Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Revisting Alltrails vs. Gaia For SOTA

I wrote a review of mapping / charting apps that I tested for hiking in February of 2018.  As you know, my primary activity is hiking in support of Summits On The Air (SOTA) and therefore this is the lense by which I view these apps when doing a review.  SOTA involves day hiking and overnight backpacking to a specific destination summit, some of which have no trails.  I use the maps I create over and over.  The previous review focused mainly on Alltrails & Gaia and wasn’t in depth.  I’ll update that review with a fresh look at these two because things have changed just a tad and hold on, this is going to be a bit more in depth and detailed.

{NOTE: Last Updated 9/18/202 (go to bottom)
Click on images for larger and jump to the end to see who wins.}

 


A couple of things have changed since the last review.  Both products have matured over time but when GAIA improved their vector based map I decided to take another look.  I wanted to use Gaia in the past but I really didn’t like their vector based map and other data.  It’s greatly improved, so now it’s time to take another look.

 

A new entrant for me is Caltopo which wasn’t available on IOS in 2018.  I can’t review CalTopo without really using it on the trail a bit, so, yet again it will be skipped.  I’ll say upfront, I know SOTA operators that use CalTopo and they love it.  I’ve played with the vector based maps from Caltopo, and they look great. 

This article will compare Alltrails to Gaia GPS in a head-to-head.  I’ll evaluate them based on my requirements rather than from a broad list of feature comparisons.  For each requirement, I’ll examine how the product meets my requirement and what I like and don’t like.

Requirements

My requirements haven’t changed much since 2018 except for one noted below:  I’m trying to stick to the requirements that I have for SOTA, day hiking, and backpacking rather than all out war between the two products.  For example, Gaia has features that I won’t really use so bosting about them to kill off Alltrails really doesn’t serve the purpose of this review.

  1. Be able to plan on a PC (must have)
    The phone apps are fine but I need a big screen to do effective planning.

  2. It has a Apple IOS app available (must have)
    This is really the point of having an app for my activity. 

  3. The app allows download of charts for off-line use (must have)
    This is a definite must-have.  The last thing you need as you are working toward your objective is to have the map unavailable when your cell network is cut off, which is most of the time when you are hiking in the backcountry.

  4. Ability to record tracks  (must have)
    This is a very handy feature and I’ve been using it from day one to log my total miles and elevation gain.  In addition if I took a different path than what I originally charted I want to be able to follow that path again in the future or share it with a friend.

  5. Ability to share a map with someone. (must have)
    Before I leave on a solo trip, I send my route to my wife or a friend so that they know where to start looking should I not return.  Also, I regularly share my maps with others who are wondering how I got to the summit.  As you can tell, I like to share. :)

  6. Multiple map sources, company base layer, USGS, and satellite.  (must have)
    The reason for this feature is that you want to be able to bring up other mapps, not just the one from the mapping app.  The vector based maps that come with the app by default are great for quickly charting a route that “sticks” to the trail or roads, but sometimes, you’ll find trails or roads on the USGS map that are not charted on the default map.  For example, I’ve used a satellite map to help me find a trail when neither the default or other maps show any.

  7. Print a map(s) for the area of operation.. (Must have)
    I don’t want to depend solely on my phone when in the bush.  I could drop and break it, run out of batteries or some other calamity, like the phone sliding off a cliff (almost did that once).  I don’t print maps often, but if I’m going into an area where there are no trails or it’s a windy multi-trail area where I can become disoriented (never say lost), then I print a chart.

  8. Community of public maps and tracks. (nice to have)<new requrement>
    This has come in handy during the planning phase of my trips.  For example, If there is a peak that I’m having difficulty finding a route to, or I want a route report, it’s nice to be able to search a community that uses the mapping app for tracks, maps, and trail reports.

  9. Ability to create a route from the phone app.  (must have <NEW requirement>)
    While on the trail it would be nice to drop a pin or even create a route to a destination right on the phone.  This could come in handy when the planned route just won’t work.

Now let's introduce the two apps and then see how each supports the requirements above.

Alltrails Overview

This has been my go to mapping app since I started this hobbie and it stayed that way for the last two plus years.  You may have noticed that I was thinking about switching to GAIA GPS when I did the review last time, but that really fell through when I started to use it more.  I just couldn’t get used to their high contrast maps.  I have the Pro subscription of Alltrails, which is $30 per year and its worth it.  I have created 134 maps, 155 recordings, and logged 2,539 miles with it.

