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OnX vs Gaia GPS: What's The Best Mapping App For Overlanders?

Updated: Nov 26, 2022


Whether you're just getting into overlanding or off roading, or if you've at it for the last two decades, there's a good chance you've heard of Gaia GPX and OnX Off Road. And for good reason, these two mapping applications have assumed the place as the industry leaders for off road vehicle exploration and travel. To be fair, there are a quite frankly dozens of other mapping apps and platforms, some of which work great, others, no so much. Some of the honorable mentions that are worth checking out include CalTop, Garmin Overlander (comes as a tablet), RidewithGPS, and the Overland Bound One app. For the sake of this article, we'll be focusing on Gaia GPX and OnX Off Road, which are the two most common platforms we see using for planning their adventures, and to navigate the backcountry. What do We Use at OTG HQ? I've been a map geek since my teenage years, when I used to tape USGS mapping quadrants to my bedroom wall, highlighting every trail and dirt fire road that existed in Marin County, California. That mapping addiction has only grown more intense with time, so it come as no surprise that I hold subscriptions to both Gaia GPS and OnX Off Road, along with a number of other mapping applications and off road specific trail platforms. While we use Gaia extensively for research, route development, and navigating the backcountry, we love OnX's extensive and fast growing library of detailed trails. OnX was a non-player in the off road community just a few short years ago, but they quickly made a name for themselves with the release of OnX Off Road in 2019. Since bursting onto the scene, OnX has been rapidly innovating and adding new value adding features at a break-neck pace. We wouldn't be surprised if they continue adding features that bring OnX into closer parity with Gaia on features like adding more basemap layers and route development tools.

 

Gaia GPS


Gaia GPS was founded in Berkeley, California in 2008. In its early days, the app built a solid following among hikers and backpackers. As the product matured, the overlanding and off roading crowd noticed they could benefit from the many different basemaps that Gaia offered, ultimately positioning Gaia as the most popular mapping platform for overlanders. However, one of the major drawbacks of Gaia is the user interface, which seems to be stuck in 2010. In addition to the outdated UI design, the layout of tools and features is not the most intuitive, but once you learn the basics of Gaia, it can be an incredibly powerful tool for route planning and backcountry exploration.


Freemium Version Like OnX, Gaia offers a free version of the app. As expected, you get limited access to features, but we still believe it's a great way to test the app out to see if it works for you. The big drawbacks of the free version are that you can't save offline maps (an absolute must for backcountry travel), and you only get access to a limited number of basemaps. However, you do get access to a number of very powerful features, such as:

  • route planning

  • marking waypoints

  • recording your trip

  • using GPS

  • taking pictures

  • backing up your tracks to gaiagps.com

  • sharing tracks with friends

Standard Subscription vs Premium For the rest of this guide, we'll focus on the standard subscription. The premium subscription does give users access to additional items such as a full subscription to TrailForks (MTB trails app), access to exclusive Outside digital content and videos, and various online courses offered by Outside. Basemaps & Map Layers The plethora of basemaps and map overlays is where Gaia absolutely shines. If you're traveling internationally, there's a good chance Gaia has a basemap layer that's suitable to where you're traveling. For example, the BackRoad Map Books layer for Canada is the best thing on the market, and NatGeo's Baja basemap is one of the best around for exploring Baja California. And earlier this year Gaia released a new basemap called Overland, which immediately become our go-to basemap when exploring the backcountry in the United States (it's not so great out of the US). History buffs will love the old USGS basemaps, some of which are 100+ years old. These maps includes sites, like old ghost towns and mining camps that have long since been forgotten and removed from more modern maps.


