One topic that I very rarely see mentioned within the photography world is navigation aids. Be it a compass, GPS, etc.; there does not seem to be much information out there. While I am not up to speed like I used to be on this topic, I still hold it near and dear to my heart. Now that I am living in an area that I am not familiar with, I have to reacquaint myself with what is out there now. GAIA GPS is an app that I have found that works great.

Before I get into the meat of this article, I learned the fine art of land navigation with a compass, map and protractor courtesy of the US Army when GPS systems were in their infancy. They were so new that the first time I was able to get my hands on one, it was just okay. When I finally got around to buying my first GPS unit last decade, they had come a long way. At that point, cell phones were starting to be used as navigation aids. But, they were nowhere near the quality of a GPS unit.

In the last few years though, phones have caught up. Although I have not been able to do a real in-depth test, I have had some recent tracks using GPS apps that have made me take a second look. One of those tracks is a 1200 mile monster that covered a road trip cross country. I have reviewed that track, and I have not noticed any part of it that would suggest a lost signal.

Not quite a decade ago, I could take a 300-mile trip, and while the Garmin GPS never lost signal, the phone did, and the track would truncate. Again, my testing is not scientific. With my recent trip to Johnson Valley, CA, I relied heavily on my cell phone for navigation purposes, and it worked great. This article is about the particular app that I used.

***DISCLAIMER*** Because I am old school, I highly suggest that a person should learn basic land navigation using paper maps and a compass. The buy-in is a lot less than cell phones and GPS units, and the tech involved is a lot more reliable.

WHAT is GAIA GPS?

GAIA GPS is an application that is web-based and for the Android and iOS platforms that allows a user to navigate the terrain. GAIA has several different membership tiers to include free, paid and premium. The difference in the memberships is the maps that are available. The free version allows basic navigation tasks using the default GAIA Topo map. It is pretty solid for free. The paid membership includes everything on the free level, plus access to numerous additional maps such as satellite maps, and the ability to download maps for offline use. This tier is $20 a year. The premium membership is $40 a year and includes access to premium maps and some advanced features.

gaia gps
A GPS track displayed in GAIA GPS web interface.

WHY GAIA GPS

I have been using another GPS app for the last several years that was pretty adequate for the way I was using it. Since I was heading off into the desert for a week with limited service, I needed to have some maps available offline. This other app allowed me this option, but I needed a good quality satellite map, and I could not get that from it.

There is another GPS app that is becoming pretty popular in the off-road world. I have messed around with this particular app and liked what I saw. The most significant difference that made up my mind was buy-in cost.

With GAIA GPS, the app can be downloaded and used for free and upgraded for $20. The other app I mentioned above is $20 merely to download it and then another $49.99 to upgrade. Add in the web-based app, and GAIA GPS is a powerful system and a bargain.

LET’S TALK ABOUT GAIA GPS ON THE WEB

When I deep dived into the world of GPS over a decade ago, one of the things I started doing early on was to create a track on Google Maps. It was pretty simple to do once I learned how to do it. All I had to do was install a plugin to my browser, have Google Maps set up a trip from Point A to Point B, click on the plugin and it would convert those directions to a text file. Upload the text file to a website, and a couple of seconds later, I had a .gpx file that I could upload to my GPS. Sounds complicated and yes, it was. I also fed my need for obscure and needless knowledge.

With the web-based part of GAIA GPS, I can create a route just by clicking along the roads that I want to use. The app also has several different travel options such as vehicle and hiking, and will change the route to fit the mode of travel. Save the file, upload to ICloud Drive, Import via the IOS app and the route is ready to use. Pretty simple and a lot easier than a decade ago.

Another thing that I like about GAIA GPS is that if I am researching a trip or a trail, for example, the Mojave Trail, there might be a good chance that I can find a .gpx file online. I can download that file, upload it to my GAIA GPS account. At this point, I can do a map recon of the trail from the comfort of my home. Once uploaded, I can see the stats of the track such as distance, the time it took the person to complete the route (not always accurate), and elevation profile.

A decade ago, I could do the same by uploading the .gpx file into Google Earth, and it was almost as good. But now, it is a streamlined approach.

AWAY FROM HOME

I have an iPhone and IPad. On some adventures, I will use the IPad for tasks such as checking weather radar and navigation. The reason why is the bigger screen is a lot easier to look at at a moment’s notice. At this point, I do not have any mount for the IPad in my 4Runner. It is an issue I need to fix and fix soon. I checked with Ram Mounts, but they did not have a specific setup for my vehicle. Even their universal mount would not work. I did find a universal mount, but due to its design, I have refrained from getting it. Try to mount your device in your vehicle so you can navigate hands-free as much as possible.

The trip screen on GAIA GPS phone interface.

I cannot comment reliably on the topic of reception at this point. Like I mentioned previously, I have not seen any issues at this point over the past several years. There are external GPS antennae on the market that you can look into if you want.

Also, check into having an external power source such as a small charger along with you. A cell phone running a navigation app uses a lot of power. If you are away from your vehicle, you do not want to want your device to go dead. For this reason, I plug in my devices while going down the road.

PRACTICAL USE

I imagine a lot of us use Photopills to plan our Milky Way trips. That is good, and it is a powerful tool. If I am looking to go to an area that I am unfamiliar with, then I can open up GAIA GPS and look at the maps. I can look at the roads and the terrain. I can use GAIA GPS to create a route that can help me navigate into the location if need be.

The red line denotes a trip that I created within GAIA GPS to some spot

Once I have done that at the house on the web-based app, I can transfer the information over to my device and have it ready in the field. I will also visualize a circle around the track and download those portions of the map. Doing this allows me to look at the map while in the field without any service.

ISSUES

While I am pretty happy with GAIA GPS overall, there is one huge issue with the app that has left me frustrated beyond belief. If you are trying to import a .gpx file from Google Drive to GAIA GPS, have fun trying to do that. The only way that I have been able to do this successfully is by downloading the file and uploading it to the web-based app. Not a real big issue most of the time. I did not find this out until I was out in the desert, with limited Wi-Fi and limited cell service.

A preplanned route displayed on the GAIA GPS web interface.
A preplanned route displayed on the GAIA GPS web interface.

Credentialed media was supplied .gpx files for all of the race courses during King of the Hammers. The thing is we did not get access to those files until most of us were already on location. The data was on a shareable Google Drive account. No matter what I tried, I could not import the files in GAIA GPS using just my IOS devices. Luckily, paper maps were also given to us, so I had to use them. I have yet to find a solution online other than going through the web-based app. It is not a deal killer in my book. Hopefully, I will be able to find a solution.

CONCLUSION

Pound for pound, I think GAIA GPS is the best GPS app on the market right now. Price point, functionality and versatility make it more attractive than other products on the market right now. Do you need it? Not really. GAIA GPS is like anything else, it is a tool, and I have been without it for years. If you have a want or need a reliable GPS app, then I would highly recommend it.

Lastly, if you are in the market for a Milky Way chasing vehicle, check out Marybeth Kiczenski’s recent article about 4wd systems. It might help you find the perfect one for your adventures.

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