For the better part of two decades, I have been using a dedicated GPS handheld unit as essentially a breadcrumb navigator and trip logger on all of our waterfall hikes both domestically and abroad. However, if you’ve looked at some of my write-ups in the World of Waterfalls website, you’ll notice that I’ve had more than my share of failures where I didn’t actually experience the targeted waterfall. So I decided to write this Gaia GPS Review because I looked for a way to improve how we’ve been chasing waterfalls and prevent these failures. And I wanted to see if this tool would solve such problems.
So is Gaia GPS the killer app for hikers and backpackers that I’ve been looking for? Here’s a breakdown of my findings…
What Is Gaia GPS?
The Gaia GPS App is mapping and navigation software that is optimized for working with smart phones. This is especially true with the Apple iPhone, which is what I use. But more importantly, this software essentially makes our iPhone act like a handheld GPS unit.
Gaia GPS also has a website that allows me to navigate their worldwide base map. Similar to how we might use GoogleMaps or individual websites to research a particular hike or waterfall, the Gaia GPS website gives me this ability using their own map catalog.
Gaia GPS has a membership scheme where I could pay a yearly subscription to become a Gaia GPS Member or a Gaia GPS Premium Member.
The main benefit of the Gaia GPS Membership is that it lets me download maps offline so I wouldn’t need the phone network to use their maps while in-the-field. Meanwhile, the Gaia GPS Premium Membership lets me layer additional maps, including the detailed NatGeo Trails Illustrated maps (the same ones that I had paid $100 for each set of CDs for specific US states back in the early 2000s). Their premium map catalog also includes weather maps.
The table in this link compares the differences in membership levels as well as their pricing.
How Does Gaia GPS Solve Our Problems?
There are lots of things that can go wrong on a waterfall trip or hike, and we’re living proof of that. However, one of the worst outcomes in my mind involves finishing the trip, going home, and realizing after the fact that I had missed the target waterfall(s)!
Granted nobody’s perfect, and hindsight is always 20/20. Yet it sucks to know that I would have to come back to finish the job (or maybe live with never fixing the mistake, especially if the place is too hard to get back to).
So could some of these failures have been prevented? In order to find out, let’s look into some examples of failures that I’ve had to live with, why they happened, and how Gaia GPS can solve them.
Overcoming Poor Trip Planning
Personally, I feel that trip planning boils down to two things:
- effort put into researching
- the quality of the information available
While the first one is a matter of choice, the second factor may or may not have improved my outcomes depending on the information available. After all, without the correct information before the trip, I pretty much had to rely on what I saw when I finally got to the excursion. Then, I had to guess in good faith that what I saw was the target waterfall.
So in that vain, I’ve had situations where my pre-trip markings were actually in the wrong place. This resulted in me being unable to find the trail let alone finding the target waterfall itself. In fact, I’ve followed bad GoogleMaps markings before, which resulted in wasted precious time.
Example: Taylor Gill Force in England 2014 Failure
The most glaring example of insufficient pre-trip information resulting in a failure to visit the target waterfall was when I missed out on visiting Taylor Gill Force in the Lake District of England in 2014.
It turned out that I visited Sourmilk Ghyll Force instead of Taylor Gill Force.
The info I had on both the Garmin maps and GoogleMaps didn’t have the necessarly level of detail to avert this case of mistaken identity. So when I arrived at the correct trailhead and car park, I happened to see the Sourmilk Ghyll Force thinking it was Taylor Gill Force. Little did I realize that I was supposed to keep hiking to the head of the valley to find the real waterfall.
I know for a fact that if I had the map information available on the Gaia GPS website (shown in the screen capture above) for my pre-trip planning, it would have solved (or caused me to avoid) this problem.
Example: Drivandefossen in Norway 2019 Near Failure
I had a near failure regarding Drivandefossen in Norway in 2019. In this case, GoogleMaps had incorrect information on the waterfall’s whereabouts, and Norgeskart (formerly Norgesglasset) had misleading information about the waterfall, too.
After wasting time pursuing the waterfall on bad information, I finally double-checked a local paper map of the Skjolden area that made me realize that I was looking in the wrong valley all along! That costed a morning of what should have been a relatively easy waterfall to visit!
