Assignment: Download maps in Gaia GPS for offline use

On most trips and in most locations, to navigate I rely primarily on my:

  • Paper topographic maps,
  • Watch (good), ABC watch (better), or GPS watch (best), and
  • Magnetic compass.

As both a backup and supplement to these tools, my smartphone has a GPS app like CalTopo (good) or Gaia GPS (better) along with downloaded map data for offline use.

Collectively, these four instruments constitute my navigation system. Some hikers may consider my preferences old-fashioned, since it’s increasingly common to navigate exclusively or primarily with GPS. But I value the reliability and efficiency of these more analog methods, and I appreciate the art of using them.

Assignment: Download maps in Gaia GPS for offline use

As part of our guided backpacking trips, clients are required to participate in an 8-part Planning Curriculum that prepares them for their trip and that can be retooled easily for their personal trips.

We run the Curriculum in Google Classroom, but I’ve opted to share this assignment publicly so that its 900 words are less unwieldy. Classroom — which seems designed mostly for a Gen Z audience — does not allow for style sheets, (un)ordered lists, bold or italic type, or embedded images.

Your assignment is to download maps in Gaia GPS for offline use. This will preserve the app’s functionality even in the backcountry without reliable cell service.

Benefits of a GPS app

A GPS smartphone app has two purposes:

1. It acts as a map library, just in case your printed documents are damaged (or lost) or if you unexpectedly hike off of them. And,

2. It has the same functionality you’d expect of a traditional handheld GPS — like pinpointing its location, and navigating to waypoints — but a GPS app is lighter, less expensive, and more user-friendly.

Download the app

To get started, download the Gaia GPS app:

Create an account

To complete this assignment, you must have a Membership or Premium Membership, which cost $20 or $36 per year, respectively. Gaia has a Free account, too, but it does not allow for offline use.

So that you can complete this assignment (and maybe test out the app in the field), Gaia is offering a free 7-day Premium Membership to all of my readers. Thank you, Ashli!

To our clients, Gaia generously offers a free 6-month Premium Membership. Redemption instructions will be sent in Classroom.

These free trials do not require a credit card. If you wish to renew later, you’ll need to enter one. At that time, take advantage of these discounted rates.

Avoid doing this last-minute

If Gaia is new to you, give yourself about 30 minutes to complete this assignment.

To download map data, you’ll need a reliable internet connection with a high data use limit — meaning, in most cases, Wi-Fi. Don’t count on rural mobile data service or an overtaxed motel connection.

Download area

Determine the area you want maps of when you’re offline. Encompass your entire route, plus all prospective shortcuts and extensions. For a point-to-point itinerary, this zone will probably be long and narrow; for a loop, it’ll probably be more square.

If you must download a large area, it’s useful to have a “reference box,” because as you zoom out it becomes difficult to identify topographic features on a 5- or 6-inch smartphone screen. With a box that remains obvious at all magnification levels, you can be assured that you are downloading the intended area. This box can be created:

  • In the app, by adding waypoints or routes to the map, via the (+) button; or,
  • On the Gaia GPS desktop site, also by adding waypoints or routes to a map, via the left-hand toolbar, and then syncing that map to your smartphone.

To make it easier for clients, I’ve created download boxes already:

  • In your smartphone browser, open this CalTopo map;
  • In the top menu, select the wrench icon and then “Export GPX.”
  • In the “2020 Trip” folder, select only your trip. Un-select all other exportable data.
  • Press “Export” to download a GPX file. If using an iPhone, you can scroll right under the pre-set apps and select option ‘Copy to Gaia GPS’

You can complete these steps from a desktop computer, too, in two ways:

  1. Download the GPX to your desktop, email yourself the file, and download it to your phone.
  2. Download the GPX to your desktop, upload it to your account at GaiaGPS website, and then sync your phone.

If you are not a client, you have two choices. You can pretend like a client and repeat the steps above, or you can download an area that’s more relevant to you. For extra practice, you can create your own download box in Gaia beforehand.

Now, load this GPX file into Gaia GPS. You have 2 options:

  1. In the app, select the (+) button in the top menu, and then “Import File.” Find the GPX file on the phone, and select it.
  2. Use a file system app (e.g. “Files” on Android or “Documents” on iOS) to find the GPX file, then open the file in Gaia GPS. Click-hold the file and then hit the “share” button.

If you don’t see the track from the GPX file, click on the Layers icon in the upper-right and confirm that “Tracks and Routes” is turned on. Also, it helps if your screen is hovering over your trip location.

Select the download layer

With a basic Membership, only one map layer can be downloaded at a time.

With a Premium Membership, multiple layers can be downloaded simultaneously. Switch on the “Layered Maps” option if it’s not already, located near the bottom of the Layers window.

Touch the upper-right Layers icon, and select the desired download layer(s). You may need to dig into the map library for your desired maps — look under “MORE LAYERS.”

For our clients, we most strongly recommend the layers below, so that your digital maps and printed maps (which we will give you at the trailhead) are identical.

