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BeardoMcGrath
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PostFri Apr 03, 2020 8:10 pm 
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Stuck inside for the next while, I've been doing more trip planning than usual and am looking to compare what people use for trip planning and backcountry navigation. It seems the options are changing/getting better all the time and I'm looking to review my current way of going about this. A summary of what I do below:

Trip Planning

CalTopo: I like this because the free account enables a lot of features. Good for doing quick elevation and distance measurements using existing OSM routes for coming up with ideas. Slope angle shading is especially useful for planning off trail travel. There is now an iOS app (see below)? Everyone here already knows the advantages of this as NW Hikers is how I found out about it!

Google My Maps: Google Maps is sort of an obvious answer, I use it for browsing high-res satellite images all the time. I've used My Maps sparingly in the past but recently realized their layers feature offers a customizable attribute table, which actually is really nice for road-trip type planning (marking details about dispersed campsite, trailhead info). I've started using it for a trip to Utah (now postponed) and think it will be really useful to export the points to my phone. Not sure I would use as much for hiking but great for planning.

Paper maps: I'm a bit old fashioned in that I like paper maps if I can get them, although I definitely prefer the Green Trails waterproof versions to just printing off topos (or the smaller Green Trails Maps). I also find these useful for trip planning, or sparking ideas. I really use these now more for road trips; if you don't already carry a Benchmark atlas with you I'd highly recommend it. I find I check out things on road trips you wouldn't otherwise and they are very accurate. I used DeLorme for a long time and while they were a local New England company growing up, Benchmark is way better.

Backcountry navigation

Topo Maps +: I have not heard of many people using this app, it seems Gaia is broadly preferred, or Backcountry Navigator. I stumbled across this many years ago and have just kept using it since the interface is easy and there are a lot of free features. I currently use an old iPhone 6 (just in case I drop it in the river!) so the fact this app only allows lower res downloads at the free level is actually good because there is not much storage on the model I have. It allows enables unlimited track logs and syncs well; and it is easy to export the track logs en masse for use elsewhere. It is also locally (to Washington) designed, which is cool.

Paper Maps: Again, I'll carry a Green Trails map if the larger area addition covers where I'm going, or if I'm going on a multi-night backpacking trip and want a non-digital backup. But for day trips or overnights all on trails I usually feel I've researched enough I'd survive if my phone died. I don't really like the Nat Geo Trails Illustrated for hiking as I don't think they have enough detail. Good for road trips though.

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Now that CalTopo has an app I'm considering switching to that for some better planning->navigation integration, even at the $20/yr price point. It'd be nice to have more map download options, especially satellite (Topo Maps + only has a few and if they are not the USGS topo the resolution is not so good.) I'd like to have something more integrated with a desktop/browser tool and CalTopo does that. I have not tested the app yet on a hike but if people have used it, what do you think? It seems like I can't test the interface for downloading maps offline without a subscription but would like something a bit better than Topo Maps +, where there isn't an area download function. I suppose the other downside is I'd probably couldn't use my old phone for it. I read an review that said the interface was a bit wonky but I actually like the way it is set up, for the most part.
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InFlight
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PostFri Apr 03, 2020 10:37 pm 
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I the have Topo Maps app as well and really like it. I started using it back on a IPhone 3GS.  The ability to download just the need maps ahead of time was essential. Lots of good features like the distance circles from your location.  The features search function with gps location and state is very helpful to locate a lake or mountain.  (The number of “Snow Lakes” is ridiculous, including 5 in California)

I have Gaia as well.

I’m big on paper maps, and use those for most trip planning.  The National Geographic maps are my preferred ones.  I have a pile of green trails maps of favorites.  State road maps are helpful as well.

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Bosterson
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PostSat Apr 04, 2020 12:20 am 
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BeardoMcGrath wrote:
Now that CalTopo has an app I'm considering switching to that for some better planning->navigation integration, even at the $20/yr price point.

Caltopo is so useful even for just desktop pretrip planning that it's worth paying the minimal $20/year just to support the phenomenal work Matt has done to build it.

