Hiking apps - evaluation

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Introduction

20211111 Zapateer en Kabouterbos web
To assist my readers in choosing a good phone-app for following and discovering hiking trails on their own I have evaluated a number of apps during about a half year. The chosen apps are:

  • Locus Map; that is the app that I was using most during my hikes before I started this evaluation
  • AllTrails
  • Gaia GPS
  • Wikiloc; that is the app that I used when I started to register my hikes

The results are shown below. If you want to skip the details and immediately want to jump to the conclusions you can click here after clicking Read more to display the full article.

Availability of the apps per kind of phone

  • Locus Map is only available on Android phones / tablets
  • AllTrails is available on Android and Apple phones / tablets
  • Gaia GPS is available on Android and Apple phones / tablets
  • Wikiloc is available on Android and Apple phones / tablets

So only Locus map is limited to Android phones. No disadvantage for me because I am using an Android phone, but definitely a big minus for Apple phone users.

Minimal requirements for tracking apps

  • The availability of a hiking map for the regions in which you usually hike. As I am using my apps mainly in Curaçao I have checked the availabilty of a map for Curaçao
  • The ability to register your hike (tracking) with as result a GPX-file with the route that you followed
  • The ability to register waypoints (interesting points) along your route
  • The ability to import a track from someone else or a track that you found on the Internet
  • The ability to export your track to share it with other hikers
  • The ability to continually inform the people at home where you are during the hike (live tracking); this is a safety measure so that people can inform a rescue team in case you don't show up after the hike. This is especially important if you are hiking on your own. If your are hiking in a group this is less important because other members of the group can call for help
    Important: this function requires an active Internet connection during the hike. All other function often work without an Internet connection especially for the pro / premium versions of the apps.

My personal use of these apps for hiking

Because the evaluation is dependent on how you intend to use your app for hiking I share my use of the apps.

  • To follow a route that I have used in the past
  • To follow routes that are unknown to me but that others have shared either directly with me or by sharing their tracks on Internet
  • To spontaneously switch from one track to another in an area where many alternative routes are available so that new routes are registered
  • To look at the map in the app to see if other paths are available in the area or neighborhood where I am hiking at that time
  • To register and document my hikes to share them with others
  • To share my location during the hike for my own safety

For all the apps are free versions available and pro or premium versions. The latter contain more functionality, more maps (very limited for Curaçao) and the option to download track and map so that during the hike no Internet connection is needed (unless you are using live tracking). I am using the pro or premium versions of the app because I hike a lot and the amount of money for the extras is acceptable for me (Gaia being the most expensive with $39.99 per year). I spend more on hiking shoes and other hiking attributes and the app gives me extra security during the hike. And in this way I support the developers so that they can keep improving the app.

There is a problem in Curaçao with paying for these kind of apps. Google P(l)ay still does not support payments from Curaçao. If the developers have created an option to pay outside the app (through their website) this is no problem. Wikilocs still does not have that option. Also Locus Map doesn't support payments outside Google Play. I have no idea how the payments options are for Apple users.
With the developers of Wikiloc I have made a deal that I donate the subscription amount through their website and in response they renew my premium subscription. Locus Map Pro was available through the Amazon app store where I purchased the Pro-version. Since then Locus Map has been upgraded to version 4 and that version is only available via Google Play. I have had contact with the developer and they expect to have the payment option outside Google Play available in the summer of 2022. Gaia GPS and AllTrails have payment options through their websites.

Evaluation per app

Wikiloc screenshot webWikiloc

Wikiloc meets the basic requirements and is very easy to use. There is an offline map for Curaçao so the app can be used without an Internet connection. The app supports Live tracking but needs of course an Internet connection like all other apps that support a form of live tracking.

I have used Wikiloc for a long time and am very pleased with this app and the accompanying website.
You need to register for an account to be able to save tracks in your account so that you can use them while not being online.

Wikiloc is by far the best app to search for tracks in Curaçao. There are many users of this app in Curaçao so many tracks can be found.

Wikiloc has no support for repairing the track if you forgot to end the recording at the end of the hike. But you can export the track and repair it in other software and then import the corrected track if you want and have the necessary software available to do that.

You can organize your tracks in lists and also add tracks from others to your lists after you found an interesting track on Wikiloc. You can also set the track to private in case you don't want others to find it. That last option I use when I record a track from a commercial hiking organization. That track is for my personal use only. And I had to use it when a new hiking organization started offering a number of the trails that I had recorded. 

You can navigate a track by choosing the track that you want to follow. It will show you that track while hiking so you know if you are still on track. The map is pretty basic and contains not a lot of information. An alternative is to use the satellite image as the background for your track.

