Using Your Smartphone as a GPS Unit

Did you know your smartphone is a powerful navigational tool, whether you have cell service or not? Download an app and the world is literally at your fingertips. Read our guide for more info on using your iPhone or Android as a GPS, which apps to use, and how best to keep it charged up.

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The best GPS could be the one you already own…

Chances are, you don’t need to buy a GPS. You already have one. Modern day smartphones incorporate both a cell antenna and GPS antenna. Although the combined efforts of both – Assisted GPS – is a faster and a more accurate way of figuring out exactly where you are, the smart phone’s GPS works perfectly well when your adventures take you into the wonderful world that lies beyond the range of cell towers. This means that as long as you’ve pre-downloaded basemaps or even just gpx file – via wifi at home – you’ll still be able to locate yourself and navigate even the most complex bikepacking routes.


Of course, paper maps are a valuable resource too, and we’d always recommending carrying one as a backup when you can. But given that there are plenty of places in the world where quality maps are hard to come by, delving into the world of GPS, smartphones and apps will open up a great deal of potential in your bikepacking explorations.

There are various ways to carry your phone. Stowing it in a Bedrock Tapeats, for quick and easy one-handed access, is a favourite method. If you’re keeping it on your body, smaller phones can be more travel-friendly than the ‘phablets’, even if the latter have enticingly large screens. Gossamer Gear does a nice shoulder strap pocket, or there are mounts that attach to the handlebars. Watch out for dust and rain though, unless you use a Lifeproof case with their Life Active Bike Mount. Loksaks are cheap and work very well too, if you’re on a budget. And always apply a protective glass screen, like those from Zagg.

Navigation Apps

There are several good mapping apps available geared towards biking and hiking, their differing price points generally a reflection of the diversity of maps that come included – some are more suited to backcountry exploration than others. Free apps are great, but bear in mind a one off fee still represents excellent value for money, given all the hard work that’s gone into them. Each of these apps utilize the built-in GPS of your smartphone to work with their supplied basemaps, along with downloaded GPX files.

Gaia GPS

Our favourite app for backcountry bikepacking is Gaia GPS, which works on both iOS and Android devices. It costs $20, which you’ll quickly discover is money extremely well spent, given all of Gaia’s functionality. What’s more, Gaia is updated regularly, the support service is excellent, and you’ll enjoy unlimited access to a whole host of worldwide mapping layers, including USGS in the US and IGN maps in Spain, as well as various Google and OpenStreetMap (OSM) options. We’ve used it to navigate across the States, Europe, South America, Africa and Mongolia with great success.

Prior to your trip, we’d suggest tracking down the map that best serves your area, as these can vary from region to region. On a recent bikepack through Peru, for example, OSM’s OpenHikingMap proved the best option as it includes topo, altitudes, trails markings and an impressive level of detail. In Europe, we’ve found that OpenCycleMap offers highlighted trails and greenways as well. In the US, there’s a whole wealth of forest service topo maps to choose from.

Gaia App Bikepacking

Gaia App screens (from left to right): 1. Layer selection; 2. Loaded GPX files with POIs; 3. USGS topo layer on.

Map tiles can be downloaded at different levels of detail, resulting in different file sizes. We favour Level 14 (1:48 000), as the download sizes are relatively compact, but the detail level is still very good. Here’s where Android devices score over iPhones – many models have an expandable memory, allowing you to use a dedicated Micro SD card to store all your maps, rather than having them eat into your device’s memory. If you only intend to follow a track, then Gaia has an option to download 5 tiles on either side of the line, called Download Map Along Track.

Gaia is far easier to use than a Garmin simply because your phone’s operating system is so much less clunky. For instance, it’s quick and easy to create named waypoints, or zoom in and out of areas you’re planning to explore, and make a quick outline of your intended route. If your route ends up changing or evolving as you ride, it’s a much better tool for scoping out the surrounding areas – Garmins are laggy and awkward in comparison.

Unlike many GPS units, smartphones don’t need to be tethered to a computer to import and export your files. If you want to import a gpx file of an intended route – whether it’s one that’s been shared with you, or you’ve created in a tool like Google Earth – it’s simply a case of attaching it to an email, and opening it straight into Gaia. You can sync all your routes online, creating both backups and an opportunity to share them. You can also access a web version that with a snap-to-trail function, which makes route planning and measuring the routes that you’ve created a breeze – and it syncs with your phone. Like any program, it takes some time to discover and familiarise yourself with all its functions. But apps go, it’s fairly intuitive and quick to use.

Gaia GPS App Navigation, Bikepacking

Gaia App screens (from left to right): 1. Selection of folders (routes); 2. Topo elevation; 3. Basemap download screen and file size.

As an upgrade from the base model, a Pro version costs an additional $40 a year. This offers a whole new level of customisation and functionality, opening up extra features online and on your phone. Our favourites are the use of multi-layered maps – this can be particularly handy as layers include hill shading and public land boundaries. There’s also the ability to download polygon-shaped maps rather than rectangles, saving download time and memory, and print as many custom maps as you like.

NOTE: The new Gaia App launched on May 22, 2017. Read more here. If you’d like to try Gaia, their team has offered readers a free 6 month Premium Membership (which includes NatGeo Trails Illustrated maps). To redeem this offer, click here, download the app on your mobile device, and log in to your account from the app Settings to start using your Premium Membership.


  • Using your smartphone as a GPS, Navigation, Bikepacking
  • Using your smartphone as a GPS, Navigation, Bikepacking

Google Maps

We’ve long used Google Maps for general navigation and route planning, especially around urban areas. It’s also extremely handy for tracking down bike shops, gas stations, places to eat and lodgings. Until recently, you needed to be online to access it. The good news is that you can now download relatively large sections of maps – 120,000 square kilometres – onto your phone for a limited period of 30 days. It’s a function that’s particularly useful when navigating through a city on a bikepacking route, particularly in situations where you don’t have cell service – when you’re overseas, for instance.