We also love the numerous map overlays that Gaia features. Some of our favorite overlays include mines and mineral resources, private property boundaries, snow depth, wildfire smoke forecasts, cell reception, and historical. The mines and mineral resources layer is a fantastic way to explore the desert-- you'll be amazed at the number of mines and prospects that fill America's wildlands! The snow depth layer is another one of our go tos when planning late spring or early Summer trips into the Alpine, as provides the most accurate way we've found (other than first hand info) to see if you'll encounter snowdrifts on the trail. And with wildfires ravishing California and Oregon over the last several years, the historical wildfire layer lets you see if your route will be traveling through burnt zones of the forest. Using Gaia on the Trail

We typically use Gaia with our iPad mini, and we love the cockpit like feel of the UI within Gaia's iOS app. One of the features we appreciate about Gaia is the ability to toggle on/off

the data points that matter to you. Want to see or hide your current elevation or distance traveled on a given trip-- no problem! We also love the layers feature, and the ability to toggle on/off routes, tracks, points of interest and more. In addition to using Gaia go keep us on our intended route, we also use the app for recording live tracks. This can be a great way to keep track of your true mileage while out on a trip.


Most of the places we explore tend to have limited to zero cell phone coverage, which means we always download offline maps before heading out. We've heard of the horror stories where folks thought they downloaded a map, only to reach the trail to discover their basemaps were never saved to their device. Because of this, we have a habit of always checking our offline basemaps at home, abut only fter restarting the iPad in airplane mode. If you're able to zoom in and see the fine details, you can rest assured that your offline maps have downloaded to your local device.

Route Creation Gaia also features perhaps the industry's best route creation tool. It suffered from a number of bugs just a a few short years ago, but Gaia seems to have resolve these issues. We use Gaia extensively to develop all of our routes at OTG. Our only qualm with the route creation tool is that it can become rather slow when developing longer routes (500+ miles), which is noticeable when trying to make edits. We've also noticed that when attempting to edit an old route, the changes aren't always saved to Gaia.


Multi-device Support and Syncing

Like most mapping apps, Gaia supports the ability to load or create a track on one device, and then sync that data to another device. We typically create all of our routes on a desktop, and then use an iPad mini on the trail for navigation. And while the syncing has always worked for us, it can take sometime for a newly created route or track to sync from one device to another. We certainly wouldn't recommending creating a new route on you laptop and then heading straight to the trail. We've heard issues and read multiple Facebook posts about some users having issues with multi-device syncing. This seems to be one of the most persistent problem with Gaia, but it's hard to assess if it's a real issue, or if customers are just being impatient with the syncing latency we've come to expect. Where Gaia Falls Shorts

It's 2022, but Gaia's UI looks like it could be the original one from 2008, when the company was founded. And while Gaia is an exceptionally powerful mapping navigator, it isn't the most intuitive platform to learn and use. The folders and filing features are mediocre at best, and leave a lot to be desired compared to OnX's no non-sense approach to files and organization. Gaia has always positioned itself as a mapping platform, so we don't view the fact that it doesn't have detailed trail information as a detriment-- this falls outside of Gaia's current value proposition.


Pros

  • Try before you buy: Free Version

  • Industry leader with largest number of basemap layers (including international maps)

  • Overland specific base map

  • Tons of map overlays (snow depth, smoke, cell reception, fire boundaries)

  • Route builder tool

  • Integrated with Apple Carplay and Android Auto

  • Public tracks

  • Record tracks & add waypoints along your trip

  • Offline Maps

  • Multiple options for downloading map layers

  • Export GPX and KML files


Cons

  • Not the most intuitive user interface

  • Cross device syncing is slow and doesn't always work as expected

  • Folder and filing system leaves a lot to be desired

  • Lacks detailed and specific trail information


OnX Off Road

While viewed as a relative newcomer to the off road navigation space, OnX maps has been around since 2009, and has grown into a sizable enterprise since their humble beginnings when their original app (OnX Hunt) catered primarily to hunters. Since then OnX has gone on a buying spree acquiring other mapping apps like MTB Project and Outdoor Project. And then in 2019, OnX Off Road was launched. Since the launch of their Off Road app, OnX has spent a hefty sum advertising on various social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube. All of the marketing and advertising seems to be paying off. Two years ago, OnX was rarely recommended when folks would inquire about mapping apps on forums and Facebook Groups, and are now almost always mentioned as a potential solution. A lot of OnX's growth was likely attributed to newcomers to the off road scene driven by the corona virus pandemic. OnX's simple, and non-intimidating user interface (compared to Gaia at least) likely played a big part in the growth of the Off Road app as well.


Freemium Version OnX does offer a free 7 day trial, which provides access to all OnX Off Road features. If you want to keep using the app you'll need to purchase a subscription.


