Off-trail travel isn’t easy, but it’s a lot easier than it used to be thanks to GPS apps. With a reliable backcountry GPS app, you can tell exactly where you are and where you need to go.
Having detailed maps in the backcountry and being able to check my precise GPS location has completely changed the way I approach climbing, skiing, and hiking. In this guide, I’ll review 7 of the best hiking GPS apps and explain what to look for when choosing backcountry navigation tools.
The 7 Best Backcountry GPS Apps
Overall Best Backcountry GPS App: Caltopo
Android & iOS
Free (offline maps from $20/year)
- Shaded relief base maps
- High-resolution slope angle shading
- Excellent web platform for trip planning
- Tons of map overlays
- Not great for track recording
This whole guide could be reduced to a glowing review for Caltopo. Simply put, there’s no better backcountry GPS app and nothing else you need to get around on-trail or off.
Caltopo’s shaded relief base maps are the best of any mapping app I’ve tried. Even without the topo lines you’d have a pretty good sense of what’s uphill and how steep it is. If you don’t love the base maps like I do, Caltopo also has Forest Service maps and scanned topo maps.
The next best feature is slope angle shading. I can’t overstate how important this is when creating your own routes in steep terrain and for navigating avalanche terrain in winter. The data Caltopo uses for slope angle shading is extremely high resolution, so it captures features that don’t show up in the topo lines.
There are so many more advanced features to Caltopo, including an outstanding website for trip planning and integration with real-time Sentinel satellite imagery. I can’t recommend this app highly enough.
Best GPS App for Recording Routes: Gaia GPS
Free (offline maps from $39.99/year)
- Good organizational features
- Lots of map layers
- Excels at track recording
- Very easy to use
- Expensive compared to other apps
Gaia GPS is an incredibly popular GPS app and my favorite hiking app for years before I switched to Caltopo.
There’s a lot to like about Gaia GPS. The base maps are great, it’s easy to organize routes you have planned, and there are tons of trail map overlays to choose from. You can also use Gaia GPS with an Apple Watch, which is great for following a track.
The main reason I switched from Gaia GPS is that you need a premium membership for slope angle shading, which is a bummer since Gaia GPS is already somewhat pricey compared to other hiking apps. The price is still affordable in the big scheme of mountaineering, though, so don’t let this dissuade you.
One of the key advantages to Gaia GPS is that its route recording tools are excellent. You can pause recording at any time or continue a track from one day to the next even if you turn your phone off overnight. If you like to keep track of your mileage and elevation gain across trips, Gaia GPS makes it easy.
Best for Offline Navigation: BackCountry Navigator
- Grid-based system for offline maps
- Includes PDF topo maps
- Great base maps
- Huge variety of map overlays
- Doesn’t offer slope angle shading
BackCountry Navigator is another highly reliable GPS app for off-trail travel. It shares a lot of features in common with Caltopo and Gaia GPS, including excellent shaded relief base maps and a huge selection of map overlays.
One of the things that stands out about BackCountry Navigator is its grid-based system for downloading offline maps. This makes it easier to download just the area you need, so you don’t take up a ton of storage space on your phone with maps. BackCountry Navigator also has PDF versions of Forest Service topo maps, which can be cool if you want to practice traditional navigation with a compass.
Like Caltopo and Gaia GPS, BackCountry Navigator offers a web-based route planner that syncs automatically to the mobile app. So, it’s easy to plan out routes from the comfort of home and then follow them in the backcountry.
Best App for Hikers: AllTrails
Free (offline maps cost $35.99/year)
- Find trails to hike anywhere in the world
- Get alerts if you stray off-route
- Simple track recording tools
- Free version available
- Expensive for offline maps
- Very limited off-trail mapping capabilities
If you’re planning to stick to hiking trails, you don’t need as much navigational firepower as apps like Caltopo and Gaia GPS offer. AllTrails was built specifically for on-trail adventures and it’s a great app for casual hikers. The maps aren’t incredible, but you can easily record a track and even get alerts if you start to stray off your planned route.
The real reason an avid hiker should choose AllTrails is that it can help you figure out where to go hiking. The trail guide database in this popular hiking app includes more than 100,000 trails with detailed hike descriptions. You can filter trails by location, length, difficulty, trail conditions, and more.
If you start hiking and decide you want a longer or shorter day, the AllTrails app makes it easy to see what trails are nearby so you can adjust your route. AllTrails also has a strong hiking community where you can chat with fellow hikers.
Best for Mapping Land Ownership: OnX Backcountry
Free (offline maps cost $29.99/year)
- Best-in-class land management overlays
- Identify easements through private land
- Slope angle and aspect overlays for backcountry skiing
- Integrated weather and avalanche forecasts
- Trail vs. Snow Mode distinction is annoying
In some areas of the country, it’s important to know who the land manager is. For example, in the North Cascades, the rules around backcountry travel are completely different if you’re within national park boundaries or on Forest Service-managed land. Some climbs also require navigating around private land or through easements.
OnX Backcountry offers by far the best map overlays for understanding land management. OnX got its start in the hunting space, where land ownership is a big deal. No other app offers nearly as much detail about who owns each parcel of land or highlights easements.