As a tool for backcountry navigation, Google Maps can be more limited. For a more thorough examination of the lay of the land, it’s generally best to swap over to Google Terrain or even Google Earth – both of which we’ll be discussing in a future instalment. Although Google Maps can be used to plan cycling routes, we’ve noticed it often suggests journeys that cross private land. Be aware that the voice of Google is not infallible.

Ride with GPS

Ride With GPS is another of our favorites. The basic version is free but you’ll need to subscribe it access all its features. RWGPS allows you to navigate your route with the Offline Maps feature, where you can pre-download the route and map tiles before heading out. It also enables access to routes from thriving community with a vast selection of shared routes – in fact, this is the program we use to share routes on Unlike Gaia, however, there’s no means to plan a route directly from your phone, and it doesn’t include useful map layers such as USGS. The functionality is also far more limited from your phone; you’ll need to use the web browser version to access all its great route-planning features. You can download GPX files seamlessly from your RWGPS account and use the app to navigate while offline.

RideWithGPS App Bikepacking

RideWithGPS App screens (from left to right): 1. Account routes list; 2. Route detail; 3. Recording.

Other useful apps

Of course, you can use your phone to plan and then record your rides as well. There are several other good apps available, including Google Earth, Wikiloc, and MTB Project, all of which are valuable resources when seeking out new places to ride. Strava can a useful way to plana route too. Its Heatmap is a great way of seeing popular placesto ride and gpx files can be downloaded if you have the Premium version. is favourite. This free offline mapping is often favoured by long distance, international bike travelers. Although lacking in topography, is surprisingly powerful and the level of detail can be very good, depending on the region. The mapping itself is really clear, which helps offer a good overview of an area. We find it particularly useful for navigating big, unfamiliar cities, as you can quickly download the mapping for entire country before you arrive. Its routing feature works offline too, which is especially handy.

Amongst Android users, Orux, AlpineQuest, and Backcountry Navigator come highly praised too. Bear in mind that some navigational apps are especially good at certain regions, in terms of the basemaps they provide. If you’re headed to Russia, Mongolia or other countries in the former Soviet Union, the free Soviet Military Maps are a fascinating resource. Unfortunately, this is only for for Android users.

For more details and ideas on how to put a good ride together, see our Complete Route Planning Guide.


Battery Life

As powerful as it is, a smartphone’s Achilles tendon is a distinctly poor battery life, especially when recording a route. If it’s an overnight or weekend bikepack, chances are you can get away with get away with a backup battery. This could be a replaceable battery, in the case of most Android phones, or a USB external ‘cache’ battery pack for integrated devices like iPhones. Nowadays, there’s a large range of very affordable USB battery packs available online and in big box stores, sized relative to their capacity and output. 1500-3000 mHA will generally garner a single charge, depending on the smartphone and its screen size. There are also larger battery packs, 6000 mHA and upwards, that can boost the lifespan of your phone to several days, and will charge your device more quickly. These are inevitably bulkier and heavier, but can be worth it depending on where you’re heading. We’re planning a post on the best models suited to bikepacking – in the meantime, the Wirecutter has a very thorough roundup. Anker is a brand that often comes recommended with a wide range of options. Technology is changing quickly. When purchasing a battery, consider both the charge time of the unit itself and its output to your phone, as these can vary greatly.

Above all, be thoughtful with your phone usage. Turn off all background apps and keep your phone in Airplane mode in the backcountry – you’ll still be able to access the GPS. If it’s cold, stow your phone in your sleeping bag at night to help preserve battery life. And consider how bright you need to run your screen. As a rule of thumb, it pays to turn it off if you’re not planning on using your phone for six hours or more.

For recording longer routes, pairing a smartphone with a relatively cheap and compact GPS cycling computer is a good option – there’s a range on the market from Lezyne, Garmin, Mio and Cateye – which are fairly efficient for recording. Lezyne’s Macro GPS is an excellent option.

Dynamo hubs and solar panels

For longer trips, consider carrying solar panels in areas where the sun is consistent, or a dynamo hub for charging at all but the slowest speeds of riding/hike-a-biking. We prefer dynamo hubs, though solar panels have their place when terrain is particularly challenging. They’re a lot cheaper too.

Although it requires a large financial investment, our current ultimate dynamo setup is Schmidt’s SON 28, combined with Sinewave Cycles’ Revolution or Reactor, devices that convert electricity generated by your hub into a USB-friendly outlet. The Shutter Precision PD 8X is a more economical hub option, though earlier models have had issues with bearing life (Logan’s failed after just a few hundred miles – newer models are said to feature superior bearings.) In the US, have a chat to Cycle Monkey, who have experience building wheels with both brands of dynamo hubs.

Using a smartphone as a GPS

  • Using a smartphone as a GPS
  • Sinewave Reactor
  • USB Rechargeable Headlamp, Revolt

Once your bikepacking rig is set up with a dynamo, you’ll likely wonder how you ever survived without it. We use ours to charge a whole host of USB-powered devices, like Black Diamond’s ReVolt headlamp, a SteriPEN Freedom water purifier, a backup battery pack and even camera batteries. Test it all out first though. Dynamo hubs produce a relatively low wattage so charging times tend to be slower, depending on the kind of terrain you’re riding, and the speed it dictates. Sinewave Cycles’s Revolution kicks in at 3.5mph (5.6kph) but doesn’t offer a full charge until you hit 9mph (14.5kph). Great for dirt roads, less so for technical singletrack.

