Q:

What's the Best Mapping App?

I’ve started using my mobile phone to view topo maps when on the mountain. What app would you recommend to look at them offline?

Jan 11, 2013
Outside
Outside Magazine

Left to right: Trimble Outdoors Navigator Elite, Gaia GPS, and Backcountry Navigator    Photo:Courtesy of Backcountry Navigator, Gaia, and Trimble

A:

The electronic maps on phones are much easier to use than the paper ones you may carry as backup. People now download—and pay for—over 100,000 topo apps for their phones per month. What’s led the drive to abandon paper and dedicated GPS handhelds? It’s offline mapping.

Before offline mapping, you saw a big empty screen when there were no bars on your phone. When there was coverage, you had to wave your phone in the air and wait ages for new topo maps to fill in. This is partially because of how huge topo maps are—a simple day hike typically takes up about five megabytes on the phone.

The latest offline mapping smorgasbord is Trimble Outdoors Navigator “Elite”, a $2.99 monthly subscription that allows you to download full topos and use advanced planning tools to mark your route ahead of time. Elite is an upgrade to the existing Trimble app for iPhone, Android, and Blackberry, and provides such advanced things as real-time weather maps with satellite imagery that skates across your baselayer.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken Elite for a spin, and we found that several features are a step up from the other major GPS apps on the market, Backcountry Navigator (Android only; $9.99, plus cost for specific maps) and Gaia GPS (Android, $9.99, and iPhone, $19.99). On the downside, getting topo maps into the phone is a bigger hassle than with Backcountry or Gaia.

Trimble downloads maps in two ways. By default, the app automatically captures screen views until it reaches 10 megabytes, and then saves them permanently. This way, you can review your recent onscreen maps, even when you’re far from a cell tower. But 10 megs isn’t enough for a multi-day trip. The more typical way to gather maps before a trek would be to choose “Map Packs” from among the 68,000 maps of U.S. counties and national parks. These are big files that you can mark up with custom routes using Elite’s planning tools and overlay with colored boundaries showing where public land ends and private land begins. That all comes included with the $2.99 subscription price.

Trimble Elite's biggest downside is how hard it is to get maps installed on your phone. To get the bigger map packs, you need to use a computer. For the iPhone, you transfer files using iTunes, which is a little easier than with Android, which requires you to manually find and install the maps in the root directory on the phone's memory card. That's much more difficult than Backcountry or Gaia, in which you simple highlight the areas where you plan to hike and download the maps over your cell network.

Whether it's worth it to jump through the technical hoops of Trimble Outdoors Navigator Elite will depend on the value its products have for you. The weather maps are both cool and useful, allowing you to see the speed and intensity of encroaching storm systems. Other available overlays let you see current ocean temperatures, wind speeds, and doppler radar in specific areas. (This doesn’t work offline, so you need cell service to get weatherman on.)

On the other hand, Trimble doesn’t have some of the specific maps outlining local hiking trails or whitewater spots that Backcountry does.

Whichever you choose, it might be worthwhile to pick up a solar, thermoelectric, or crank charger for your next trip. Cell phone handsets are outstripping dedicated handhelds in features, but their battery life hasn’t caught up.

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