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[UPDATED] TrailHack#101: Mapping - Finding Trails on Your Own and Apps to ‘Lifehack’ Your Adventures

Where do you go for your ‘trail inspiration'? Perhaps All Trails, maybe Google Maps, or even word of Mouth. With so many tools available for the outdoor adventurer, it’s easy to get stuck in the ‘what’s available' and it’s harder to find what’s right for you.

Not all adventures need to be summiting Everest, in fact, many can be near your home. We happened to stumble upon a small trail system nestled between two housing developments by searching right by our house. This trail system looks just like we’re hiking in a state or federal park, except it's 5 minutes from home. A great way to start a weekday morning before rushing off to work. And we found it by looking at a handy app with a little ingenuity.

So, enter stage left, some handy tools and ways for you to find unique places to go, get outside, and cherish the world around us. With a little elbow grease and the App Store, the world is your oyster.

Let’s start from the top.

Which Mapping Apps are Right for Me?

I find that there is no single app that does it all. There are many to choose from. So, which one’s are my go-to apps … GAIA GPS, All Trails (iOS and desktop version), Google Maps, and Garmin Explore (paired with their InReach product). And I’ll talk a little bit about OnX Hunt, BaseMap, and Foot Path.

  • All Trails: It’s my hack. I find trails around where I want to go. Use the filters to narrow the search and then go back to GAIA GPS to validate if we should modify our ideal trek.

  • GAIA GPS: We've been actively testing and testing and making the shift to GAIA GPS for a myriad of reasons. We still use OnX Hunt when we need a backup, but this app has functionality that we'll be talking about in our next blog post.

IMPORTANT: All Trails and GAIA GPS provides the length and elevation change when the route is created on the app. Elevation change is important in helping with the decision to navigate clockwise or counterclockwise and/or start on the ridge or boundary line (if possible).

  • Google Maps: The maps are available for downloading (link here) but require some additional steps to make sure you have access on the trail. It's a cost effective option.

  • Garmin Explore: On the trail GPS navigation and satellite communications in the backcountry. And don’t rule out using GPS on the trail, it’s a digital history of where you are when out of cell coverage.

And other notable apps.

  • OnX Hunt: A strong contender for the on-the-trail app and checking for trails that are available to hike while out. This app consistently has complete maps with all the same capabilities as its strongest competitors.

  • BaseMap: Mainly used to double-check topo and satellite imagery. Unfortunately, it has some incomplete trails for hikers, but the state, federal, and private overlays are helpful.

  • Footpath: An easy way to plot your trek from your iPhone on the fly to see mileage and elevation change (alternative to All Trails).

So What Are Some Ways to Approach Finding Hiking Trails on Your Own?

Humor me here, I’m going to coin some terms that probably don’t exist. And since we’re in the blogosphere, I’m going to take liberties. The following are some ways to think about planning your trip.

  1. Trail Hacking: Pull up All Trails, find a general area where you want to go and look at paths. You can see the existing trails and others around (the dotted lines) and sometimes you: may see something listed, but not want to go the full 12 miles that someone published, but instead, you only want to do 5 miles; or maybe you want to cut around a different way. All Trails is great for inspiration. Like #fitspo but for hiking.

  2. Elimination Mapping: All Trails has many filters — do you want to do a loop, light traffic, water view, less than 5 miles, more than 2,500 vertical feet, etc? Pop open the app, set the filters, then pinch your fingers to zoom out. Depending on how many filters will determine how far you need to zoom out. I’ll caution you that NOT all treks are mapped in All Trails, it's user-generated, so sometimes you’ll need to create it yourself. If you don’t find what you want, it’s time to start ‘digital map wandering.’

  3. Digital Map Wandering: Open All Trails, GAIA GPS, or OnX Hunt and just start looking for trails in the map overlays for state, municipal, and federal land that are interesting or in the area that you want to go. One tip … depending on an internet connection, the trails might take a second to fully load. Give it a hot second to pull everything up if you have layers turned on.

Whatever your method for finding new and unique trails, there are limitless possibilities. So, let’s get started with some mechanics. Remember, these are just random musings from an adventure enthusiast, your path might be slightly different. And that’s ok.

Finding Trails that Work for You.

Let’s start wandering around the apps. My favorite for the field, and you won’t be surprised as you read on, is GAIA GPS [UPDATED]. So, let’s fire up the GAIA GPS maps, go to the ‘Map Layers’ at the bottom left, and start turning on the wealth of information.