Alltrails basic container is a map which contains all of your routes and waypoints.  Tracks are separate files.  So their “metamodel” is a map that you create and that map contains routes and waypoints (simple enough).

GAIA GPS Overview

I had GAIA GPS on my iPhone and have looked at it once in a while.  Their basic subscription is $20/year but to get weather overlays and other features its $40/year.  There are a couple of features that I really like about their app but more as we roll through the review.  From now on, I will simply refer to this app as “Gaia”.  I’ve been using this app for a month and used it on multiple expeditions prior to this review.

GAIA takes a slightly different approach to charting.  Where Alltrails has a basic file or container called a map which contains all of the artifacts like waypoints and routes, GAIA see’s the earth as the basic container, with each artifact like waypoints, routes, tracks, and areas as having their own own name.  These artifacts or objects can sit in a folder for organizing when you setup GAIA, you see everything you’ve ever done on the “world”.  This can be nice or it can be very distracting.  The more I use it though I can see the advantage. 

The one feature that GAIA has that I don’t see in Alltrails is “area”.  This might be handy when you want to share a search area or property boundary.  I won’t award any extra points to Gaia forj this review since it’s not a requirement and for SOTA, I’m not sure how I would use it other than to mark the activation zone.

Comparison

Scoring

I’ll score each product really head to head.  One of them is going to get a 5 out of 5 for the must-have requirements and I’ll use a max of three for the “nice to have”.  All of it is completely subjective.  Three points for nice to have. 

Planning on PC Browser

Alltrails

Alltrails has an excellent WEB UI.  When planning a hike I can quickly search for other people’s maps and they have curated maps for just about every public park I’ve ever tried. 

The first thing I do is when creating a new map, is create a waypoint for the destination by taking the Lat/Long from SOTA maps.  When adding a waypoint, you can drag it to where you want it or enter the lat/long, name it and then select whether you want to display the name on the map or not.  I normally take the lat/long and punch it in.  This locates the summit on the map allowing me to begin my planning.  This is huge since most of the time I don’t know where a summit is when looking at the big picture.

When creating a route using the Alltrails,  you can select multiple auto-routing methods, e.g. hiking, mountain biking, road biking, off road or scenic driving, and it does the best it can.  I use this feature in the hiking mode to easily cause a route to “stick” to the trail or road.  The other option is to just free hand draw (click and drag) or click on points as you go.  As you add routes, it displays the distance and elevation profile at the bottom of the screen as you go.  This is a very helpful feature to better understand the terrain you are going to traverse.  In addition, you can bring up other maps, like a satellite view and draw your route on obvious trails and roads that may not be charted on other maps and use those to trace a route.  The one thing that really comes in handy is undo, or Ctrl-Z.  If you screw something up, a few clicks on Ctrl-Z will save you from redoing your work.

Once a route is completed, you can hover the mouse over the start point and it displays the lat/long.  I use this all the time, because it allows me to just paste the value into Google maps which I use to navigate to the trailhead.  I also send that value to friends so they can do the same.  I call it my initial approach fix (IAF).  When editing a route, Alltrails uses the undo function to great effect.  This comes in super handy.

Alltrails displays the list of waypoints on the left.  If you move the mouse over it, the map centers on that.  Most of the time it’s a pain in the ass since it’s a mistake on my part, causing me to recenter the map but it’s come in handy at times. 

Lastly, by dragging your mouse over the elevation profile at the bottom, it moves a dot across the route on the map.  This is pretty cool feature as it allows you to quickly spot big climbs etc.  In addition, this profile view is big, allowing you to see the subtle differences. There is a downside however.  If there are a bunch of routes on the map, it shows the profile for all of them at the bottom, making it useless at times.

Alltrails has a shading algorithm similar to Google that gives their maps a more 3D look.  It’s easier to imagine the terrain and heaving shading makes it easier to spot steep climbs.

Alltrails has a way to create a map from a recorded track.  This can be handy if you want to create a modified route but editing is very odd.

