Why to use a GPS app (like Gaia) while backcountry skiing

By BCA Ambassador, Mike Alkaitis

The best way to travel in unknown or whiteout backcountry terrain is with a GPS device or GPS phone application. If I am able, I always take a traditional map and compass as well as my phone with the Gaia application loaded into it. I love it when I can read the map and see on the Gaia application where I am and how close I am to my chosen route. I can also see what other back-up options are there if my objective is out of condition, dangerous, or I have time for another lap on something.

Using travel aids is a great way to increase safety and is an important skill for any backcountry traveler. It can even help identify potential avalanche terrain before you get there. Unlike your avalanche training, you actually get to use your navigation skills on every outing.


Mike Alkaitis backcountry skiing in a whiteout.

My favorite is the Gaia GPS app for the iPhone (also available for Android). The app was recommended to me a few years ago when I was planning a trip to Japan and wanted to download some of the maps. Many of the current apps don’t have the Japanese maps, but Gaia did and seemed to be quite simple to figure out. The app is easy to learn and allows users to download maps, record tracks, share tracks with others, or view the map live wherever you are.

The most common Gaia GPS app costs $19.99, and includes unlimited map downloads, access to 43 map sources, and server backup of all tracks, photos, and other data. The Gaia Pro is available for $3.99 per month or $39.99 for a full year. The pro version enables additional features such as layering map sources, custom waypoint icons and premium map sources (15 more sources than the basic app for a total of 58). Gaia Pro also adds a print feature on the website, and lets you backup raw, full-resolution versions of your photos when you sync with gaiagps.com.

I find the best way to use the Gaia GPS app is to find the map I want to use and then download the area I will go. Once you have the map downloaded, you are able to switch views between different map sources. This is really helpful when a certain feature may not be clear from one source, but really clear in another. The map sources may have good trails shown, or no trails shown. You can then create a planned route with waypoints and line of travel if needed, or perhaps your buddy has already done the outing and can share her track with you before you even go. As you are traveling you can see how close you are to the track and make adjustments as needed. This application so far has worked great all over the US (including Alaska) as well as Canada and Japan.

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A great feature for iPhone users is once the map is downloaded you can turn your phone into airplane mode and the GPS still works while saving lots of battery life. I have been out for up to 12 hours with the GPS map open, listening to my downloaded music and having a great time.

Download the the Gaia GPS app at the Apple AppStore or get it from Google Play.

Another great backcountry app, the best I have ever used, is the Wasatch Backcountry App as it incorporates Google Earth and has all of the ski runs already built in. Built for the Utah backcountry, this app costs $12.99 and is worth every penny. I hope that all of the backcountry areas eventually have these apps available, or that someone like Gaia can partner with Google Earth to cover the globe.

I hope you get a chance to try these applications or invest in another great option. Remember to keep your cell phone at least 20 cm (8 in.) away from your transceiver in transmit mode and 50 cm (20 in.) when searching, to minimize potential interference.