Thursday, October 26, 2017

Digital Backcountry Maps - The Easy Way

Last week I blogged about my first attempt using my cell phone to replace paper maps while backpacking. While the results were educational, they were both tedious and ultimately not very helpful. In my eagerness to gain access to USGS maps, I found myself with high quality maps that didn't show much in the way of trails.

For my second attempt I went the far simpler route: I purchased the Backcountry Navigator app for around $11. That price may not seem like a bargain, but consider that a single PATC section map costs $8.00. For the price of less than two of them I now have trail maps that cover world.

Backcountry Navigator seems to do everything I'd expect a mapping app to do. I can drop waypoints, record my route, select from different mapping providers and cache maps locally on the device. The latter is key, because it means using the app without cell phone signal.

The real magic of the app, however, lies in the fact that it offers 'free' access to the Thunderforest mapping tiles. (Free is in quotes because it's included in the price you pay for the base application.). I'm really impressed with how many trails Thunderforest shows. Shira mentioned that someone had suggested hiking the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. I was able to open up the Backcountry Navigator and had instant access to the network of trails in the area:

Thunderforest isn't perfect, of course. When I reviewed our last trip's route, Thunderforest showed no sign of the Slaughter trail that we hiked on. Fortunately, the app allows for other map sources, which fill in the gaps. Some of these map sources are an additional fee. Digging around, I found at least two other topo map tile sets that showed the Slaughter trail:

So while the app can't promise one perfect map, it does give you the power to carry multiple sets of maps at no additional weight.

I took the app for a short spin on the nearby Potomac Heritage Trail, and it did well. It beat out a paper map in almost every way, especially considering that I don't have a high quality topographic map for the Potomac Heritage Trail. There were, however, two noticeable short comings.

First, limiting the map viewing area to the size of my phone is definitely a pain. I have an old 10" Galaxy Tablet that I just fired up and was able to install Backcountry Navigator on free of charge (apparently, the purchase is associated with my Google Account, not a specific device. How nice!). It definitely has a more comfortable viewing area. While I wouldn't plan to bring a tablet hiking, I do imagine it would be useful during the planning stages of a trip. And there's also the ability to mirror your screen with a ChromeCast which is interesting. This allows you a big screen TV view (albeit, with relatively low resolution) of a map.

The other issue, and it's far more critical, is the battery usage of the app. Out of the box, Backcountry Navigator just tore through my battery. When we started hiking i noticed it was knocking 1% off the battery every minute. This is almost certainly due to intensive use of the GPS. I found some options for taming this, including not using the GPS while the app is in the background, and turning off the GPS outright. I don't think I can really blame this issue on the app itself, my guess is that it's a trade off you have to make with respect to GPS accuracy vs battery usage. But still, I'd love it if the app had a middle ground that didn't quite destroy the battery, but left most of the convenience of an always on GPS there.

There are some other well known players in this mapping space and if I do end up trying one them out, it'll be because of the battery usage of this app.

Even with the horrendous battery life, the app is still a winner (assuming you can turn off those features and get a usable set of maps). For nearly the price of a single high quality trail map you can have access to thousands of miles of trail data and all the slick features that go with life in the digital world.

Assuming my next weekend adventure is on a trail that Backcountry Navigator can show me, I'll be leaving the paper maps at home and going digital.

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