Gear Wars: Which GPS Platform is Best for Backpacking?
While the ubiquitous FarOut (formerly Guthooks) is a great tool for cruising well-documented and popular long trails, most backpackers spend their time on short weekend trips in areas not covered by guide-style apps. However, if this is you, then the lack of a perfectly curated guide doesn’t necessarily mean that paper maps are your next best option for navigating like your grandpa might be suggesting. The modern GPS app with features suitable for backpacking has come a long way since the ‘good old days’.
In the last decade, digital map services have grown beyond paper map replicas and advanced into terrific planning and analysis tools. I call this group of apps “full-service” GPS platforms, which provide topographic information at the national and/or international level.
To be a good GPS platform, a service needs to be useful for all stages of a backpacking trip, including initial discovery, route building, and on-trail navigation. While you can spend a lot of time switching between unaffiliated websites online trying to piece each part together, there are all-in-one options that can get the job done quicker and easier.
There are dozens of full-service GPS apps on the market. However, to keep things somewhat brief, I will compare three popular and widely used services: Gaia GPS, Caltopo, and the newer onX Backcountry (BC).
READ NEXT — Maps vs. Apps for Backcountry Navigation
My History Using Gaia GPS, CalTopo, and onX Backcountry
I used Gaia as my main platform from 2018 through 2020, and keep tabs on changes via Reddit (and my mom who now uses my account). Caltopo has been my go-to since dropping Gaia after a plethora of issues (more on those later) and my growth as a hiker forced me to look for other options. OnX is new to me, but I heard a decent amount about it both from sponsored content and non-sponsored sources such as backcountry outfitters and guides before giving it a try myself.
For full disclosure, onX has provided me with a year of their Elite membership at no cost for the purposes of writing this article. I pay full freight for my current Caltopo subscription and paid for Gaia for several years before passing off my account billing to my mom. I also had direct communication with onX staff to answer questions (mostly confirming ‘missing’ features). Despite this, I promise that my perception of the product has not been swayed. I think my opinions below will back that up too.
Phase 1: Discovery and Data Availability
The first part of planning your own trip is getting a vague idea of what you actually want to do. Maybe you have an area in mind, or you were given a GPX file that doesn’t quite match the goals of your trip but gives good ideas. Having as much information on hand as possible is great for dialing in and familiarizing yourself with an area. Different platforms bring different types and amounts of data to the table for the introductory orientation within the area.
While pretty much all GPS platforms have an in-house 2D topo map, having a plethora of additional layers is great for cross-checking information. The entire country is covered by the historical USGS 7.5’ quads, and in much of the west, the Forest Service maps provide a modern, natively digital update to that. Combine this with a high-quality satellite image layer and your bases are covered for most backpacking trips.
Caltopo: 🟢 Good. It covers the basics: in-house digital topo, FS 2016, USGS quads, and several satellite options. It also has great overlays such as contours, trail centerlines, slope angle shading and shaded relief, and more. When online, you can also pull in Google layers such as maps, terrain, and satellite. This is great for detailed planning where Google’s next-level satellite imagery is clearer than others.
Gaia GPS: 🟢 Excellent. While offering many of the same options as Caltopo, Gaia throws even more on top with more international map sources, the National Geographic Trails Illustrated series, and historic map sets.
onX BC: 🔴 Poor. They offer just 2 distinct map layers, an in-house topo and satellite imagery, combined with a few basic overlays such as slope angle shading, active fires, and air/smoke info. While onX rose to fame for their Private Lands layer in the Hunt version of their app, it isn’t substantially different than the offerings from the competition for backpacking purposes.
All three services offer a recent satellite layer, which aims to take full images of the globe in moderate resolution every 3-8 days (on average). This is helpful primarily for identifying where snow is lingering, but also may help with floodplains, blowdowns, and large-scale environmental changes.
Caltopo: 🟢 Good. Sourced from Sentinel Satellites, considered standard for the industry. Caltopo also has access to the MODIS daily satellite but it is such poor resolution that it is really only helpful for tracking snowmelt on the scale of entire mountain ranges.
Gaia GPS: 🟡 Okay. Sourced from the European Space Agency, the resolution and contrast are not as good as Sentinel.
onX BC:🟢 Good. Sourced from Planet Imagery, it seems to take a slight edge in resolution over Caltopo/Sentinel when I have compared the two. It also lets you toggle between the absolute most recent and most recent unobstructed, helpful for areas that may be covered in clouds.
