Gaia GPS user and self-proclaimed professional camper Emma Walker hates crowds. “You couldn’t walk 20 yards without stumbling into somebody’s campsite,” Walker said of her hike in the James Peak Wilderness this summer, “So we opened up the app, found the nearest lake without a trail leading to it, and made our way there.”
Walker scrambled through downed trees, swamps, and dense brush, following her position on the screen of her phone. “I’m a pretty confident navigator, but it would’ve been tough to manage with a paper map and compass,” said Walker. Her persistence paid off; after a mile and a half, she found prime camping at an alpine lake, surrounded by wildflowers instead of tents.
Walker grew up in Colorado but spent her graduate school years in the less developed frontier of Alaska, pursuing what she calls a “degree in camping,” a master of science in outdoor and environmental education. While getting that degree, Walker created a travel blog known as My Alaskan Odyssey where she continues to chronicle her backcountry adventures. She received her wilderness first responder and avalanche level 2 certifications, and “spent weeks at a time in remote mountain ranges and on glaciers,” eventually returning home to lead volunteers in the stewardship of public lands for Denver-based nonprofit Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado.
From Map to App
After growing up using a map and compass for navigation, Walker said it took her a long time to get used to a device. She first learned about Gaia GPS two years ago from instructors at the Alaska Avalanche School. “Now I’m rarely in the backcountry without it.”
When it comes to the outdoors, Walker always chases the authentic experience. She spent weeks a time in the remote mountain ranges of Alaska, and her bucket list includes paddling the Yukon River and ski mountaineering in the far reaches of Mongolia. Currently she’s training to get more comfortable with class 3 climbs like Washington’s Mt. Rainier and fostering stewardship and conservation.
Walker primarily uses Gaia to track her elevation change and distance on-trail and to plot her own routes in the remote backcountry, where Gaia’s overlays are a big asset. “Connecting tracks and routes to photos and multiple map layers gives such a better sense of what a place actually looks and feels like.” Many of the places that Walker explores are off the beaten path, so existing trip information isn’t plentiful.
“I love that Gaia creates a really three-dimensional navigating experience,” she said, referring to Gaia’s multiple features and overlays. Recently, she started using GaiaPro for tide information provided by NEXRAD weather overlays and NOAA nautical charts. She hasn’t used the feature in landlocked Colorado, “but it sure made a difference as we were hiking across Waipi’o Valley and sea kayaking in Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island.”
The Great Unknown
Walker will go to any lengths for privacy. On her latest adventure, an overnight hike into Waimanu Valley on Hawaii’s Big Island, she said “a local guidebook promised we’d be more likely to run into feral pigs than other backpackers.” A downpour and subsequent flooding ensured her her husband’s privacy and also put Gaia’s tide charts to good use.
For Walker, Gaia GPS is a way to catalogue and define the unknown. It offers more than navigation; it provides a map without borders, an adventure without a trail, and a campsite with the night sky for her only companion.
Read more about Emma Walker’s adventures in Alaska and beyond on her blog, My Alaskan Odyssey.