Otherwise a solar panel – strapped to a roll bag, seat pack or backpack work – works well too, especially when riding slow going singletrack. We’ve had success with Goal Zero’s range, finding a day of riding in the likes of New Mexico was enough to charge an iPhone in the evening. For incredibly fast charging, and a robust build, Anker’s Powerport Solar comes highly recommended. It’s $60 and weighs 417g, making it a great option for a longer trip.

  • Using a smartphone as a GPS
  • Using a smartphone as a GPS

Whether using a dynamo or a solar panel, we’re recommend leaving an external ‘cache battery’ charging throughout the day in your framebag or top tube bag – see Battery Life above. It’s less efficient than charging your phone directly, but given how sensitive smartphones can be to being charged – particularly iPhones – it seems to work best. It could also help preserve your expensive device’s battery life in the long run. Make sure the battery is secure – if it rattles around, it’s likely to damage the cable port. If you’re using an iPhone, invest in a more rugged third party cable. The stock ones are woefully prone to splitting.

Dedicated GPS

A traditional GPS still has its place

If it’s a complicated, challenging multi-track route – like the Stagecoach 400 – we still recommend a dedicated GPS unit, mounted to your handlebars. The screen is much clearer, and it’s easier to orientate in the direction you want, at a scale that works for the speed of your ride.

A GPS is also easier to use with thick gloves, and out in the rain – even with a protective case, smartphone screens can be sensitive to droplets of water. A GPS like the Garmin eTrex 20 is inherently much tougher. And most important, the battery life is really good. A set of double lithiums will garner 40 or more hours of use, even recording a track – though they’re expensive and ecologically unsound. Rechargeable NiMH batteries are an option too – get the best ones you can find, ideally 2800mAh in capacity, like these ones from B&H.

eTrex 20 Garmin GPS, Bikepacking


  • Smart phones have an intuitive advanced operating system that makes traditional GPS units seem dated and clunky.
  • They’re also much easier than a GPS unit for route finding out on the trail.
  • Creating and naming waypoints is far easier too, as you can use your smartphone’s ‘keyboard’.
  • A quality app like Gaia GPS has just a one time fee, and gives you a massive variety of maps to draw upon.
  • Smartphones don’t need to be tethered to a computer to import and export gpx files.
  • You probably already have one!
  • Doubles as a phone, of course! And they feature a whole gamut of other useful tools.


  • Poor battery life means carrying a spare battery, or USB battery pack, is likely to be required. Or running a dynamo hub/solar panel.
  • Less suited to fast, turn by turn singletrack navigation compared to a dedicated GPS.
  • Less robust, unless you invest in a specialist case, which is expensive.
  • In some situations, a dedicated GPS offers superior mapping, although Garmin’s basemaps are region specific and can be very expensive.
  • Drains battery if recording a route – consider using your phone in conjunction with a simple (and very affordable) GPS cycling computer.

Wrap up

In our day to day city life, we may lament how tethered we’ve become to our electronic devices. Out in the wilds, combined with satellite imagery and detailed mapping that’s now available, they open up a whole new vein of exploration potential.

Depending on where you’re headed, the ultimate bikepacking setup is still a combination of both a dedicated GPS and a smartphone, as they both offer distinct advantages. When it comes to fast singletrack with multiple junctions, a Garmin is still the better choice – and the battery life is hard to beat too. But the more you experiment with your smartphone, the more you’ll appreciate what a powerful navigational tool it can be. For exploratory rides, or routes that don’t require quick, turn by turn navigation, it’s definitely our preferred option.

And besides, there’s almost nothing to buy, as you probably already have one…

  • Using your smartphone as a GPS, Navigation, Bikepacking
  • smartphone_as_gps_11

Do you have any tips, cell phone apps or gear feedback you’d like to share? Leave us a comment!

  • irakvscss

    Google Heart is really easy and confortable to use, i plan all the route in the PC and then transfer to my phone using dropbox.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Do you mean Google Earth? This is my all time favourite program! We’ll be talking about it more in the next instalment…

  • irakvscss

    I make all my routes in Google Heart, is so easy, the app is really good and free.

  • I was using Ride With GPS and Google Earth to plan my routes long before ever using GPS. I pushed against GPS for a long time for various reasons and wore my ‘No Garmin, no rules’ badge with pride. Going down the cell phone Gaia route instead of purpose built GPS unit softened the blow of the surrender and it changed my life forever! The amount of hours stood at unexpected Andean cross-roads waiting for someone to ask for directions dropped to near zero, the whole world opened up and there was suddenly less to get in the way of me finding my fun. So thank you Mr. Gilbert for pulling me into the 21st century. Now I’m moving into UL hiking I’ve discovered the incredible weight saving abilities of the smart phone. There is a strong preference for smart phone GPS over traditional units among hikers for all the same reasons that should benefit bikepackers; namely versatility and weight savings.

  • Mapsme is a great free app.

  • Cass Gilbert

    I remember that La Paz purchase well Nathan! What a game changer, right? It’s easy to see these devices as taking something away from the spirit of exploration. But I think they actually add to it considerably, especially when used creatively – they give me the courage to explore places that would otherwise have remained completely overlooked.

    All the best for the UL forays ahead!

  • Cass Gilbert

    I have it too – it’s very useful. But the level of detail isn’t a match for Gaia. I think it depends on your needs, and where you are.

  • Fred

    I wonder if I can shake my smartphone to death if I put it onto my handlebars and ride some nice trails…
    But if I put it into my pockets I spend half of my time riding with one hand while the other is desperately trying to unlock the phone.

    That’s the main reason I am really considering buying a dedicated GPS, even it’s way more expensive than a handlebar mount.

