven’t heard anything. Phone is syncing properly, and it is on my desktop Same has happened to my son, he is running an iPhone 13 or 14. We have uninstalled and reinstalled with no luck. Any help provided would be greatly appreciated; big trip coming up, and love that GE imagery.

    1. Hi Rick- you are not alone. I’m having strange behavior where my original GE map source disappeared but I was able to re-upload and can still view it in the app. But if I try to add the source again now, I can’t. So … ?

      I’ve done some research and currently so *no* easy options to get cached GE imagery on a phone. This might be the end of an era!

      That said, a GIS friend has provided an outline for how to do this using open-source GIS software. I’ll pursue that option and share what I find as a blog post.

      Also, Esri’s world imagery layer is meeting more of my needs each year … GE used to have better resolution for most of Alaska, but Esri has better imagery now. You can also pull Esri imagery into GE pro and view it in 3D, though, render time is a bit slower.

      1. Thank you so much for the reply; I suspected that something was afoot between GE and Gaia when both my son and I lost it simultaneously. Hope you are able to continue to use it on yours.
        I’ll look into the Esri, thanks for that!

  7. Well, (whew!) we did get GE back onto our phones! Gaia tech did reply, said it was just a bug in the system. I believe at the next update, this will be addressed. We needed it NOW, so took these steps:

    1. Deleted the Gaia app from the phone.
    2. Deleted GE custom layer from on desktop version.
    3. Followed steps below to become a Beta Tester…follow closely as you want to make sure the beta version is the one you download. Should
    have a small yellow dot next to the app icon:

    4. On your phone, make sure the app syncs all of your waypoints before proceeding. (Mine took 10-15 minutes). To make sure, I forced
    another sync after it said it was completed.
    5. Reload the GE custom layer on your PC.
    6. Sync the app on your phone.

    1. THANK YOU for providing so much detail here! I will share this with folks in my courses ASAP!

      And I’m very glad to hear the GE issue is just a bug and not a sign of things to come …

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