All these services have an underlying 3D model of topography, which powers things like slope angle shading, shaded relief, elevation profiles, and any 3D features offered.
Caltopo:🟢 Excellent. There are two levels of resolution in CalTopo currently: ‘Standard’ which can be found throughout the country based on lower resolution data, and ‘High’ which are blisteringly detailed, LIDAR scans of specific areas. They regularly add high-resolution areas and cover lots of my favorite destinations. The shaded relief layer has an excellent mode called ‘Enhanced’ that acts like Multiply in Photoshop; it can fully merge with the underlying layer instead of just clouding/changing opacity over it.
Gaia GPS:🟢 Excellent. Gaia is on a similar quest to infill high-resolution data across popular areas of the country. I prefer the graphic appearance of Caltopo slightly, but ultimately they are neck in neck.
onX BC: 🔴 Poor. It appears uniformly low-resolution, and does not bring much to the table that cannot quickly be inferred from contours. There is no shaded relief option, but it does power a nifty feature that shows a trail steepness on the line for established trails. However, drawing a route over it clogs the visibility and it does not work on cross-country routes.
Guides and User Data
While all three services pull most of their trail centerlines and topographic data from Open Street Map (OSM), some offer additional data that can be useful in planning.
Caltopo: 🔴 Poor. While it’s possible to search entire user-generated maps (if they are made available by the user setting them to public), the “shared Caltopo maps” overlay is less useful than the Gaia equivalent because Caltopo is less popular, and does not set public sharing as the default.
That said, you can easily find entire guidebook-level mapsets for trails like the Hayduke with some clever searching.
Gaia GPS: 🟡 Okay. There is a handy overlay called ‘public tracks’ that ghosts in user-recorded tracks on your own map. This can give a sense of rerouted/inaccurate centerlines, side trails with petroglyphs or a nice view, or functional cross-country routes. Gaia’s large user base and default public sharing results in lots of available data.
onX BC:🟢 Good, with caveats. OnX is last on a long list of owners of the Adventure Projects brands (Hiking Project, MTB Project, Mountain Project, etc), which gives the app access to a huge number of existing trail guides. This means fast, descriptive information on many popular hikes and ski tours. The downside is that most of this content is user-generated and of dubious accuracy. Regardless, this is their strongest feature, bridging the gap to lower power or highly specialized platforms like AllTrails and FarOut, while retaining full planning capacity.
Personally, I found their Hiking Project data scraping effort frustrating. A ‘trail’ automatically labeled as difficult (black overlay line) turned out to be basically out of service. What I thought would be an hour of steep downhill turned out to be 3 hours of difficult bushwhacking through strong cross-grade. My partner was not happy with me.
Sometimes, not everything can be handed to you on a silver platter. Being able to pull in data from other sources in multiple formats is great for small park systems with custom maps and specialized layers. It is also useful for getting data such as motor vehicle zones into your platform without tracing side by side.
Caltopo: 🟢 Good. Supports standard GPS file types like GPX, KML, and GeoJSON. Also allows custom map sheets such as Geospatial PDFs, GeoTIFF, and even locationless JPEGs/PNGs that can be hand-aligned. It also has custom layers, in formats like WMS, WMTS, Mapbox Tilesets, and more.
Gaia GPS: 🟢 Good. Offers similar options to Caltopo, although they are harder to work with and control.
onX BC: 🔴 Poor. It supports the barebone basics, KML and GPX, but the web interface limits imports to 4MB and misses the more advanced features of the other two. Larger files can be shared with an IOS device via Airdrop, a cool feature for in-field beta sharing, and my Android successfully handled a 5MB file of the PCT.
Phase 2: Route Building
After getting well-oriented to an area and a broad-level idea of what you want to do, it’s time to drill into the details. For a short weekend on trail, this step can be a pretty quick step without very advanced needs. For more ambitious thru-hikes or off-trail routes, this can be a very time-intensive process of analyzing difficulty, identifying weather alternates and potential camp spots, estimating water carries, planning hitches, etc.
