Digital Maps for your Smartphone

Warnings: (1) This is a tech-heavy email. (2) Some information will need updating. Refer to the Syllabus for current instructions. (3) Alaska, California, and Colorado trips should not activate their GaiaGPS accounts until the end of their trip is less than two months way. (4) I can’t become a tech help service. Please try to troubleshoot. If I sense mass confusion, I will try to share the instructions in an additional format, e.g. screenshots or a video.

I navigate primarily using paper maps, my magnetic compass, and/or watch (which has a clock and an altimeter). As a secondary system, I also have GPS functionality on my smartphone using a GPS app. 

Some hikers may consider my approach old-fashioned, since it’s increasingly common to navigate exclusively or primarily with GPS. But I value its reliability; I think it’s more efficient; and I appreciate the art.

A GPS smartphone app has two purposes. First, it’s a library of digital maps, as both a backup and a supplement to your printed maps. Second, it has the same functionality you’d expect of a traditional handheld GPS, like finding your location, calculating distance & direction to a waypoint, and navigating to a waypoint. Versus a handheld GPS, it’s lighter, less expensive, and more user-friendly.

Your assignment:

Historically, we have taught navigation the “old school” way with paper maps, compass, clock, and altimeter. We will still do that. However, this year we also plan to teach GPS navigation. 

To participate, you will need to download onto your smartphone:

  • A GPS app like GaiaGPS or CalTopo, and
  • Offline maps (and other imagery, if you’d like)

Do NOT wait until we’re in the field to do this — you’ll need data service (and ideally wifi). Also, do NOT wait until the last-minute if this technology is new to you. It may take you a while to figure it out.

If you don’t own a smartphone, you can look over someone’s shoulder in the field. If you have a smartphone without mobile service, you can still participate so long as you download the data beforehand over wifi.

I have secured you free trials with two GPS apps:

  • GaiaGPS (2 months), which has been thoroughly trail-tested;
  • CalTopo (6 months), which is in beta testing and which will not be available for iOS until later this month, but which conveniently syncs with your CalTopo website account.

Instructions for GaiaGPS

1. Do NOT start your 2-month free trial until the end of your trip is less than two months away. Otherwise, the app will not work during your trip.

2. Go here, and click on “Redeem.”

3. Create an account. You will not be asked for a credit card. If you wish to renew your subscription after the free trial, you will need to enter one.

4. Download the GaiaGPS app for Android or iOS, and log into your account.

5. Proceed to “Download offline maps.”

Instructions for CalTopo

1. If you have not already, redeem your free CalTopo Basic subscription, following the instructions I sent a few days ago.

2. Download the CalTopo app (Android, iOS via TestFlight) and log into your account.

3. Proceed to “Download offline maps.”

Download offline maps

GaiaGPS and CalTopo will have full functionality even if without data service — so long as you have downloaded the maps beforehand

I recommend downloading these map layers:

  • WV and CO: “USFS 2016” in GaiaGPS, and “FSTopo (2016)” in CalTopo
  • AK and CA: “USGS Topo” in GaiaGPS, and “USGS 7.5’” in CalTopo

In GaiaGPS, you may also consider downloading “Satellite” (all locations) and “NatGeo Trails Illustrated” (for all locations but WV).

For GaiaGPS:

1. Download this GPX file to your phone.

2. Import the file to the app, using the encircled + button.

3. Zoom in on your trip location and look for the tracks that I created for each location.

4. Change to the recommended imagery layers.

4. Follow these instructions to download maps. (Hint: Use the encircled + button again, and look for “Download Map.”) The pink download area should encompass the track.

Note: If you have limited memory on your phone, reduce the “Max Zoom” level using the slider at the top of the screen. 

To download maps for offline use in CalTopo:

1. Download this GPX file to your computer. 

2. Log into the CalTopo website, and import the file. Save this map. Change the mapping layer to MapBuilder Topo, if it’s not already selected. 

3. Zoom in on your trip location and look for the tracks that I created for the location.

4. Log into the CalTopo app. Click on the “hamburger” to reveal the main menu, and select “Offline Layers.” A nationwide map will be presented, centered over Kansas.

5. Choose the aforementioned recommended imagery layer (e.g. FSTopo or USGS), and standard resolution.

6. Zoom in on your trip location, until a blue grid appears. Identify the tiles that encompass your track, by comparing the website screen to your phone screen; the phone will not display the track. Tap on the tiles that encompass the track, turning them yellow, then hit the Download button.