  • Cass Gilbert

    When there’s lots of quick route checking, I prefer a dedicated GPS. But I’m pretty adept these days at one handed riding, and most of the time the smartphone does just fine.

    The eTrex20 is a really good GPS – lots of deals around, good battery life, and it’s rugged. I always miss my cell phone OS when I use it though…

  • Rob Grey

    gaia gps and airplane mode is my go-to setup for bikepacking or hiking. it’s really intuitive and my phone is a thing i carry anyway, plus it has a built in camera. when i was contemplating a dedicated gps unit, i figured $20 for an app was a steal compared to the couple hundred for a dedicated unit. and for longer trips i just carry a 16000mha battery pack; a little bulky – not terrible, actually – and nice to have 7 (or more) days’ worth of juice for my phone.

    ps – and ease of downloading gpx files on the go is absolutely amazing with gaia, literal seconds to have a track ready to navigate.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Rob. I totally agree!

    16000mha is a serious battery pack. Can I ask what brand/model it is, and how much it weighs roughly?

  • Rob Grey

    it’s an anker astro e5 and it weighs 308g according to their website. it’s about the size of four lara bars laid out 2×2, maybe slightly narrower. cost effective, too. i quite like it.

  • inseguitore

    I go to, map out my route in USGS topo maps, export the .gpx file, email it to myself and load it onto Gaia. Then, I print out the route. Works like a charm.

  • Al Cowan

    I’ve been using an iPhone with Gaia and a sine wave reactor for the last 10 months around Europe and japan, it’s been fantastic. As far as mounting on handlebars go I’ve got a ‘quad lock’ phone case from Annex, a Melbourne company which has a garmin edge style locking arrangement. A little expensive to start with but its solid, reliable, neat and easily attached while riding. Recommended.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Cool thanks, I’ll look into it.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks for the input!

  • Robert Thomson

    Has anyone else used I’m toying with Ride With GPS Premium vs BikeMap at the moment, and in terms of interface, BikeMap is definitely much prettier (and it is all free). The BikeMap route pages just seem to showcase routes in a much more slick way. E.g.

    Any thoughts?

  • Mateusz Emeschajmer

    Great read! I have been using my Android smartphone (Motorola Defy replaced later by Samsung Note 3) for the last 4 years of my round-the-world journey. I can not imagine coming back to paper maps! I tried quite a lot of apps, but my favorite is OsmAnd+, hands down! With a “Contour lines” plugin you can download a map of an entire country (or region in some cases) as well as grid lines, you can turn on shading making it a fully usable topographic map. You can use 3 maps at the same time (overlay and underlay and adjust the opacity). You can use OSM Cycle map as well. Record your route to gpx files. It offers turn-by-turn navigation, that works well (I use together with earphones). POI can be added or edited by users, making it super useful for finding camp spots, water sources, etc. For really remote areas I used to preload it with satellite images (from Microsoft natively or from Google using Mobile Atlas Creator). Unlike IPhone, most Android phones come with replaceable batteries – a crucial feature while in the outdoors, I think. I am carrying Xiaomi Powerbank (super cheap, but very well made) and charge it with Ewerk, but the spare batteries are less than half of the weight of the powerbank (an much more efficient), so I always try to have one spare with me. A cool option would be to turn a kindle into a map reader. Imagine one week on one charge… There is this secondary E-Ink screen for smartphones
    (Inkcase), maybe I will give it a try one day…

  • Robert Kerner

    How–if at all–are you getting your routes out of Gaia to RidewithGPS? Are you exporting them and then re-importing as GPX files? The features in Gaia are pretty deep but it’s not yet a platform that a lot of people use, and no doubt one of the reasons your site is using RwGPS to share routes.

  • I actually go the other way most of the time… plan in RWGPS and then import to Gaia for route navigation. But, you can do it the same way, just download a GPX from Gaia, then import it to RWGPS. Not App to App though. This is done via the web applications.

  • Looks nice. I guess it depends on what you want to do. I like RWGPS for planning, but I haven;t investigated’s tools.

  • Robert Thomson

    Yeah, the pure functionality/tools of RWGPS is definitely better.

  • John Freeman

    I’ve been waiting for just such an article. We’ll done and great photos as usual Cass.

    I’m an Android user. Even though it took a while to sort out how to use it well, Orux is my go to. One of its greatest features is the ability to change map themes. By doing this you get layered info tailored to your needs. Yesterday while riding through urban areas, in Pais Vasco near San Sebastian, I was able to follow bike paths and avoid traffic. Only the day before I was able to locate fuentes, refugios, good camping options and resupply towns easily while following the GR38 here in Spain. Tomorrow (and 2+ weeks) I will follow the .gpx file for a traverse of the Spanish Pyrenees that I loaded be leaving Canada. I agree, this tech adds a lot to the trip by giving you the ability to find the riding that you want. Chance is romantic but sometimes it’s just a PITA.

    As you mentioned in your article battery life is the thing. I over did it a bit this trip (newbie fears at play?) with a SON28 into a Luxos, 10,000mAh battery and a GPS unit to record the trip. The 29+ wheel is so big that you need a bit more speed to get the revolutions at the hub. We’ll that was my thinking. Forgot to factor in the charging/cervesa options that are everywhere in Spain.

  • My friends and I use Ulmon’s CityMaps2Go – it’s a fantastic offline map that covers a lot of trails. The only drawback is that you can’t use it for automatic navigation, but this way you can improvise more.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Well, better safe than sorry! What kind of 10,000mAh battery are you using? Be good to draw up a list of good ones at some point.

    I always hear good things about Orux.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thank you – we’ll check it out.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Yes, as an iPhone user, I’m envious of the ability to swap out spare batteries. Luckily, small capacity cache batteries are readily and cheaply available – if a little less efficient.