Score: 5

Gaia

Gaia allows me to drop a waypoint, drag it to where I want it but there is no way to enter or modify the lat/long of the waypoint!  Since my use case is to drop a marker on the summit I want to travel to and I’m not sure where the summit is.  The solution is to paste the lat/long into the search dialog.  This search will pop a draft waypoint on the map and you can accept it by clicking on a little check-box.  Maybe I’m just used to Alltrails, but this seems like a very simple thing to be able to do, especially the editing (you can get to lat/long on the phone app btw).  As far as the waypoint name being displayed, it’s an all or nothing thing.  In the app, you turn this on for all of them or off.  The one thing I will say is that the labels are less intrusive.

Adding a route is very similar to Alltrails with the clicking.  An elevation profile view is shown in a pop-up along with the distance as you go.  Routes will stick to the vector map roads and trails. There is no way to free hand drawing like in Alltrails however, you are forced to click, click, click rather than the ability to click-and-drag.  Once the route is complete you can save by giving it a name.  Clicking on the route will bring up the profile view which I kinda like if you have a lot of routes on a map.  Unfortunately, there is no undo functionality when creating a route, which is a major bummer.  You can edit routes but its a bit wonky. 

The profile window that comes up when you select the route is really small and there is no way to make it bigger.  The one advantage here is that if you have multiple routes that you are looking at, the profile that is shown is only for the one selected.  I wish Alltrails did this.

Clicking on any object on the map quickly brings up a bit of metadata on that item whether it’s a trail, camping spot, summit, etc.  It can be very handy but also very confusing during the planning process. 

There is no way to get the coordinates of the starting point unless you download it perhaps.  This is yet another problem.

I’ve planned several expeditions with it, and it’s definitely workable.  The nits above bump it down in my rating.

Gaia has this thing called “areas”.  It lets you create shaded areas on the chart.  This could be for a property boundary, a search area, etc, and it could be very handy.  They are easy to create and can be hidden.  It’s just one more “object” that can be dropped on the planet.  This is a cool feature but it’s not on my requirements but it does add more polish to the product.

Gaia has a LOT more maps that you can use and you can set the opacity layer for each one. 

There is no way to take a track, turn it into a route and edit it in Gaia.

Gaia has maps, LOTS of maps including aviation, various kinds of satellite maps, hunting, etc.  More importantly, they have weather maps and forecast maps that Alltrails doesn’t have.  We’ll get into that later though.  But that feature does play into how easy it is to plan with Gaia.  You get shading by adding the "NeoTreks Land Use" layer on top.  There are tons of other layers that also assist in planning.

In the end, having everything in one place rather than looking for which map has the routes I want is kind of a bonus.  The more I use it the more I also like having the tracks live with everything else.

Score: 4

Planning Summary

Adding waypoints on giagps.com is a bit funky if you want to use coordinates instead of just dragging it but if you want to tweak the coordinates, you can’t. You can only move the waypoint to edit it.  Deleting a waypoint or route is a multi-click affair in GAIA and once complete, you may have to reload the map to get back to it. 

If you have a lot of routes on a page, the way Gaia implements the profile view is better. 

There is no way to get the starting coordinates of a route in Gaia which is one more thing that I would have to dork with during planning (not huge, just drop a waypoint and read the coordinates.

This is just starting to show the how Gaia treats each map object as a separate thing whereas the metamodel for Alltrails attacks everything from the point of view of a map that you are creating.  To Gaia, the map is the planet, you are just using pieces of it.

Lastly, Gaia has the concept of folders.  Objects can be placed in folders and you can share all the objects in a folder with someone else.  You can also hide objects in folders, and lastly there seems to be the idea of nesting folders.  If map is the main container for objects in Alltrails, folders seem to be able to play the same role.  What I can’t figure out yet is what the implications are to nesting folders.  I’m hoping it would be to enable easier sharing of multiple folders.  The advantage here is that you can put everything in a folder and then just share that to someone.  It’s complex and time consuming to goof around with folders so I’ll have to come back to this.

As of 9/18/2020 I added a opaque layer that adds shading using the NeoTreks Land Use layer.  This further erodes the Alltrails advantage here.

Phone App

Alltrails

I’ve been using the Alltrails app for a couple of years and I get everything I need when using it on a planned route.  It shows your position on the map, provides details like, lat/long position, etc 

The user interface allows me to share the current map or a recording, bring up previous recordings and load a recording and turn that into a map that I can then load into the recorder.  Alltrails doesn’t allow you to edit or even create a new map from the UI.  (you can create a new map but I’m not sure what that gives you. 

