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Using Gaia for Search & Rescue

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Gaia is a navigation program for Apple and Android smartphones. It mimics the functionality of standalone GPS units, but then adds functionality utilizing the extra capabilities most phones include these days. There are lots of articles and youtube videos on how to use Gaia for trip planning and following trails and I won’t cover that here. This article is more about the use cases that Search & Rescue (SAR) teams typically use in a GPS. This article assumes some familiarity with using a standalone GPS and SAR practices, and then very little knowledge of Gaia. I use an Apple iPhone 11, so this article will feature screenshots from the Apple version, but the Android version should be similar.

Installation & Setup

You need to install and set up Gaia first before using. You don’t want to do this part at 3am on a callout. First you need to install Gaia GPS from the Apple App store. Search for “Gaia GPS” and then press the “Get” button to install it.

My screen says Open rather than Get because I already have Gaia installed.

Notice the second item is a subscription for more stuff. The crucial part for SAR is offline access. With the free level, you cannot download maps to use the program when you don’t have a cell data connection. For SAR this is a showstopper. If a SAR group uses Gaia, it probably has a team license and SAR management can provide you with a link that will connect you to the SAR account.

Create Account

After you install Gaia, the first time you run it, you will be prompted to create an account or link to your Facebook account. Use either method to create your Gaia account. This will give you basic access to the program. If your SAR group provided a link to click to connect to their account, you can do that now to connect your Gaia account to the SAR account to get full access. If you don’t have this, then you will need to buy a premium subscription account.

Download Maps for Offline Use

The next thing to do is to download a map of your search region so you can use Gaia offline. The default map is Gaia Topo which is fine for most purposes. If you want to use a different map or set of overlays, you need to select these first before downloading as this process will only process the active map. To download the map, click the ⊕ symbol at the top of the screen.

Select “Download Maps”. This then goes to a map with a resizable rectangle that you can expand to your entire search region. In my case the Sunshine Coast:

You probably also want to do this for any regions you travel to for mutual aid, in my case I’ll download Powell River, Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton and the North Shore. I’m not going to talk about overlays in this article, but if you want these included, they must be selected and active before you choose to download. The file downloaded can be quite large so you need some space on your phone. I would recommend having 1Gig free for maps, which if you have a newer phone, shouldn’t be a big deal. Also perform the download while connected to a good Wifi connection so it is faster and you don’t use up your monthly data cap. If maps overlap, Gaia is reasonably smart and won’t download duplicate data so you don’t need to be careful in how you tile these (ie there is no penalty for overlapping maps).

Configure Units

Next go into “Settings”, the important part is that the units are correct for your purposes.

In SAR, you will probably need to return to this menu repeatedly. Often on a search we need both UTM and lat/long coordinates and have to return here to switch back and forth. If we are working with Marine SAR then we may want to use nautical distance units for that particular search. If we travel to the US for mutual aid, we may even need to use Imperial units.

Power Saving

You should also check the power options. I turn off the option to keep the screen on, as this wastes battery. I need to record tracks, but for the most part my phone lives in my pocket and I’m not looking at the screen.


As you use Gaia, your phone is going to ask security questions, which you generally want to allow. A key one is you want to allow Gaia to always be able to access the GPS, if you choose the option to only access the GPS when using the app, then you are going to have holes in your GPS tracks when you switch to other apps, say to send a message or answer an email.

Basic Usage

Recording a Track

SAR Management always requires a recording of where you traveled so these can all be combined in a master map showing search coverage. The standard for providing these is a GPX file. There is an “Record” button in the upper left of the screen. Remember to hit this before heading out on your search. When recording it changes to a timer showing how long it’s been recording. When you return to command, tap this box again and choose “Finish Track”. It’s a good idea to give this track a meaningful name on the next screen. It will then show you the track. Tap the three dots in the upper right to get a menu:

Select export and then GPX. Next choose eMail and enter the email address of your SAR manager. Much easier than doing this with a standalone GPS.

If you want to include pictures with this file, then you need to save the track and all the pictures in the same folder. To do this create a new folder before starting out and then save everything for the day to this folder. This may or may not be helpful.

Getting my Position

Of course you can get your current position from the phone’s compass app, this is handy to copy to a text and send, but is in lat/long and not very easy to read out over a radio. In SAR we tend to use an abbreviated form of UTM coordinates, so we can give our location over our radio using six digits. You can configure Gaia to show your location by tapping one of the three info boxes at the top and choosing coordinates in one of them.

Then on the radio, I can give my position as 632733. In reality, our radios transmit our location back to command on a regular basis, so I haven’t had to do this on a real callout, but this was frequently requested during training exercises.

Setting a Waypoint

If you hit the ⊕ sign at the top of the screen, you have two ways to create a waypoint.

Scenario one is to enter a marker of where you found a clue or a point you want to make note of for some reason, in this case choose “Add Waypoint (My Location)” and then enter a meaningful title and description.

The other scenario is SAR Management radioing you and asking you to go to some point on the map. The easy way to do this is to hit plus, choose “Add Waypoint”, then the next screen defaults to your current coordinates, that you can edit to the coordinates you’ve been given. Next enter a description, then the waypoint will appear on the map and you can figure out how to get to it.

Once you create a waypoint, if you tap it, you can tap the info icon and open it, from here you can add notes, or even ask Gaia to guide you to the waypoint. You can also edit the waypoint if you need to move it or rename it.


This was a quick start to Gaia for SAR practitioners. Gaia is a large and sophisticated program, where we only touched on a few aspects of what it can do. The best way to learn a program is to use it and to experiment with it. You don’t want the first time you do something to be during a stressful search in the middle of the night. Gaia isn’t meant to completely replace standalone GPS’s, but a key to SAR success is redundancy so if one piece of equipment fails, you aren’t stuck. Often the cell program is easiest to use, since it has extra functionality like being able to email your track in to command.

Written by smist08

March 5, 2021 at 11:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. […] GPS: I blogged on Gaia GPS last week. One of the good general GPS programs for […]

  2. […] can work when out of coverage. Trailforks is a good choice here. More full featured GPS apps like Gaia or ViewRanger are great, but you need to purchase a yearly subscription to download their maps. […]

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