The app appears to have just updated, and the interface looks a little better, but I haven't used it outside yet. I did use the previous version though. It's easy to save offline tiles of an area you're going to (I save the Mapbuilder topo layer, as well as USGS quads). The GPS feature seemed to be really slow to get a fix - like multiple minutes. It also didn't have a directional arrow to show which direction you're facing. I didn't try taking a track with it since I have a stand alone Garmin unit. Some of the general features (like distance measurement) seem a lot harder to use in the app than on the web. It's handy to have as an additional reference or for extended coverage though.

For most off trail navigation I generally rely on Avenza Maps, which uses geo referenced PDFs. I have a very old version (with updates turned off) from before they limited the number of maps you could have at once for free, so I'm not sure what the app is like now. It's easy to make a custom map in Caltopo, print it to a PDF on your regular computer, then import into Avenza via the URL. Its GPS feature is much faster than the Caltopo app, though still slower than a Garmin if you're not taking a track since it has to wait to find you every time you check it. But being able to use it on a high def phone touch screen interface to quickly zoom in and out beats the usability of anything (older?) Garmins can do. Downside is you need to plan in advance where you'll be going and create/import a map for it. If you go somewhere else out in the field and don't have map coverage, it's useless. But if you're generating the maps in Caltopo, that gives you a lot of customizability in terms of how the map looks, layers, opacity, etc compared to stock map choices in other apps. (I made one once importing an external LIDAR layer for terrain and overlaying with Caltopo's USFS map for trails and roads.)

With phones, it's easy to have multiple apps and switch between them as needed out in the field depending on what info you need at any given moment.

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MyFootHurts
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PostSat Apr 04, 2020 9:20 am 
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I use Gaia mostly, but I supplement that with Natural Atlas as it has trails I can't seem to find anywhere else.
For example, it has all the trails in the Oregon state forests:
https://naturalatlas.com/trailheads/big-tree-2240587
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mike
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PostSun Apr 05, 2020 11:44 am 
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OsmAnd+

Free version is OK too but I don't mind donating a few bucks to the developers. Get the contours plugin. Nautical too if you are a boater/kayaker. Worldwide. We used it in Scotland last year. Trails show up better on the latest upgrade. Before they were hard to see with the contour lines.
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Cyclopath
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PostTue Apr 07, 2020 12:18 pm 
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BeardoMcGrath wrote:
Now that CalTopo has an app

How is the loading speed?  I assume you can cache maps on your phone, can you get features like terrain shading in the mountains without reception?

Not directed at Beardo, but anyone who's played with it yet.
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Bosterson
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PostTue Apr 07, 2020 1:06 pm 
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Cyclopath wrote:
How is the loading speed?  I assume you can cache maps on your phone, can you get features like terrain shading in the mountains without reception?

See my post above. You can download offline tiles of a variety of layers (no Google layers though). It's not an insanely fast app at the moment but it works. Offline downloads are limited to internal device storage only (vs SD cards) - apparently this is a coding issue that's low on their to-do list since so many phones nowadays don't have external storage.

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call-151
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PostTue Apr 07, 2020 4:18 pm 
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I started using the Caltopo iphone app for short hikes (probably found out about it here). I like it because I can plan on my desktop computer, lay out waypoints, tracks, which map layer to display (including slope shading which is cool), then load it on the phone before going and it's available offline.  I'm still learning how to use it, and I'm still hesitant to rely on the phone for longer hikes so I still use my Garmin etrex 30x as well.
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Cyclopath
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PostWed Apr 08, 2020 2:53 pm 
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Bosterson wrote:
See my post above. You can download offline tiles of a variety of layers (no Google layers though). It's not an insanely fast app at the moment but it works. Offline downloads are limited to internal device storage only (vs SD cards) - apparently this is a coding issue that's low on their to-do list since so many phones nowadays don't have external storage.