All in all a nice basic app for tracking. I still use Wikiloc to search for tracks and to share my tracks with others. I am no longer using the app for recording or navigating tracks because I switched to another app with more functionality. But for most users the app would be more than sufficient for their use. And as proof: apparently this app is the most used app by hikers in Curaçao and as a result the availability of a lot of tracks in Curaçao

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Locus screenshot webLocus Map Pro version 3

Currently version 4 is available but I am unable to upgrade to that version because I cannot pay the premium version through Google Play. The current version of Locus Map 4 is roughly comparable with the last version 3. The functionality of the last version of Locus Map Pro 3 is included in the current version 4 with the addition of an accompanying website. My evaluation is based on the version 3, Pro edition.

Locus Map Pro supports all required functions and quite a lot more. There are offline maps available for the former Netherlands Antilles for a small fee (included for free in the gold edition of version 4). 

The user-interface is quite complex for starters and there are a lot of settings available to tune the app to your specific use.
You can organize your tracks and waypoint in folders and you can choose to make them visible on the map or not. The screen shows all your registered (or imported) tracks in the area that you are hiking at that time so that you can easily switch from one track to another if you are in the mood for a different route. Locus Map Pro has the most extensive functionality to repair the track if needed. The live tracking option is quite nice. Your current location is shown on a website on a basic map. The website refreshes continually so that at each moment your location is known by others.
There is also extensive support for geocaching through add-ons to the app. 

Following a track is done by following the previous track as shown on the map-interface of the app. 

The result of the hike is presented in a map with the track and some key figures are shown. This can easily be shared with others; there is also support to show the track on Google Earth and share that image.
The registered elevation is not correct but there is a function to repair that in the app.

Importing and exporting of tracks and waypoints is all supported from the app. The version 3 has no accompanying website. That means that synchronization between different phones (normally not necessary) or with a tablet has to be done manually. In version 4 a website is added, so that the synchronization is performed automatically.

An advantage of Locus Map Pro is that you can create and load custom maps. That means that I have the latest Kadaster map (1993) available in the app during each hike and also the Werbata map (1909). I consider that a huge advantage because sometimes I am looking for historical features like ruins, wells or dams. These are never shown on a current map. It also means that you are able to scan a hiking map for a certain area and use that map during the hike. 

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Alltrails screenshot webAllTrails 

This app meets all the basic requirements and some more. The user interface is simple: you are presented with the option to show saved tracks and choose the one that you want to follow or you start recording a new track.
Before you actually start the track you can opt to share your location with other people (list of contacts); each of them gets a message with the intended route and intended duration of your hike. Clicking on the link in the message opens a web page where the current location is shown. That is the nicest version of live tracking of all evaluated apps because the intended route is shown and the current location on that route. The other apps just show your current location on a map. When the hike lasts longer than expected from the start you are presented with the option to extend the original duration. The contacts get a mail with this update. So all in all a very nice live tracking feature.

There is a huge difference between this app and Locus Map and Gaia. This app lets you choose which track you want to follow and shows only that track in a somewhat lighter color on the screen. The actual registration of your new track is shown in a darker version of that color. That means no alternative routes in the area are visible. Initially I considered that as a disadvantage because I want to be able to switch routes while hiking. Not seeing the alternative routes doesn't support that usage. There is an option to "change route" while hiking but then you need to know where two tracks are near each other. But after a while the fact that only one track is visible became an advantage because there is no confusion about the continuation of the route in an area in which you have registered a lot of tracks. Also, because you have chosen to follow a certain track, you can get a warning if you are a certain distance from the original track. 

The app supports taking pictures during the hike. This opens automatically the camera. The pictures are stored with GPS-locations and later shown on the exact location on the track. The only disadvantage of this functionality is that the app tends to loose the GPS -signal during the time that the camera is used. This can result in tracking errors in the registered track (spikes).The pictures are stored on the website together with the track and waypoints. This gives a nice presentation of all your hikes. To avoid a lot of tracking errors I advise to limit the use of the camera during the hike.
There is no functionality to repair the spikes in track. The only option (through the website) is to shift the end point back if you forgot to finish the track and the route to your home is included in the track. Repairing the track in other software is not easy. 

This app has an accompanying website and everything is automatically synchronized with this website. The app itself doesn't support importing and exporting. This is done via the website. So it is basically a tracking app; all other functionality is supported through the website. A negative is that imported tracks from other people or tracks that you have found on the Internet show incorrect information (moving time, total time). The track itself is correct.
Also for this app the registered elevation is not correct during the hike but automatically corrected after synchronization with the website.
Through the website you can search for tracks from other hikers in your area but there are not many track for Curaçao available. Wikiloc is the best app to search for other tracks.