    Thanks for the tips!

  • To add another, probably lesser known option to the list: A friend of mine and myself have been using Locus/ Locus Pro ( on Android for the last 2-3 years, including a two-month trip down the West Coast and many bikepacking excursion in Switzerland and surrounding areas. However, we used Ride with GPS many times to discover new routes along the way and found it very handy for that.

    Locus/ Locus Pro is a GPS navigation app produced by a Czech company (or maybe a single guy?) and features quite an amazing amount of functionality. Even in the free version of the app, which is already very usable. In the US, we were able to download very detailed USGS maps for offline use, while in Europe, the Hike&Bike open street maps are amazing to discover trails ridden (or walked) by other people.

    As far as I know Locus is not very well know (I do not know anyone besides myself and my friend using it), which is probably due to its slightly cluttered and sometimes not-so-intuitive interface. However, once you get to know it, it does all you wish for. One option I find particularly nice is the ability to select a track and then choose a width around the track (e.g. 20km) to download for offline use. This really makes downloading very detailed maps for offline use without using enormous amounts of memory space a breeze.

    However, Gaia sound amazing. The last time I checked it was iOs-only which was why I went with Locus. Might have to give it another try. And then, paper maps are still the nicest way in my opinion if the goal is to wander and explore rather than following a GPS track.

    PS: If anyone travels in Switzerland only SwitzerlandMobility ( cannot be beat. We have arguably the best national mapping agency (the level of detail in its map is borderline obsessive, down to individual trees) in the world and this gives you access to all of its 1:25’000 which is pretty nice, as well as a host of designated and signposted mountain bike routes (which are pretty tame and involve a lot of tarmac most of the time though…).

  • for planing and osmand

  • John Freeman

    Using Kodiak Plus by Outdoor Tech. It was a reasonable price, waterproof. Not sure how it compares to others but it takes a long time to charge to full. I think I would give it 8/10.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks for the message Mario – downloading to either side of the track is a great function.

  • John


  • John


    For suggestions on USB battery packs, I recommend checking out this very thorough guide. They researched 160 models and tested 17 models in a professional lab.

    They particularly like the 6000 mAh EasyAcc 6000mAh Ultra Slim Power Bank and 16,100 mAh AmazonBasics Portable Power Bank.


  • John F

    Great summary. Looking forward to the next installment.

  • Keith B

    Overall this is a useful and well written article.

    I am, however, disappointed to not see more on [OpenStreetMap]( here. This article even gets the name wrong. It’s Open**Street**Map, not Open *Source* Maps. Please fix this in the article.

    OSM is a collaborative mapping project that has some very high quality mapping, especially of remote regions. If a path or logging road that you’ve ridden is not on the map you can add it, by tracing the satellite imagery, your GPX, or even the Strava heatmap. I’ve done this for a few areas that I am planing to ride, and in areas I have ridden.

    OSM is more detailed and more accurate than Google Maps for most areas, with the exception of showing businesses. Most businesses know how important it is to get themselves added to Google Maps, OSM relies on volunteers adding businesses that they take an interest in.

    [Here]( is a comparison of an area of your Lower Sunshine Coast route. It shows Google, and two different renderings of the OSM data, the default one and the Bicycle centric one.

    I use [OSMAND]( on my phone, it allows you to download large areas, country or province/state sized regions, and stores them in vector format, allowing compact storage.

    OSM is great! Show them some love.

  • Cass Gilbert

    That’s great, thanks John. There’s so many on the market it’s hard to know where to start. We’ll certainly check it out.

  • dmorg

    You mention using dynamo/solar to recharge camera batteries. Have you had to customize your wall charger somehow or does your camera gear use AAs? With both dynamo and solar, I am still missing camera battery and laptop recharging and can’t figure a way around the issue.

  • overnighter

    I’ve been using a lifeproof case + mount on my handlebars for several years now with the same phone, phone works fine.

  • Andrew Wade

    I came here to comment about Locus Map. I recently found out about it and after diving into all the features it’s become my new favorite map app. My latest find was discovering how to use the Strava Heatmap as a custom map overlay. Very cool feature. Gaia is on my app wishlist, I’ll have to check it out soon. Great post!

  • Cass Gilbert

    PS I’ll wager the UK’s Ordnance Survey gives SwitzerlandMobility a run for it’s money (-; Likewise, the 1:25,000 series has a healthy attention to obsessive detail! And yes, beautiful, detailed maps are a thing to behold. It’s just that the majority of the world doesn’t have them… which is where Google Earth comes in. An incredible program.

    For a long time, Gaia wasn’t available for Android. And when it was, its was distinctly lacking. This has been addressed, and from what I can see (and from what friends tell me) its features and functionality are now on par. Definitely worth checking out. If you do, let us know how you get on. And don’t forget, you can take advantage of the free Pro plan too. I’ve always been perfectly content with the $20 version. But having tried the Pro version, it has some very nice features.

    It’s long been on my agenda to do a trans-Switzerland mtb ride. One day…

  • Cass Gilbert

    Custom overlays are great! This one sounds cool.

  • We made the typo fix, thanks for catching that. Also, note that we made several references to OpenCycleMap, which is part of OpenStreetMap…

  • Cass Gilbert

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your comment, correction and input.

    If you check through the Gaia roundup, you’ll see that OSM basemaps are mentioned several times. I’m a fan of OSM – and Google – for different needs. As we mention, Googlemaps is very limited for backcountry bikepacking exploration. OSM is far superior, but it can often take some time to figure out the best basemap. I find Google Earth, on the other hand, an incredible resource for remote, unchartered bikepacking, and it’s helped me traverse parts of the Andes in a way that’s unmatched by any other program I’ve come across.