On a weeklong, off-trail hike, I may spend 20 or 30 hours dialing in all this information, making a fast and capable platform essential. I have also done overview logistics for entire multi-month thru-hikes, graphically organized in Caltopo in combination with Excel and FarOut.
Maybe I’m with the boomers on this one, but having a functional web app to get the heavy lifting done is essential to me. Tiny-screen smartphones just don’t cut it.
Caltopo: 🟢 Excellent. Available tools all match the phone app or are a step up, but there are also several time-saving features like keyboard shortcuts, differences between right and left mouse clicks, etc that help a lot.
Gaia GPS: 🟢 Good, when it works. I find the website to be generally comparable to the app. However, it can feel like an afterthought at times with major bugs that are frequently unfixed for extended periods of time. For instance, routes built with more than a certain number of points are prone to disappearing or not syncing to the app, and I have had buggy graphics when using multiple layers.
onX BC: 🟢 Good. While I find the toolset of onX to be pretty basic overall, they are all available on the web app as far as I can tell. I encountered strong performance differences depending on the specific computer (different hardware and drivers) I was using, however.
Route Building Tools
Most of my routes are layered over with tons of information. I typically start by drawing a complete centerline, annotating along the way with waypoints, breaking it up into days and separately into on-trail/off-trail sections for pace estimating, and creating alternate routes (both low and high). After a certain point, editing all this can be a bit difficult. Some apps have better tools for this than others.
Caltopo: 🟢 Excellent. There are tons of tools for drawing lines, zones, buffers, and waypoint types, as well as editing them by joining, splitting, or extending. The graphic control is quite advanced, with line weights, styles (dots, dashes, etc), full RGB color control, and more. To me, this is Caltopo’s killer feature set. I wish their waypoint icon catalog was more fleshed out and the custom icon feature was more functional, however.
Gaia GPS: 🔴 Poor. Making large edits to tracks after they have been drawn is a pain because you can only relocate or add points one at a time. No option to join or split routes, and graphic control is limited to just a preset group of colors.
onX BC: 🔴 Poor. Has similar editing limitations to Gaia, but there are a few more graphic control options (a few colors, plus 3 line styles and 3 line weights). Overall, I will concede that onX and Gaia have more useful waypoint icon styles versus Caltopo, even if their line styles are limited.
Waiting forever to edit basic info is a drag. Being able to pan around the map quickly, even with multiple layers on, is a huge benefit for bigger projects.
Caltopo: 🟢 Good. I rarely experience performance issues unless there are exceptionally large amounts of route data loaded (such as my map of the 8,000-mile Great Western Loop)
Gaia GPS: 🟢 Good. It is a little slower to pan than Caltopo, but overall does well. Route editing is sometimes slower for unknown reasons.
onX BC: 🟡 Okay. I get varied performance between my varied devices for unknown reasons. My home computer, a 9-year-old self-built desktop with a 1080p screen, does just fine. My 2-year-old work laptop with the highest-end parts and a 4k screen struggles hard.
I have hundreds of waypoints and tracks when all pooled together. Keeping them reasonably organized reduces clutter and makes saved items easier to find.
Caltopo: 🟢 Good. Caltopo’s first level of organization is Maps, where you can start entirely separate map sets for different trips or regions. I personally love this so I can keep the nitty-gritty of route planning separate from other areas or overview maps I maintain by state. The next level is folders, which unfortunately can’t be nested to create ‘trees’ (like how folders in Windows or OSX work, where there can be folders in folders in folders). But the Map level keeps things separated enough that careful naming and graphics get the job done.
Gaia GPS: 🔴 Poor. Their folder system, while theoretically capable of nesting, is fundamentally broken and difficult to use, and managed on an entirely different webpage than the map. When using the map, it’s hard to sort by anything other than object type (waypoint vs track vs route, etc.) in practice.
onX BC: 🔴 Poor. While the single layer of folders is easier to use and more functional than Gaia, they share the “one giant map” approach that tends to load a lot of extra data way off the map, and selecting just what is important is difficult.
Often on a trip, I quickly record waypoints of features (water, petroglyphs, cliffs) on the fly without setting all their graphics. When I get home, I like to restyle them to something more intuitive, like a blue dot for water notes. Being able to edit them in bulk and set common graphics is immensely useful when updating hundreds of points in big chunks.
