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I love the feeling of going to the mountains. The static of life in the city fades away. The challenge of moving through rugged landscapes brings me out of my head and into my body. I love long days on the trail where time slows down and the Experience lives in my memory for years. I created the alpenflo project to share my passion for seeking an authentic life through outdoor Experience.

how-to: backcountry route planning - part III, favorite tools

Welcome to the third and last part of a series on backcountry route planning, where we’re learning tools to plan custom backcountry trips.

So far we’ve covered:

part I. trip planning using Caltopo and Gaia GPS

part II. taking notes and saving your trip history

Today we’ll look at some of my favorite tools for trip planning and navigation afield: Caltopo, Gaia GPS, Topo Maps! and Avenza Maps. The summary below will give you an idea of what tool suits your backcountry aspirations best.

Note: pricing information current as of May 2019

summary of favorite tools


The core of my backcountry planning process. I use Caltopo to research trips, create maps, prepare pdfs to print, and keep track of all my notes for past and future backcountry trips.

  • primary use: planning, sharing maps, printing maps, database for trip notes

  • platform: web app for desktop and mobile

  • good:

    • excellent ability overlay information and customize maps

    • easy (and free) to share and collaborate

  • bad:

    • desktop only (mobile web app available, but useless offline)

    • long learning curve for some features

  • Cost:

Caltopo subscription levels, click table for details

Caltopo subscription levels, click table for details


Alongside paper maps, my primary tool for backcountry navigation.

  • primary use: backcountry navigation and notes

  • platform: iOS and Android mobile apps, web app for desktop

  • good:

    • wide variety of maps available (though this is limited by subscription tier)

    • easy to download maps and use offline (with subscription)

    • web app enables easy upload/download of gpx files

  • bad:

    • requires subscription to be useful

    • slope-angle and Nat Geo Trails Illustrated layers require top-tier subscription

  • Cost:

Gaia GPS subscription levels, click table for current pricing on Gaia Website

Gaia GPS subscription levels, click table for current pricing on Gaia Website


Allows offline viewing of Caltopo PDFs on your phone

  • primary use: backcountry navigation and notes

  • platform: iOS and Android mobile apps

  • good:

    • allows viewing of Caltopo maps in the backcountry

    • free to upload up to 3 of your own maps

  • bad:

    • requires subscription for >3 maps

    • pdf map files are larger than equivalent Gaia map files

    • maps purchased through Avenza app are expensive

  • Cost:

Avenza Maps subscription levels, click table to view pricing on Avenza’s website

Avenza Maps subscription levels, click table to view pricing on Avenza’s website


Excellent, cheap tool to get you started

  • primary use: backcountry navigation and notes

  • platform: iOS mobile app

  • good:

    • Cheap ($7.99 one-time)

    • solid offline topo-map functionality

  • bad:

    • USGS Quad and Canadian Government topo are only map layers

    • limited features (no track recording)

    • downloading maps for offline use is cumbersome

  • Cost: $7.99 one-time

  • More info: topomapsapp.com


That’s it for the series! If you followed along I hope you’ve found some tools and techniques that will help you craft your own adventures, or at the very least avoid looking like this guy:

John lost in Canyonlands

John lost in Canyonlands

If you have questions or comments about the process, leave a note in the comments or shoot me a message via the contact page.

Alright enough screentime, go kick up some dust!