Navigation with Gaia GPS (Deprecated)


Gaia GPS

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The buttons fell off of my Garmin GPS five years ago, and rather than invest in a new GPS unit, I bought the Gaia GPS app, loaded maps onto my phone, and headed out the door. I’ve never looked back.

Gaia GPS is the most advanced option on the market. There are two components, the Gaia GPS app, and

If you have never used Gaia, this link will get you a 6-month trial period at the Premium level. If you are ready to by a subscription, Standard or Premium, this link will get you a small discount.

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.

The notes below, and this video, walk through the basic features of the Classic (pre-2017) version of the app.

Uploading tracks and points

  • → Upload
  • If the uploaded features don’t show up on the app, do a data sync (see above).
  • There is currently [Feb. 2017] a bug that sometimes prevents points and tracks from being imported together. First check to see if the points are in the folder (Menu -> Folders -> {your folder} -> then scroll down to see if points are toggled off). If the points aren’t in the folder, you can go back to Google Earth, move points to their own folder, save, and import to Gaia.

Custom load Google Earth imagery

Gaia stopped serving google earth imagery, presumably due to “terms of service” conflicts. I strongly prefer the Google imagery because it is what I am familiar with from the route-planning stages. You can still get the imagery, it just takes a few more steps.

  • → {user account} (upper right corner) → ‘Map Sources,’ → ‘+ Import an External Map Source.’
  • Name the Map: “Google Earth Satellite”
  • Copy and Edit Link to Map Tile → Paste your modified link here:{x}&y={y}&z={z}&s=Ga
  • Adjust Min/Max zoom levels (I set mine from 1-20)
  • Scroll to the bottom, make sure the thumbnail previews look good, and click the “Add this map source” button.
  • Once you re-sync your iPhone (check data integrity), the layer will be in ‘More Layers’ → ‘Imported.’ Selecting the layer should move it to the primary layers menu.

This process is also possible for other layers using these urls:

Google Road:{x}&y={y}&z={z}&s=Ga
Google Terrain:{x}&y={y}&z={z}&s=Ga
Google Hybrid:{x}&y={y}&z={z}&s=Ga
ESRI satellite:{z}/{y}/{x}

Downloading basemaps

  • Download basemaps before leaving wifi coverage.
  • This can take minutes or hours depending on how many tiles you download.
  • Use the max zoom slider to change resolution (lower zoom = smaller files, faster download, lower resolution)


  • Efficiency: Get location, check intended position, exit app.
  • Line-of-sight: Long-press the map (or use the + symbol to start a new route), distance and bearing to that point will appear on release. If they don’t appear, click on the cross-hairs (gps/find-me) to make sure your current position is known, then try the long-press again.
  • Line-of-sight mode: Press the location cross hair twice to enter line-of-sight mode. Approximate bearing can be read from the compass window.

Recording tracks

  • Battery-saving strategy: leave in airplane mode, no GPS until activated, then toggle the GPS chip every-so-often.
  • Track statistics: speed, elevation profiles, etc.

Exporting points and tracks

  • iPhone users can share files without a cell/wifi signal using Air Drop. This could be particularly useful in a search and rescue effort, where rescuers could reconvene, Air Drop where they searched, and identify new areas to search.
  • Points and tracks can be sent from the phone or

Gaia Pro vs. Standard

For my usage, the only advantage of Gaia Pro is being able to download multiple baselayers from the same area selection. The overlay feature looks cool, but I never need it.

Managing Battery Life

Minimal use

  • Don’t use phone for other features (camera, music)
  • Powering on/off my phone uses as much battery as leaving the phone in standby for ~16 hours. Check yours for similar behavior on weekend trips.

Gaia settings

  • No GPS until activated
  • Disable altitude lookup

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)
  • 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
  • External batteries

Other Tools

Don’t rely on any electronic equipment! We also carry:

  • Paper map
  • Compass
  • Second phones or stand-alone GPS units

Stand-alone GPS units

Transfer your Google Earth routes to the devices with:

  • 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 is an incredibly powerful (though not as intuitive) tool for managing various geospatial data: Save as a kml file (not kmz). GPS Babel → Input: File → Format: kml → “file name”. Select features to input (Waypoints, Routes, Tracks). Select Output: Device → Format → Name

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  1. Thank you for this great step by step guide. I tried downloading some imagery from Google Hybrid. It appears you really can’t download very much area at one time. I guess Gaia limits how many tiles you download at one time. Additionally, the imagery seems to really gobble up the gigabytes.

    1. Hi Jack- What zoom level were you downloading? I find that level 16 is the upper limit for my large trips, and I have no problem downloading those tiles. For a daytrip, I’d try to boost the zoom level. I set my downloads up at night, letting them rock my phone while I’m sleeping.

  2. Hey Luc, do you have any solar panel suggestions? I’m headed up to ANWR and my Goal Zero Nomad 7 wasn’t performing very well near Denali during the sunny 4th weather we just had.

    1. I do not. I’ve been on trips where the Nomad 7 worked great. I’ve had good luck with smaller integrated panel/battery units, like the old Solio unit that REI used to sell. Amazon has a bunch of cheap options I would like to try, but can’t get them shipped to AK. Given those challenges, I’ve reverted to just bringing some chargers. I can get 5-7 days per charge, and we usually have a few phones on the trip, so it only ends up being a few extra battery banks between the group.

      1. Thanks for the response Luc. I’ll let you know how it goes if I test anything else out.

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