[UPDATED] GAIA GPS LAYERS are very helpful.

  • PUBLIC AND PRIVATE LAND: Private, Government, Access Lands, etc.

  • HUNTING LAND: Active Wildlife, Historic Wildlife, etc.

  • TRAILS: Trails, Trail Slopes, Recreation Sites, etc.

  • Some of the layers are in the Hunt and Land and Rec sections, some you’ll have to navigate to the State layer from the ‘Layer Library’

The layers that are available in GAIA GPS are fairly robust.

Sample of Active / Inactive Layers available and how they appear in the GAIA GPS app.

GAIA GPS: Active / Inactive Layers on Map
GAIA GPS: Adding Layers to Map

Since the apps are frequently updated, you’re going to have to poke around and get used to the software. You got this. And once all of these settings are turned on, start to navigate your local area or wherever you plan to trek. You’ll start to see all sorts of helpful information.

When I’m looking through the map, I seek out the transparent layers over the government lands. They typically appear in greens, yellows, and purple to denote state, federal, BLM (Bureau of Land Management), WMA (Wildlife Management Area), and Nature/Environmental Areas. Embedded in each of these areas are trail lines that are typically green and if you have the ‘Trail Slopes’ layer turned on, you’ll see green, yellow, and red for topographical change denotation.

Finding the Trailhead, So What Now?

You probably need to figure out which trails are accessible, how to find the trailhead, and what safety measures you might want to take. Depending on how far you venture into the wild, you might be unfamiliar with the road — is it a dirt road, is 4x4 needed, and will there be cell coverage?

Start easy and get comfortable with your adventures. When we first started navigating new trails, I would pull up All Trails and see that the treks were incomplete. And that’s because most of the trails in All Trails are user-generated. Someone has gone online, created a map, and published it for Public Viewing.

Take for example a few weeks back, our crew was looking for low-traffic hiking trails near the Elizabeth Furnace area in Virginia. If you’ve ever been to Elizabeth Furnance, you know that the hiking trailheads on Route 678 have parking lots on the side of the road bursting with cars. But drive up the road a few miles and pop onto a dirt road and you can traverse to the backside of the mountain to a significantly less populated area with the same trail system.

In All Trails, you might find ‘Veach Gap Trail’ that starts on the backside of the mountain, and it looks good but zoom in and you see a dotted line on a ridge that could have a view of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. AND if you found yourself venturing down that ridge, you’d experience one of the coolest rock scramble trails with spectacular views of the area towards the North Fork of the Shenandoah.

This is that same trek down the ridge and not up into the East face of the mountain. Albeit this is from the Garmin Explore app. The same starting point, just a turn left up the mountain to the ridge. For reference, the screenshot below is from the Garmin Explore app (with the actual line we took in red, well that's the dog, we're the light blue underneath), above is from the All Trails app (one of the only options listed). We’ll try to pull together some information on the basics of reading Topo maps. I am no expert, but we can find enough information to help you understand all these wavy lines on the map. More to follow … but until then, we continue.

When you open up GAIA GPS and/or OnX Hunt, it shows exactly the route that we did, except with no messy red line … a trek down Massanutten Trail with a short vertical climb up to the Tuscarora Doll Ridge. We hiked a couple of miles down the Tuscarora Doll Ridge with beautiful rock formations and stunning views.

As you can see GAIA GPS and/or OnX Hunt has an excellent mapping of trails, topo, and labels. But more importantly, we saw a change in the height of the mountain, it looked more interesting, and decided to hike up it. And was able to enjoy a rock scramble down the ridge.

This is just one of many examples of the difference between a little exploring outside of the All Trails map … and not too far away from the typical Elizabeth Furnace trailheads. And important to note, when I put the coordinates for the trailhead on the backside of the mountain in Google, the map guidance took us to a road that had the gate temporarily closed. So, we added an extra 2 miles to our trek that day. No harm, no foul, but know that none of these tools are perfect. Expect the best, and plan for some nuances.

What If I’m a Little More Adventurous with Finding Hiking Trails?

Use that finger to scroll around GAIA GPS / OnX Hunt to find those transparent layers without All Trails or other apps. In the Virginia area, there are a significant number of available parks and government land areas to explore. Whether it’s a wastewater treatment plant near your house or a national park hour away, scroll in and scroll out, swipe, slide, tap, and go wild. This is where my wife thinks I nerd out on my quest for the perfect trail. But let’s be honest, all trails are perfect, as long as you’re outside.