This was an example of crowdsourcing gone wrong, which seems to happen quite a lot. It goes to show you that there can be overzealous copy-cats scraping information off peoples’ websites and blogs but never bother vetting the information. That said, I’ve been guilty of being lazy myself from time to time.
Nonetheless, I know this personally because people have managed to hack into my old GoogleMaps waypoints and straight up publicized my foul ups (along with some of my successes), which was obvious to see. This goes to show you how unreliable crowdsourced information can be, and why surveyed data is more valuable.
It turned out that Gaia GPS wasn’t immune to the misleading location of Drivandefossen either (as apparently there were multiple such waterfalls with this name in the area). However, had I refered to it as Krekafossen, then it had the correct spot.
So I’m not sure if Gaia GPS would have helped me avert this issue, but its map detail definitely made it so I understood that it also went by its old name of Krekafossen.
Example: New Caledonia 2015 Failures
In the case of our series of failures seeking out waterfalls in New Caledonia in 2015, it was a combination of both poor researching effort and poor available information.
While I could have put more effort into researching the waterfalls on that trip, the information available on New Caledonia was very limited at the time.
This was especially since GoogleMaps didn’t have much reliable crowd-sourced information, Lonely Planet guides were very sparse on the waterfalls, and existing blogs didn’t cover them adequately.
However, as you can see in the screen capture above, if I had Gaia GPS along with in-the-field location superposed onto that topographic map, I would have known to keep persisting until reaching Cascade de Ba.
I could have also done the same thing with Cascade de Colnette, where I would have known to keep driving until getting right in front of that waterfall.
Indeed, I found it very impressive that Gaia GPS had this level of detail on their free base map even in a place as obscure as New Caledonia. That said, this map might not have been available back in late 2015. Nevertheless, knowing that I could have gone into the field armed with this information would really boost my confidence and be more efficient with the precious time spent abroad.
Besides, their map catalog continues to grow over time. So that’s one real good reason to keep using their tool.
Improved In-The-Field Information
Assuming that the trip was planned out and I had uploaded the correct waypoints onto the GPS device beforehand, I still had failures that resulted from insufficient in-the-field information.
Indeed, without a GPS giving me accurate location information paired up with a detailed topographic map, I found myself either lost, taking the incorrect trail, or not properly experiencing the target waterfall. This has happened to me on numerous occasions, of which some of them are detailed below.
Example: Kuhflucht Waterfalls in Germany 2018 Failure
The most glaring in-the-field failure that I had in recent memory was my 2018 Kuhflucht Waterfalls hike in Germany. In this instance, I had turned back too early and failed to witness the waterfall’s sourcing spring.
With proper in-the-field information, I would have known how much further I still had to go instead of turning back prematurely. And that’s what the following screen capture of Gaia GPS shows on my phone.
This in-the-field information would have helped me avert mistakes like turning back too early or taking the wrong trail. Heck, I still think about this failure and what might have been had I been able to act on this data. I even managed to start from the wrong trailhead, which unnecessarily lengthened the hike and might have been a factor in making me give up too soon.
Example: Waterwheel Falls 2004 Failure
My first experience with unknowingly failing to complete a waterfall hike happened on my first trip to Waterwheel Falls in 2004. On that trip, I learned the hard way that I had missed the actual Waterwheel Falls by a 1/4-mile!
As you can see in the screen capture below, I had managed to hike as far as LeConte Falls, but I had mistaken it for Waterwheel Falls and stopped there. This was exactly the realization that I came to when I went home and superposed my GPS tracks onto my Trails Illustrated Topo California map and saw this exact thing!
Thus, I actually came back the following week to finish the hike in a day (instead of spread out over a two-night backpack like on that first visit).
It was one of the few times I was able to go back and correct a mistake, especially since I was much younger, more energetic, and had more time on my hands back then.
As you can see in the screen capture above, if I had this topographic information available to me in the field as I was navigating during my hike, I would have known to keep going until I reached the real Waterwheel Falls. Thus, these kinds of mistakes would be less likely had I been armed with Gaia GPS on my phone (with sufficient battery life, of course).
