Thursday, 25 February 2021

Navigation and Mapping Apps Review

 

With the current interest in the future of ViewRanger and much discussion on social media about mapping and navigation apps I thought I'd post an edited review of some apps that I wrote for The Great Outdoors last year. I've left the ViewRanger review as I wrote it though it's no longer open for new subscriptions. I left out my review of MemoryMap as it's been significantly revised and I haven't tried the latest version. I've also omitted mentions of apps only available for Apple operating systems as I can't actually test these and apps that don't offer UK mapping. I've removed the prices too as these may have changed.

Mapping and route apps have proliferated in recent years with the rise in popularity of smartphones. With mapping apps, you can find your position via GPS and plan and record routes. Some apps allow you to identify features or watch 3D flyovers as well. Here I’m looking at apps designed for smartphones. There are of course standalone GPS units from the likes of SatMap and Garmin that offer the same mapping and features.

Apps that run on desktop and laptop computers are excellent for planning and you can print sheets for specific routes. I’ve been doing the latter for many years, especially on long walks like the TGO Challenge where it saves weight. On one Challenge my printouts of OS Landranger maps weighed 111 grams. The six full maps covering the route weighed 498 grams. Of course, the printouts covered much smaller areas than the full maps. However, I had full coverage on my smartphone to use if I wandered off the printed map.

One advantage of digital maps, both on desktop and smartphone, is being able to zoom in and out, for more detail or for an overview of an area. When planning routes I often do this frequently.

Route apps offer pre-planned routes to follow and often have the option of adding your own. Some are also proper mapping maps as well with OS maps, but many only have basic maps and should be used in conjunction with other mapping. For outdoor use the mapping needs to be OS or Harvey, the same as the printed ones. Street maps, Google maps and the like are not adequate.

Many apps also offer mapping for other countries. I’ve used app maps for long walks in various parts of the USA and in the Alps. Again, these need to be large scale topographic maps.

There are apps for Windows, Android, iOS and macOS. Many have versions for all four, but some are specific to particular operating systems.

As seems the case with all digital stuff (my camera has more options than I know what to do with, never mind my smartphone) these apps are complex with a plethora of features. Time is needed to learn what they can do, and which features are most useful. There isn’t the space here to cover all the aspects of each product so I’ve concentrated on those I think are of most use to hillwalkers, that is position location, recording routes, plotting routes, route information, printing maps, and share options (so you can share your location). If you use a GPS unit some apps will allow you to import and export GPX files.

Most apps are free but only come with basic mapping, if any. Pricing for maps is complicated as most companies offer many options. Subscriptions are the best value for money and a way to ensure your maps are regularly updated. Buying just the maps you want outright may be initially cheaper, but you don’t get updates and it can get expensive if you need many maps.

It is often argued that smartphones aren’t suitable for use in the hills, that they can fail, that batteries run out, or that they may not be able to get a signal. The latter is based on a misconception. If you’ve downloaded the maps to your phone a phone connection isn’t needed. GPS will show your location. Indeed, it’s best to turn the phone signal off to save battery power.

I’ve been using a smartphone for navigation for over a decade and have yet to have a serious problem. I carry a battery charger, so I don’t run out of power. I used to keep my smartphone in a protective case but last year I replaced with a waterproof rugged one that doesn't need protecting (see this review). Of course, if you only have one navigation option and it has problems there can be difficulties. That applies to printed maps and physical compasses too. Maps can blow away; compasses can break or fail. Whether you prefer to use a printed map and compass or a smartphone it’s wise to carry the other as a backup. I always do. Mapping apps usually have a digital compass. Whilst this is good for general directions it doesn’t replace a physical compass.

Most of the apps offer free trials so you can try them out and see which one best suits your needs.

 Reviews

Note: How well apps run depends in part on the hardware. I tried the Windows and Android apps on a Windows 10 PC and a Samsung Galaxy S7 Android smartphone. Both are quite old and not that powerful. The apps ran fast enough for me though.

