With the warm weather season in full swing, lots of folks are getting off the road to hike, jog, bike, or kayak through the great outdoors. Are you one of them? If so, there's a special group of apps out there -- in the "off-road GPS" category -- to help you navigate new terrain and track your progress as you wend your way through the mountains, valleys, and trails of the wilderness. Here are six of the best off-road GPS navigation apps for Android phones.
Backcountry Navigator is one of the oldest and most popular topographical mapping apps out there, with more than 50,000 paying customers on Google Play. It's also expensive, and not just because its $10 pricetag is twice most of the other choices. Backcountry Navigator has a considerable number of one-time premium options that it'll try to sell you on from inside the app. Additional topographical maps from Accuterra, Boundary maps of western states, showing state lines and divisions between federal and private land. Maps of snowmobile, ATV, whitewater rafting, and horseback riding trails. The list goes on.
If you opt for just the standard app, you're likely to end up using the standard US Geological Survey topographical maps. These are nice maps, and have excellent detail right down to showing the locations of buildings. However depending on where you live, they may vary from "not that current"--the last significant overhaul by the USGS was in 1992 -- to "really, really old." As a case in point, the map for my rural hometown was last updated in 1972. Granted that it's not like hills and mountains move that much. But that's more than enough time for areas marked as fields to become forests (and more than a few around here have), not to mention buildings and locations changing, towns growing, and even roads shifting, being built or abandoned. You can sample Backcounty Navigator through the free version, but only for 16 days before either it stops working or you have to pay up for the full version. It may be expensive, but it does have somewhat of a captive market for those who need the better Accuterra topographical maps.
Outdoors Navigator Pro
Unlike a lot of the other apps here, Outdoors Navigator doesn't have a specific set of activities for which it is designed; it doesn't assume that you'll be hiking, hunting, driving, or working out. The app is exactly what the name specifies, a navigator. It takes you to and from places, freeform or along established tracks, and remembers locations you tell it to. Using ONP does mean that if you're following a very specific trail. You need to do a little more work, like finding and pre-loading a GPX file to give it the route, since it doesn't have access to that already. But this also means that you don't have to pay for extras in order to download trail data, which is a reasonable trade-off.
Trimble also offers a free version, but without the ability to cache maps for use when you have no internet access, the freebie isn't all that useful if you're at any risk of losing data service. Since mountains and rural areas are notorious for that, the free version comes off as little more than a demo. Fortunately, the other features mostly make up for that. ONP gives you access to the same old USGS maps that Backcountry Navigator does, but it also offers aerial photo, road map, hybid aerial/road, OpenStreetMap, and "terrain."
The "terrain" mode is far less detailed than the topographical maps, but it does serve to outline primarily where obstacles like creek and river beds are. Where ONP shines is primarily the tracking and organizing options. Want to mark a point on the map? Tap and hold, and you can set a point, name it, and even differentiate between trip types, with categories from hiking and hunting to prospecting. You can keep notes of exactly where your campsite from three years ago was, down to a few feet, or where you took that great photo, even tagging video and audio recordings. You can let it record your entire hike, hunting trip, or route in whatever increments you like, from a foot to a mile.
Overall, I liked Outdoor Navigator Pro the best of all the apps I tried. It's fast, flexible, and easy to use. It also does things some of the others don't, like offering OpenStreetMap data that can tell you where things like high-tension electrical wires run, or displaying abandoned railroad lines which can be great if you're hiking through dense terrain. It would be nice, though, if the app had an option to give you distance and direction to your next waypoint, instead of simply an overhead view.
Backpacker GPS Trails is all about hiking. Yet it's not just regular hiking, but serious long-distance stuff. Also made by Trimble, it features a lot of the same basic map content as Outdoor Navigator Pro, such as road, aerial, OpenStreetMap, and topographical maps. However, it has a user interface that's been re-tweaked to the expectation of hoofing it through the terrain.
Like Backcountry Navigator, Backpacker requires you to pay extra for the data on the actual trails. But in this case, it's in a trail-by-trail format, typically 99 cents for a "short" trail up to 10 or 12 miles, and $1.99 per longer trail. Used frequently, that would eventually add up to more than the cost of BCN's hiking trails package, but it gives you the option of picking and choosing which you want, rather than being forced to get everything at once. If you only have a few regular trails which you hike, or if you only add new ones a couple times a year, it's highly economical. You're not limited to those routes, though. You can build your own tracks as well, or find more on the Backpacker GPS Trails online community. Backpacker also offers an ad-sponsored free version which doesn't cache maps for offline use.
Sports Tracker Pro
Calling this a "Sports" Tracker is probably a bit of a misnomer. "Exercise Tracker" would be much more accurate. STP uses your phone's GPS combined with careful timing to record outdoors-oriented workouts like jogging, hiking, kayaking, and biking. By comparing distance and speed, it tells you how many calories you burned. It also allows you to log, compare, and even share this data with friends using the same app. STP is highly geared towards social exercise. It even lets you set up for your friends to comment on your workout in real time from Endomondo website, and have the app read these comments to you while you're working out. (While this might be useful, it also might be rife with potential for abuse and mischief.)
Still, this app does offer a lot of other useful details, like vocal notifications when you've reached certain goals (or how far you are from them). It can also connect to several different types of external devices, like some heart rate monitors and the SonyEricsson SmartWatch. Even better, the free version includes almost all of the most relevant features, a nice boon for those who want to lose weight from some place other than their wallets.
Another purely hiking-related app, AQ is more expensive than the average. It doesn't come with trails data, nor does it try to sell you any after the fact. Rather, it expects you to load GPX files for trails you want to follow. Where it diverges from the pack, though, is that AlpineQuest is much more statistics-oriented than something like Backpacker GPS Trails. Where Backpacker emphasizes helping you to navigate and find your way along the hike, AlpineQuest is more extensively geared toward tracking your performance, speed, rate of climb, et cetera. In that way it comes off as closer to the exercise apps. It's more "challenge" than "exploration."
The nicest feature of AlpineQuest though, is its ability to create multi-layered maps. For instance, you can use a topographical map as a "base," and then overlay a transparent aerial photo layer on it, giving you both terrain information and a look at the real land, both in one. You'll see that the hill is forested, or that the little lowlands is covered in marsh. That's a great option, and one that more apps should emulate.
AllSport GPS Pro
The third Trimble app to appear here is essentially Trimble's answer to Sports Tracker Pro: a GPS enabled exercise app which helps you count calories and track records.
Unfortunately, while AllSport performs adequately enough on the basics, it lacks some of the more advanced features STP has, such as voice guidance and audible statistics, some of the more advanced social media functions, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to connect to a heart rate monitor for more accurate measurement.
Those may seem like fairly esoteric features to some people. Yet these capabilities can be really important for the more engaged fitness junkies who are using their smartphones to train.
If price is no object, BackCountry Navigator offers the most options and data for the offroad explorer, but you'll end up paying a small fortune in order to access everything. For the exercise-minded, Sports Tracker Pro by Endomondo is the best choice. For the rest of us, Outdoors Navigator Pro provides the best balance of flexibility, power, and cost.
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