Recently there have been questions raised on CT regarding the suitability of gps apps on smartphones for backcountry navigation, rather than using a "real" gps. Here's an outline of how a now-outdated phone can be set up for navigating. The phone is a Nokia N8, which, being two years old, will fall short of what newer phones can do.
I have four gps/map apps on it: Trekbuddy, Nokia Maps, ViewRanger, and Google Maps. All of them can be running at the same time. The reason for having multiple such apps is that they have differing capabilities, which will become apparent as we explore them. The pictures in this article are screen captures taken on the phone. Most of the pictures are in portrait, but they can be displayed in landscape also.
It's important to distinguish between being online and offline. Online is when you have a cellular connection, or, for phones so equipped, a wifi connection. Offline is when you're out of cellular range and/or wifi range, or have those functions turned off. For backcountry use, gps mapping apps on phones must have an offline mode.
If you access mapping information using the cellular connection, it will cost you data download charges that will vary according to your plan, but can be very costly. If you use wifi, it's "free". If want to avoid cellular data downloading and the resulting fees, it's important to configure your phone so it won't do this. Because it probably will by default.
Trekbuddy has all sorts of settings, even one to control the power level used by the gps receiver. It can record tracks, waypoints etc. Here's a screen capture showing the winter backcountry access route up Hollyburn. The map is from the shareware source, Ibycus. Getting Ibycus set up for use on a cell phone is not for people with exciting lives.
I've detailed TrekBuddy/Ibycus installed on a Blackberry, on this earlier topic.
A TrekBuddy/Ibycus topographical view of a track up the winter route on Hollyburn Peak:
For those who are really into this stuff and want to know what TrekBuddy can do, here's a bunch of setup and configuration screens:
Nokia Maps is a free app for Nokia phones. After you register on Nokia's website, maps are free.
This app has a few modes. The first is a typical gps setup for vehicle navigation. You can set a destination, and it will display 3D maps and give verbal directions. It issues warnings if you're speeding. For safe vehicle use, you need a bracket so you don't have to hold it in your hand.
It has full lists of various types of countless thousands of Points of Interest (POI). If you're online, it can display traffic conditions. It also can display transit facilities.
So far, all this functionality is contained in maps you can download for free from Nokia, with maps available for most of the world.
The next features are more relevant to backcountry use. Nokia Maps does have a "Terrain View" mode that includes streets, but it's basically mountain shading and is useless. Nokia Maps, so far as I know, does not have a version with topographical information.
Nokia Maps has a "Satellite View" mode. The satellite views are not local (stored in the phone) by default. You have to browse along a route or around an area while you have a cellular or wifi connection. The data will be stored at whatever level of resolution you used for browsing. This doesn't take a lot of time, and compared to multi-gigabyte memory cards, the filesize is not a problem.
For instance, here is a view of Hollyburn Lodge. This can be extremely useful for bushwhacking, and finding trails in situations where just having a gps and topographical map is inadequate. But a lot of areas in Nokia Maps satellite view are in "fuzzyland" compared to, say, Google Earth.
Nokia Maps shows your location using the gps receiver, but it doesn't seem to have provision for basic gps functions such as tracking, waypoints etc.
ViewRanger is the cat's ass for backcountry use. It has so many different modes, it's not funny. There's satellite views, ski area maps, topographical, street and bicycle route maps. It has full capabilities for backcountry navigation, but does not do turn-by-turn street navigation. You can buy cheap maps online for pretty well anywhere you'd want to go.
If you have a Nokia phone, you can get ViewRanger itself for free, because it's hooked into the Nokia website. Like Nokia Maps, whatever you can browse while online will be stored locally, for free, and down to the level of resolution used for the browsing.
Satellite view of backcountry track and trail up Hollyburn, and a closeup of the summit. The tiny pond beside the summit is visible.
Ski area view has trail and facility maps for downhill and XC areas. These include a lot of summer hiking trails. Here are views of XC runs at Hollyburn, and the base area of the Cypress Mountain downhill area.
And a more detailed view of Hollyburn Peak. Interesting to note here are a couple of old ski runs, Slalom Run and Little Slalom Run, that have been allowed to grow in with trees.
Next, ViewRanger's topographical view. Note that it shows the cabins, roads, creek names, and hiking trails.
ViewRanger also has a street view mode. Here's one shot of this version of the Hollyburn XC area, and two of the Granville Island entrance area:
Here are three views of ViewRanger's bicycle mode. First, Vancouver's core area. Then, the Granville Island / Burrard Bridge area. Lastly, zoomed in even farther. At this level it even displays places to get coffee.
Some of ViewRanger's menu screens. These screens hint at the wealth of configuration and navigation options available in ViewRanger.
Prior to an outing, you browse your route using whatever type or types of views you expect to be useful on your trip. During your trip, you can easily switch between them, all the time with your gps location and your recorded track displayed. For instance, while bushwhacking in our complex mountain terrain, being able to switch between satellite and topographical views is very powerful compared to just topographical information.
Last, Google Maps
Even if I knew much about what Google Maps can do, I won't even attempt to do more than scratch the surface here. There are some important things Google Maps can't do, at least not on this phone. I used to be able to do Street View on the phone, but not anymore. I don't know if it's an o/s version issue, or whether Google took it away from Nokia. While Google Maps will store locally maps and satellite views accessed online IF you have an Android or iPhone, it won't do this for the lame duck Symbian o/s used by the Nokia N8. So far as I can figure out, Google Maps can't use the phone's gps, at least on this phone. So Google Maps on this phone is pretty useless if you're offline.
It will display traffic:
And a closer road map view of Granville Island. Not as good as ViewRanger's version.
Google Maps has satellite views with closer resolution than available on ViewRanger or Nokia Maps. Here's the top of the Romstad XC run at Hollyburn, in winter, where the upper backcountry access route starts. You can even see a couple of skiers. Plus a Google Maps view of one of the picnic shelters at Garibaldi Lake.
IF you can get satellite views in Google Maps with greater detail than you can obtain in other apps, but can't access them offline, a workaround is to browse them online and use a screen capture utility to save them as pictures in the phone. You can then look at them when you are in the field. But this is a rather clumsy way of doing it.
This should give you some idea of what the gps/mapping apps can do on smartphones. I agree battery life and receiver sensitivity generally are not as good on phones as dedicated gps units. Carrying a spare battery is simple enough. The sensitivity is at least adequate. For instance, a Garmin Hcx has no problem getting positions in a passenger lounge on a BC Ferry, while this thing has to be by a window. Even an Hcx will be defeated by dense woods, but this phone will be defeated sooner. It works just fine inside a car with no external antenna. It can get a position anywhere inside a typical frame house except the basement. I think that's good enough.
What impresses me is that whether I want bike route information, voice guidance to find some place while driving, looking at satellite views to find clearings while bushwhacking, saving a track, looking up the nearest bicycle repair store, checking traffic, needing a downhilll ski run map, etc., it's all in this one device.
Besides these four gps/map smartphone apps, there are many others available. But most of them don't have offline modes. A bunch of suitable ones are mentioned in this topic:
Something I haven't done yet is try to install a mapping app with marine charts.
Newer smartphones should be even better for gps/map tasks. I'm not up on what the latest dedicated gps devices can do, but I understand they're just beginning to implement satellite view capability. I doubt the dedicated units have anywhere near the flexibility of how this phone is set up. The phone's touchscreen works better than touchscreens I've tried on dedicated gps units. And for any generation of the devices, the smartphones have larger screens.