 


Anquet  Outdoor Map Navigator      ****1/2   Best Buy overall     www.anquet.com          

Likes                 fast, print option, offline desktop app

Dislikes            only UK maps

Platforms         Windows, iOS, Android, MacOS

Maps                OS Landranger & Explorer, Harvey Superwalker, Harvey British Mountain

Features           track recording, offline desktop maps (Premium Plus), GPX compatible

Offline             yes

Launched back in 2001 offering maps on CD Anquet was one of the first companies selling digital mapping. Since it began it has moved with the technology and now offers subscriptions for downloads to smartphones and computers, providing a service rather than a one-off sale.

When I last tried Anquet ten years ago one-off downloads had just begun and CD mapping was still available. It worked well then and it still does. Downloading the app to both PC and smartphone was fast.  The maps downloaded and opened quickly on the latter but were slow on my ageing PC.

An excellent feature with the OS Premium Plus subscription is the option of downloading the app and maps to your desktop computer for planning routes and printing. I find this more versatile and faster than using a web browser.  It’s much easier to plot a route on a large screen than a small one so this is a very useful feature. Routes can then be synchronised with your smartphone or printed out.

There’s no 3D or augmented reality feature. Anquet says it is concentrating on ‘getting more done with simpler interfaces’ and a third version of OMN will be launched later this year, available to current subscribers. I don’t miss 3D, but I do fine augmented reality useful for identifying distant features. It’s not essential though. You can record tracks and waypoints and sync them on the desktop.

I found Anquet OMN easy to learn and powerful. As a combined smartphone and desktop app it’s excellent.

 


RouteBuddy     https://routebuddy.com/                        Best for Desktop   ****1/2

Likes               route planning, printing, merging OS and Harvey maps

Dislikes          no android version

Platforms       Windows, macOS, iOS

Maps              OS Explorer & Landranger, Harvey Superwalker, British Mountain & Summit, USA,

                       France, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand maps

 Features        route planning, map stitching, printing, track planning and recording

Offline           yes

The RouteBuddy app comes in two forms -RouteBuddy Desktop Map Software for Windows and macOS and RouteBuddy Atlas for iPhones. Sadly, there is no android version. This is a shame as RouteBuddy is one of the best desktop mapping programmes I’ve used. It’s powerful and fairly complex but quite easy to learn. Maps can be downloaded to your desktop for studying and planning and drawing routes. This gives you far more options than web mapping.

Plotting routes, even long ones, is easy. I’ve planned several TGO Challenges on RouteBuddy, printing out A4 route maps to carry with me. You can also drag and drop route files from a GPS, from friends or from websites. Routes you plot or record give elevation, ascent, descent and more (useful for the TGO Challenge route form – no need to count grid squares or contour lines).

RouteBuddy has a unique feature that I love. It can seamlessly stitch together OS 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 maps and both OS scales and Harvey maps. I’ve used both OS scales and Harvey maps for TGO Challenge routes. RouteBuddy connects them so well that the scale becomes the same, but you have all the extra details when it’s the 1:25,000 map and all the features when it’s a Harvey map. Satellite and road maps can be layered too.

I only have one problem with RouteBuddy. There’s no app for Android so I can’t have it on my smartphone. Otherwise my only minor complaint is that it’s easy to lose many hours planning routes and enjoying the maps.

 

ViewRanger  (now OutdoorActive)   *****  Best for smartphone     www.viewranger.com 

Likes               easy to use, Skyline augmented reality, BuddyBeacon, worldwide maps

Dislikes          BuddyBeacon requires a data connection, no print option

Platforms       iOS, Android

Maps              OS Explorer & Landranger, Harvey Superwalker & British Mountain

Offline           Yes

Features         Skyline augmented reality, track recording and sharing, 3D Flyovers,

                       BuddyBeacon, compass

ViewRanger is a well-established mapping app for smartphones and one that I know well, having been using it for over ten years, both in the UK and in the USA and the Alps. Mostly I’ve used it to find my location and for navigation. You can’t download maps to a laptop or desktop computer, but it is easy to plan routes on the ViewRanger website and then download them to your smartphone. You can also see and download routes created by others for any area by entering a location or postcode. I did this for the GR5 through the Alps. There are thousands of routes on the website. You can’t print from the web maps though.

