Digital Hiking Guides

September 22, 2009

If you have an iPhone or other smartphone, you may be holding the future of hiking guides in your hand. The iPhone 3GS includes a built-in GPS that will display your latitude and longitude coordinates even when you’re outside cell or WiFi range. Imagine you’re disoriented or lost on a hike. Simply turn on your iPhone and let the GPS identify your coordinates. Pull out the map in your pack, plot your position, and presto, there you are. Better yet, let your smartphone pinpoint your location directly onto the relevant topographic map.

Several inexpensive applications now exist that allow you to download USGS topographic maps to your iPhone and access them whenever you want, wherever you want, even with no cell or WiFi coverage. There’s no plotting to a paper map—simply turn on your iPhone and your exact location will appear on the relevant topographic map. And for less than $10, you can gain access to every USGS topographic map available at every scale for the entire country.

“It works out to less than a hundredth of a cent per map,” notes Phil Endecott, the developer behind Topo Maps ($6.99), one of the roughly half dozen such applications that have launched since March. “For a very low price you have access to so much map data,” agrees Dan Gaines, the developer of Topos2Go ($3.99). “I think that’s very valuable.” USGS maps and data are in the public domain, which means that anybody can access, repurpose, or repackage them at no cost. All you need is some decent software to simplify access. While various topographic map applications—Topo Maps, Topos2Go, iTopo Maps, EarthRover—differ in features and ease of use, they all provide the same basic platform for downloading, storing, and viewing USGS maps on your iPhone. And they provide access at a considerably lower price than alternative products like National Geographic’s Topo! Series ($100 per state), Garmin’s MapSource software, or DeLorme’s TOPO USA ($100).

USGS maps usually aren’t the best hiking resource for regions like the Northeast, however, where vast trail networks are covered in more comprehensive, accurate detail by region-specific maps like AMC’s White Mountain series and White Mountain Guide Online. The technology also isn’t perfect, especially given the abuses of the outdoors. Smartphones are fragile. The screen is small. Battery life is poor. Maps are slow to download. The phones’ GPS receivers are not the best, especially compared with a dedicated GPS unit. “Right now the [iPhone] GPS is middle-of-the-road in terms of sensitivity,” notes Tracy Harton, developer of iTopo Maps ($9.95).

What does the future hold for this in-pocket technology? Let’s continue your hike. After reorienting yourself, you next reach a spectacular viewpoint or striking natural feature. Now when you turn on your smartphone, it immediately identifies your location, places it on the relevant map, and brings up detailed content and images describing what’s around you, including a picture identifying all the peaks out there on the horizon. This near-future scenario isn’t here…yet. But watch for it soon.

Regardless of what the future may bring, Endecott makes clear that such applications should be considered only a supplement to a good paper (or waterproof Tyvek) map, not a replacement. “I’ve had several emails from people making clear they were relying exclusively on my app,” he recounts. “That makes my palms sweat.”

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.