Digital Navigation

Ryan McKee - 07/16/18

While the days of paper maps aren’t entirely gone, there are very few people left who carry around a Gazetteer or Rand McNally Road Atlas in their cars. We live in an age where we have an incredible reliance on cell phones for instant access to any kind of information we could ever dream of, and with this comes a dependency on digital navigation. Apple, Google, Waze, and even a smart-phone based version of MapQuest exist for almost all of your car routing needs, but when the pavement ends and your tires hit the dirt, who will lead the way?

Thanks to the growing demand for off-road oriented navigational tools, there are a variety of apps designed specifically for the challenge. While they can seem confusing to start, the majority work on similar platforms, utilizing features we’re familiar with from standard GPS software, and integrating a variety of base-maps for all different levels of intricacy.

Like a “.jpeg” file for photos or a “.doc” for text, GPS information has its own extension type, known as a “.gpx” file, that allows the data to be read by specific mapping software. While you may not be creating your own routes just yet (there will be a how-to on this exact topic) there are many websites that allow you to download pre-made GPS routes so that you can take on an off-pavement adventure someone else has already laid out.

Available for low or no-cost on a variety of smartphones are applications like Gaia GPS, AllTrails, MotionX GPS, and Backcountry Navigator, amongst a plethora of others. While each of these apps are different in their own ways, most allow for offline use, where you can download the route data in order to utilize it if – ideally when! - you lose cell service. Features like offline-use can make or break a situation if your adventures take you away from data reception by giving you all the information you’d need to navigate back home.

While each app can provide you with already published routes, they’re also extremely capable of tracking you should you head out on your own unwritten path. By using a “record” kind of feature, the apps will use your built in GPS to track a breadcrumb trail of your movement. You can add in notes, photos, and markers as you go, or utilize an app’s corresponding website to do so at a later point. Whether you keep your route private or share it with the Internet, this is a great way to personally catalogue backcountry routes for future adventures.

Keeping a paper map or gazetteer in your vehicle is never a bad idea, but when your vision of a good day’s drive involves dirt roads, thick forests, and scenic vistas with few others nearby, having familiarity with and access to off-road oriented navigation apps can make your day both safer and all around more enjoyable.