A good extra feature of ViewRanger is the BuddyBeacon, which allows you to share your real-time location with friends and family. It’s pin protected so only those you choose can see the information. However, you do require a data connection so it’s not usable everywhere.

ViewRanger also has an augmented reality tool called Skyline. With this you can use your phone’s camera to identify peaks, lakes and more. ViewRanger says it knows the location of more than 9 million points on 80% of the Earth except the polar regions. This is a fascinating and useful feature, naming features in the landscape. You can even use it to guide you along a route. And of course, you can take a photo with the features named on it. Another fun feature to play with is Flyover in 3D which allows you to pan and zoom around routes.

ViewRanger is well-designed and easy to use, both on and offline. It’s an essential part of my outdoor kit.

 


OS Maps Premium   ****1/2   Recommended      www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk

Likes                 easy to use, Augmented Reality Viewer, print option, use codes from paper maps

Dislikes            only OS maps

Platforms         Windows, iOS, Android

Maps                OS Explorer, OS Landranger

Features           track recording, augmented reality, aerial 3D

Offline              yes

On a smartphone the OS Maps app works just the same as ViewRanger. Download the maps and use GPS to find your location. You can record routes on a smartphone and plan routes on all platforms or else find pre-planned routes. The last two are best and most easily done on a large computer screen. There’s an augmented reality option, AR Viewer, that allows you to identify features in the landscape for the smartphone app and an aerial 3D option on the website.

From a PC  you can print map sheets as long as you have an internet connection. If you have a big enough printer you can print to A3 size.

For UK only use with OS maps this app is fine, especially if you want to print maps as well as have them on your smartphone. There are no other map options though so if you go abroad you’ll need another app. You can’t buy individual maps either. However, if you buy a paper map it comes with a code so you can download a digital map. This is a one-off and you don’t get other features.

 


OS Locate      https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/shop/os-locate     *****   Recommended

Platforms      iOS, Android

Maps             no

Features       grid reference, digital  compass, share button

Offline          yes

Costs             free

OS Locate is a simple free app that gives you a grid reference and a compass bearing. You can link it to downloaded OS maps but as your position is shown on those anyway I don’t see much point. However, it’s an excellent app to use with paper maps. If you’re not sure where you are click and there’s a grid reference. This used to be all GPS units did before they gained mapping and lots of bells and whistles. There’s a digital Silva compass too, which you can use to take bearings, using two fingers to turn the bezel, though it’s easier with the real thing. If you have a phone connection your position can be shared via email or social media.

I think this is an excellent app and worth having even if you only use printed maps and compass for navigation, especially as it’s free.


 

Komoot    www.komoot.com     ***

Likes                planning

Dislikes           maps not OS/Harvey standard

Platforms        Android, iOS

Maps               basic

Features          routes

Offline            yes

Komoot is a planning tool for cycling and walking. It’s packed with masses of routes that can be downloaded and then followed on the map on your phone. The maps are fine for road cycling and just about ok for off-road walking. For hillwalking where navigation is crucial Komoot is better thought of as a digital guidebook rather than digital mapping and just as with most printed guidebooks you need a detailed map to go with it. When you zoom in on a map more detail does appear, including contour lines, but it’s still not OS standard. The maps are inexpensive though.

There are masses of routes and you can enter  your activity – hiking, mountaineering, various types of cycling, your fitness from couch potato to Pro. Put in start and finish points and Komoot will come up with a route. I looked for one from Glenmore to Ben Macdui and back and Komoot came up with a sensible option and said  it was an “Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Sure-footedness, sturdy shoes and alpine experience required”, which sounds reasonable. It also gave a very precise time – 9:21 – a distance of 17.5 miles and an ascent of 3700 feet. Routes are customisable and you can enter in options you’d like to see on the map – everything from restaurants to mountain passes.  

