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The Short Version: When Anna and Andrew Johnson founded a trail search site, TrailBehind Inc., their main objective was to enjoy each other’s company and explore a shared passion for the outdoors. That led them to launch the app Gaia GPS during the dawn of mobile applications in 2009. Since then, the app, team, and synced trails have expanded to serve more than 130,000 users each month. Gaia GPS is often featured in the news and loyal users — including couples — can’t get enough of the app, and sing its praises both on the mountain range and in online reviews.
When Gaia GPS creators Anna and Andrew Johnson met, they connected over their shared love of the outdoors. In fact, their first date was on a hike.
According to Ashli Baldwin, Support Manager and Developer at Gaia GPS, Anna was the one who was big into hiking at first. On their first date, Andrew remembers spending most of the time completely out of breath trying to keep up with her. As their love grew, so did their passion for finding new trails to explore together. They began to go on more hikes, which led them to discuss a way that would help them discover new paths and track their adventures.
“They quickly realized that there was nothing on the market to help them plan trips. They looked for a tool but couldn’t find anything — so they ended up creating a solution,” Ashli said. “They were both developers, so, naturally, they decided to design an app — Gaia GPS — to help them.”
As Gaia GPS’ CEO, Andrew designs and develops much of the user interface and leads the company’s business and marketing efforts. Before co-founding TrailBehind, Inc. — the parent company of Gaia GPS — Andrew had worked in marketing under the CEO of SureLogic, a venture-backed startup spun out of Carnegie Mellon University. Anna, meanwhile, was the architect of TrailBehind systems and, prior to that, had worked at Google and Silicon Age as a software engineer. Today, as Chief Technology Officer for Gaia GPS, Anna has been one of the primary developers on nearly every project at the company.
Jesse Crocker, a partner and co-founder of Gaia GPS, is credited with developing large tracks of the Gaia GPS app — including map servers and infrastructure. Prior to joining Gaia GPS, Jesse worked as a ski patroller in the Sierras, helping with avalanche control.
What began as a shared love for nature and backpacking translated into an app that has made a huge impact on the mapping industry, and helped create many loving relationships, friendships, and opportunities for meaningful memories.
Gaia GPS users include nature lovers, record-holding backpackers, search and rescue personnel, firefighters, Geographic Information System teams, among others.
Ashli believes that part of what makes Gaia GPS appeal to such a wide range of users is the fact that the app offers offline mapping and specialized tracking features. In some cases, users may not realize they don’t need to have cellphone service to take advantage of these features.
“They think that maps are useless if they are hiking somewhere out of cellphone service. But that’s not the case,” Ashli said. “We actually let people download these maps onto their phones before they leave, and your phone has a GPS chip in it, so as long as you download this map, your phone will know where you are, and it can show you on the map without any cellphone or internet service.”
Another exciting Gaia GPS feature allows users to record and track an entire hike. Users can also take pictures, log distance information, and share their exact route with others. Power users tend to enjoy these features because they provide the opportunity to share new routes and adventures with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts.
Gaia GPS Hiking App and Hiking Maps are accessible on iOS and Android as well as its website.
The website also serves as a handy extension of the app and allows for seamless syncing and data backup between the site and mobile devices. Users may also view online maps, manage data, search for trips, and create snap-to-trail routes that sync directly back to their devices.
Ashli and the entire team at Gaia GPS are proud of the fact that so many professional groups have come to rely on the app — especially those in the search and rescue community. Ashli said that knowing the app helps save lives gives her a feeling of satisfaction.
“I was just traveling and ran into a search and rescue group during a training, and I asked them if they wanted to try the app out. And they were already using it.” Ashli told us. “They raved about how user-friendly it is and how much money they’re saving by using Gaia GPS. Plus, we give the search and rescue community a nice discount.”
In addition to his role as a backcountry guide, Jonathan Preuss also serves as a search and rescue volunteer. He recalls the time he received an emergency call for a hiker lost on Devil’s Bedstead East in Idaho. He immediately opened the Gaia GPS.
“I saw the search come in, pulled up my Gaia app, made sure I had that map saved, and turned around and went back to the trailhead,” he said.
This story had a happy ending, as documented on the Gaia GPS blog. “A helicopter flew by shortly after the call and spotted the missing hiker, but, by that point, Jonathan had already started up the trail. The ability to quickly access digital maps from a mobile device allows search and rescue volunteers like Preuss to respond quickly and more accurately than ever before.”
Gaia GPS users say that membership has its benefits. With options suited to fit couples who hike occasionally or frequently, Gaia GPS goes above and beyond to help them find the right experience.
Members can choose to access the default map on the app for free. The default map is limited to one source — Gaia Topo, and members can download maps for offline use.
Ashli said that Gaia GPS shines for people who go into the backcountry. “Gaia GPS has better maps and GPS features, and offers all features under its basic membership for $19.99 per year, with additional maps,” she said.
Membership includes unlimited downloads and access to dozens of map sources. The free app gives you server backup of all tracks, photos, and other data. Gaia GPS makes it easy to record data, share trips, and back it all up. It also offers an array of backcountry navigation features and customizable settings.
A Gaia GPS Premium membership costs $39.99 per year and is designed for users who want access to the world’s best collection of specialized maps and overlays that can be applied to any map.
Gaia GPS user Kalen Thorien describes herself as a big mountain skier and adventurer, and she finds the app easy to use and worth the money. “Gaia GPS App — get it. This easily is the handiest maps program and GPS that won’t break the bank. Download and offline topo and imagery, set waypoints, track your progress, and find your location even if you don’t have service — all from your phone,” she said in a testimonial on the site.
Gaia GPS users can sign up for a free newsletter to stay on top of all membership and product enhancements.
What started as one couple’s desire to experience the outdoors together is steadily becoming one of the most popular GPS apps on the market. Gaia GPS has seen remarkable growth in sales as more people choose the app as their main resource for getting the most of the outdoors.
“This is a really exciting year for us. Over the last six months, our active users have doubled to more than 131,000 per month. Largely, our users range from 20 to 60 years old,” Ashli said. “It’s exciting to see the community around this app grow. I’m always surprised to hear about all of the different groups of people who are using the app — both domestically and internationally.”
The Gaia GPS team may be small, but they put their souls into the work they do. As outdoor enthusiasts themselves, they get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that the app impacts lives in meaningful and life-saving ways. Ashli told us that the team is committed to providing top-notch customer service and wants users to enjoy their experience with Gaia GPS.
“Our goal is to make the app as accessible as possible. So we want to make the onboarding experience really easy for all users — from when they download the app to when they go on their trip,” she said. “That’s what we’re focusing on this year — especially with all of our user growth. We really want to make sure that everyone has a good, fun, and easy experience.”