Thick hydride vapor phase epitaxial GaN layers are grown on metalorganic chemical vapor deposited GaN template layers as well as directly on sapphire, with the aim of investigating the effect of the template on the strain relaxation and spatial distribution of free carriers in the overgrown GaN films. Spatially resolved cross-sectional micro-Raman spectroscopy, cathodoluminescence, and transmission electron microscopy show improved crystalline quality for growth on metalorganic chemical vapor deposited GaN templates. The highly doped and highly defective near-substrate layer composed of columnar domains, typically present in hydride vapor phase epitaxial GaN films grown directly on sapphire, is absent in the layers grown on templates. Consequently, this results in elimination of the nonuniformities of free electron distribution, a lower residual free carrier concentration (<10¹⁷ cm⁻³), and improved strain relaxation. An erratum for this article appeared in Journal of applied physics, Vol. 90, Issue 12, pg. 6011-6016, and may be found at http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.1471940.