Komoot also has turn-by-turn voice navigation. I think this would drive me crazy! However, it does seem more designed for cyclists and runner than walkers as on the website it says “when you’re hurtling downhill you don’t want to fumble for your phone to know where to go”.

If you like footpath guidebooks, then Komoot may well suit you.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

ViewRanger: thoughts, memories, the future

On the GR5 Through the Alps, 2018

ViewRanger, the navigation and mapping app, is changing. In fact eventually the name will disappear as it's integrated into another app, Outdooractive. Recently I asked ViewRanger about the changes and wrote a piece on this for The Great Outdoors online. This elicited a large response. Many people obviously like ViewRanger and don't like the idea of it changing. 

On the Pacific Northwest Trail, 2010

Thinking about ViewRanger I realised that the app has accompanied me on every walk, long or short, for over a decade. No piece of physical equipment has done that. ViewRanger has been on several different phones in that time and has helped me navigate on the Pacific Northwest Trail and the GR5 Through the Alps, and in the High Sierra, Death Valley and, every month, the Scottish Highlands. Sometimes it's made navigation far easier than it would have been with just map and compass. Finding the hidden start of a faint trail in dense forest on the Pacific Northwest Trail, keeping me on the right ridge during a long descent through another forest into Death Valley, crossing the Cairngorm Plateau in a white-out.

ViewRanger in 2009

Having tried ViewRanger for the first time in 2009 I was impressed enough to use it on the Pacific Northwest Trail the next year. Indeed, I bought my first smartphone in order that I could do so. (I was loaned the one for the 2009 trial). After that smartphones came and went but ViewRanger remained. It did just what I wanted it to and it did it reliably.

Death Valley, 2016

Will Outdooractive be as useful and reliable? I hope so but I don't know yet. It's a much bigger app with far more features, most of which I probably won't want. As long as I can ignore them I won't mind that, just as I don't mind the ones that have been added to ViewRanger and which I've never used. My ideal navigation app has good mapping (OS/Harveys in the UK, equivalents elsewhere), gives your position fast and accurately, and can record or follow routes. That's it.

The ViewRanger app will be around for at least a year but it will disappear. I'll be sorry to see it go. It's been part of my outdoor life.


Saturday, 20 February 2021

This year I'm writing a book on the Cairngorms

 

I first walked in the Cairngorms over forty years ago. I soon fell in love with the area and for the last thirty years I've lived here. During those years I've walked, skied, and camped high and low in every season. Now I'm going to put together my experiences, my thoughts on the big issues, my joy in the forests and mountains and wildlife, in fact everything I have to say about the Cairngorms in one book. I hope it will be entertaining, informative, and provocative.

I am delighted that the book will be published by Sandstone Press. I've written four books for Sandstone previously and have a great relationsip with them. I hope to submit the manuscript before the end of the year.

A brief announcement on social media brought a heartening response. I am very pleased there is so much interest. I'll post updates about my progress during the year.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Thrunotes Update - three new styles

 

Last September I reviewed the Thrunotes notebook, designed for long distance walkers. I liked this  tough waterproof little notebook and noted that a version for day walks and short backpacking trips was promised. 

In fact stead of just one new notebook three versions were launched - Sketch, Blaze and Explore. These omit the four pages for information and resupply found in the original Thrunote, which means there's more space for your entries as they have the same number of pages. All the notebooks have rulers on the inside covers and space for contact details plus the flip corner and circle marks for indexing and quick reference. 

The simplest new Thrunote is Sketch, which has blank pages. This is great if you want to draw, write at angles, or doodle.