    This article was meant to be less about whether OSM is better than Google or not. Rather, a reminder to people than smartphones, and high quality apps that are now available, can be a very viable alternative to dedicated GPS units. We’ll be talking more about the nuances of route planning, and the various maps and methods available, in another instalment.

  • Cass Gilbert


    There’s some options on ebay, I don’t have a good enough connection right now to track them down, but a search should reveal them. I have a USB-powered charger for my Canon 5D, and they’re available for Fuji, Olympus and all the usual suspects. They’re not especially fast… but they work.

    This said, Canon DLSR batteries last so long it’s rarely an issue for me. Daniel had the Olympus charger in Mongolia for his EM-1, and used it all the time to charge his camera batteries via an external battery pack.

    Laptops are another matter though…

  • John Coconis

    I’ve been Bikepacking for over a decade and have never relied on an app. It works but your battery life will go quickly. If you are the type of person who will ride several days without civilization, which is easy to do in Utah, a dedicated GPS is the only way to go. Question, how well does a dynamo hub work in a creek? Because everywhere I have wanted to go has at least 2-5 water crossings.

  • G gf

  • Corinna

    Thanks for this great article! Does anyone have thoughts on how Galileo might compare to Gaia?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Like any hub, I don’t suppose they don’t like to be submersed… But normal stream crossings are fine. SONs are very reliable – as you’d hope at the price.

    I’d have thought a solar panel would work a treat in Utah though, backed up with a battery pack. Works great in New Mexico.

  • Benjamin

    I didn’t see Trailforks mentioned anywhere, but is another great app for bike trails.

  • Rob Grey

    just checked, it’s decidedly smaller than 4 lara bars laid out 2×2. it’s more like the size of a television remote.

  • I will give Gaya a try anyway. A really cool feature would be the ability to display an elevation profile, just like BikeRouteToaster or Google Maps but in an app form that would also work offline. Any elevation profile app you would recommend??

  • Gary Blakley

    Great article, Cass. Regarding battery life; you left your phone on overnight? Can you tell us what uses less power? Leaving it on, with all apps off for 9 hours, vs. turning it off and having it reboot when turning it back on.

  • John Coconis

    I like the Bushnell Tough Solar. Really easy to use and supplies power for all my camera equipment, cell phone, and lights. It also will supply enough for 3 extra friends. It charges the connected battery even without sun. Very helpful on my last trip.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks. I only have experience with the Goal Zero gear. I’ll look into the Bushnell panels.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Good point Gary. On my phone – iPhone 5s – putting it in airplane mode only seems to lose a couple of percent power overnight. When it’s cold, I’m more likely to power it down, and put it in my sleeping bag. Have to do some research and see which is more efficient. Any ideas/thoughts welcome! PS hope you don’t mind me using those pics – thanks for the expert modelling (-;

  • Cass Gilbert

    Here we go – an example:

    I’m not sure which one I have, as it was a birthday present, and came in a generic box. Worth a go, seeing how cheap they are. But as I say, they’re much slower than the charger that comes with your camera.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Benjamin.

  • After testing several options in our year long cycle touring we figured out that combination of plus osmand+ works the best for our needs. We took bikepacking routes only from time to time, therefore, which is very basic and therefore fast, does the job. OsmAnd+ with the contour plugin works perfectly in the terrain or small roads. I tried for several days The Gaya GPS, but really the app is not intuitive at all for me in compare to OsmAnd+.

  • Mike Tatreau

    I live in sunny Arizona, and a bike mechanic saw me using the Gaia GPS app on my iphone ~ which was mounted to my handlebar with the Quad Lock system. He told me that the UV rays would damage my phone during a ride. Does anyone know if this is true or not? I’ve gone back to using my Garmin etrex 20 out of fear of ruining my iphone.

  • Marius Muja

    I’ve been using Locus Pro for the last couple years and I highly recommend it. It has many map sources and you can can add custom map sources for any tiled maps. It also supports Garmin vector maps (.img) and mapsforce vector maps. You can download offline maps of any polygon shape or along a route (for example you can download all tiles within 5 km of a given gps track).

    I just tried Gaia and I wasn’t impressed at all. Locus has more features and costs less.

  • phone navigator

    i’ve been through a couple apps that use map tiles and i am glad that i don’t have to use it anymore, for me it’s OsmAnd app and _vector_ maps with contour lines, the other usable app is Locus
    Gaia and Ride with Gps don’t stand a chance

  • phone navigator

    FYI OpenCycleMap is rendered from OSM data

  • phone navigator

    for home planning try these:

    i also like this service

  • phone navigator

    i’m using dual 18650 battery pack/charger with green NCR/Panasonic 3.7V 3400mAh batteries, you can also use the same battery in front light
    pack a couple of batteries and you are ready for a few days trip

  • phone navigator, osmand and sketch my track combo for me

  • phone navigator

    i find heat map on quite useful

  • phone navigator

    Sketch My Track on android

  • phone navigator

    i guess running your phone on full display brightness with gps on inside sealed plastic container isn’t recommended by any manufacturer ;-)

  • Tom

    Back in the ‘mean/median of men walking w donkey’ navigation days we used a 4300MAh cache to keep iPods charged for podcast use, but since moving on to iPhone GPS – and moving more slowly due to increasingly heavy toddler, the electronics have got less simple.

    Current set-up is either SON or SP dynahub (depends on wheel size I’m running – no problem w either) via k-lite wiring/light to sinewave revolution. And Goalzero Nomad7 panel. All w Limefuel 15000 MAh ‘tough’ battery that allows through-charging (one of the few companies that has a method of shipping batteries internationally). Given low speeds pulling a toddler off-road, the flexibility works best – and allows advantage of ‘play-breaks’.