Premium Subscription vs Elite

OnX offers Premium ($29.99/ year) and Elite subscriptions ($99.99/ year). Both versions off core features such as offline maps, trail details, tracking, crating waypoints, multi-device syncing, and more. The Elite subscription does include property boundaries, landowner names, and the ability to download GPX files of featured trails. In our humble opinion, this seems like a steep price to pay for features that aren't really that impressive, especially when you consider that Gaia offers all of these options in their standard subscription tier.

To see the complete list of features included in each subscription tier, check out: https://www.onxmaps.com/offroad/app/pricing


Basemaps & Map Layers OnX Off Road is really a combination of a content company (info on specific trails) and a mapping application. We'll touch upon the invaluable information about trails below, but let's start with basemap layers. As of 2022, Gaia features two basemap layers: Topo and

Satellite. To be fair, there is a third Hybrid mode, which blends the two layers together. We're not a huge fan of OnX's Topo map, as it isn't the isn't to read and doesn't contain the level of detail and information of the various basemaps that can be found in Gaia.


OnX features two map layers: Trails and Active Wildfires (more for premium subscribers like private land). This leaves a lot to be desired as you might imagine, but OnX makes up for it with their trails layer. OnX has relied heavily on crowdsourcing through its Trail Guides program (interest name choice... ) to create an extensive library of off road trails throughout the United States and Canada (and to a lesser extent Baja). We love the trail library as each trails provides a technical rating (the same one we use on the site), a short description, photos, recommended vehicle types and seasons. The amount of information that OnX provides about trails is worth the annual subscription alone. The one thing we're not a fan of is the cluttered nature of trails map layer when toggled on. The green and blue highlights create an unwelcome juxtaposition against the basemap layers. We also feel that OnX could do a better job curating trails, as it seems they've chosen quantity over quality.


Route Creation

When we first started working on this article, OnX didn't feature a route builder tool. Well, as of Fall 2022 OnX features a snap-to-trail route development tool similar to Gaia. We haven't spent a ton of time playing with it, but it definitely seems promising and helps bring OnX to closer parity with Gaia as a pure mapping application.




Multi-device Support and Syncing OnX's multi-device syncing seems to work rather flawlessly. With Gaia, it's painfully obvious this is something that needs to be improved upon. But when the content you've created or uploaded on a device shows up using the app on another device, it becomes an afterthought-- the way it should be. In addition to OnX's multi-device support, the content organization via the use of folders is much easier to manage compared to Gaia. Perhaps this is due to the intuitive user interface and the fact that new content syncs over in near real-time, but we feel that someone coming from OnX over to Gaia will become frustrated with Gaia's sub-par content organization tools (also folders) and the latency associated with multi-device syncing.


Pros

  • Try before you buy: Free Version

  • Easy to use and intuitive user interface

  • Folder and filing system is easy to use

  • Seamless multi-device syncing

  • Offline Maps

  • New route builder tool

  • Record tracks & add waypoints along your trip

  • Extensive library of detailed trail descriptions

Cons

  • Freemium version expires after 7 days

  • Very limited map layers and overlays

  • Topographic basemap leaves a lot to be desired

  • Cluttered map view when trail overlay is turned on

  • GPX downloads not available for standard subscription

  • No support for international travel outside of Canada and Mexico



Copyright 2022, Overland Trail Guides


10,135 views2 comments

2 Comments


Unknown member
Feb 28

I am a SxS user and frankly onX sucks, it has no USFS MVUM overlay. OnX combines 4x4 with SXS which essentially makes OnX useless.

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Unknown member
Nov 01, 2023

I have been curious about GAIA for a long time, but have so far stuck with OnX pro version for the last several years. I travel the country and boondock camp for my work as a biologist, so I pretty much overland for a living. On average I use OnX a couple of times a day.


To be clear, OnX is a very useful program. It was mind-blowing when it came out, but mostly because it had landownership data and offline functionality. Those features are no longer unique. Add in the fact that that the company has never shown an interest in really refining it's mapping abilities. It is notorious for frequent crashing, lag time, limited feature editing, no custom…


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