There are no custom maps for Curaçao but the provided general maps are more than sufficient for use. That map (based on Open Street Map) is even better than the purchased map from Locus because it shows more available paths. The negative is that you have to download the map around your intended track before you go outside because you need an active Internet connection to do that. Locus Map has the whole map stored on the phone.

AllTrails has no option to create custom maps for the app. You are limited to the available maps.

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Gaia screenshot webGaia GPS

This app does not meet all the basic requirements. There is no support for live tracking / location sharing. If you don't need this then this is no problem. If you need it you need to use a second app for the live location sharing (e.g. Whatsapp or Google). Combined with Whatsapp location sharing all required functionality is supported.
This is the app that in most reviews comes up as the best tracking app. Main advantage according to these reviews is the support for many maps. That is not the case for Curaçao; only the basic maps are available just as in AllTrails and Wikiloc.

This app has a simple user interface. After opening the app a map of your area is shown with all the registered tracks and waypoints on it. To start a track you either choose it on the map or you select it from the saved tracks. You have the option to download the map around the track (do this before you leave home). If you don't have an active Internet connection in the hiking area this is a necessity otherwise you don't have a map during the hike.

Following a previous track is done in the same way as in Locus Map; all registered tracks are shown at and around your current location and you follow one of these during your hike. In an area with only a single route that is easy; in an area with multiple registered routes this can sometimes become confusing. That is the same as in Locus Map, but in Locus Map you can easily change the appearance of your preferred route so that is easily recognizable during the hike. That functionality is very limited in Gaia GPS (you can only change the color).

Gaia has also the option "Guide me"; in that case the chosen track is highlighted on the map. But the information about that previous route is also presented on the map and that limits the amount of screen for following the track. Also the progress is not shown as usual. It looks as if this function is meant to tell you how far it is to the endpoint of that route and what the expected time of arrival is at that endpoint. And the guidance is easily lost when you manipulate the screen (zooming in or out).

The Gaia GPS app seems to require a more powerful GPS-signal than the other apps. That means that this app is the most sensitive for tracking errors (spikes) while hiking or taking a picture during the hike. 

This app has an accompanying website. Synchronization between the app on the phone and the web is done automatically but that update is slower than with AllTrails. Importing and exporting tracks is done through the website in a similar way as with AllTrails. There is limited functionality on the website to repair the track (only start- and endpoint can be changed). There is no support to correct for the spikes between start and endpoint.

For some reason Gaia GPS shows a shorter distance for a track than the other apps. I have exported the tracks from Locus Map, AllTrails and Gaia and imported these in another software program. It shows that Gaia takes less frequently a location than the other two apps. Strangely enough the distance for all three tracks is about the same in that external program, but after importing the track in Gaia a shorter distance is shown that the actual registered distance in the GPX-file.

The registered elevation is almost always wrong. According to the registered elevation part of my trails is several meters deep under water. There is a workaround to correct this via the website. This workaround is not in the user documentation but can be found on the Internet.

Gaia GPS supports creating and loading custom maps via an external web-application. The creation of thesee custom maps is not an easy process but I was able to create the most recent Kadaster map (1993) and the oldest Kadaster map (Werbata 1909) for use in the app. The big difference with Locus Map Pro is that you need to download all your maps along the intended route or for the area in which you often hike. That requires you to plan your hike beforehand.

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Conclusions

  • Wikiloc has the best functionality for searching for tracks uploaded or registered by other users. There are a lot of tracks available for Curaçao. The amount of tracks from other hikers through the website for AllTrails and Gaia GPS is so limited that this is not useful for Curaçao.
  • AllTrails and Wikiloc are the best apps if you want to follow a certain track because it shows you only that track on the screen. Gaia and Locus Map show all previously registered tracks on the map and that can be confusing. If this is a pro or a con depends on your use of the app.
  • Locus Map Pro is not available for Apple phones. Gaia GPS is a good alternative for Locus Map Pro on Apple phones. The functionality is comparable except that no live location sharing is available for Gaia GPS.
  • AllTrails has the nicest live tracking functionality because the intended track is shown together with the current location on that track
  • Locus Map Pro version 3 is the only app without an accompanying website. That seems to be solved in version 4 for this app. The availability of a website is an advantage because all info is automatically synchronised between phone(s) and website.

None of the apps is a bad choice for hiking. My advise it to make a choice and start with the free version of that app. If you miss functionality check if that is available in the Pro / Premium version and upgrade if the cost is acceptable.

My personal choices

I switched from Locus Map Pro to AllTrails for most of my hikes. I use AllTrails if I want to follow a specific track especially a track that I do not know yet because I have found it on the Internet. I often use AllTrails together with Locus Map Pro. AllTrails for following a chosen track and Locus Map Pro to see if there are alternative routes. Gaia GPS has no added value for me compared to Locus Map Pro.  

I use Wikiloc only to search for new tracks and to share my tracks.