    I’m a recent convert to GAIA – from another app (MotionX GPS). Wish it would convert imported tracks directly to routes in-App and allow easy measurement of distance along track or route between chosen points (not just as crow flies). I do like the ability to download maps along a route. Lifeproof cases and bar mounts are good (and toddler-proof thus far).

    I just take enough camera batteries to last a good stretch (4 at 325 photos per battery). With a charger cradle and local plug.

    Laptop gets charged on rest days.

  • Robert Thomson

    Does anyone have recommendations for cache batteries that can be charged while charging a device? Many I have seen don’t do both at once, which limits the usefulness regarding charging a phone via a dynamo hub.

  • Tim Donner

    for a couple good video tutorials on Gaia GPS and CalTopo, check out the bottom of this link Mazamas is geared toward mountaineering, but both of these mapping tools work great for bike routes as well!

  • R

    The article says that Gaia GPS provides access to Google map options, however, this is no longer true. Gaia removed the option of using Google maps a few months ago. Unfortunately, Google satellite and Google terrain were the only decent satellite and terrain maps available and I cannot find anything to take their place.

  • E. Tage

    Gaia GPS and Gaia Offline Topo bundle ON SALE for Memorial Day weekend: for $9.99!!!

    That tipped the scale for me. Thanks for the great article.

  • Gary Blakley

    Cass, I just ran across this article- According to this (in the comments) 6 hours or more is the time it pays to have the phone off vs. leaving it on in airplane mode.
    I’ll model for you anytime!

  • Jason Susslin

    Greaty info! Currently have been using RidewithGPS – been working great.

  • Johan Blom

    I would like to mention Pocket Earth as an offline navigation app. Currently only for iOS, but they are working on a Android version. It uses OSM (including contour lines and Open Cycle Maps). The maps are really easy to select and download (per country/region/city). The memory size of the maps is really small (only 2.3GB for the complete U.S. of A!).

  • Johan might be an option. It support both trickle charge and pass through charging.

  • Old Bill

    This link helps a bunch for more info on the same subject.
    None of this is intuitive to me and I struggled with understanding how to download Gaia maps.

    That said Gaia was flawless hiking 700 miles of desert on the PCT last winter.
    Water was sometimes hard to come by but Gaia reassured.

    I never used paper.

    Bikepacking in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia if all goes well. Working on downloading SE Asia mapping to my I phone for the trip.

    It’s all about gigs.


  • blulynx

    A year ago I tried out the 4 most popular (in the google store) trip recording apps for hiking. All of the apps had great customer service and responded to my issues (which were many) in learning, operating and troubleshooting problems with patience and clear instructions. Also, all of the apps are regularly updated so many of the issues I experienced may be resolved now.
    Backcountry Navigator: Loved all the options and stats that are available and the miles hiked and elevation gained was the most accurate of all 4 apps. I stopped using it because my trip recording unexpectedly stopped in the middle of a trip – repeatedly. Also, too many buttons to push to record photo waypoints and difficulty downloading maps.
    Trimble: Loved how simple the interface is – easiest most intuitive of the 3 apps to use. Had difficulty downloading maps and once subscription expires maps are unavailable. Deal breaker for me was the major inaccuracy in miles hiked and elevation gained – hiked 12 miles one day but app said I hiked 16. Great customer service but no fix for this problem at the time.
    Gaia: I fell in love with this app as soon as I started using it despite being less intuitive then Trimble, but the stats for every hike showed greater stopped time than moving time, even on hikes with no pauses, making the speed stats inaccurate – again, no fix available at the time. Also, photo waypoints sometimes took 20 seconds to record and the elevation gained was not as accurate as Backcountry Navigator.
    Locus: The app I now use. Takes longer to become familiar with, but can be customized so you can quickly access the options you use most frequently, and the options are many. Recording waypoints is fast – not quite as fast as Trimble, but close and trip stats are almost as accurate as Backcountry Navigator. App has never stopped working in the middle of a hike and the customization options are amazing.

  • Juraj Hledík

    Exactly. You can even arbityrarily choose the shape of an area you wish to download which is extremely handy in case you have a poor internet connection. And the way you physically do it is very intuitive and all in all really well thought through. Locus Pro is by far my most favorite app of all times. With a huge amount of addons, you can use it for whatever you want (hiking, cycling, geocaching, …), it even has a support for ANT+ devices so you can connect your bike sensors. cool stuff, seriously.

  • John Moorhouse

    I’ve been using Backcountry Navigator Pro on Android for nearly 4 years now as my sole GPS navigation method. It’s easy to use and works fantastic.

  • Martin

    I was surprised that Locus is missing. Locus is by far the best map/gps app I’ve used so far (used it for years). You can even use it for offline routing together with another app called BRouter. And the elevation-features are great (overlays in different colors based on elevation etc.). Steep learning curve though, but extremely powerful once you get the hang of it.

  • I can only second that once again :). Thanks for the BRouter input, that sounds pretty nice! Does not help the learning curve though but I guess if you want a more powerful app you need to invest a little learning. And once you get past the endless customization features of Locus and the file system, it is not that bad after all.

  • Logan Watts

    No, we don’t have a Garmin guide on the site, sorry. I think this is referring to turn-by-turn (cue sheet style) navigation. Great for races and such. But if you are OK with not having this, a solution like Gaia is all you need. That is all I use these days (aside from a small Lezyne SuperGPS for recording)…

  • Scott Pauker

    Great article and discussion! A couple things to add:

    1. Best Android app I’ve found which is extremely customizable including routing compatibility with Brouter, tracking at various levels of sensitivity, trip computer and much more, is Orux Maps. I use this primarily with OSMAnd+ for city navigation as the interface is a little prettier for city streets.

