Our old Melways street directory has gathered dust for years. We use Google Maps on the phone now. A man who sounds like George Bush barks out, ‘In 20 meters, at the roundabout, take the third exit. Take the third exit’. Despite his name, George is absolutely useless in the bush. Google Maps doesn’t show most dirt tracks and phone reception is often poor away from towns and highways.
Last weekend, we used a fantastic new GPS app during a day walk in a nearby national park. It’s a free app for Android phones and iPhones called Avenza PDF Maps. (If you’re the one reader of this blog who owns a Windows phone, you’re out of luck, yet again).
The app is really simple to use. Instead of continually downloading a road map or satellite image, as Google Maps and Google Earth do, you instead load a PDF map (a geo-referenced ‘spatial PDF file’) onto your phone or tablet before you leave home. The map is stored on the phone and the phone’s GPS sensor shows your location, even when phone reception is poor.
We used the app last weekend on a drive and walk in the wonderful Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park. The night before I bought and downloaded a topographic PDF map of the area from the Victorian Vicmap web site, and imported the map to the PDF Maps app on my iPhone (which is a breeze).
That’s all you need for the app to work, but I also used Google Earth on my computer to plan our route. We intended to walk up an old track to a low summit, then go cross-country from rock outcrop to rock outcrop, and back on the other side of the ridge to the car. I drew the path on Google Earth and imported the path file into the PDF Maps app, which overlaid the route on the PDF base map, as you can see above.
The next day we drove to our starting spot and opened the app, which showed our location and planned route on the screen. The ‘Record GPS Tracks’ option marked our path as we walked around. Along the way I ‘pinned’ some place marks (way points) to places we might return to some day – a stand of veteran trees, an old grass-tree, a great view. Every so often, I took a photo with the iPhone camera, and the app linked the photo to a point on the route. When we got home, I exported the route, way points and photos to the home computer (although this step isn’t necessary).
A phone app is no replacement for a proper GPS, especially on a long remote walk or if you need super-accurate locality readings. That said, I’ve never used a GPS that looks this good and is this simple to use. It’s perfectly suited for recording points of interest on a day walk. It’s extremely quick and snappy, with no slow delays. The menus are big, clear and simple, and the maps and way points are easy to read in the sun.
The Victorian Vicmap web site recommends the PDF Maps app for viewing their topo maps on mobile devices. Parks Victoria also has free PDF Maps of some National Parks on their web site but not many at this stage.
If you want an easy-to-use GPS app for your mobile phone, give it a try. You may have to pay for the base maps (depending where you get them), but the app is free. I’ll be using it to record our walks and the things we see from now on. It sure beats listening to George.
Do you use this or a similar app when you go out in the bush? What do you most like about the system that you use?
The top photo of an old street directory is from the State Library of Victoria blog site.