Hike Prep: Transferring Data from a Map to Gaia GPS

GPS apps like Gaia GPS have become a staple in the modern hiking community. Not only are they affordable (Gaia premium is $40 per year), but they work with any smartphone. GPS apps don’t add any extra weight to your backpack, making them particularly attractive to ultralight hikers. For certain hikes, you will have to transfer data from a map to Gaia GPS. 

Gaia is extremely helpful with navigation for established trails such as the Colorado Trail. Gaia is also an amazing tool for off-trail backpacking routes. However, for these trips, you must do extra work integrating hiking info into your Gaia map. As will be seen, this process is a great way to plan your hike and study the terrain. 

This tutorial covers the process of transferring a backpacking route from a paper map/information packet onto Gaia GPS. After this process is completed, your Gaia map will offer the same level of detail as an established trail.  

What is a Backpacking Route?

Backpacking routes are long hikes through remote regions that don’t follow a single established trail. Generally, backpacking routes follow rivers, washes, trails, roads, and ridges across public land. Unlike established trails like the Appalachian Trail, routes are not clearly marked. Popular backpacking routes include the Hayduke Trail and Sierra High Route.

Before hiking a route, it’s advisable to amass as much data as possible then integrate it onto a GPS platform like Gaia GPS or Garmin.

Consolidating Map Information

The hiking community has amassed a good amount of information for more popular backpacking routes. For example, ultralight backpacking pioneer Andrew Skurka developed information packets and map sets for trips such as the Wind River High Route and the Pfiffner Traverse

Information bundles such as those developed by Skurka provide data that can be transferred onto Gaia GPS to keep track of your location on a backpacking route. Popular items in the packets include topo maps, water tables, data books, and mileage charts. For purposes of this tutorial, we will focus on Skurka’s Hayduke bundle

Creating Areas on Gaia GPS

The first step in the process of migrating the Hayduke bundle onto Gaia GPS is to create areas. In this step, you create rectangular areas on Gaia GPS that match the size of the topo maps from an information bundle.

To begin the process, take each topo map and organize them in order of sections and map numbers. If you are only transferring a certain section from the Hayduke bundle onto Gaia, it’s best to grab those specific maps and set them aside. 

Next, you should access your Gaia GPS account with a device that has a large screen, such as a desktop, laptop, or tablet. Using a large screen will ensure you can find important details on the map such as ridgelines, rivers, and lakes. 

Before creating an area, you should figure out which map overlays you would like to work with. A combination of the National Geographic overlay, as well as a satellite images overlay, makes for a really detailed GPS experience. These two overlays give you a detailed glimpse of the landscape with real photographs, as well as man-made featured such as roads, trails, and campgrounds. 

With your maps in hand and your chosen overlays uploaded on Gaia GPS, you’re ready to start creating areas. 

Begin with the first map of the route (or chosen section) and compare it with the map on Gaia GPS. Look for identifiable features on the topo map, such as lakes and ridgelines, and locate them on the Gaia Map. Using these features, figure out the location of the paper topo map on the Gaia map. 

On the menu bar on Gaia, select the “create area” function. Find the corner of the paper map on Gaia and click on your mouse, this will create the first corner as you drag a line to the next. Repeat this process until you have a rectangle that matches the parameters of the paper map. To finish, choose the color of the map and label it with the same title as the map, such as “Section 1, Map 1.”

Repeat this process with every paper map for the section of the backpacking route you intend to hike. 

Adding Waypoints to Your Gaia GPS Route

The next step is to go through the Hayduke topo map set again and add important waypoints. These waypoints will directly mark the specifics of the hiking route, as well as important features such as water sources and campsites.

Before adding waypoints, choose a certain color that will represent data taken from the map set, and reserve a different color for pins you will “drop” along the hike. Taking this preemptive step will help you keep organized once the hike is underway. 

Go back to the map set and start with the beginning of the section you intend to hike. Follow along the route and add waypoints using the “add waypoints” from the menu bar. Move the waypoint to the correct spot (again following key points on the map like ridgelines) and label the point with the same name used on the map. 

Repeat this process until you’ve traced the predominant points on the map onto Gaia.

At this point, you should have a fairly detailed digital map of the route you intend to hike. The areas and waypoints together will offer a real-time readout of your location in relation to key parts of the backpacking route.

Route Alternatives and Personal Notes

Once you have added areas and waypoints to Gaia, it’s a good idea to go over the map and personalize it to your liking. To illustrate, as the Hayduke is a desert hike, it’s a good idea to clearly label all water sources. In this instance, labeling the water sources with a water drop icon or something similar will help you clearly identify the water from other waypoints. You can do a similar practice labeling town/resupplies with house icons.

Finally, you should mark alternative routes on your Gaia map in the event of bad weather or some other unforeseen circumstance. Again, it’s recommended you label alternatives with different color waypoints as the primary route. 


Transferring data from an information bundle to Gaia GPS is a great way to ensure you stay on course when hiking an off-trail backpacking route. Even more, the process of migrating the information from one medium to the next affords a great opportunity to study your hike end-to-end. With both of these factors at play, you can venture on your expedition with confidence in your navigation skills.


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