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BackCountry Nav Is a Good - but Not Sufficient - Guide

BackCountry Nav Is a Good - but Not Sufficient - Guide

My introduction to Android app mapping was on a 100-mile or so, three day no-cell service drive across the hot and gnarly California desert a few years ago. My buddy and I were exploring the beaten-up, and sometimes barely visible four-wheeling Mojave Trail, an ancient wagon train route from the East into California. I was looking to download hundreds of square miles of offline topo maps.

By Patrick Nelson
08/17/12 5:00 AM PT

BackCountry Navigator Pro GPS, an app from CritterMap Software, is available for US$9.99 at Google Play.

With ubiquitous Google Maps installed as standard on smartphone OS market leader Android's devices, why anyone would need anything else?

 backcountry
navigator pro

Well, the principal benefit of an app like BackCountry Navigator Pro GPS and competitor Gaia GPS, is that they provide offline access to topographic maps.

Topographic, or relief, maps represent terrain using graphical contour lines, and they aid in outdoor-activity navigation.

If you couple topo mapping with an Android device's GPS, you have a handy navigation tool. If you add map download functionality, you have an offline device that can operate where there's no mobile coverage. Air-safe mode saves batteries too.

It's not all roses, though. Ask your friendly mountain rescue team. As they will attest with their search and rescue figures, the big problem is the limited battery life of the devices.

App users would be wise to learn how to use and carry a traditional map and compass that doesn't require power. I rarely carry a hard copy, but I carry juicy extra batteries, and I've written about that before.

The App

Once you've bought the app for US$9.99 at the Google Play store, BackCountry Navigator Pro GPS uses publicly available maps that you can download or preview when online.

The whole package takes advantage of the fact that most Android devices -- but not all -- don't need an online connection to operate GPS functions.

Beautifully shaded AccuTerra maps are available as an optional add-on for $20. If you're familiar with Magellan GPS devices, it's the same map.

Other paid maps include U.S. TrailMaps at $15.99, various U.S. Bureau of Land Management maps, and others. I've found the free, included open source OpenCycleMaps great for all kinds of trials across Europe and the U.S. -- including hiking.

Downloading Capability

My introduction to Android app mapping was on a 100-mile or so, three day no-cell service drive across the hot and gnarly California desert a few years ago. My buddy and I were exploring the beaten-up, and sometimes barely visible four-wheeling Mojave Trail, an ancient wagon train route from the East into California.

Then, I was looking for the ability to download hundreds of square miles of offline topo maps and import Web-researched trail coordinates. I chose Gaia GPS from TrailBehind ($2.99 in Google Play) over BackCountry because Gaia allows for a 30,000 tile download.

That easily covered a hundred miles of trail.

Backcountry Navigator Pro requires that you download those kinds of vast areas in batches of tiles, which is time consuming and prone to error. Both Gaia and BackCountry are subject to server freezes though, where downloads inexplicably stop. I've found this issue on multiple devices.

The Gaia 30,000 tile count comes in at about three-quarters of a gigabyte, which leads me to the problem with Gaia -- storage selection options.

You can't choose an aftermarket high-capacity, specific SD card if your device has more than one designated SD card. Android, through a quirk, names internal storage "SD card" and external storage "SD Card External," or similar.

Map Storage

Gaia logically tags specific maps that you've downloaded and stores them, labeled in a download area. Thus you can delete redundancies easily and can also see what you've got.

BackCountry doesn't do this. It just collects tiles, and it has a convoluted half-baked solution for seeing what you've got. You need to go offline and zoom into various parts of the world to see what shows up.

I end up deleting everything using a file browser and starting again each time -- again, a time-consuming performance.

Overall Assessment

As long as you don't push BackCountry Navigator Pro beyond its download limits, it's a good app. Self-created open source Mobile Atlas Creator maps can be imported, and making one of those could be a fun project.

Backcountry has more map source options than Gaia, and that may substantiate the considerable price difference. BackCountry isn't without its foibles though.


Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.


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