Map apps and digital maps

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Map apps

Map apps with digital maps are available for mobile phones, tablets and laptops. The GPS function on the device shows the current location on the selected map.  In effect it operates the same as a handheld GPS.

Google Maps is the everyday example of a map app. However Google Maps “terrain view” has limited detail for bushwalking purposes.

Other map apps provide much better topographic maps for bushwalking, from a variety of sources.

A map app with suitable topographic maps can be of assistance when planning a trip, especially when used on a tablet or laptop with a larger screen. Key points along a route; track junctions, campsites, summits and other points of interest can be saved (waypoints).  These can be shared with other group members. Most map apps allow file saving in Google Maps/Google Earth format, so the information can be shared to everyone in the group. These waypoints can be used on the trip, either on the same device, or by copying the file in the appropriate format to a mobile phone or a handheld GPS.

A map app can download the track log from a GPS, for viewing on a map, provided the necessary cables or other connection method is available.  

Some map apps have sophisticated features that the more technically minded user will enjoy. As with any software, practice is needed to learn to use the app effectively.  This learning should occur prior to the trip, ideally when planning it.

If it is intended to use a map app during a trip, the necessary map or maps should be downloaded prior to the trip. Accessing maps on-line during a trip requires mobile phone coverage and a data connection, and consumes precious battery power.  Maps can be very large files, so the device needs to have sufficient storage capacity.

This is only a brief overview of map apps.  Detailed instructions on the use of any particular map app can be readily found on-line.

Some notes of caution

  • Do not rely solely on a map app for navigation on a trip.
    • The small screen size of a mobile phone (or handheld GPS) is a significant limitation for map reading.
    • A touch screen becomes very difficult or impossible to use in cold or wet weather.
    • The device may be lost, broken or have a flat battery. 
  • A map app will not suggest a route.
  • We take for granted that Google Maps and other apps and GPS devices designed for use on the road network will select the best route along roads.
  • A map app CANNOT select or suggest a route along tracks.  

Features to consider when choosing a map app:

  • Cost: 
    • A free version?
    • To purchase: upfront charge or a subscription? A free trial option?
    • Option to upgrade to a fully featured version at additional cost?
    • Allows use on multiple devices?
  • Does the app suit the user’s skill level?  
  • What range of topographic maps or map series are available? Are some or all suitable for bushwalking?
  • What is the cost of individual maps or map series? Good maps do have to be paid for, generally.
  • Can maps be imported?
  • Can maps purchased in-app be used in other apps? (usually not)
  • Can individual maps, or map areas be downloaded to the device?  This is essential, so the app can be used when mobile phone coverage is not available on a trip. It also reduces the drain on the phone battery.  Sufficient storage capacity on the device is required.

Map app settings

Map app settings can be hard to find  If the map app is to be used on a trip to aid navigation, some useful settings are:

  • Map orientation: direction of travel up (oriented), or north up.
  • Map datum
  • Units
  • Compass bearings: true or magnetic
  • Tracking (GPS track log), turn on/off, save
  • Ease of downloading and uploading waypoints and track logs from a handheld GPS
  • Disable screen timeout. The map screen stays on; very useful when navigating especially in difficult conditions. However, it flattens the device battery much more quickly. 

Some Map apps:

Avenza

OS Maps

Terra

Ozi Explorer

  • OziExplorer Web Site – GPS Mapping Software for Tracking and Navigation
  • Supports Garmin and Magellan GPS

Google Maps

“Google Maps” is the ubiquitous, readily available map app, and the occasional user is probably better off using it.  The  “terrain view” contour map has limited detail compared to the topographic maps available in other map apps.

Google Map settings have provision for selected map areas to be downloaded to the  device. This should be done prior to the trip, as mobile phone coverage may not be available on the trip, and battery drain is reduced. The phone can then be used in flight mode.

The “terrain” view is generally the best to download  For some trips the “satellite” view may also be useful, but those files are particularly large.

The settings in Google Maps have some other useful options.  Map orientation can be set to either north up or direction of travel (oriented) up. 

North Up hint: if north up is selected, when using two fingers to zoom in and out it is easy to accidentally rotate the map, moving it away from north up.  This can be confusing. Tapping the small compass symbol at top right of the screen will return the map to ‘north up’.

Paper maps

Do not rely solely on digital maps and a map app on a trip.

  • The small screen size of a mobile phone (or handheld GPS) is a significant limitation for map reading.
  • A touch screen becomes very difficult or impossible to use in cold or wet weather.
  • The device may be lost, broken or have flat batteries.

Paper maps should always be carried in the group as a backup if a map app is being used as the primary means of navigation.

Apps for Iconic Trips

Walking guides in the form of a mobile phone app for a specific iconic or classic walk are available. These apps typically provide information that can be downloaded for off-line use, including a GPS route/track log and notes on campsites, water points, track conditions, etc.

Some digital guides include information and comments from recent users.

Some walkers will find such apps useful.  Others may feel that a GPS breadcrumb trail can encourage a form of navigation very similar to using a vehicle GPS to get to a destination; following a route without reference to landmarks, interesting locations or the fun of route finding.

If a change from the track log route provided by the app is desired or forced, for example due to weather, closed tracks or an accident, the app will not provide an alternative route.  This is different to a vehicle GPS, where the provision of alternative route options on the road network are the norm. 

As noted in the Map and Compass Basics, a paper map and compass and the ability to use them is essential – especially on a long-distance “classic” or iconic trip. 

See also