Ever wanted to use your phone as a GPS navigator in the outdoors? Here's a step by step guide to finding the maps, creating trails and waypoints and then using them on your Android phone.
Editor's Note: This guide might look impossible at first glance, but Henry walks you through the steps so thoroughly that even I managed to use it to create the above maps of Sir Edmund Hilary's 1953 summit of Everest in under 90 seconds, on my first try. Should I ever find myself in the Himalayas without cell service, I'll be all set. — Wes
For quite a while, I've been making maps for my backcountry trips, but doing so has been bit of a quagmire. There are map sources, map data, online mapping services, routes, tracks, waypoints...and they don't always come together.
For example, the track of the route you want might come from Everytrail, but the scenic viewpoints might be pointed out to you by an online forum, and perhaps you want to add your own waypoints or tweak the route before you leave. Furthermore, different regions have a different "best" map source.
Well, I think I've nailed down the (almost) free method for getting data onto a decent map using CalTopo, that you can edit without going nuts, print it, then put that map onto your favorite GPS device. Assuming that's Android plus Backcountry Navigator, I've also covered how to get offline maps.
I've written this with hiking in mind, but you could use it for pretty much anything — biking, snowshoeing, skiing, camping all spring to mind. I've broken it up in to sections you can take or leave. For example, if you just want a paper map, just do up to that point, or perhaps you use an iOS device, you can export the data then import it into your app of choice.
The Tools: As I said in the introduction, there are loads of tools to achieve the same end. For this article, I'm going to skip the debate and show you what works for me.
- Maps: CalTopo, a free map resource developed by a Search And Rescue volunteer.
- GPS Navigator: Backcountry Navigator, a powerful Android app that works outside of cell reception.
Those two are the main two you will need, but there are a few others worth mentioning.
- Image-based Map Maker: GPS Visualizer Create-a-Map
- 3D Visualization: Google Earth
- Conversions: GPS Visualizer Converter
Finding A Map Source That Works: I'm lucky, I live in British Columbia, and CalTopo has access to some great maps from DataBC. You might not be so lucky, or might not like what you see, so in the top right corner of the CalTopo page, you can change your source:
Pull up the loose area you're headed to and see which option gives you the best data and visualization.
Finding Trail And Waypoint Data: You're going to have to look for a source of trails, waypoints, routes etc. These can be from plenty of places, find them with Google. Here are just a few that work for me.
For this example, I'm going to use some waypoints from ClubTread, and a route from EveryTrail. This assumes you want 2 data sources (any number is fine). At the bottom of both pages, you will find download links.
GPX files are the most widely accepted file format for various tools (KML is probably second). For this guide, we'll just stick with GPX files. It's important to know that they only contain a small set of objects, like tracks, waypoints and a few others. They do NOT contain the image of the map you overlay them on.
Adding Trail And Waypoint Data To The Map: Back to CalTopo, time to import both those GPX files!
Once you've imported the waypoints, they'll show up on the map.
Now you need to import the trail using the same method described above. Then you'll end up with both waypoints and trail, pulled from separate sources, on the same map.
Et voila, the trail of your choice combined with custom waypoints, all on top of a detailed topo map.
Now's a good time to save your work! Create an account if necessary.
Let's say you want to add your own objects to the map, you can, in the lower left. For this example, I'll add a simple marker (lower left of the interface).
Printing A Paper Map: Never go into the wilderness without a paper map. No matter how good your GPS navigator is, it can run out of power or break in a fall.
Click "print" in the top right corner. I personally like creating PDFs for this bit, so the guide will show that. The print from browser tool is very good as well and a fine choice, so go right ahead and use it if you prefer.
Import tracks and waypoint
A full-size image of the CalTopo PDF. That's some nice detail and a totally customizable map you can make and print for free. Using this method you can create exactly the map you need with exactly the data you need on it. Pack a compass and you need nothing else for navigation.
You might want to add some pages or print again for some larger, area maps. It's easy to make a book-style map for yourself. I recommend taking maps of the area, not just the exact route and nothing else, in case you get lost.
How to make these waterproof you ask? A resealable bag works as good as anything I've used.
Exporting To A GPS Device: Remember GPX files? You're going to export your own from CalTopo.
Send the resulting GPX file to your device (check your manual on how to do this).
Using These Maps On Your Phone: This brings us now to the other tool I really love in the wild, Backcountry Navigator. I very much recommend you spend the $12 on the Pro version as it does a LOT for that.
Before we start though, let me make it clear that you should always go into the backcountry with a paper map, compass and knowledge of how to use them. Smartphones and non-smartphone GPS devices can and do run out of power, may not be water resistant, be broken in falls or you may have forgotten to set them up before you left. The guide up to this point shows you how, so you have no excuse.
To ensure this part stays up to date, I'm going to link to their getting started guides on how to download maps and use the app.
However, here we are going to import our map data and download some maps for offline use. Do this before going into the backcountry where you will likely not have phone reception or data service.
As I was creating this, it turned into a screenshot lead tour, so for this next part, here's a gallery, in step by step order.
Let's load the GPX file from earlier.
Import tracks and waypoint.
Find the file you need.
Create a new trip database (or add to an existing one if you need to).
It's our data from CalTopo! Shown with the OpenCycleMap map layer below.
But lets choose the more familiar map (sorry, I messed up this screenshot a bit and had to pixelate it to avoid confusion).
Head to more map sources.
Find the maps you prefer (note that I'm in the USA maps here for Caltopo, there is also a Canada maps section).
CalTopo map layer.
In Map Layers, we can also download maps for offline use.
Select the area you want.
Not shown, but choose the maximum zoom level to download, then create a new map package and name it.
Estimated size will be shown, tap proceed.
Once done, you can change to offline maps in Map Layers (also, to go back to "online", change to the Preview Cache).
The results! Remember, if it's not downloaded, it won't show. Be sure to download before you go to the backcountry.
When you're out in the wilderness, you can find your position (well, as good as your phone can tell you) using the options under this menu.
Remember: GPS uses considerable power, but will work when you don't have phone reception (you'd be surprised how many people think you need a phone signal, in fact, you don't, but you do need data service if you have not stored the map offline).
You're Done: Hopefully now you have a paper map from CalTopo and an Android phone/tablet running BackCountry Navigator with your route and maps available offline.
Remember to waterproof your phone somehow and bring an external battery (like a Mophie Juice Pack).
This article originally appeared on Henry's personal site and is reprinted here with permission.
A big thanks to the makers of all the tools and data sources used in this article. Many of them are free, open source or low cost for high value. Consider donating or purchasing. CalTopo's About Page has details on how the developer likes support, and they have an awesome blog too. Backcountry Navigator is made by CritterMap Software and can be demoed for 30 days and/or purchased on Google Play.
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