  • 20-04 Utah: USGS Topo
  • 20-05 West Virginia: USFS 2016
  • 20-06 Alaska: USGS Topo
  • 20-07 California: USGS Topo
  • 20-08 Colorado: USFS 2016
  • 20-09 California: USGS Topo

Clients may also want:

  • Gaia Topo, which will load more quickly than USGS Topo and FS Topo layers because it’s vector-based, not raster; and,
  • Trails Illustrated, since guides often carry them as small-scale overview maps.

For other readers and on other trips, it may make sense to download other maps, instead of or in addition to those I’ve already mentioned. For example, before elk hunting in Colorado I download the GMU and Public Access layers so that I remain on legal hunting grounds, plus perhaps the USGS Aerial satellite imagery so that I can more easily find clearings.

Download the maps

Finally, let’s download some maps.

Select the (+) button again from the top menu, and then “Download Map.” A pink-shaded box will appear. Move it and its corners to encompass the map area you want to download, maybe with the help of a guide box.

If you are low on storage space, you can reduce the zoom level. If not, keep it at level 15 for maximum resolution.

Hit the “Save” button, and name the maps (or use the default name).

The map(s) within the pink-shaded area will be downloaded.

Check your work!

To confirm that your maps have downloaded successfully:

  • In the bottom menu, select the folder icon (“Saved”) .
  • Pull up your saved Maps. Look under “All” or “Maps” in the top menu, between “Saved” and the triple-dot icon.
  • Also, Gaia will push out a notification that your map download is complete.

Leave a comment

  • What questions do you have about downloading maps in Gaia?
  • On what steps did you get hung up?

Disclosure. I strive to offer field-tested and trustworthy information, insights, and advice. I have no financial affiliations with or interests in any brands or products, and I do not publish sponsored content

This website is supported by affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors like Amazon or REI, at no cost to the reader.

Posted in on March 20, 2020
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27 Comments

  1. Patrick Ploenzke on March 21, 2020 at 5:44 am

    Thank you for posting these lessons. I going to add this to my boys now homeschool curriculum.

  2. Dave Pyle on March 26, 2020 at 2:33 pm

    Another way to get the file on your phone is to download the GPX file on a desktop or laptop and then upload the file to your account on gaiagps.com and then sync with your phone. Not sure it’s any easier but for planning it’s nice to see the map on a larger monitor.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 26, 2020 at 2:42 pm

      Correct, good instructions, thanks.

  3. Cindy Poole on March 29, 2020 at 3:48 pm

    Excellent explanations, Andrew. This is where I really needed some guidance. Where did I get stuck? Wrench icon!! Once I figured out how to get started the rest was very intuitive.

    • ERIC K SCHWARTZ on May 2, 2020 at 2:24 pm

      I have to ask a basic question but where is that “wrench” icon? Is it on the desktop app or on the phone? Thanks

      • Andrew Skurka on May 2, 2020 at 4:12 pm

        Phone

  4. Jim Larkey on April 3, 2020 at 9:48 am

    I’ve been using Caltopo desktop for planning and Caltopo beta Android app off trail for some time. Wonder why you switch to Gaia (subscription) over Caltopo beta Android app (free)….what features?

    • Andrew Skurka on April 3, 2020 at 9:59 am

      Historically, CalTopo has been a stronger desktop platform, and Gaia has been a stronger app. Both have moved into each other’s turf, which is a better outcome for users — they can select one platform and use it for planning and field. My own use (and recommendations) is rooted in this history.

      I will also mention that I have gotten to know the owners of both companies, Matt Jacobs at CalTopo and Andrew Johnson at Gaia, and one of my guides actually now works for Gaia. I’m happy to support both groups by promoting them roughly equally.

  5. Boyan on April 3, 2020 at 12:11 pm

    For those on Android consider Backcountry Navigator instead of Gaia. IMO BCNAV has always been better than Gaia, even more so with the new XE version.

    • Dino on October 6, 2020 at 7:23 am

      Just downloaded BCNAV but search doesn’t work, and there’s no way to import GPX files. So what’s the point?

  6. Mike Kiernan on April 6, 2020 at 1:04 pm

    Andrew,
    Nice tutorial and thanks for introducing me to CalTopo. I got stuck (and still am) on turing off shaded relief. It was on when I first started the program and I do not see how to turn it off. Also, had trouble finding the “Join” and “Split” tools but found them eventually.
    Question: How do you change the starting point and direction of travel on the loop? You made references to finding campsites at certain mileposts but those depend on these two features.

    Thanks,

    Mike70005

    • Andrew Skurka on April 6, 2020 at 1:19 pm

      Shaded relief. In the upper-right corner, you’ll see a dropdown with a bunch of available mapping layers. For this exercise, use “Forest Service 2016.” If there is an additional “stacked” layer, X it out.

      Change starting point. You’d have to “split” the loop at your starting point, or at the spot where you will access the loop (like if you are coming up from Monarch Lake), and then “join” the current start/end over at Brainard Lake.