Example: Hanakoa Falls 2006 Near Heat Stroke
Good in-the-field information would have also benefitted me on hikes where I needed to know my progress. Such information would allow me to better prioritize or strategize where to take rest breaks as well as how to better ration my supplies.
Not only that, but it would have provided me a mental boost knowing that I had a near-term goal to attain. Yet in the absence of this information, I remembered one time where I had run out of water and started to succumb to the onset of heat exhaustion (or heat stroke).
This happened in the humidity combined with the grueling up-and-down Kalalau Trail as I headed back from Hanakoa Falls in late 2006. Had I properly paced myself, this potentially dangerous condition could have been avoided.
As you can see in the Gaia GPS screen shot above, not only did I get good topographic information about the hike, but it also provided approximate elevation data so I would know when to rest and when to push on the uphills.
Improved GPS Reception and Fix
One thing that our old Garmin etrex handheld GPSes and even Garmin Nuvis have had trouble with is the ability to quickly get satellite reception. This was especially annoying when we’re far from home or on an international trip and needed to start navigating.
Sometimes it would take some 15 minutes or longer to finally get a fix. Other times, we’d never get a fix at all and we’d have to devote even more waiting time to see if the unit could get a fix after restarting the entire search!
I’ve had several hikes sabotaged by poor reception and/or us being unable to wait for GPS reception to finally occur. Heck, even when we pick up a rental car abroad, sometimes we’d have to pull over in the parking lot waiting for the unit to finally give us reception so we can start navigating with it.
Although GPS reception on our iPhone has more to do with its GPS chipset than with Gaia GPS, the software does make good use of the information provided, including location accuracy metrics. In fact, the GPS chipset in the phone is further aided by the network connection when available so I’ve found that I don’t have to wait several minutes to get reception like I would with the dedicated Garmin units that we have.
Of course once we’re in the field, if we get out of lock, the phone still has to reacquire the fix. However, if we’re already in the general area, the GPS in the phone doesn’t need to do a wider search before re-establishing the location of our whereabouts.
I’ve often found that the most time consuming part is getting the initial fix in the first place. Yet with the phone combined with Gaia GPS, this has not been a problem.
Improved Memory for Offline Map Storage and Navigation
This pain point is similar to not having sufficient information in the field. But it’s worth mentioning because our handheld GPS etrex units only have 24MB of memory.
This is only good for importing about 7 or 8 tiles with topo-level detail at 1:24k scale. Just to give you more of a concrete idea of what this means, I was only able to put onto my etrex device parts of Hawaii (largely excluding the Big Island). So we’re not talking a whole lot of real-estate.
Unfortunately, our trips tend to cover a lot more hiking real-estate than this. Therefore, in order to overcome this limitation, we’d have to set up a laptop for a trip with MapSource or BaseCamp and enough hard drive space to allow for detailed maps to be pulled from there onto the GPS unit. And we’d have to do this before every major hike, which was a real hassle.
My iPhone currently has 128GB of local storage, of which around 30GB is being used. That’s far superior than the 24MB internal memory on my etrex unit, the 1.8GB internal memory on my Garmin Nuvi 265W unit, and the 7GB internal memory on my Garmin DriveSmart 50 unit.
That said, the Nuvi 265W does allow me to insert a 2GB SD card to expand the map and trip logging capability. And the newer Garmin DriveSmart 50 unit took a mini-SD card for a capacity up to 32GB.
In fact, GaiaGPS certainly makes use of the increased memory space, and how much memory utilization used ultimately comes down to how many maps stored for offline use, which is far more than the 24MB of internal memory.
Ease Of Use / Wearability
As far as ease of use, I didn’t have a problem with how to use the handheld GPS units. However, I did have an issue with where to put it on my waterfall hikes.
Indeed, I’ve nearly lost my GPS on the trail when the battery cover somehow got detached. I’ve also worn out pouches and sleeves while awkwardly trying to safely hold the unit (while sacrificing GPS accuracy in the process). Even navigating the map within the unit was a lost cause (assuming I had the memory to upload them in the first place).
