It would seem that hiking is amongst the simplest forms of recreation that a person could enjoy: just throw on some boots and hit the trail, right? And while there’s no question that it can be that simple sometimes, hikers have benefited considerably over the years from improvements in technology that yield high-performance fabrics, weather-resistant boots and tents, LED headlamps, hand-held GPS devices… and one of my personal favorites… the Apple iPhone. Offering over 250,000 applications, the list of things you thought you’re phone couldn’t do is getting smaller and smaller. With Spring on the way and hiking season just around the corner, I’ve decided to review some of the iPhone applications that have become indispensable tools while I’m out on the trails photographing the natural world.
“The iPhone?”, you say… surely I must jest! I’ll admit that the nation seems to be polarized over the issue of this seemingly ubiquitous device; some people embrace it with loving arms, others want to get as far away from it as possible. The latter accuses the former of haughtily turning their noses up at “non-iPhone owners”. The former accuses the latter of not facing the inevitable truth: that the iPhone is perhaps one of the most versatile examples of personal electronics available today.
But for my own part, I don’t really concern myself with the social debate. I’m too busy tackling forests, traprock ridges, river gorges, and swamps with my iPhone 4 (and a heaping helping of its indispensable apps) strapped to my D-SLR backpack. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the apps that make my list of 2011’s “Top 4 iPhone Map Apps”.
For those that aren’t familiar with this application, Google Earth offers detailed satellite photography of just about every square-inch of the planet’s surface. And, thanks to the iPhone 4’s built-in GPS functionality, a single click will center its world-wide map squarely upon your exact location.
The perspective gained with the help of Google Earth is truly unique, especially since I’m usually hiking the trails in search of great landscape photo opportunities. Wondering if that “river” marked on your map is actually just a glorified brook? Perhaps you’d like to know what type of terrain you can expect on the opposite side of the mountain? Maybe you’re anticipating that the forest will transition to a meadow soon, but for some reason, there are crowded tree trunks as far as you can see. The scenarios in which Google Earth proves useful are potentially limitless and it faithfully comes to your aid with a crisp bird’s-eye view of the local topography that is sure to prove insightful.
Google Earth, by the way, doesn’t just reside on the iPhone. Software of the same name can also be used on desktop computers and Google Maps integrates the same essential functionality into an online resource accessible with all major web browsers. In all of its forms, Google’s world-class satellite imagery comes free-of-charge… a price point that’s tough to turn down!
Bear in mind, though, that Google Earth shouldn’t be the only app in your “hiking toolkit”. Trails, roads, and other landmarks are commonly obscured beneath the forest canopy, so you’ll need to supplement Google Earth with other apps that call upon a more traditional style of map.
The Trails app is an all-in-one solution for hikers that want to record their route on the trails and mark waypoints for future reference. Within seconds, you can set it to begin recording a new trail. From that point on, it will plot your route as you move through the terrain while providing useful real-time information such as the total distance hiked, the speed at which you are moving and the amount of time you’ve been on the trail. Marking waypoints is also made exceptionally simple.
Perhaps one of the nicest features of this app is the fact that it will reliably run in the background while I reference other mapping applications. For example, I can switch over to Google Earth and take a look at the topography ahead without having to worry about the Trails app being interrupted.
To boot, Trails will also allow you to export your past hikes in standard GPS track formats, ensuring that the records you keep can be opened up in higher-powered mapping applications on desktop computers.
There a few things to keep in mind about the Trails app, though. While its GPS tracks generally tend to be rather accurate, don’t expect it to out-perform a dedicated, hand-held GPS unit. Devices that are expressly made to record GPS routes will almost always provide a level of detail and accuracy that the iPhone just isn’t designed to handle. In addition, I’ve found that the underlying base-maps for the Trails app don’t always reliably show up unless you’ve got a pretty solid connection to 3G service. Thus, it’s a good idea to have another app (like ‘AccuTerra Unlimited’, which is next on my list) that doesn’t rely on having uninterrupted 3G service in order to show you your real-time location on a more traditional type of map. Finally, the altitude readings taken by the Trails app are entirely hit-or-miss, oftentimes proving to be completely inaccurate… so take them with a grain of salt.
AccuTerra’s maps are of the utmost quality, providing a topographic overview complete with named geographic features, approximate boundaries of protected land (like state and local parks), and elevation lines that don’t clutter the display. And, like Google Earth, AccuTerra Unlimited draws upon the GPS capability of the iPhone 4 to immediately target your current location as you move.
What makes AccuTerra Unlimited even more impressive is its ability to store maps locally to the iPhone. If I’m headed out to a relatively remote location that may not offer on-the-spot 3G service, I can just download the full-resolution maps of the area ahead of time and rest assured that they’ll be there when I need them… even if I have no service at all!
In fact, AccuTerra can even record GPS tracks similarly to the Trails app. Personally, while I believe AccuTerra is truly a must-have addition to my hiking toolkit, I prefer the Trails app for recording my hiking routes. The Trails app has an interface that is designed specifically for the task, while AccuTerra is most useful as a high-quality map browser.
Before we had fancy world maps, hikers would usually obtain a copy of the location-specific hiking map produced by a park’s owners, whether it was the federal or state government or a non-government-owned land trust. These maps are oftentimes sparse on elevation data or omit some landmarks altogether, but unlike Google Earth or AccuTerra, they portray just about every trail in the area. Maplets draws on the usefulness of these location-specific maps by compiling a database of thousands… each at a high-resolution and searchable through a simple user interface.
One Maplets feature that I especially enjoy is its ability to quickly display a list of all the available maps in its database that are within range of your current location. Occasionally you’ll be surprised to find that it offers a map for a location only a few miles away that you didn’t even know existed!
This app is great, but it’s not necessarily a must-have. After all, most of the maps in the Maplets database are simply collected from the Internet and made centrally-available through the Maplets interface. Hypothetically, you could just find the websites for the state parks or local land trusts that manage the hiking locations you want to visit and get the maps directly from the source. Sometimes, though, it’s pretty handy to have access to so many maps in a single convenient location like Maplets; there isn’t always time to go hunting for location-specific websites.
Don’t forget, by the way, that Maplets is not really a GPS-enabled app. It will call upon your GPS location to provide a list of maps for nearby hiking spots, but it will not display your current location on the maps themselves. What it offers is a convenient digital map of the hiking trails for a given location, potentially replacing the need for a paper map. In addition, once you download a hiking map on Maplets, it’s stored directly to your iPhone’s memory. Thus, you won’t have to worry about running into a situation where you lose 3G service… the map will still be available.
During my own outdoor excursions, these apps have proven themselves time and again. Google Earth allows me to do “virtual scouting” of a location before I’ve even set foot on the ground there. While I’m out hiking, I’m routinely jumping between AccuTerra and Trails to maintain a solid notion of exactly where I am in relation to park boundaries and my point of origin, as well as to identify brooks or mountains that I find along the way and examine elevation changes that lie ahead. Maplets comes through in the clutch when I’ve finished a hike and have a sudden urge to head somewhere else nearby. By themselves, each one of these apps is a powerful tool. Together, they comprise my “Top 4 Map Apps”: a line-up of software that comes with me wherever I hike.
There’s no doubt that GPS and mapping software has been around much longer than the iPhone, but until now these tools lacked one key feature that Apple’s brilliant invention provides: an arguably incomparable mix of versatility and portability. So while others resist the iPhone merely because it’s popular, I’m more than content to leave the debate behind in favor of utility. After all, there are plenty of places I have yet to hike and I can rely on the iPhone to find them, direct me to eye-catching places, and guide me through the trails… what more could a hiker ask for?