Jun 15, 20182852 views

How to Use Your Cell Phone for Backcountry Navigation

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Thru-hikes, especially the more difficult off-trail thru-hikes—the Continental Divide, the Wind River High Route, the Hayduke Trail—require the savvy of an experienced hiker, but modern technology can simplify the trouble of navigating via map, tracking your coordinates, and charting a course.
Yes, there is a lot of incentive for leaving your mobile device at home while you venture into the backcountry. Most importantly, the damn thing won't work outside of cell signal, but it’s also a great feeling to unplug. Some of you may prefer a laminated map and compass; after all, the technology has been reliable for hundreds of years.
Still, cell phones do much more than place phone calls these days, and you won’t be able to send and receive texts or update social media while your phone’s GPS tracks your location. On a long thru-hike, the power to know your location instantly without having to tango with compass and paper is very useful indeed, especially in an off-trail environment, especially on long, 25-mile days when time is more valuable.
A Word of Caution If you are new to backcountry navigation, it is absolutely essential that you learn to navigate by map and compass. While there are risks to any navigational aid, proper training and experience is irreplaceable, and knowing how to move in and out of unfamiliar terrain with the proper references can very easily save your life. Experienced hikers may choose to replace their map and compass with the system outlined below, but only do so if you know yourself to be an experienced backcountry navigator—and even then, it is smart to prepare for the worst by carrying a backup.
Tools of the Trade CalTopo (https://caltopo.com/map.html): CalTopo is a backpacker’s best friend, providing high-quality digital maps for digital use and printing. With CalTopo, backpackers can create geospatial PDFs, digital documents that are layered with GPS coordinates that your phone will use to place your location on the map.
Avenza (https://www.avenza.com/): a freemium app, Avenza is highly worth the annual upgrade subscription of $29.99. With this app, you can locate yourself on the maps you create in CalTopo. The upgrade price allows you to download and use more maps, making the app much more practical. It also features an extensive map store with more than a million maps to download.
Create Your Maps With CalTopo and Avenza, you have a couple options: create your maps in CalTopo and upload them to Avenza yourself, or skip the work and buy a ready-made map in the Avenza store. In many cases, you can find what you need in the store or elsewhere on the web. Simply search for it.
Otherwise, it’s relatively easy to coordinate your route planning with map creation in CalTopo. In many cases, you can search the web for a CalTopo route already plotted in the map editor. The wisest thru-hiker will take the time to plot the entire course of the trail in its entirety, and CalTopo has the tools for that. Simply plot the official trail coordinates using the mapping tools in CalTopo, or use the maps themselves to find a potentially feasible route.
CalTopo is a fickle beast, and in order to get your map imbued with the proper coordinates, you need to create your geospatial PDF in a specific way. Fortunately, it isn’t technically challenging. For the sake of brevity, we’re going to use an existing map that can be found online. We’re going to use the Hayduke Trail.
Search Google for “Hayduke Trail” and “CalTopo.” There are several options to choose from. Either of the top two are useful. These links will bring you the Hayduke Trail plotted in myriad ways: by sections, in its entirety, etc. Again, the wiser hiker will cross-reference these trail maps for accuracy.
  1. Select the “Print to PDF” option from the toolbar in the header. This will open a new window.
  2. Select from the sidebar desired options, including scale and grid lines. Typical hiking maps use a scale of roughly 1:25,000. Most of these options are preset and appropriate, and scale is most important. Also important: you must select the Geospatial PDF format.
  3. Position the red box on the map to the appropriate section of the trail.
  4. Click “Generate PDF” at the bottom of the sidebar.
  5. Repeat for each section of the trail. Allow for some overlap between trail sections. This will help you off of one map and onto another in the field.
  6. Voila!
Generate only one section and PDF at a time. While CalTopo’s free version allows you to stack up five different sections at a time (each section gets a red box), creating a six-page PDF, it unfortunately disables the website’s ability to layer geospatial coordinates into the PDFs. That means that Avenza won’t recognize coordinates on the maps once they’re uploaded into the app. If you generate more than one, you won’t be able to use your phone’s GPS capabilities to place yourself on the map, and thus the map-app combo becomes an essentially useless visual aid.
Upload Your Maps Next, we need to upload our maps into Avenza. You have two options: upload your map into Dropbox and import via Avenza, or use CalTopo’s unique URL to upload directly. Both are fantastic options, and uploading into Dropbox gives you a cloud-based backup that you can resort to should something happen to your phone.
  1. Once your map is created in CalTopo (this can take a moment), download your map to your computer’s Dropbox folder. The map will automatically sync if you’re running your Dropbox helper.
  2. Copy the link from CalTopo. In the example above, this link is https://caltopo.com/p/292G.
  3. In Avenza, click “My Maps” and tap the plus sign in the top-right corner.
  4. Tap “From Dropbox” or enter a URL.
  5. If necessary, copy and paste the CalTopo URL into Avenza.
  6. The map will automatically download and add itself to your map library.
  7. Voila! Take a look at the bottom and you’ll see the map coordinates at the targeted location. Within this screen, you can pan from corner to corner.
If you open the map, it should display coordinates as you pan around. If it doesn’t, you know your map hasn’t been referenced, meaning it doesn’t have GPS coordinates, and it isn’t a geospatial PDF. You missed a step. Try again!
Once on the trail, using the map is as easy as opening Avenza to the proper section! If you’ve followed these steps, Avenza will display your location in the same way that your other map apps do. Consider one of the hardest navigational challenges solved.