    2. The big problem is battery life, as already stated. I have a Sony z3+ and running it with tracking while needing to check the map 5-8 times per hour will drain the phone in about 1.5 days of use if I close everything else and have it in airplane mode. Trouble is it’s a big battery (big screen) so takes a long time to charge. So… question is:

    What’s the best cheap android or cheap iPhone to buy that maximizes battery life while still having a strong GPS receiver?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Hi Scott, thanks for those thoughts. Orux is in the list of recommended apps – I updated this post based on the comments we received, and it’s certainly a popular one. As an iPhone owner, I haven’t had a chance to try it myself.

    I think the best bet is to choose a good smartphone and just carry an extra small buffer battery or two. Or in the case of an Android, a spare battery for the unit itself. I’m not sure if Cheap Phone = Good Battery Life… And models are changing so quickly these days.

    I generally don’t use my phone to record a trip, as it really drains the battery. Rather, a smaller, less battery hungry unit like a Lezyne GPS. They’re pretty affordable and sync with your phone at the end of the day.

  • Scott Pauker

    Totally re: dedicated gpx unit. Only problem with that is that you can’t see the track from where you came on your map. I really like to see where I came from in my navigation map so I can quickly orient on the map. But I’ll look into it. Thanks Cass!

  • Georges

    Thanks images/ec367b6fe91a20e9822051ae43e5dbdb0b8b302de61db9d0d08ce3a50e1732cd.png for the information above.

    I personally strongly recommend as you have the elevation line and can draw your own track offline and see the expected altitude. Very high compression allows to have ½ of the world at 20gb



    Check an interesting review here:

  • Christian

    I have successfully downloaded GPX files from your site before, but now all I get is raw data – not a file – when I try to download to my Mac. Am I doing something wrong?

  • Yeah, not sure what changed, but on a Mac try [control]+click then select “Download Linked File”

  • I was on a trip recently (I’m finishing up the blog post for it now … after this distraction) and I was following a GPX track on a Garmin eTrex30x, which was working out well, until there was a glitch in the track.

    I also had an iPhone 6s, with an Apple battery case, plugged into a Sinewave/Son 28 to stream music through a wireless speaker. I also used it as a backup and secondary map with Gia GPS.

    Gia had no problem with the track, showing a small missing piece but continuing after it to the proper end of the route. That’s when I decided to ditch the Garmin and stick with smart phones (and paper maps as backup).

    A secondary benefit are geotagged pictures. I had a film Leica slung over my shoulder for primary picture duty, but having tagged digital pictures (I use the Lightroom app to shoot in dng format) makes organizing later easier.

  • Gaia seems to handle GPX tracks without issue; we get tons of comments on routes stating that the downloaded GPX doesn’t work on Garmin XXXXX … I always point them to this article.

  • DeWayne Miller

    I had the same problem. It would download as an .xml file.

    The solution is use a browser other than Safari. I switched to Chrome (Firefox should work too) and the Download GPX link will get you the correct .gpx file format.

  • Mike Mohaupt

    Got a few GPS questions for you iPhone users out there. First off if using Gaia can you upload your recorded route/track/info to Strava for review after? The second question I have is about the Lezyne enhanced GPS’s; has anyone use them in the back woods? How is the turn by turn navigation when traveling on forrest roads? Does anyone have any experience with this? In the end I think I will just use my iPhone with my 10000mAH backup battery but trying to decide on a way to mount it to my handle bars. Thanks for your help!

  • Andrew Spurlin

    Not sure if this is the best place to ask about the reference to Logan’s SP dynamo hub experience, but I’ll give it a shot.
    My PD 8X has some wiggle/play when the wheel is mounted and you pull the tire left and right.
    Not sure if I’m just imagining problems into existence. I haven’t noticed any issue with performance.
    Intelligent Design explicitly states that owners should not attempt to open up the hub and send it back instead for maintenance or replacement.
    I have less than 2000 miles on the hub (purchased in late 2015).
    Anybody have any thoughts? (especially Logan since he had a failure)

  • Smilyan Pavlov

    Thank you for this article! I have been looking for a good app to use on Android. I use a combination of a water/shock-proof case and Quad Lock Mount to hold my phone (super easy to take off and put back on). I love using the phone as I am familiar with it and it just works (battery can be an issue as you said, but an external one always sorts that out – plus you can carry as many as you want from those).

    I really struggled with the UI of the Orux Maps. I also wanted an app where I can make my route i Strava’s route builder and then import it into the second app to navigate. Strava’s route builder tool is very good and easy to use with loads of data. I will be giving Gaia a proper go in the coming days, but so far I have managed to import Strava routes without issues. Thank you for this revelation!

    Also I can recommend Anker’s solar panels, they are absolutely brilliant! I used them in the Baltics and although the weather turned unexpectedly bad, on the occasion where I could use the panel, in about an hour it charged my phone 20-30%, which is amazing (with direct sunlight). Highly recommended.

  • francis

    I’m using an old Samsung solid B2710 cell phone – not a real smartphone
    whith tactile screen but rather like a schockproof phone with a GPS
    chip- with trekbuddy (free) app. This is the best set up I have found so
    far: very good autonomy of the phone in GPS mode (about 25h non stop,
    which I double using a spare phone battery). I load my maps (OSM or any
    other map layer) and the GPS tracks on the memorycard of the phone, and
    my position is shown on the map, I just have to follow the track on the
    The autonomy of a B2710 is hard to beat. Too bad it’s not produced anymore… The trekbuddy app works great

    on any smartphone too. You can’t use your connection to get the map
    layer, you have to create your own atlas/maps before leaving (using
    Mobile Atlas creator MOBAC for instance), but once it’s done, you don’t
    nead any network, and the app works really well. highly recommended!

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