On the phone, you can drop a waypoint in the recorder where you are standing but that’s it.  During recording you can create new waypoints which can be handy since you can convert a recording to a map.  There is no way to edit a map on the phone.  Alltrails does have a “Create a Map” ability but I couldn’t figure out how to create a route or drop waypoints.  There are times when that would come in handy.

The core use case for me is to load up a map that I created at home, then use the “Load into recorder” and start recording.  It shows my progress on the map and on the profile view.  Mission accomplished.  There have been a couple of times that I wanted to drop a waypoint and then navigate to that point but it’s not possible.  While I’m hiking I can go to another screen in the recorder and see current coordinates, elevation and bearing.

Obviously, given that I’ve been using Alltrails and mostly happy with it for the last couple of years and it’s adequate for SOTA. 

Score 3 for missing features and user experience.

Gaia


If you want the most capabilities, UI and user experience, Gaia kills it.  The phone user interface (UI) is Gaia’s strongest feature and it seems as if most if not all the functionality was created for he phone first.  If it’s synced to the cloud, you’ll see all of the objects that you have created on the map like Alltrails.  You can force the sync if you don’t want to wait for the automatic sync by the way.

Everything you really need is on the map page.  It shows routes, waypoints, and areas, and across the top, it displays your current speed, altitude, and distance traveled along with a record button.  Also shown in a little hole in the map is a compass heading in degrees, one of my favorite touches.

You can change the look of the main map screen by collapsing the top a bit, and you can change what each of the fields at the top displays.  For example, let's say you don’t want the “Record” button on the main screen,you can easily change it to “Ascent” data.  In addition, you can hide a class of objects, like areas or waypoints or hide only certain ones as well as turn on or off waypoint names.. 

Another feature that I like is you can enable “Distance Markers”.  Enabling this drops markers on your routes at .25 mi, .5 miles, or 1 mile intervals.  The default is 1 mile.  This is handy for long routes to get a sense of distance.

You can create routes and waypoints right in the phone app.  In addition, when creating a waypoint, you can enter the coordinates (unlike the WEB UI), and you are presented with a “Save and Guide me” which creates the waypoint, then draws a line from your current position, displaying bearing and distance.  This could be extremely cool if you are hiking with others and are trying to navigate to them.  You can also use the “Guide me” feature on any other object on the map.

You can click on a route or waypoint and click on directions.  The phone will bring up the Apple map or Google maps directions, whichever you have configured in settings. 

Gaia also has access to “Folders” allowing you to organize your stuff or hid folders worth of objects as well as share them.

Everything is clickable, similar to the web UI, giving you some data on what you clicked on.

You can share objects like tracks, routes, waypoints, areas, and folders of objects.

Score: 5

Phone App Summary

Gaia wins this round hands down.  Gaia puts more info on the main map page and they allow you to create waypoints and routes right on the phone UI.  This in itself is killer.  A lot of the phone UI can be customized and decluttered to your liking.

Downloading Charts For Offline Use

Being able to download maps for off-line use is mandatory and all three charting apps support this.  Failing to do this before I left the house and ventured into no-network zone hosed me near Mt. Lemon but I had studied the chart so it wasn’t a big deal. 

Alltrails

Downloading maps for offline use for Alltrails is simple.  After creating a map in Alltrails web that contains routes, just open it on your phone by choosing the “Plan” view, showing a list of maps, then open the map you want.  Click the “Download” button at the bottom of the screen and then choose which maps you would like to have off-line.  The simplicity is a real bonus.

However, this simplicity breaks down under three circumstances. 

  1. If the map covers too large an area it tries to pull down everything.  This happened when I created a map of all the summits in a particular area that I wanted to do and I created quick routes to each.  The map download would have been massive and it never completed.  It would have been nice to be able to select an area for download. 

  2. The map contains waypoints that are a long way from the route.  The app seems to make it easy for you but it seems like it bounds the area around a route or it just creates a tiny area around a waypoint, I don’t know.  I’ve run into not being able to pull up a larger portion of the map that I knew had waypoints. 

  3. If you just want a chunk of the map available offline even though it doesn’t have any routes or waypoints on it you are out of luck.  In Alltrails you have to have something on a map to get something offline.

When doing SOTA, I usually create a map for the summit I am going to attack and if there are a couple close together I do both.  I press the download, get the Alltrails map and a satellite map.  It works but it’s sorely lacking for my needs.