Blaze has lined pages. I usually like notebooks with lines as they help keep my scrawled-in-the-tent writing at least semi-legible. However the lines are quite widely spaced in the Blaze Thrunote and I'd fill it quickly. 

The Explore Thrunote has dotted pages. I like this. The dots are fairly close together so there are twice as many lines as on Blaze. You can easily write up and down as well as across too and fit in doodles or sketches. This is the Thrunote I'll use for short trips.

You'll notice that the ink has smudged where I've written my name on the Explore notebook but not on Blaze. I've been experimenting with how different types of pen work on the waterproof paper. The smudged ink is from the standard ballpoint pen I use at home, the clear ink is from the Space Pen I use on trips as the ink is waterproof. Thrunotes recommends a Black Bic ballpoint. I've had too many of these leak in my pack or pocket in the past though and I stopped using them years ago. Pencil is another option that works well. I'll stick with my Space Pen.

I think the new Thrunotes are excellent. It's good there's a choice. You can order Thrunotes and find out all about them here.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

What I've Been Reading Online No 29

Ski tracks & the Cromdale Hills, February 11

 

The first look at stories I've enjoyed reading online so far this year.

BACKPACKING, WALKING, MOUNTAINEERING

Time Travel Is Possible 

A night out in a winter storm takes Andrew Terrill back in time to another walk and another place in this lovely essay

Icicles 

Chris Puddephat describes a fortnight of icicles in Assynt, illustrated with magnificent photographs.

What is scrambling?

Good piece on scrambling with some sensible advice from John Fleetwood, author of Scrambles in the Lake District South.  

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

"We won’t begin to solve that existential crisis by frightening ordinary people with the idea they might face a criminal conviction for exploring their own natural heritage." Ed Douglas on the Westminster government's proposal to criminalise trespass in England. 

Kerri Andrews on Wanderers, A History of Women Walking 

Interview with Kerri Andrews on her book on the history of women walking. 

Character Building Adventures #1

Andrew Terrill remembers a long tentless night out in Snowdonia after his inadequate tent failed.  

 

My snowshoes in use, February 8
Snowshoes in Scotland - more than just a novelty

Why you should consider snowshoes for the snow in Scotland. Alex Roddie explains.

After our 112-mile hike in the Sierra Nevada, I won’t underestimate my kids again

Jemima Kiss takes her family on the John Muir Trail in California

Review: Thrunotes waterproof hiking notebooks

Comprehensive review of these excellent notebooks by Alex Roddie 

Desert Island Peaks: Anne Butler

Desert Island Peaks: Cameron McNeish 

Two in UKHillwalking.com's series on peaks various outdoor people would take to a desert island. You can read my selection here

 

Rabbit in the snow, February 4
 

NATURE, WILDLIFE, REWILDING

Regarding Reintroductions: the Lynx and the Beaver 

A look at these two species and what they could mean for Scotland by Chris Charlton

Following Footprints 

Tracks and trails in the snow give a glimpse into the lives of  animals and birds for Ben Dolphin

‘Reservoirs of life’: how hedgerows can help the UK reach net zero in 2050

Phoebe Weston looks at how expanding hedgerows can help biodiversity and reaching net zero for climate change emissions.

Beavers are still facing an uncertain future in Scotland 

What's happening with beavers in Scotland described by Alan Watson Featherstone, who calls for translocation rather than killing.

 

Sunday, 14 February 2021

A Familiar Landscape Transformed By Snow: A Ski Tour From Home

 

After five weeks of cold weather and lying snow the weather is changing with high winds and warm air coming from the south. A thaw is likely this next week, ending the longest period of freezing snowy conditions at this level for over a decade. I had forgotten just how much deep continuous snow cover transforms a landscape when it lies for weeks at a time. This year it has been particularly noticeable due to the COVID-19 lockdown as I’ve only been out for ski or snowshoes trips from the front door, yet it’s felt as though I was entering a vast Arctic wilderness every time. 


