An Ode to Maps: Using Gaia GPS to Plan the Ultimate Summer Vacation

Hiking in the high country of Yosemite

We caught wind that Bend, Oregon local Chaney Swiney ( was planning a "Summer Away" as he calls it, and knew we needed to team up with him for some planning insights. As a naturalist, photographer, and cartographer, Chaney has fine-tuned his approach to mapping out his outdoor activities. Below represents just a fraction of his epic trip. Check out the full account at

The Summer Away. That’s what I called it in my head. That was the dream becoming reality in the form of six weeks of travel all across the U.S. I had stepped away from my job, and my wife Kathryn had an upcoming school break as a teacher; so the opportunity was there. All we had to do was take it, and take it we did. We booked flights, built a sleeping platform for our car, packed up, and set out near the end of June.

This was a trip in four parts. The first leg of adventure took us to Alaska for a week and a half. The second was a cross-country drive from Oregon to Tennessee via Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Part three gave us time to rest a bit while still exploring in our home state before getting back in the car for part four: the return from Tennessee to Bend via Grand Teton and Yellowstone.

Sunset from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Before any of this could happen, though, I needed to call on my ever-faithful sidekick: maps.

Whenever I’m planning a trip, the first resource I call on is a map. Even if it’s somewhere I know, somewhere I’ve been before, I still want to look at a map. The act helps me see the place, orient myself, and begin to form ideas about what to do when my personal latitude and longitude will fall within the borders before me. Pouring over a map inspires wanderlust, cements place names in my memory, and teaches me the lay of the land so that whenever I’m wherever this is I’m ready to go. Paper and digital maps are always welcome. Each group has its own benefits and drawbacks. As long as the maps are clean, well designed, and easy to read, I will put them to work.

One map resource that has quickly risen in prominence in my planning process is Gaia GPS (recently featured in a Cairn Collection). The NPS Visitor and National Geographic Trails Illustrated map layers were particularly handy in laying out a trip that included visits to nine national parks. I browsed the Yosemite high country for trails we hadn’t yet hiked, scanned the Kaibab National Forest for good campsites outside Grand Canyon, and panned around Grand Teton trying to pinpoint where solitude might be found in midsummer. Toggling through the many available layers (let’s not forget the USGS Topo maps and their endless assistance) made it a snap to explore trip ideas and come up with options for when we arrived.

One of the highlights of the Alaskan leg of our adventure was the time we spent in Kenai Fjords National Park. I’d visited once before, but the memories my ten-year-old mind recorded weren’t much to go off of. If you aren’t familiar with a park, and I certainly wasn’t familiar with Kenai Fjords, it can be easy to get disoriented, particularly when you’re on a boat for eight hours. No problem. The night before our cruise from Seward to Northwestern Fjord and back, I turned on the NPS Visitor layer in the app and saved the park map for offline use. The next day, out on the boat and far from any semblance of cell service, I could easily check our location, the names of the islands on which I was spotting birds and sea lions, and the names of major glaciers off in the distance. Knowing where I am always enriches my experience, and that day I was never in doubt.

Kenai Fjords

Kenai Fjords National Park

In Tennessee, Gaia was called upon once again in the on-the-fly planning process of a one-night backpacking trip in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We had a Friday-to-Saturday window in the middle of July, meaning we’d be in the country’s most-visited national park in the middle of summer on a weekend. Not exactly the ideal time to be there for silence, solitude, and wilderness unless you know where to look. Out on the western boundary of the park, near the lowest elevations and far from the major roads, there is a network of trails and backcountry campsites that sees far less use than the Smokies’ more popular areas. This was the target, but where exactly should we hike? Which camp should be our destination? I spent a good portion of five years exploring this park, but I’d only hiked one trail in this particular corner. Using Gaia, I was able to easily compare our options by creating routes within the app. I could pick the trailhead, then add points along the way and Gaia found the trails in between, added up the distances, and provided an elevation profile to boot. I quickly settled on an option, booked the permits for campsite #17 online, and a few days later we were on trail heading up Abrams Creek.

Our camp on the quiet side of the Smokies

Get a map. Don’t just look at photos on Instagram and read trail reports or lists of the best campsites. Those are fine guides, but no substitute for a good look at the landscape you’re itching to see. Spend some time perusing the topography in two dimensions before you see it in three. Learn the names of the peaks and lakes, the rivers and campgrounds. Let the contour lines guide your imagination to dreams of a canyon or summit, let the alpine valleys without trails inspire visions of unexplored wilderness. A map will never give you a full preview of a place. It can’t. If it could, there would be little reason to go. A map can’t show you what the sunset will be like when you’re sitting on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It can’t tell you how the sound of the Savage River dancing over rapids will fill your ears as you walk away from the road on a long Alaskan evening. It can’t show the spot you’ll be standing when you see the wolf across the valley or the ensuing emotions that will stir within you as you swell with gratitude that Yellowstone was made the world’s first national park.

A map, can, however, help you plan where to be. It can show you what’s accessible, what’s possible, what potential a given landscape holds. I’m already planning my next adventure, and I’ve already got routes lined out in Gaia. When the time comes to hit the trail, I’ll be ready.

Written by guest blogger and friend of Cairn, Chaney Swiney.

How do you put maps (paper or digital) to use when plotting your adventures? Ever get stuck without a map? What did you do? Tell us in the comments!