Score: 3

Gaia

Gaia has multiple ways to download maps for offline use.  You can click on a route or track on your map page, open the more screen, choose “Download Maps for Track” from the menu and then select the maps you want downloaded.  This is similar to Alltrails.

The other way to download maps is to  load up the map you want to download, and position the screen where you want, choose the little [+] at tje the top of the screen and select “Download Maps”.  A box is created on the map with movable corners, allowing you to select the area that you would like to download.  You can do this  multiple times, and if the areas overlap, Gaia is smart enough to only download the new areas.  If you are a pro member, you can create map overlays and download all overlays at the same time if they are currently enabled.  In addition, you can combine the two methods to quickly get what you want.  I prefer this second method because I know it gives me exactly what I want.

As you can see, the Gaia solves all the issues that I had with Alltrails and makes downloading pretty straightforward. 

Score: 5

Map Downloading Summary

Gaia wins this category with it’s ability to download any area of the globe with any chart whether you have any objects on that particular map or not.  Keep in mind that Alltrails has worked perfectly for me over the years so obviously I’ve worked around any issues I’ve had.

Ability To Record Tracks

This is the capability to turn on a recorder so that you can track where you hiked.  This is handy when I find a better path to or from a summit.  A lot of times I find a better way down so I’ll want to use that path next time.  Also, I like to keep track of my miles and ascent data during a hike and look at the totals after

Alltrails

Alltrails has a record screen accessible at the bottom of the screen but typically, when you are on a hike, you’ll want to load that map and then choose “Load into Recorder” so that the route and waypoints are available on the screen with the intended route.  What’s odd is that it’s implemented in a separate screen.  If you leave the recorder, you can always get back.  The way they have implemented this has always bugged me a bit.  Why “load” the map into a separate screen? 

Under history you can see the total length, elevation gain, moving time, avg pace, calories and total time.  This is sufficient but I’ve always wanted total descent.  Not all hikes begin and end at the same place.  For example, if I’m doing the Baldy loop, the west side may be a little lower or it would be nice to know how many times I lost altitude on the way up.

Score: 4

Gaia

Starting a recording in Gaia is simple, hit the record button in the upper left corner on the map page.  Yes, it’s possible that you exchanged that area with some other data, if so, click on trip at the bottom and click record. Your track is just added to all the other data on the map page.  At the end, you can discard the track or save it.

Gaia gives you the typical total distance, ascent, moving time, stopped time but also your pace, current speed, max speed, moving speed average speed and descent. If you are doing an up and back hike, knowing the descent gives you an idea of how much up and down you probably had on the way up.  But wait, there’s more.  Gaia also provides a speed profile, elevation profile and elevation time profile.  These are pretty cool and could be useful.  At first I didn’t think I could modify the the track but you can crop it using these instructions.  (Thanks Gaia support!)



Score: 5

Recording Summary

Gaia wins with their simpler model and more complete trip report.

Ability to Share Your Map

When hiking, you should always tell someone where you’re going.  What better way than to give them a map with your planned route.  In addition, I am always sharing my maps with other ham operators that want to do a summit I did. 

Alltrails

Sharing a map or a track with others is simple.  Just bring it up and press the share button. 

Score: 5

Gaia

In Gaia, you can share any object, route, waypoint, area, or track.  Sharing all of them is a bit tricky.  Sometimes you may have a complex map that has more than one route, multiple waypoints and tracks.  If you put them in a folder, not hard to do, then you can share the whole folder. 

Score: 5

Sharing Summary

It’s a tie.  Both apps do an adequate job and give me what I need.  I’d say Alltrails is a little more strait forward because of their “map” metamodel since you share everything that is part of that map.  Gaia requires you to share individual objects or, put them in a folder and share the folder.  I’ll have some big folderes so no big one.

Multiple map sources, company base layer, and USGS, and satellite

Alltrails

All trails has an “Alltrails” vector based map, road, satellite, US TOPO (unknown source), terrain, world parks, osm and ocm (not sure what  those are).  They also have live overlays for air quality, recent burn area, weather, light po.ution, Pollen and nearby trails.  The web version has ability to put mileage markers on the route but not on the phone for some reason.

