This past summer Hoot Ventures, a bike bag manufacturer out of Minneapolis, came to visit us here in Crested Butte. Brian and Alicia were on a road trip bikepacking through Colorado. We suggested a local route and told him he would likely need a GPS to navigate. I offered him my Garmin eTrex 30, but he said he’d be good with his phone app called Gaia GPS. He briefly gave me the details and showed me some of the features. He had used Gaia on a trip in New Zealand earlier this year, and planned on using it on their trip in Colorado, and again in Europe later on in the summer.
Last month I went on a trip with the guys from Why Cycles. Again, the Gaia app came into play. Although I had my trusty eTrex with a detailed topo map and track loaded, the trip leader was using Gaia on his phone. He had the track loaded and three different downloaded maps of the area. After the trip I quickly forgot the name of the app because I had a system that I have been using for years. Garmin Basecamp, Strava, and my trusty Garmin eTrex 30.
Fast forward to last week, where I was trying to finalize a route that I had been looking at for the past few weeks. This was a route that I had no real previous riding time on, just a route I wanted to make happen, so I started laying it out on Garmin Basecamp. Frustration quickly set in, and I moved onto the Strava route creator. That was also frustrating because many of the roads I wanted to take were not recognized on their system. So I then moved onto Ride With GPS, same thing. All I wanted to do was have a program recognize the roads that I wanted to take and give me the most accurate mileage without placing a pin every half mile or so.
My frustration lead me to Gaia GPS, a pay-to-play iPhone and Android mapping and GPS app with a one-time $20 fee. Gaia proved to be easy to create routes and it also played a big factor in getting the route completed from the palm of my hand. So I dowloaded it from the app store, set up an account and went at it. The rest was history, well, sort of. I’m still learning a lot about the app, but a few things are clear.
Making The Route
After finding my start and end location, I went to town, looking for roads that would connect to make the loop I had dreamed of. In short, the route was all mostly south of interstate 70 in the San Rafael Swell area of Utah. 99% of the route is on BLM land, making it that much more unique. After fiddling with the App, I found what I needed, the “+” button on the top of the page. It then gave me a drop down menu, with one option being “Create Route,” just what I was looking for. After messing around with the create route page, I decided to go online and see if there was a website or desktop app where I could view my current route progress and upload a track.
Sure enough, once I signed in, the map I had started to create was there instantly, and there was also an upload button to load a GPX file into. Everything was so easy to this point, I was giddy like a young child getting my first bike on Christmas Day. While I could have continued to create the route from my computer, I wanted to test out the apps ability to make a route. So I jumped back on my iPhone, located my current route, and started to work off that. For some reason I had to make sure I was in hiking mode, as cycling mode did not recognize most of the roads I wanted to use, so that is something to keep in mind. As far as placing a track, it’s as easy as long-holding your touch screen phone on or near a road/trail. More times than not, it will find the nearest road and last point you placed and connect them, neato!Desktop View
The biggest problem I ran into was roads dead ending, and in canyon country, this is a real thing. But the Gaia topo map is extremely detailed, and when I had any questions, I quickly switched over to the satellite map to see if there was an actual road or not, this proved to be a really handy feature.
After finally completing a loop, I only had one question, and that was a trail through Eagle Canyon. For some reason the app did not recognize it as a road or trail, and after riding it, I can understand. It was a sandy wash but it was marked as a road and people frequent it en route to Eagle Canyon Arch. After saving the route, I was instantly prompted to name the route and decide which maps I wanted to download offline, Gaia Topo, Satellite, and USGS TOPO, and what resolution I wanted them it. I decided to download all of them at medium resolution, because why not.
Needles to say, I planned a route from my phone in no time, 146 miles with 12,000 feet of climbing. We were off to Utah for a two night, three day bikepacking trip. The real test was to see how accurate it was.
Following The Route
Like any route or trail that you are unfamiliar with, I felt a bit vulnerable setting off on Saturday morning. I was unsure if the route I had made was accurate. Could it somehow be more mileage, or more vert? Lindsay and I only had two nights, and two and a half days and 146 miles was already steep considering the limited daylight we currently have on our hands. Before I left, I exported the Gaia track on to Garmin Basecamp so I could load it to my eTrex. Again, the route said 146 miles with 12,000ft of climbing. I felt more at ease and confident that Garmin was saying the same as what Gaia calculated.
The first day of the trip was smooth as a button, I had the Gaia for backup, and followed the handlebar mounted eTrex closely. Lindsay and I would peek at the Gaia app to see where we were, reference our next turn, and check out a what specific canyons or formations were called. It was an awesome resource. We were able to do this because we downloaded the map offline, something that sets this app apart. Your phone will likely ask if “Gaia GPS is allowed to use your current location” and you will want to say yes. This way you can see where you are on the map, even without service. Best of all, we did this and I put my phone on airplane mode. It hardly used up any of my battery percentage throughout the day.
The real test came when my eTrex batteries died. This happens, and I knew it would during the trip as I didn’t put in freshies before leaving, but I had spares that I thought were good. Two extra sets actually. It turns out they were not. If I didn’t have the Gaia, we would have been screwed. During this time I also hit the record button, a feature that allows you to calculate your moving time, mileage and vert, since my eTrex was no longer doing that for me. During this time, I did notice the app using a bit more juice but it was still insignificant.
In the end, the app saved us, and well, likely wasted some time on the trail too. It was so cool to look around at features we were passing and watch our arrow quickly move along the route. The route was indeed 146 miles, but the vert was off a bit. It ended up being over 10,000 feet of climbing, so not drastically off. One thing I would do in the future is one-over the route after I exported it, because there were a few mistakes that the map made such as going off route on a road before backtracking.
The app can be as simple or as complex as you wish, which is why I really love it. There are large amounts of map layers you can use aside from the original three – including a European map, Canadian map, a number of different forest service and geological survey maps, nautical maps, hunting maps, and many more.
The app also comes with overlays that you can turn on and off. The overlays include natural features such as the arch we passed in Eagle Canyon, camping sites, trail names, parks and forests, and even has a weather overlay that could come in handy during times of uncertain weather.
The other really nice feature that we found useful was the waypoint markers that you could place. We used them for potential camping spots, and sights to see along the way, as well as where we dropped water. It’s easy to place waypoints on both the phone and from your laptop.
Another cool feature is the community aspect. We all know there are plenty of route databases out there, but with Gaia GPS, you can publish your route, and share it with others – be it hikers, cyclists or other users. Along those lines, the app also allows you to use your phone camera to take pictures of road conditions, unique features and anything you think would be useful to others. They will automatically show up as a waypoint, making for a really cool visual route experience.
I could seriously go on and on. For now, I have an awesome app for not only bikepacking but road trips and curiosity. An app that is extremely user friendly and works well with GPX files. If you are a map geek, just want a back up, or need a GPS and already have a phone, this $20 development proves to be well worth the money.
Oh, and one quick note. There is even a Gaia GPS Pro version, this is $5.99 a month or $39.99 a year and it gives you even more features such as printing off your maps and routes, gives you access to even more maps, detailed weather information, and allows you to store your hi-res images. Something I may consider once I get the hang of the regular version.
Gaia is available in the Apple App Store and on Google Play. For more information head over to Gaiagps.com, and if you need some guidance, visit their Youtube Channel, it is mighty helpful.