Under snow the rolling moors, rough pastures, and forests (a mix of natural and plantation) look like Lapland tundra rather than Scotland. Yes, I’ve missed the big mountains, but I would have missed them much more if there had been rain instead of snow. As it is, I’ve had many superb trips out into this snowy landscape.


After seeing the forecast for warmer temperatures and a thaw I went for one last ski tour. The sub-zero temperatures have kept the snow powdery and soft and in the forest the going was hard as I skied over hidden fallen branches and hollows, weaving a way round any obvious obstacles. Leaving the first woodland I skied across a large open boggy area where I’ve never walked as it’s too wet. On skis it was easy, the snow level and smooth. 


The next forest lay on steeper slopes and it was hard work again climbing through soft snow on hidden tracks and fire breaks. Twenty-five years ago clear-felling stripped all the spruce from this plantation, leaving stands of Scots pine and huge areas of bare ground. Birch quickly colonised the latter and it’s now a semi-natural forest. 


There were many animal tracks in the forest - the deep slots of roe deer, the single line paws of foxes, delicate squirrel prints, the distinctive pattern of rabbits, and once the wide five-toed marks of a pine marten - but I saw nothing except for a pair of black grouse that sailed through the trees. All was silence except for the swish of my skis.


During the day the wind slowly increased, stinging my face. Arriving at the high deer fence at the top of the forest and feeling the blast of cold air across the open hillside I decided this was far enough. On the other side of the fence the only other ski tracks I saw stopped then turned back.

I followed the fence to a gentle spot height of 442 metres. On the map the words Cree Dearg run along the forest edge. I hadn’t noticed this before and wondered what the word cree meant (Dearg, I knew, meant red). Research revealed a few possibilities as it’s a corruption. The most likely is crioch, boundary, as the forest edge is on the watershed between the rivers Spey and Findhorn.

Turning away from the wind I skied back down through the forest, relishing the effortless drifting through the trees. The soft snow and gentle slopes kept my speed down and I was able to relax.

Once back in the open I found the strengthening wind was just as bitter below the trees as it had been higher up. The down jacket I’d donned before the descent stayed on until I reached home.


Although I’d never been more than five straight line kilometres from my front door this felt like a trip to remote country. I met no one and saw no other tracks. It seemed as though I could have broken trail for days and stayed alone in this vast and wild snowy landscape.  

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

The Outdoor Guide Gin

 

Now gin is not my favourite tipple - that's very much Scotch whisky - but when I was offered a bottle of a new gin with an outdoor connection back in December I couldn't resist. Having tried it I can see that I might have a gin a little more often.

The Outdoor Guide Gin is a collaboration between Julia Bradbury's The Outdoor Guide and the Derbyshire Distillery. It's described as "a delicious and unusual gin with a unique blend of fresh botanicals, blending traditional juniper with blackberry, raspberry, heather and lavender with hints of nettles and mint, all inspired by the Peak District." Julia Bradbury says she "would love people to enjoy this drink as a celebration at the top of a mountain or after a long walk when you’re feeling euphoric and get back to your bed for the night". I suggest only a small nip for the first! Better for when you're back down.

Having tried the gin a few times now, though never on a mountain, I do find it refreshing with a pleasant flowery aroma and taste. I can't identify all the botanicals mentioned but the light taste is rather summery and more complex than other gin I've drunk. It's certainly the nicest gin I've tried, though as I say i haven't tried that many. (Mostly I've had gin and tonic on long haul flights - after discovering no decent whisky was available - and these have been the standard big name gins). 

Derbyshire Distillery says "serve over ice and top up with Franklin & Sons Natural Indian Tonic Water". Maybe in summer I would have it with ice but not in the winter. My house isn't very warm so it's cold enough anyway. I tried it with Fever-Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water, which is what's available locally, and the combination is pleasant. It does somewhat reduce the delicate fresh taste of the gin though. I think it's best drunk neat.

If you like gin or fancy trying one I'm happy to recommend The Outdoor Guide gin.