Score: 3

Gaia

Gaia kills it when it comes to map sources.  In fact, it’s overkill for me but I’m not their only customer.   Their 251 and growing map sources include not only the typical vector based maps but a whole bunch of US specific maps, like National Geo Colorado trail, historic maps, John Muir trai and morel.  In addition they have Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. And more topo maps, road maps, overlay charts to include weather, cell coverage (for each vendor), NOAA forecasts, US hunting overlays, and nautical and aviation charts.  They also support layers with their maps, giving you the ability to change the opacity.  I’m tired.

My favorites are the 2016 USFS and private land map.  The private land is cool to play with in my neighborhood but it’s going to allow me to drop a subscription to onX Hunt that I used primarily to check for public land boundaries for my hiking. 

Yes, this list is overwhelming so what they do is allow you to pick which ones show up when you want to switch maps layers or overlay a layer.

Score: 5

Map Sources Summary

Gaia wins by a long shot.  Since the scoring is a comparison, Alltrails should have a lot lower number, but when I look at it from my “requirements” for SOTA hiking and backpacking, I don’t need most of the maps in Gaia but as a mapping program.  Gaia stands heads and shoulders above Alltrails when I do the comparison from a pure mapping program perspective though.  From what I understand they aren’t stopping there.  It’s hard to ignore Gaias 251 map sources to Alltrails 8.

Printing Maps

Alltrails

Printing is easy.  Choose the area, click on print, then zoom and position your map for printing.  Alltrails adds a professional look by including lat/long marks on the edges, compass and scale onto the map. 

Score: 5

Gaia

Gaia works just like Alltrails but fails to include lat/long marks & scale.  It’s not nearly as polished.  I gotta say, this was a disappointment.

Score: 4

Print Summary


Alltrails, the winner,  has a bit nicer fit & finish.

Community of public maps and tracks (nice to have)

Alltrails

Alltrails seems to have a much larger community.  This comes in handy when it comes to getting trail reports and using someone else's tracks to find a way to a summit.

Score: 3 out of 3

Gaia

Gaia does have community data but it doesn’t seem to be as broad.  Their tool does show you nearby trails, public tracks.  There is some info on popular parks but not nearly as well done as Alltrails.

Score: 2 out of 3

Community Summary

Alltrails wins here.  I’m going to venture that Alltrails has more users for public parks due to ease of use and caters to day hikers that would be more interested in that data.  Gaia is a more complex tool that probably doesn’t appeal to the day hiker.

Ability to Create Routes on Phone

Alltrails

Plain and simple, you can’t do this on Alltrails.  If you are on the trail and want to create a different route you are out of luck.

Score: 0

Gaia

You can create routes, waypoints, and areas.  I covered this in the Phone App section above.  Not only does this check it off the list, but its well implemented.  I’ve mentioned this above but I think Gaia designed for the phone first.  I like it.

Score: 5

Summary of “Create Route on Phone”

Gaia takes it all.

Other / Miscellaneous

This category is just a catchall for things that I noticed when using the two apps.

Alltrails startup is slower than Gaia.  I’m not sure why.  In addition, there are times when it won’t quite load when I’m in a spotty network condition.  I can turn off the cell network on the phone to resolve the issue, forcing it to use the internal DB rather than calling in to the mothership, which I think is the problem.

When using Alltrails, if you don’t have the map loaded into the recorder and recording, using other apps will cause the app to be completely swapped out of memory forcing you to open Alltrails from scratch and reload the map you were on.  So if you are on the trail or in the car, you’ll have to wait for Alltrails to load, find the right map and load it up to see if you are on track.  Not a problem on the trail, but a pain in the ass on the road.  In Gaia, there is no concept of loading a map so this isn’t an issue.

The  Gaia GPS Help Center and FAQ are very extensive, complete with videos, screen shots, and step-by-step instructions.  I posted a reply to someone else in the help forum when trying to crop a track, something that I can do in Alltrails.  My comment was posted last night and Gaia support sent me an email the next day pointing to an article on how to do just that.  I’ve sent several questions to Gaia support while writing this review and they have responded in about 20 minutes.  Unreal!  I’ve sent in questions and a bug to Alltrails and they were very responsive also, but Gaia tops anyone in support response times.

Three (3) points to Gryffindor (Gaia).