Caltopo: 🟢 Good. Gets the job done better than any competitor I know of, but would be nice to filter things based on text or graphics instead of in one giant list per folder.
Gaia GPS: 🔴 Poor. Unfortunately, you have to edit objects one at a time, repetitively clicking through multiple menus to get to graphic controls
onX BC: 🔴 Poor, for similar reasons to Gaia.
When planning a trip, it’s important to know not only where the trail is, but what the ground is like and how difficult it is. Being able to understand the terrain beforehand can keep you from accidental long days.
Caltopo: 🟢 Excellent. Their LIDAR high-res terrain data is excellent, and they have a layer that approximates whether a section of trail is in a forest, prairie, urban, etc. Graphic control of this information is flexible and easy to understand.
Gaia GPS: 🟢 Good. The terrain resolution is similar to Caltopo, but the graphic control isn’t quite as strong and the quick terrain stats aren’t as thorough.
onX BC: 🟡 Okay. The lower-res terrain data and relative inaccessibility of slope angle shading make onX less useful for analysis.
Base Map Readability
Most platforms try to create an in-house map to serve as your default layer. Strong graphics and accurate info are key to making them worthwhile.
Caltopo: 🟡 Okay. With my previous experience using Gaia, it took me quite a while to get used to the base map graphics and line styles of Caltopo. These days, I prefer to use the FS 2016 map base with Shaded Relief at 60% Enhanced on top, and mix in the Mapbuilder Overlay when needed.
Gaia GPS: 🟢 Good. Their default map is one of the most readable of the apps I have used, plus they have worked hard to create other in-house mixes of their base map with different visual styles.
onX BC: 🟡 Okay. Me and my partner both find their base map “cartoonish”, which can be quick to read at times but lacks detail. Given onX’s overall approach to the GPS app game, I think this will improve over time.
The way of the future seems to be 3D. Most people can visualize terrain features better when it’s in 3D and get a sense of the views they will have. Most programs are in their early stages of implementing this, with some more promising than others.
Caltopo: 🔴 Poor. They have a neat tool that creates a crude line drawing of the view from a point, but that’s about it.
Gaia GPS: 🟢 Good. It has a fairly robust 3D similar to Google Earth that will let you project any map layer you choose onto a 3D terrain model.
onX BC: 🟢 Good. The usefulness is limited by the terrain resolution and available map layers.
Some tools are easier to learn than others. Being able to pick something up quickly with an intuitive interface is important for beginners who may already be stressed about the trip itself.
Caltopo: 🔴 Poor. Unfortunately, the more complex a tool is, the harder it becomes to keep it simple. I have attempted to introduce several people to Caltopo who simply couldn’t figure it out without excess guidance.
Gaia GPS: 🟡 Okay. The interface is relatively clean and the icons are intuitive, but some of the more advanced features and overall bugginess can cause confusion.
onX BC: 🟢 Good. The ease of use is reflective of their overall approach: Keep it simple. While it’s quick to pick up, it’s also quick to find the end of the road in its usefulness.
Phase 3: On Trail Usability
After you have all your plans set, it’s time to step on trail. All three of these programs have an app to match their website and allow navigation without paper maps. Note that I have always owned Android devices, which are coded entirely apart from their IOS versions. It’s not uncommon for the Android and IOS apps to have different user interfaces, features, and stability.
A map isn’t worth much when you can’t use it when needed. As good as an app may be, I won’t count on it if it isn’t stable.
Caltopo: 🟢 Good. I experience the least crashing and data loss with this program, but there are some graphic glitches when panning quickly.
Gaia GPS: 🔴 Poor. I stood by Gaia for a long time, but ultimately its stability issues drove me away. I have experienced complete device crashes, data loss, inability to load downloaded maps, and download continuity errors on several different phones.
onX BC: 🟡 Okay. I generally found the app to be stable, but at times had trouble getting the device/account syncing to work.
The faster an app consumes battery, the bigger the battery bank you will have to bring. Charging while walking is awkward, so a good app should make it through an entire day before needing to be recharged.
Caltopo: 🟢 Good. I find Caltopo the best, probably in large part due to GPS location not showing by default unless a recording is off, and lower GPS sample interval when it’s on. I usually consume 30-60% of my phone’s battery per day, depending on whether I am off trail and in need of more granular navigation than ‘follow the footpath.’
