Smart phone map apps that get you there and back

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In my job I’m often deployed to remote places to photograph and write about parcels of land that have recently been protected or otherwise conserved.
I relish this chance to get to explore new country and try to capture its most appealing angles in photographs. Yet often time getting there becomes part of the adventure. Trying to navigate myself to the right spot can take me scrambling up dirt roads or single-track trails at zero dark-thirty hoping to catch good light at sunrise. My first line of defense has long been a collection of war-torn, coffee-stained Delorme state gazetteers. Then I switch to more detailed USGS maps. But lately those have started shacking up with my smart phone.
Chances are you’re already accustomed to a computer voice emanating from your phone telling you a take a right in 500 feet.
But what about when you leave the cell tower grid behind? The rule book goes out the window. Your GPS may still technically work, but mapping data doesn’t stream without a tower. This requires you to download and cache the maps for the area you plan to visit well before you leave the digital comforts of civilization.
Two summers ago at the OWAA conference, I was introduced to a superb app called GPS Topo USA by Gogal Publishing Company. For $7 it quickly delivers any USGS topographic quad in the United States to your iPhone at the same 7.5-minute detail that outdoorspeople of a certain age will know all too well. The app’s maps, though, are shaded to better show mountains and valleys, and it allows you to swap to a satellite image à la Google Earth, or to sandwich both map layers together.
But the killer feature for me is that fact that once you’ve viewed a map, it’s automatically saved in memory so you needn’t have any cell-tower coverage to pull it up again. Before I leave town I just run my route plans with my finger, and all my maps are stored and ready.
For fish-heads, Gogal also publishes a Colorado Wild Trout app that maps out the Centennial State’s steams by fish species, access points and other key data. Again, it is designed to work with or without phone service. The company is also hard at work on similar apps for the Northeast, Pacific Coast and other areas, and makes a mapping app for National Parks and Monuments as well.
Gaia GPS is a similar app for both iOS and Android with more bells and whistles. At $19.99, it’s almost three times the price, but includes world-wide topo maps, weather radar (if you’ve got cell coverage), and tools for printing maps, among other features.
If you need map layers for landowner names, property boundaries and hunting units, OnX’s HUNT app delivers. It requires an annual subscription of $29.99 per state, but if legal boundaries are a concern, it will be money well spent keeping you in the good graces of the law.
For photographers, another type of app worth considering is one that provides data on sunrise and moonrise times, angles and directions of light for any given date, and even what direction the sun or moon will appear behind a given mountain. The Photographer’s Ephemeris app ($8.99) provides all this and more, but suffers from an overloaded interface due to its smorgasbord of options. PhotoPills ($9.99) is another option with a better interface, and adds exposure recommendations for time-lapse, star trails and other photo-exposure techniques.
No matter what the app, though, it’s worth looking for the term “offline viewing” to assure you can store e-maps and other data away for the backcountry. Also remember that using the GPS can zap your battery, so leave with a full-charge.
Do you have an app that you’ve found especially useful in your outdoor storytelling work? Share it on OWAA’s Facebook page at  ♦
– Paul Queneau is an editor for Bugle magazine at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Missoula, Montana. He is also a freelance writer and photographer with credits in Outdoor Life, Montana Quarterly and other publications.

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