Alltrails still has a bug that was reported about 5 months ago regarding the upload of waypoints.  A typical SOTA use case it to download all of the summits for a particular area from sotamaps.org.  Uploading these should create all of the summit markers as a waypoint.  Alltrails started treating these as waypoints to a route.  They said they would fix it and it's still broken.  Gaia, however, treats these correctly as just waypoints.  For SOTA operators, this is an extremely useful feature.
Minus 1 point to Hufflepuff (Alltrails)

Review Summary

By the Numbers

Feature

Alltrails

Gaia GPS

Web App for Planning

5

4

Phone App

3

5

Downloading maps for offline

3

5

Recording Tracks

4

5

Sharing

5

5

Map Sources

3

5

Printing Maps

5

4

Community

3

2

Creating maps on the phone

0

5

Other (Bonus Points)

-1

3

TOTAL

30

40

Both maps get it done and get me out there, but in every contest, there are winner.  Gaiagp.com

Alltrails has met my needs for the most part the last few years but there are some things that I want from Gaia that I can’t get from Alltrails.  If I had been looking at features and had not used Alltrails for a couple of years, Alltrails probably would have scored lower.  Gaia is more complex but it delivers a lot more capability at the phone and in mapping.  As I use it, I really like having all the data I need on the map page rather than trying to find which map I need to load in Alltrails. 

The map display in Gaia is more feature rich and not having to goof around with track being a separate thing like it is in Alltrails is another bonus. Gaia has loads more maps and overlays, including international, and the private land boundary data is worth the extra $10/year alone.  That’s Gaias 251 map sources to Alltrails 8.

When using Gaia, I no longer need to figure out which map has the plan I need.  One issue with this approach is that custom maps with multiple routes and waypoints are harder to share but I’ll just share the folder that they are in.  You can share each separately or use a folder to share the whole thing.  In addition, if you use folders to organize your stuff, you can not only share that folder, you can also make everything in that folder invisible to declutter your universe a little (I wish I could do this to my house).  For example, I can hide all of my geocache maps when I’m doing SOTA.

With everything being an object in GAIA, it can be more complex but once you understand the metamodel it can be very useful.  Being able to hide or show individual objects like routes, tracks, waypoints, and areas can get a little crazy but putting them in a folder makes life easier.  Also, in the app, you can show/hide entire classes of items, e.g, hide all tracks for example.  This can help declutter your map. 

One other thing that I noticed is that the app seems to be designed to run best on the phone first then they implemented the same features on the web based version.  This may not be true but it would explain some of the user experience choices.

Use Alltrails if you need something light and easy to use.  It’s straightforward and has a better community.

Use Gaia if you want to go to the next level and can use some of the extra features.  Gaia has more maps and overlays.  At times it seems a bit more complex but it pays off when your routes, tracks and waypoints start to grow.

If you need international support, go with Gaia.

I’m switching to Gaia.  The one issue I have is that these apps are very “sticky” since we invest a lot of time creating custom maps, waypoints and tracks that can be used again.  Switching won’t be easy for me so I’ll probably have  an Alltrails subscription for a while. 

Finally, I’ve only been using Gaia for a month and full time for the last three expeditions, so I may find some nits with it.  So far so good with Gaia, it’s more than a shiny new toy, it’s objectively better in a couple of areas.  To be honest, I wrote this review to prove to myself that Gaia deserved the lead spot in my kit. 

The one area that Gaia can improve on is folders.  Exactly how they work is confusing.  Also there’s no hierarchy browsing of the folder. 

As I use Gaia more, I promise to update this article with any significant discoveries, so stay tuned.

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9/17/2020:  Gaia GPS just release Wildfire and Air Quality Maps for free.

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See Also:

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Credits: Lead photo courtesy of Dale, AA7OY

Chris Claborne,
N1CLC,
The Ham Ninja

(aka christian claborne)

2 comments:

  1. I echo your review, as I have used both All-Trails and Gaia for the last couple of years. I have done side by side tracking and planning with both of them and I find like you did the Gaia to be better for me on SOTA and for general day hikes as well. I have even used while flying to see how they track air speed, accents and descents. Gaia wins here hands down. I need to play more with the print map features as I really need this attribute in Colorado now. 73 Scott AK6Q

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  2. Meh. I still use a separate GPS device. My phone runs down pretty quick in the wilderness. I can run my ETrex 30 GPS on 2 AA cells for a couple of days of continuous use, and it is more water resistant than my phone. I'd really like to find a strap for the ETrex to put it on my forearm, so I can check it without fishing it out of my pocket on a bushwhack.

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