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.
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.
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 location pin/folder icon on the top menu and then “Export GPX.”
- In the “2022 Locations” folder, select only your trip. Un-select all other exportable data.
- Select the “GPX (handheld GPSs)” under the Format drop down menu.
- 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:
- Download the GPX to your desktop, email yourself the file, and download it to your phone.
- 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 (skipped this step if on iPhone you already copied the file to Gaia GPS). You have 2 options:
- In the app, select the (+) button in the top menu, and then “Import File.” Find the GPX file on the phone, and select it.
- 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” are 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 “Map Overlays” 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.
- 22-04 Utah: USGS Topo
- 22-06 Alaska: USGS Topo
- 22-07 California: USGS Topo for Yosemite and Sequoia Kings NP, USFS 2016 for Inyo and Stanislaus NF
- 22-08 Colorado: USFS 2016
- 22-09 Washington: USGS Topo
- 22-10 West Virginia: USFS 2016
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.
I recommend using at least the medium-level quality to get nuanced enough topographical detail in offline maps.
Hit the “Save” button, and name the maps (or use the default name).
If you are a client, please a take a screenshot of the downloaded area in your saved folder and submit it to Google Classrooms.
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?
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