The OnX Backcountry app also offers a ton of other important navigation features, including slope angle shading, route tracking, and customizable waypoints. It also has some neat features specifically for ski touring, including slope aspect shading, real-time weather forecasts, and avalanche forecasts.
Best for 3D Mapping: Maps 3D Pro
- See your route in 3D
- Plan routes in the app
- Download offline maps
- Very limited navigation features
- Not available for Android devices
If you struggle with understanding terrain from topo lines alone, Maps 3D Pro can be a game-changer. This app renders the terrain in 3D so you can see how a route climbs to a summit. It’s really neat to be able to see how a particular climb follows terrain features like ribs and gullies.
Maps 3D Pro is far from a serious off-trail navigation tool. But it’s inexpensive and you can download maps offline, so it’s worth checking out if you enjoy having 3D maps in the backcountry.
Best for Peak Identification: PeakVisor
Free on iOS, $4.99 on Android
- Identify peaks around you
- Neat AR features
- 3D maps
- Free for iOS
- Very limited GPS functionality
PeakVisor is another fun hiking app that you’ll be glad to have when you’re standing on a summit and looking out at nearby mountains. With this mountain identification app, you simply point your phone at the horizon and PeakVisor will label each of the peaks.
The app works around the world, which is pretty nice. It also offers some 3D mapping features, although these aren’t very useful for navigation. The app is completely free for iOS users, but there’s a $4.99 charge for the Android app.
How Can a Hiking App Help in the Backcountry?
It wasn’t that long ago that traveling off-trail meant having to stop every 30 minutes to spend 10 minutes checking the map and trying to figure out where you were. It was all too easy to end up hiking the wrong drainage, climbing the wrong gully, or even summiting the wrong peak altogether.
Backcountry GPS apps have completely changed off-trail travel. It’s no longer a guessing game and you can even download a GPS track from someone who’s done the route before. Having a backcountry app for navigation and knowing how to use it makes it much easier to move through complex terrain without getting lost.
The other big advantage GPS apps bring to the table is that they offer outstanding trip planning features. Before you ever leave home, you can use map overlays, other climbers’ GPX files, and slope angle shading to figure out the best way to approach a mountain. These apps offer much more detail than a traditional paper map, saving you from heading out on a route that’s doomed to fail.
What Features Should a Good Hiking App Have?
I rely heavily on GPS apps for mountaineering, and I’ve found a few features that I simply can’t live without anymore.
It goes without saying, there usually isn’t cell service in the backcountry. So, having the ability to download offlines maps is an absolute must.
Virtually all of the best GPS apps offer offline maps, but this feature is usually reserved for the premium version of each app. Most hiking apps are pretty affordable and I’d argue this is one of the best investments you can make for backcountry adventuring.
One thing to pay attention to is how much data is included when you download maps. Apps like Caltopo include a ton of overlays with downloads, including slope angle shading. Backcountry Navigator gives you more control over the area you download so you don’t use up all the storage space on your smartphone.
It might sound silly, but the quality of the base maps that each hiking app uses can make a big difference. Shaded relief maps let you quickly judge the terrain without having to squint at topo lines.
Virtually all top GPS apps offer Forest Service topos and other base map options. But try actually using these to navigate and you’ll quickly realize that a good set of default maps is pretty important.
Map overlays are awesome, and you’ll find some really unique overlays in the GPS apps I reviewed. There are few overlays that I think are critical features.
Slope angle shading map overlays are the best thing to happen to backcountry navigation since GPS itself. These overlays show you terrain features that are hidden between contour lines and make it far easier to judge the best route up a mountain. Slope angle shading is also a crucial safety feature for ski touring and winter hiking when you need to be able to identify avalanche terrain.
Satellite imagery overlays are also really useful. You can see what areas still have snow, where crevasses are located on glaciers, and whether a ridge is too sheer to be climbable.
Other helpful overlays to look for include burn area maps, land ownership maps, cell coverage maps, and slope aspect maps.
Most hiking apps let you record your GPS track, but some do it better than others. For example, Gaia GPS lets you pause your recording, which is great if you don’t want to include a side trip in your route. If you do record your tracks, be mindful that your hiking app will use up a lot of battery life.
Hiking App FAQs
Can you use your phone as a hiking GPS?
Hiking GPS apps like Caltopo, Gaia GPS, and BackCountry Navigator let you use your phone to navigate in the backcountry. You can download offline maps, see your exact location, and plot routes to follow on-trail or off.
Is there a better app than AllTrails?
AllTrails is great for discovering on-trail hikes and staying on-trail. If you want to head off-trail, however, apps like Caltopo and Gaia GPS offer far more navigational features and map overlays.
Do I need a separate GPS for hiking?
Google Maps and similar GPS apps don’t work well for hiking. They have a very limited database of trails and you can’t see any details about the terrain around you. Dedicated hiking GPS apps offer topographic maps and overlays to help you find your way in the backcountry.
How do you track someone while hiking?
You can record your own track while hiking using a backcountry GPS app or even a fitness app. However, if you want to track someone else, they’ll need to have a satellite communication device like an inReach.
How can I track my hiking distance?
Most hiking GPS apps let you record a track so you can see how far you’ve gone and how much elevation you’ve gained. You can also use a fitness app to track your hiking distance, although these don’t offer as many mapping features.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.