Gaia GPS: 🟡 Okay. Not stand out, but generally consistent on newer devices. Averages just a bit more consumption than Caltopo for me.
onX BC: 🔴 Poor. On my device, this is likely the biggest reason I can’t use this app for trail duties. I managed to drain 75% of my phone battery by 3 P.M. while cruising the Colorado Trail, infrequently looking at the screen and recording a track in the background.
The main leg up the smartphone has over a paper map is seeing exactly where you are and where you are going relative to the trails.
Caltopo: 🟢 Good. No complaints from me here!
Gaia GPS: 🟢 Good. I like the compass ‘dial’ at the top and the location marker easy to read.
onX BC: 🟢 Good. Control of whether your direction is showing is less consistent.
On-the-Fly Route Planning
Sometimes, routes don’t go as planned due to fire, weather, or just plain being tired. Being able to easily make a new plan is handy when things go south.
Caltopo: 🔴 Poor. While you can still draw straight segmented polylines, cut, join, etc, the app version of Caltopo cannot snap to existing trail lines, even when online.
Gaia GPS: 🟢 Good. Snap-to-trail works well online, and decently offline (given you selected to download that data, which is a separate checkbox from the map tiles). I still miss the cut-and-join tools of Caltopo for more extensive on-the-fly reroutes.
onX BC: 🟡 Okay. Snap-to-trail only works online unfortunately, which is good for planning routes in town but not so much for in the field.
If you are a competitive hiker or trying to monitor training progress, having some speed stats can be pretty handy.
Caltopo: 🔴 Poor. This is clearly not the focus of Caltopo. While you can see how long you have been recording an active track, anything else such as pace, current speed, etc is entirely absent.
Gaia GPS: 🟢 Good. While this isn’t quite a runner’s app like Strava, they have an entire tab on their home row with data like max, average, and current speed, pace (mi/hr and min/mi), and graphs of some stats.
onX BC: 🟡 Okay. It will give you average speed in mph, but don’t be expecting much more.
Trying to decide whether to gun for that summit in the afternoon? Having access to weather data in combination with your specific itinerary can be handy for decision-making.
Caltopo: 🟢 Excellent. Their map overlays are best in class with different outlook ranges for temperatures, rain, snow, wind average, wind gust, avalanche, and more. It also has good access to a network of weather stations, which provide current and historical data charts (but no point forecast). If their overlays aren’t specific enough, you can right-click and get a shortcut to a NOAA grid cell forecast, which has very thorough graphs of all types of weather data.
Gaia GPS: 🟡 Okay. They have precip, smoke, and avalanche overlays, but lack wind and temperature data or weather station data.
onX BC: 🟡 Okay. OnX’s weather data is available solely as data from a limited selection of physical stations. While I appreciate the depth of information available by selecting individual points, most of them are located in urban areas where I don’t really need it. I would prefer good forecasts for peaks and passes, where it matters the most. Side note: the way it caches data loaded when you go offline can be confusing.
Map Printing Tools
There’s no reputable hiking authority that will recommend you navigate entirely with your phone. Printing paper maps is an important backup for sizzled or drained electronics.
Caltopo: 🟢 Excellent. There is a great tool for aligning sets of prints, working in multiple paper formats and resolutions, allowing varied paper orientations for curvy trails, print scales, and will store print sets temporarily for later recall. A distinguishing feature for those who want a backup.
Gaia GPS: 🟡 Okay. It has a few preselected paper sizes, but not a ton, and doesn’t make sets; every print has to be one-off. This makes it easy to zoom in and out and change the scale accidentally.
onX BC: 🔴 Poor. You could probably get better prints by screenshotting and pasting into another program. There are no print scales or even a graphic scale to indicate the size of what you are looking at.
So, Which GPS Platform Is Best?
In my opinion, Caltopo has a lot going for it and has the most diverse feature set. There are plenty of unique and killer features that compelled me to try it, but I’m not blind to the fact it can be hard to pick up for newbies. I have recommended to more than a few people that they stick with Gaia or even a really user-friendly basic program like AllTrails. While I appreciate the efforts onX has made to break into the backpacker space, I think they have a lot to work through before they become a go-to platform.
Featured Image: Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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