Over the course of nearly 20 years of use, I never really did find a good way to allow the handheld GPS to get good reception (i.e. not hide in a pouch or pocket) in a hands-free manner. So this was always a pet peeve of mine. It was almost as if Garmin intentionally did this to force you into accessorizing by buying an overpriced clip.
Anyways given all these inconveniences, the handheld GPS etrex units that I’ve been using were primarily for breadcrumb tracking (i.e. trip logging) and little else.
While I found my Garmin etrex and Nuvi units to be pretty easy to use, I actually found the Gaia GPS iPhone App to be even more superior given its touch screen interface. Indeed, for in-the-field navigation of the maps on the phone, I found the panning and zooming to be both smooth and very intuitive.
Gaia GPS also let me take pictures as my waypoints if I wanted to note a location of something interesting. So instead of trying to awkwardly enter the information on my Garmin units by spelling it out, all I had to do was to take a picture from the phone through the Gaia GPS app.
Not only is that a time-saver, but it’s far more descriptive than a cryptic waypoint name that I had to type out on the spot. Indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is one functionality that I found to be both efficient and very useful.
What Don’t I Like About Gaia GPS?
As much as I appreciate the map detail and its superb integration with iPhones, there are some things about Gaia GPS that I’m hoping will improve or that I’m not too thrilled about.
Most of these issues have to do with relying on the iPhone, but there is one issue concerning the app itself that yields long-term worries about the state of the places we know and love.
My number one hesitation with over-reliance on the iPhone is the tendency for the phone to leak metadata and personally identifiable information (PII). Especially when combined with websites that would gladly take GPX uploads or sync with the phone, such information becomes subject to unscrupulous individuals able to pry into private data with devious intentions.
There’s always fine print saying what is done with the information collected, but let’s face it. Are you really going to give up using a killer app at the potential of having private information compromised?
This one is hard to avoid, and it’s why I still prefer to have my Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Smartwatch with me with WiFi turned off and phone syncing turned off. I’d only interface with Garmin BaseCamp through its USB interface.
Conversely with the iPhone, I don’t see a very secure way of transferring waypoints, routes, tracks, and maps to and from the phone and my computer.
Call me paranoid, but I’ve seen too many cases of how easy it is for my private information to be collected and used on the dark web or even by unscrupulous entities on the regular web. I guess it still remains to be seen whether my use of Gaia GPS will have caused some privacy and data breaches.
Battery Life, Fragility, And The Need To Further Accessorize
Because Gaia GPS works well with an iPhone, it also means that I have to put up with the fast drainage of its battery. Even in airplane mode, the GPS chipset (when Location Services are turned on) tend to suck a lot of battery.
It does this at a rate of around 10% for a half-hour local walk. It drained 43% on a 7-hour test at home where it idled for 5 hours and was attached to something moving for the other 2 hours.
By comparison, my Garmin Fenix 6X Pro watch would typically remain 100% charged on the same local walk, and it only drained 8% on the same 7-hour test at home. And handheld GPS units like our etrex wouldn’t have this issue because I can easily swap out the AA batteries for a fresh pair assuming I brought some spares along.
In order to overcome the battery life issue on the iPhone, I would have to spend more money to accessorize and purchase at least one (maybe two) battery pack phone cases. While the phone might struggle to last an entire day on its native battery, the battery pack would at least make me more confident about it lasting that much time. However, for overnight backpacks, I might need to have at least a second battery pack fully charged.
You could argue that having spare battery packs is not much more inconvenient than carrying around spare AA batteries. While these extra packs would require time to charge, they do add a bit more weight and bulk than a bunch of AA batteries.
Yet even with the battery pack, I had to remember to turn it on roughly 4-5 hours into a hike on a fully-charged phone because the phone alone would be near depletion by then.
Then, after turning on the battery pack, it pushed the longevity of the on-time with the phone to barely lasting the rest of the day.
Fortunately, when I really put the phone and Gaia GPS to the test on a Rocky Mountains hiking trip, I didn’t have any multi-day overnight backpacking hikes so I was always able to recharge the unit at the end of the day.
But if I didn’t have that ability, then for sure I would need definitely need that second battery back, but even then, I might even need a third one for it to last the rest of the backpacking trip. Moreover, I’d have to remember to charge those extra battery cases before setting out as well.