      Change direct of travel. Click on the route and select “Reverse.”

      • Mike Kiernan on April 6, 2020 at 4:10 pm

        Thanks!

  7. Bill on April 7, 2020 at 10:01 pm

    Can’t imagine a better use of the last few hours here stuck at home – learning and improving my skills while dreaming of the Sierra and where these maps and tools will take me. Thanks again Andrew for your dedication to sharing your knowledge.

  8. Mike70005 on April 10, 2020 at 8:51 am

    Andrew,

    I completed the lesson and have the map loaded into GAIA. I tested that it is available for oggline use by putting my phone into airplane mode and it was there.

    I have a question, though. When I created the map in CalTopo I labelled the trails and the various markers and changed marker icons to indicate trailheads, campsites, etc. After downloading, when I view it in GAIA all those labels and customizations are gone. The various markers are now in generic waypoint format and the labels are gone.

    Did I miss something or is there some way to fix this?

    Thanks,
    Mike70005

    • Andrew Skurka on April 13, 2020 at 12:36 pm

      To confirm the maps have downloaded, it’s best to simply look in the folders. Your phone probably keeps a cache of maps, and that cache will not be affected by airplane mode.

      The unique icons, colors, etc. don’t get saved in a GPX file. They all degrade to some basic waypoint or track. That’s why CalTopo allows you to import and export GeoJSON files, which preserve that styling. I’m not sure if Gaia works with that file type.

    • Sarah Bolduc on July 17, 2020 at 2:23 pm

      Thanks for this question, I had the same issue and was wondering what was going on!

  9. Mike Kiernan on April 13, 2020 at 2:48 pm

    Thanks. The reason I tried airplane mode was that simulates what will happen when I don’t have any connectivity by cell phone or Wi-Fi. The fact that the maps were visible suggest they were successfully downloaded to my phone. I can’t seem to find where on the phone they’re being stored.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 13, 2020 at 3:04 pm

      (Android)
      On the bottom of the screen, look for folder icon (“Saved”) and then select “Maps” in the dropdown that’s between the headline “Saved” and the triple-dot. Other directories include: All, Tracks, Routes, Hikes, Waypoints, Folders, and Downloads.

      • lisa on April 27, 2020 at 8:25 pm

        On Iphone, click on the icon in upper right that looks like stacked papers, scroll to the bottom to the ‘saved’ section and click ‘my maps’. Also, sometimes on shorter, day trips I forget to download before I leave the house. Before I lose cell service I pull up the map to the area I’m headed and don’t do a hard close of the app. I find that it’ll save the map in the cache and will let me see it once I’m in airplane mode and out of cell range. I only use this as my backup plan if I’ve already left wifi but haven’t lost cell coverage yet and won’t be relying on Gaia to get me through.

  10. Mike Kiernan on April 13, 2020 at 3:31 pm

    Thanks.

  11. Bonnie Hellevig on April 26, 2020 at 11:45 am

    Thanks Andrew!

    When downloading multiple map layers simultaneously, it results in a merged mapset. What is the advantage of that? Do you use merged maps often?

    However, the Nat’l Geo Illustrated layer’s visual intensity is reduced, which IS kind of nice, as those labels obscure map details underneath them, which show up in the merged set.

    Thanks,
    Bonnie

    • Andrew Skurka on April 27, 2020 at 8:28 am

      I don’t think there’s an advantage to that, unless there is a precise combination of maps that are prefect for your purposes. Personally, I download the layers individually so that I can adjust the visibility in the field as I want.

      • lisa on April 27, 2020 at 8:29 pm

        I’ve been using Gaia Pro for a few years now and I’ve never downloaded the layers individually on my Iphone. I make sure I’ve got all the layers I’m interested in having offline loaded up before I start the download. Once the download is complete I find them saved automatically as individual maps. In the field, I’m able to view each layer on it’s own and adjust the opacity to view layers simultaneously…

  12. Joe S on September 7, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    Looks like CalTopo will no longer license their maps out. This would affect your recommendation to use Gaia and USFS map layers from CalTopo. You’ll have to use CalTopo’s app or Gaia and the Gaia Topo layer.

    https://caltopo.com/about/2020/09/02/ending-layer-licensing/

  13. Cody Scoggins on September 14, 2020 at 7:59 am

    Question about downloading large zones. Is there any downside, aside from more storage space, to downloading large zones? For example, I backpack mostly in Washington state. Does image quality degrade if I just download the entire area of the state vs just placing a zone over smaller areas?

    • Andrew Skurka on September 15, 2020 at 2:23 pm

      Correct, the only issue with downloading large areas is the required memory on your phone.

      As a happy medium, you might want to think about downloading the USGS or forest service scans for the areas that you backpack in, and then the gaia topo layer for everywhere else. That latter layer is not nearly as memory-intensive.

      When setting up the download, you must specify the download quality. This setting is not affected by the size of the downloaded area.

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