Most commercial paper maps and this Caltopo map list the map datum used to generate them. An incorrect datum, can put you hundreds of meters from your actual position.
Most commercial paper maps and this Caltopo map (above) list a map datum. An incorrect datum, can put you hundreds of meters from your actual position.

GaiaGPS is the smartphone navigation app that I teach students how to use, in addition to map and compass, in the Backcountry Navigation classes I teach. GaiaGPS works on iPhone and Android smartphones, which makes it easy to use in groups that use a wide variety of devices. It’s also the best smartphone GPS app available for the USA, in my opinion.

When setting up GaiaGPS for the first time, its important to make sure that the app is set up in agreement with the compass and paper maps you bring with you on a trip. For example, if you’re using magnetic bearings on your compass, you want to make sure that the GaiaGPS compass is also using magnetic bearings and not true north bearings. Similarly, if your map is based on the WGS84 or NAD27 datum, GaiaGPS should be configured the same way. There are also several ways to make your cell phone battery last (much) longer when using GaiaGPS, which I explain below.

GaiaGPS Setup and Phone Configuration

The following are iPhone-specific tips, but the recommended methodology is device independent. I recommend you get in the habit of following these steps for any hikes where you use GaiaGPS.

Application Setup

When you start up GaiaGPS, click on the top left icon and select the “Settings” icon on the screen to setup the app. This will bring up the settings screen below.

It's important to make sure that your map, compass, and GAIA app settings are in synch with one another.

Under “UNITS”:

  • select the datum used by your map, either WGS84 or NAD27 (which are the only two datums supported by GaiaGPS). If your maps don’t match those two datums, you should consider getting one that does. If you use Caltopo to generate your own maps, you can chose which of these two datums it uses when printing.
  • select the type of unit, metric or imperial, so that Gaia matches the contours (feet or meters) displayed on your map.

Under “COMPASS”:

  • select the north reference to match what you’re using on your compass, either magnetic, or true, if for example, you’ve configured a declination adjustable compass to compute add or subtract the declination for you.
  • set the map arrow to compass. This means that the map Gaia displays will turn as you turn. This makes it easier to match the map to the what you see in the world and is more intuitive.

Under “POWER SAVING”:

  • select no GPS until activated
  • select disable altitude lookup

There are the most important settings to initialize in GaiaGPS and it’s a good habit to check them at the start of each hike.

Phone Setup

In addition to setting up GaiaGPS, you need to make sure that the Location Service capability is activated on your phone. This makes it possible for GaiaGPS to access the GPS receiver on your phone.

Turn on your phone's Location Services, so GaiaGPS can access your phones GPS receiver.
Turn on your phone’s Location Services, so GaiaGPS can access your phones GPS receiver.

Battery Management Tips

When using GaiaGPS in the field, there are a number of things you can do to preserve your battery. The following are iPhone-specific tips, but the recommended methodology is device independent. I recommend you get in the habit of following these steps for any hikes where you use GaiaGPS.

Follow these steps to prolong battery life when using GaiaGPS on the iPhone.
Follow these steps to prolong battery life when using GaiaGPS on the iPhone.
  1. Run GaiaGPS in Offline Mode, unconnected to your cell phone and data network. (See this post for detailed instructions about how to download maps to GaiaGPS for offline use.)
  2. Turn on your cell phone’s Airplane Mode.
  3. Turn off all App notifications, including GaiaGPS.
  4. Under Battery, turn on “Low Power Mode”
  5. Reduce screen brightness as low as possible and set an short auto lock interval.
  6. Don’t use the tracking feature in GaiaGPS unless you need it or want to create a track of your hike. When hiking off-trail, tracking can be useful especially for backtracking, but if you’re on a trail marked on your map, it’s not really necessary. GaiaGPS can show you your current position.
  7. Close the compass bar in GaiaGPS so the app doesn’t compute your compass direction using Location Services
  8. In cool weather, put your phone into a pocket close to your body, so your phone stays warm.

How long will your battery last? It depends, but I can get my iPhone 6 battery to last for multiple days following this methodology, but I have to be disciplined about not using it for anything else, like taking notes, reading, photos, etc. However, I also carry a backup USB battery on most trips where I may need to recharge my phone’s battery.

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