Speaking of accessorizing with battery packs cases, in order to make the phone more weatherproof, I’d have to buy a waterproof casing to ensure it won’t short in a rain storm or if it gets dunked in a stream or river.
After all, iPhones don’t stand a chance in water nor if it dropped onto something hard (thereby likely cracking its touch screen glass).
And on a recent hiking trip, I did have the misfortune of falling into water, which compromised the iPhone while the waterproof GPS watch never missed a beat (luckily, the phone still worked after drying it off hours later).
Integration Issues With Apple Smart Watch
Gaia GPS does very well with the Apple iPhone. However, I’m finding that its integration with a wearable device like the Apple Smart Watch is something that they haven’t solved. If only I could wear a watch with that same kind of usability and in-the-field information along with long battery life, then I’d finally have a device that does better than my Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Watch as far as GPS wearables for hiking are concerned.
So as of this writing, I still use the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro with its superior battery performance to the iPhone using Gaia GPS or Apple’s Smart Watch with an app like WorkOutDoors.
WorkOutDoors’ vector maps definitely don’t have the level of detail of neither Gaia GPS nor the TopoActive North America map that comes with my Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Watch.
As a result, I’m still hoping that Gaia GPS can finally have proper integration with the Apple Smart Watch or somehow be able to provide Garmin-compatible maps so I can use it on my Fenix 6X Pro watch. But until then, I’ll have to settle for the iPhone with Gaia GPS as a backup navigation check while my Garmin watch gets the more frequent glances and use in the field.
Nevertheless, I view Gaia GPS’ integration issues with the watches as more of a software update problem and nothing that fundamentally can’t be included in a future release. So that kind of provides some degree of future proofing even though it’s not ready to do the watch thing yet.
Non-Intuitive User Interface on Gaia GPS Online Map
A couple of really annoying issues regarding the Gaia GPS Online Map concerned how it handled waypoints and tracks, especially post-trip when I wanted to do some analysis of my hikes.
For example, one pet peeve of mine when it came to reading my trip logs and waypoints on the Gaia GPS Online Map was the non-intuitive selection tool. You would think that if you point the cursor at a particular waypoint or track that it would select the waypoint or track that you pointed at.
However, it turned out that if any part of the cursor happened to touch overlapping waypoints or tracks, then the one on the “top layer” gets selected! So conceivably you could have the cursor point to a waypoint clearly above the “top layered waypoint”, but the “top layered waypoint” still gets selected if ANY part of that cursor touches the non-desired waypoint regardless of where it was pointing!
I figured out that the way to get around it was to zoom in the map even more so the waypoints get more separated. It’s an annoying extra step that made me think that there’s definitely room for improvement here.
The next issue made the Gaia GPS map less useful when it came to analyzing track distances and elevation profiles, especially when there were long tracks that needed to be segmented. And having long tracks was real easy to do, especially if the phone had been recording for a long time because you forget to turn off the recording!
The reason why segmenting is an issue for long tracks is because you don’t have the ability to zoom in on a profile for better detailed analysis of elevation profiles or the time it took to hike that segment. You have to move the mouse REAL slowly to even try to see where the segment of interest appears on the map itself!
Indeed, I learned the hard way that Gaia GPS had no ability to segment recorded or imported tracks onto the map. The only way to get around that would be to download the GPX into a different tool (like Garmin BaseCamp or MapSource) and then segment or edit the tracks in there before re-saving it and then importing the edited gpx file into Gaia GPS.
Another way to segment the tracks would be remembering to turn off and turn back on the recording while using Gaia GPS in the field. But if you forget to turn it back on, you fail to record tracks that you can’t get back. And if you fail to turn off the tracks, then you get the long track problem that Gaia GPS doesn’t do a good job of handling.
I end up importing the gpx data onto Garmin’s MapSource or BaseCamp or even GoogleMaps to get this elevation or distance information, but needing to use another tool to handle what Gaia GPS should natively handle calls into question the usefulness of Gaia GPS’ online map for post-trip analysis.
Thus, I really think Gaia GPS should improve this functionality if they want their tool to be the one-stop place to extract such information from trip logs.
