5 Essential Features for Outdoor GPS Apps

With so many GPS apps for outdoor navigation, it can be difficult to decide which one is best for your needs, which features are essential, and which ones you can ignore. Each application has its own set of features and specialties. However, there are five essential features for any GPS app that you want to use in the outdoors.

All good outdoor GPS applications will have offline maps, topographic maps, offline route tracking and point marking, and data synchronization. Any app you pay for should have at least these five features to keep you safe and help you effectively navigate in the outdoors.

If you’re just getting started and don’t want to pay for a GPS app just yet, I’ve made a list of some good, free GPS applications. The free apps don’t include all of these essential features, but they are good enough to get you a feel for GPS apps so you can choose a paid subscription with a better idea of what you’ll like and need.

1. Offline Maps

Outdoor recreationists spend a lot of time off-grid and away from cell signals, but still need to navigate in those situations. With any GPS app worth paying for (any many free ones) you can download maps directly to your device. Through the app, you access your saved maps when you are offline. Many apps have multiple map layers to choose from for downloads, including traditional topographic maps, satellite imagery, and specialty maps.

To test your offline maps turn your device to airplane mode and clear the memory cache for your GPS app. Then open your GPS app and make sure you can see the maps, in detail, for the areas you’ve downloaded. In addition to offline maps, you should expect the app to track your location and mark points while offline. When your device is in airplane mode your battery will also last much longer. That’s another reason why offline functionality is the most important feature for any GPS app.

If your app doesn’t download offline maps, then you might as well get a free app because you’ll get 90% of the functionality and pay nothing.

2. Topographic Maps

When you’re in the backcountry it’s not enough to just know where you are. You also need to know what’s around you so you can plan safe, efficient routes. Topographic maps are the most tried and true tool for visualizing and navigating terrain. Before you purchase a subscription to a mobile GPS app be sure that they included downloadable topographic maps. You don’t want to get stuck in the backcountry without a way to see what’s around you. Topographic maps have prevented me from making poor decisions on many occasions.

The most basic paid GPS apps should include topographic maps, at a minimum. However, you should also expect access to satellite imagery, and specialty maps. Specialty maps include maps that are specific to wilderness areas, trails (Like the PCT, Appalachian Trail, and CDT), national parks, and other locations.

3. Track Routes

There are a lot of reasons to track your movements. You can track the distance you cover and calculate your pace. Many apps will also show your elevation gain. Tracks can be saved so you can follow your same path back to an area or location. I find this specifically helpful when I find a good route to a location that involves navigating around cliffs or through thick vegetation. When I’m hunting I almost always track my routes, so if I need to get back into an area I can take the most efficient route, or avoid the poor ones I’ve taken in the past. Most importantly, you can follow your track back to a starting point if you get lost.

I almost always track my route when backpacking, hiking, or hunting. Year after year I find myself looking at the places I’ve already traveled when making plans for future trips. Almost every free GPS app has the functionality to track your routes. Make sure the app you pay for has the functionality.

4. Mark Locations

Everyone finds special places when they’re outdoors. It could be the perfect campsite next to a lake or stream, a little draw where the deer always hang out, the perfect fishing hole, a trailhead that isn’t well marked, or a number of other things. When you find that place or that thing, you often want to mark it so you can find it again. Any GPS app worth paying for will have the functionality to mark locations. Many apps will also have custom location markers so it’s easy to see the spatial relationships between features and easily find similar features.

I found free apps to be lacking in this functionality. A couple of apps did allow users to mark points, but not all. If you’re looking for a free app this might be a feature you’ll have to do without. Short term you’ll probably be okay without point markers, but eventually you’ll want to make sure you can record locations so you can return to your favorite spots and avoid any hazards along the way.

5. Sync Data

Most people get a new phone every couple of years. When you get a new phone you’re going to want to have access to all the GPS data you’ve invested so much time, effort, and money to collect on your old phone. If your GPS app automatically syncs your data, then getting that information to your new device is as easy as downloading the app, logging in, and waiting for the data download to happen. You’ll also want this functionality if you frequently use multiple devices while outdoors.

Data synchronization is also really handy because most GPS apps also have online mapping platforms. The online platforms are much easier to use for trip planning and e-scouting because it gives you access to a larger screen and quicker controls. If your app syncs data to your account, then all that information will be there when you use the web maps to do your planning.

Most GPS apps should include data synchronization, even the free ones. If yours doesn’t, it’s definitely worth upgrading or finding a different app so that your data can stay safe and accessible.


Mobile GPS apps are an awesome tool for outdoor recreation. If you don’t own a GPS I would highly recommend finding a GPS app that fits your recreation needs. When selecting an app, make sure you select one that contains these five essential functions because it will make outdoor navigation easier and more reliable.

Konrad Hafen

Konrad is a natural resource scientist who spends much of his free time hunting, fishing, hiking and backpacking on America's public lands.

Recent Posts