Through 2 - Navigating a World of Map Apps


Just like any other person born in the 80s or before, I was trained that a paper map and compass was the only way to navigate in the outdoors.

My first true outdoors trip was a 30-some mile backpacking trip in Glacier National Park.  My friends and I did that without the aid of GPS devices which were just becoming affordable for cash-strapped college kids like me.  Soon though, they dropped into my budget range and I justified the purchase of a "toy" which I also felt was a good safety net for navigation.  I used an old Garmin Etrex on every outdoor excursion thereafter: backpacking trips to Yosemite, Olympic, Gunnison, and Yellowstone;  canoe trips in the Boundary Waters; fishing in Canada; and even military operations in Afghanistan.

I really haven't been out on any extended backcountry trip now in about six years (which shocks me even as a write it, but that's for another post) and the navigation world has changed significantly in that time.  The old trusty Garmin eTrex, which carried me through countless miles on foot and on the water, is no longer useful in its 12th year in my gear bag.

Andy May and I need some quick GPS assistance for the overnight MTB ride to make sure we're on the right trail and stopping where we've identified some potential camp spots.  It doesn't make much sense to carry an old GPS device that has one purpose, is bigger than my phone, and doesn't have nearly the clarity and map capabilities that standard iPhone and Android apps now have.  So, alas, the Garmin is now officially retired. Fare thee well my old friend. 

The Now Retired Garmin eTrex Legend

But what to use now?

This hasn't been a super easy question to answer.  Effectively, I'm looking for something that I can load GPX files into and something that also allows me to purchase USGS or NatGeo maps for future trips.  I've got an Android phone so this post is limited to what's available on Google Play.

I've seen apps that do one or the other pretty well but so far have not run into one that does both well.

Avenza-  Looks great and is linked with NatGeo Quad Maps resources which is a huge bonus.  You can purchase NatGeo maps for just about anywhere and use them with this app but, unfortunately, you can't upload a GPX file to overlay.  The other drawback is that our route goes through two different quads on the map and I don't really want to pay $22 for our maps.  

Komoot - This app looks great from the Google Play store but you also have to purchase maps within it.  However….You get your first region free so it is possible I could use it to test out for the ride with the free map first.  It also can support GPX uploads. One catch - you have to pay a minimum of $6 to make that one free region available offline. Offline access is critical if we lose cell signal or if I want to use this in the future at all on more "off-grid" adventures. 

BikeGPX - This one got the endorsement by May for the iPhone but the reviews weren't as many or as good on Google Play as they were for Komoot and Avenza.  It does allow for GPX overlays but I read in the reviews that people were not able to load GPX files from their phone storage, which seems like it would prohibit offline use.  It also had a review that said it was unable to load a route in reverse.  While I'm not entirely sure that it matters for us on this ride, it may matter in the future on a different ride where I need turn-by-turn navigation.

AllTrails - I've heard good things but I didn't progress past the initial website because 1) I didn't see the actual Indian Peaks Traverse as a trail option and would have had to stitch together the trails comprising the traverse and 2) maps were a "Pro" function that costs $2.50 a month or $99/life.

Gaia GPS - It looked great, and allowed for GPX uploads but I saw two drawbacks.  1) the reviews on Google Play were both lower in stars and lower in total reviews; Gaia GPS had 4.2 stars on ~1,900 reviews vs. Komoot's 4.5 on 62,000 reviews.  2) Gaia GPS required a yearly subscription whereas Komoot required a one-time $29.99 fee in order to make my maps and tracking available offline.

In the end, I chose Komoot.  It had the best reviews, looked the part for what I want, and seems to have the flexibility to be used on day hikes in the future if it works out well on this trip.  I was able to download the Boulder region which includes the Indian Peaks Traverse trails and overlay the GPX after some googling.  Ultimately, as mentioned earlier, I found out I had to pay to have the offline version, but I felt a one-time fee of $29.99 was ok given that I could upload GPX files from REI's various "project" apps that have hiking and mountain biking trails as well as ski runs mapped out and available for downloads.

I'll never give up a paper copy and compass as my backup but the time is well past to get with the times and put my cell phone to some good backcountry use in navigation.

Analog Orienteering - Map, Compass, and Protractor

I'll update the post once I ride and have a review on performance. 


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