The Double-Edged Sword Of Map Details And Information Sharing
As much as I enjoy the map detail available on Gaia GPS, I can’t help but feel like it’s only a matter of time before their content goes into the crowdsourcing platforms like GoogleMaps, AllTrails, and others. Once that happens, the once hidden and tranquil spots become overcrowded and often-times spoiled with urban blight and visitors exhibiting disrespectful behavior towards Nature and other people.
I’ve kind of noticed this phenomenon even a decade ago when “discoveries” from our old Topo maps that I’ve relied upon to find many of the waterfalls become known in the literature. All it takes is one person to share it to the public (motivated to be the first to blog about it I suppose), and thus these spots no longer are the hidden gems that we knew and loved.
With information sharing getting easier as time goes on, we’re witnessing the deterioration of public lands and the closure of once welcoming or at least hidden locations that happened to be on private lands.
While this isn’t the fault of Gaia GPS, I have noticed that there’s a push to make it easier to share tracks, routes, and waypoints perhaps to compete with apps like AllTrails while making the hiking experience more interactive.
And given the extensive information found in their map catalog, all that content will eventually make its way into the freeflow of information of the internet and social media.
To truly preserve places like this and keep it from become trashed or tagged, there has to be a permit or paid entry system similar to how they do it in most of the rest of the world (especially in Europe). That way, visitors pay into the maintenance, enforcement, and infrastructure of these places while possibly pricing out those who would trash the place.
Clearly, the freebie mentality is unsustainable (as much as we ideologically like to think that these public lands belong to the public). So while we’re all kind of feeding the internet free-information monster, the responsibility aspect of it due to its consequences still needs to catch up.
To me, this is analogous to an economy that should make you pay for your full impact or usage of public or shared resources. In other words, everything needs to be priced in and not externalized regardless of whether anything we consume causes pollution, global warming impact, resource extraction, overpopulation, deforestation, etc. (i.e. the entire life cycle needs to be priced in). We currently don’t have this, and we’re clearly seeing the consequences on the world in almost every way – environmentally, socially, psychologically, and especially politically.
Again, this is not Gaia GPS’ fault, but I can see the market pressure to keep feeding the monster to continue participating in this economy until there’s nothing left of Nature to enjoy and share responsibly.
Final Thoughts / Conclusions
Hands down, I feel like Gaia GPS has been one of the best investments I’ve made as far as maps and trip planning are concerned. I often ask myself what might have been had this tool been available (or I had known about it) on our prior trips where we had encountered waterfalling failures.
In any case, I was also very impressed with how easy it was to use the app on my iPhone, which made the phone act more like a handheld GPS unit but better. Indeed, I’m starting to find more reasons to use my phone as opposed to dismissing it as nothing but a toy or an obnoxious distraction.
That said, I was bothered by the battery life on my phone, which required some additional accessorizing with a battery pack to make using my phone as a GPS more worthwhile (albeit heavier and even more fragile).
In any case, Gaia GPS continues to improve as their developers are working to integrate their app better with other phone devices like the Android. They have also introduced integration with the Apple CarPlay app for better navigation while driving.
I do hope that it’s only a matter of time before this app will fully integrate with a smart watch to get over my remaining pain points about at-a-glance GPS usage and wearability in the field. Currently, my Garmin Fenix 6X Pro serves this purpose, but its lack of map detail compared to Gaia GPS keeps making me wish there was a way to combine the two technologies or services.
Although I can see the membership costs adding up with continued use, I’m finding the benefits that it comes with harder to turn down.
So I highly encourage you to give Gaia GPS a try with the free membership. Then, if you find yourself wanting to use offline maps and more detailed topographic and weather maps, then go for the regular or premium memberships, respectively.
Trip Planning Usefulness10.0/10
User Interface and Features9.5/10
Weight / Wearability5.0/10
- Superior Map Detail and Info
- Superior iPhone as GPS Functionality
- Futureproof, Constantly Improving
- Easy to Use, Smooth Interface
- Free To Sign Up and Use
- Poor Watch Integration
- Drains Phone Batteries
- Membership Costs Add Up
- Privacy and Metadata Leak Concerns
- Needs Accessorizing for Battery Life and Waterproofing