However, you knew it was coming, NOT all apps are created equal.

  • For searching public and private land for trails, our go-to is GAIA GPS / OnX Hunt because it’s fairly accurate in my opinion with existing trails. We can thank the hunters for their incredible documentation and attention to detail.

  • And we’ve found that when you come across the hunting community on the trail, they are all the salt of the earth, the most helpful kind of adventure seekers. Embrace the community of fellow outdoor enthusiasts and thank them for their love and support of conservation — the opinion of one, hopefully, you’ll share the same thoughts.

And while I praise GAIA GPS / OnX Hunt, the other apps have their place and Garmin is a 'never leave home without it,' product for us.

  • For example, I’ve found limitations with BaseMap (to which I was a loyal subscriber at one point) with the completeness of the maps

  • Garmin Explore in our opinion is the undisputed GPS handheld go-to on the trail, coupled with satellite communications, it's hard to argue with reliability on the trail with this device

The two maps below are great examples of what to expect. Time and time again, OnX is more accurate — emphasis on ‘more.’ These are the exact same area, Morgan Run Environment Area.


BaseMap doesn’t even show trails. If you zoom in, you can see the trails on the satellite image, but nothing is marked.

OnX Hunt

And OnX Hunt, easy to see all the trails, where they are connected, and their slopes. I could post a half dozen more examples that show this same theme.


And the same with GAIA GPS.

What’s the moral of the story here…

  • [UPDATED] GAIA GPS is my primary trail go-to for finding unique places, learning it, being curious about them, and considering the monthly subscription

  • [UPDATED] OnX Hunt can be used as a backup, but mainly for satellite imagery, land information, and ease of use

  • Garmin, we never leave home without our Alpha 200i InReach device and if you map your trek online before you get outside, you can follow along on the device

Limitations of Mapping Software to Find Hiking Trails

Nothing is perfect. But there are workarounds. For the trail I mentioned by my house, OnX Hunt was showing it as a municipal park managed by the county, but no trails were marked. So, I went one layer deeper. You can see the discoloration over the park. It looks split between County and Municipal.

[UPDATED] GAIA GPS using the OpenStreetMap now displays the trails. As of 10/30/22, this trail is available on the app. Again, all apps are not created equal and more important, information is updated regularly.

However, this information is also available by searching on Google with the Park Name, looking at Google Maps for the name itself, I found the PDF of the park which I believe was a proposal for the land use. Within the proposal was a documented map of the trails. Viola! A full trail system with over 5 miles of major and minor trails right by the house.

As much as we want to lean on apps to help us navigate, there is a wealth of information that is available to you through the .Gov websites. I encourage you to also use this information to supplement your search.

Safety on the Trail When Mapping Your Own Trek

Next, you’re venturing out, what do you need? Well, personally that’s a whole other blog. But I am going to mention this because I call out the Garmin Explore app (I will be writing a little more on this topic in the near future, but mainly from the perspective of hiking + dog adventures + photography).

For now, my wife and I never hit the trails without the Garmin InReach technology for a number of reasons:

  • Your digital footprint is literally the only way to track your last footsteps should something happen, morbid, yes … realistic, and more importantly

  • Consider the areas that you are traveling to and if there is cell coverage. Do you have a way to call for help? Does someone know where you are? Yes, I sound like your mother :)

While the Garmin InReach requires a subscription, it’s insurance for the worst-case scenario. Channel that inner boy scout and ask if that’s something that’s important to you. For us, we use the Garmin Alpha 200i paired with the TT15 Mini attached to the dog. Everyone gets a digital footprint on our treks. As an added benefit, we can see both her miles and ours too. I’ll also post a blog about the Garmin InReach soon and how we use it with fido.

Offline Maps for Hiking without Cell Coverage

Finally, don’t forget to download the ‘Offline Map’ wherever you’re going. Many times, cell coverage is weak, which means you could end up navigating blindly through the backcountry. It’s easy to do and adds an extra layer of safety and convenience.

For now, keep on hiking, enjoy the outdoors and remember to Leave No Trace. We’ll follow up with more in-depth details on some of this content but start here for now. And please let us know if you have any suggestions for topics, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Links We’ve Found Helpful for Mapping Apps


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