Bushwhacking with GPS Phone Apps

Hiking off-trail in the midwest can often be more rewarding than sticking to the beaten path. Established trails commonly do not visit the best features of an area, or simply do not exist. Finding your way to new places that few seldom visit is both challenging and addicting. However, it’s nice to do so without getting lost – and maximize time by taking the most direct path where possible.

If you are new to the concept of GPS on your phone check out this article to learn the basics. I use the app GiaGPS, often in conjunction with CALTOPO for research and planning at home. Always remember to pre-download maps for the area you will be hiking in and turn on airplane mode once there. I also keep a small (lipstick size) battery bank & compass in my pack just in case.

To navigate I utilize pre-decided waypoints or create them on the fly. Simply drop a waypoint where you want to go, then select it and choose “guide me”. The bottom of the screen will show the bearing and distance to the waypoint. Using the compass displayed near the top of the app, rotate your phone until it matches the bearing below. This will be your direction of travel.

There should be no other items in the immediate vicinity of the phone. A portable charger plugged in to and touching the phone will interfere with its compass. It’s also possible to accidently hide the app’s compass by tapping it.

It can be tempting to try and make virtual trails in your mind that gradually follow the contour of the land but unless plotted beforehand, this can add many unexpected miles to your journey. Unless there is actually a barrier in your way, it’s always going to be more efficient to hike directly to your destination. However, if it’s possible to utilize old roads to reach your destination it makes sense to incorporate them.

Even when trying to hike in a straight line, it’s often easier said than done. The contour of the land, water crossings and maneuvering through dense forest can make it all but impossible. When taking a bearing with your phone, identify something in the direction you want to go as far as you can reasonably see. A pine in a mostly deciduous forest, large standing dead wood or any rock formations make excellent mini waypoints. Hike directly for it in as straight a line possible. Once there, check your phone for an updated bearing and repeat. The more you can cut down on zig zagging and curves, the more efficient you’ll be off-trail.

GiaGPS also has a public land layer for premium accounts (currently $49.99 / year) . In addition to showing boundaries of the land you are hiking in, this is very useful to indicate private property that exists inside those boundaries. It’s common in the midwest for small houses to even large large farms to be completely encircled in national forest.