The Best Map Apps for the Alps

Storm navigation using a phone’s map app

Without a doubt, one of the most important tools in the Alps, or any mountain range, is a map. You’ll need maps for understanding the region, ideas, planning, fixing your itinerary, navigating, changing plans, getting out of trouble, etc. Maps are critical for the experience, and in the Alps, specifically the Swiss Alps, the maps are hands down the best in the world. They are beautifully detailed, precise and thankfully, readily available from powerful mapping apps for your phone and in the browser.

We strongly encourage you to use a map app while in the Swiss Alps and have your routes available for offline use.

Getting lost in the Alps is easy. Not in the stumbling around where am I? kind of way, but in the uh oh I took the wrong trail 3km back version. The Alps are a maze of trails, and while the signage is mostly great, the names may not be helpful. You might be headed to Kandersteg but the sign presents you with Chilchbalm, Sefinafurgga, and Schilthorn. That’s right, pull out the phone.

I keep three mapping apps on my phone. Not because three are needed for the Alps, but because I also travel outside the Alps and each offers unique and valuable tools that come with the paid versions, which is what we’re looking at in this review. All three offer free versions but without key functionality, notably the ability to download SwissTopo maps for offline use. Your maps must load when offline and should be tested, especially prior to glacier travel.

While in Switzerland, the SwissTopo maps are mandatory as many route descriptions will use elevation markers and names from these maps. Each of the suggested apps use SwissTopo, and while there is also a SwissMap app available, it is not a fully featured app with the ability to create and save routes. However, it does have other advantages by offering finer detail and ski tour routes. The annual subscription is SFr.38/year but unless you are often in the Alps, I recommend one of these three best phone map apps.

Switzerland Mobility

Switzerland Mobility is a fully featured app for SwissTopo. For most users, especially visitors, it’s far more useful than the Swiss Map app. The app works perfectly and has a solid toolkit for what you need for use throughout Switzerland.

Thanks to the use of Swiss Topos and an easy to use interface, we use Switzerland Mobility to present our tours on ALPSinsight: The Alps Mountain Sport Resource and Elevation : The Alps Trail & Peak Running Resource.

SFr. 35/year : Visit Switzerland Mobility

Advantages

  • Offers SwissTopo
  • Very fast locating position
  • Quick loading maps
  • Offline map use for routes
  • Creating and saving routes works flawlessly in the browser and decent in the app
  • Offers official routes for hiking, snowshoeing, XC skiing, and cycling
  • Overlay available for public transportation info to get you to the nearest bus or train stop
  • Overlays for 30°+ slopes, accommodations and services

Disadvantages

  • Only works for Switzerland

FATMAP

FATMAP is Google Earth for mountain sports and certainly the most modern interface for maps and the tools we now have available. It is by far the app I am most excited about. While we’ve been using FATMAP for a few years, it is in the last year that they have really shined. Updates and new features are being implemented that make this the app you must have on your phone for playing in the mountains, and always open in your browser for dreaming and planning.

What sets FATMAP apart is hi-resolution 3D imagery with trails and landmarks. And for several western mountain countries, topo overlays for the beautiful 3D maps. Add to this a collection of useful mapping tools, user generated and curated tours for several sports, winter specific info, even webcams, and you have the most fully featured, and fun, map app available.

A little insider tip… I’ve worked with FATMAP on some projects and have been using a very soon to be released new version that includes some major updates and functionality. Keep an eye out for what’s coming.

FATMAP’s available tools for map presentation

€30/year : Visit FATMAP

Advantages

  • Offers 3D SwissTopo maps
  • Works globally and includes map overlays for many mountain countries 
  • Create and save routes in the browser
  • Customized downloadable maps
  • Offers both community content and curated specialty guidebooks for core mountain sports
  • Numerous valuable tools and offers
    • Terrain tools
    • Snow reports and forecasting
    • Webcams
    • Summer and winter maps

Disadvantages

  • Occasional oddities in the 3D imagery and topo maps
  • No topo maps available for many destinations, 3D imagery only.

Gaia GPS

Thanks to what Switzerland Mobility and FATMAP offer, I don’t use Gaia in Switzerland. All three use the same SwissTopo maps and both Switzerland Mobility and FATMAP provide more features. But, since many visitors might already be using Gaia, and it includes SwissTopo, Gaia may well be the simple solution for the Swiss Alps.

But I do use Gaia outside Switzerland when I need simple topo maps in places like the Himalaya, Kyrgyzstan or Greece. The app includes a huge range of map options for different global destinations. When used in conjunction with FATMAP, you’ll have both 3D imagery and topo maps readily available.

Membership $20/year | Premium $36/year : Visit Gaia GPS

Advantages

  • Offers SwissTopo
  • Works globally and includes numerous map overlays for a huge range of countries 
  • Create and save routes, in the browser or in app
  • Record your tracks in app

Disadvantages

  • Recommended tours not top quality
  • Additional fees for ski and mountain bike mapping tools

Summary

Best Phone Apps for Mountain Sports Abroad

The way I see it, everyone who plays in the mountains needs at least two of these apps, and FATMAP needs to be one of the two. Spend a lot of time in the Swiss Alps? Switzerland Mobility is an inevitable purchase. Travel the greater ranges? Gaia is going to need to be on your phone.

I spend a lot of time in Nepal and use FATMAP and Gaia side by side. Gaia’s topo map provides basic info, but FATMAP’s imagery, and the ability to zoom and change perspective, lets me really explore and better understand the place.

Side by side comparison of FATMAP’s map image of Namche Bazaar with Gaia’s topo map of the same area.
Gaia’s topo map with Namche Bazaar shown

Using map apps can be resource intensive, carry a spare battery for charging. Paper map backups should also be considered in alpine zones and for glacier travel.

Finally, be very familiar with and truly know how to use your chosen app before you actually need it. “Needing it” may come in the form of “relying” on it. Moving through the mountain environment can be serious business. Taking the time to learn how your tools work is time well spent.

By Dan Patitucci

Navigation time! Do you have a phone map app at the ready? And, do you know how to use it?

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