Thanks!  I did read your post, you convinced me to still consider CalTopo.  I wasn't really understanding if terrain shading and possibly other features were calculated on the device as needed, or if they were layers you download separately.  Thanks for clarifying that!   smile.gif  Separate layer probably saves battery power in the field.
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mike
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PostWed Apr 08, 2020 4:34 pm 
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Quote:
Caltopo

Not seeing the value here  $20/yr for "Standard Resolution Topographic Maps" offline maps that won't go on an SD card ??
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RobinBaker
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PostThu Apr 09, 2020 12:30 pm 
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CalTopo has a number of maps:

CalTopo's own MapBuilder
Scanned 7.5' - USGS topo maps
Forest Service topo maps
NAIP Aerial Imagery
Four Google layers: Map, Terrain, Satellite, and Hybrid
NPS and USFS Visitor Maps
Historic Maps (older 30' maps, not always available for particular areas)
Open Street Maps (OSM)

There are also Map Overlays:

Shaded Relief, from the USGS 3DEP Lidar Program
Contours down to 10 feet (possible due to data from the USGS 3DEP Lidar Program)
Slope angle shading, fixed or gradient
Public Lands overlay (USFS, BLM, State, etc)
Parcel Data by Address, Owner, or Boundaries Only

All this is available on the Desktop via their web interface, and on Smartphones, iOS and Android (Android still in Beta, but you can get early access, as I did).
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Cyclopath
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PostThu Apr 09, 2020 5:05 pm 
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Can anybody comment on how long downloaded/cached map data is usable on a phone, for any of these apps?

Google Maps let's you download a region but these are only good for 30 (?) days unless you update then and restart the countdown.
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Bosterson
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PostThu Apr 09, 2020 7:48 pm 
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Manually downloaded Caltopo tiles are there until you delete them, I believe. (I haven't looked at the release notes but it would make no sense for them to expire after you manually save them. Downloaded tiles are different from the app just caching the map as you use it on WiFi.) The Avenza maps that you manually create in Caltopo (or wherever) and import are saved on your SD card the way you'd save downloaded music - there for good.

Only Google stuff expires. Its offline maps don't actually vanish as long as the app connects to the internet and updates the maps every month. I would expect this is because Google maps have lots of additional info like businesses, hours, directions, etc built in, and the info should be current, whereas hiking maps are pretty static. But Google is also Google and just deletes whatever it wants whenever it wants.  rolleyes.gif I've never had a map expire on a hiking app.

RobinBaker, good point that the Caltopo app is still in beta. The $20 is for a subscription to the site, which in addition to being able to generate larger PDF maps and save more custom maps to your Caltopo account, I think you need to get early access to the app, but like I said, I use Caltopo so much for trip planning, analyzing my GPS tracks, etc, and have been using it for so many years, that it's very worthwhile to pony up and support that site with a few bucks.

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mike
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PostThu Apr 09, 2020 8:03 pm 
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OsmAnd you can download 5 areas for free I think. Trade'em out as needed. Updated monthly at least. Pay £6 and get unlimited and support a good cause.
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Bosterson
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PostSun Apr 12, 2020 8:57 pm 
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Bosterson wrote:
The app appears to have just updated, and the interface looks a little better, but I haven't used it outside yet.

Update: I was outside today and tried out the new version of the Caltopo app and it is better than the old one. The blue dot for your location now has a directional arrow to show which way you're heading! It still seems slow to get a GPS fix on you, even when a different app (and therefore the phone itself) has literally just done so. It's also still slow to load the Mapbuilder tiles at the appropriate resolution - it takes a little bit to fill in and then resolve into whatever level of zoom you're using. (This also happens with the Mapbuilder layer on the website, so it seems like it's something to do with Mapbuilder itself.)

I still don't think it's likely to be my primary navigation app, but the Mapbuilder layer does have good OSM type coverage of trails that otherwise don't show up on "official" maps, so it's handy as a secondary reference. I also hadn't previously tried to use any of the saved maps on my Caltopo account before, but I did that while planning and last night and the integration of your account is handy. If I didn't already have a Caltopo account I wouldn't pay for one to get this app, but if you do have a Caltopo account then the app (which is free) is worth having in your pocket as part of your overall toolkit.

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