No system is perfect. What challenges do you need to anticipate with this wayfinding method? Let us know in the comments.
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KarenCheng, jblaser, and 12 others
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I use Gaia GPS on my phone, but being "old school," I still carry a "hard copy" topo map and a compass. I prep with both before the trip. I like being able to record the route and waypoints on the phone while in the field and then transfer newly discovered campsites and other points of interest to a master map after the trip.
EDIT: Many of you have left comments regarding the cavalier opening paragraph and the potential dangers for inexperienced hikers who may come here and misread a system meant for experienced hikers as a shortcut past essential backcountry skills. I agree, and I've edited the opening paragraph to remove what you might call hubris and added a word of caution. Thank you all for your feedback.
The original paragraph:
Navigating long thru-hikes once required actual map-reading skills. Not anymore. Gone are the days when you needed orienteering, triangulating your position on a map from compass bearings and natural landmarks. How archaic. Nowadays, the process of orienteering and charting a course is automatic, on-the-spot, and easy. Here’s how.
jonathanstull
I disagree with the criticism your original post got. This elitism some some outdoor enthusiasts have about some “need” for learning an antique method of orienteering is an artificial barrier which in my opinion prevents people from feeling comfortable exploring nature. The real issue is pacing yourself, if you are new, to not take on a trip that is too technical, or too long without experience to help you plan what YOU need. I can appreciate nostalgia of a compass and paper map but this is the age of GPS and satellite communications. GPS units can be more than tough enough to be brought outdoors and used in the wilderness. Garmin BaseCamp, as an example, is a great and easy tool to plan a route. You can carry a handheld unit and strap it to yourself with a clip and even bring a spare set of batteries as backup. My only issue with using a smartphone is that they are so fragile in nature. This is just my $0.02 on the matter, but it absolutely strikes a nerve with me when I see people get so fixated on paper maps and compasses. If you’re convinced I’m wrong, please explain your position on how a compass and map is so much better than a GPS. And to snuff it out up front... the “a compass doesn’t need batteries” argument falls short in my book. Battery life is great these days and you only need it powered on when hiking.
Why not just use Onx maps? Has private land ownership with names and all the different layers you can add. Plus you can down load the map and use it when you don't have cell service. Put your phone in Airplane mode and you are golden.
bobhunts
Love the suggestion. I’m not familiar with Onx maps, but I’ll check it out.
Several years ago I walked the AAWT here in Oz using paper maps, and carrying a basic GPS as backup; it was useful once. Another guy I heard about came out from the US but gave up not long before the end when his mapping GPS failed.
On another occasion we had both GPS and phone problems, resulting in an unnecessary search & rescue callout (long story); fortunately, the guys who came out saw it as good practice.
IME, it's essential to have map and compass skills, but as mentioned above, in whiteouts a mapping GPS or phone can save a lot of uncertainty.
I don't want to take away from an otherwise well written article but I think it's irresponsible to make the statements in the entry line and first section. Just remove those bits entirely and add some of what's in the comment here below about maps still being an essential skill, imho. You don't need to state a case for the main topic and content of the article or do any convincing that it has value, just present the facts and methods in this tutorial. Lengthened considerably, you could support statements and explore sides/issues to make it more useful, but keeping it short as is, those statements are poor. Also, it's a weak statement to suggest that "thru hikes" are any more or less challenging, navigationally speaking, than shorter trips anywhere else around the country - just depends on the trail and local land managers/trail groups. Call it how to use caltopo and avenza for navigation since it is focused only on that.
I don't want to sound like a grumpy grandpa here, but we should Never Ever discourage people from a) carrying a paper map (as primary tool or backup) or b) learning and practicing those very basic analog navigational skills. Ever. Rather, go ahead and encourage people to do that, so they are not handicapped in the event of loss, damage, other failure, or inability to get a satellite fix. With analog skills you are better prepared overall and perhaps can still make use of e-helpers even without a sat fix (that does happen you know) or, say, when the compass hardware in the phone is inaccurate (if it even has it, many do not). For phones that do still have compass hardware, most are notoriously bad, perhaps only giving a semi-solid indication of North but getting wonky as a user points in other directions, and calibration often does not fix it or only does so temporarily. Compass hardware has mostly gone the way of FM radio reception as included features. Many of us grew up with analog skills and are confident in our navigation methods and techniques, and now enjoy some of the ease and benefits of e-helpers, but you gotta remember that this site, niche as it is, still reaches a broad audience. A ton of people who will bother to read this topic are most likely noobs who do not yet have any navigational skills. Plenty of stories every year about babes in the wilderness getting lost and unable to figure out their predicament because they just never bothered to learn before diving in to the hobby - I recall a couple of them that had paper maps and a compass along (because "they were supposed to") but didn't have a clue how to benefit from them, so when their phones failed they were out of luck even though they had what they needed.
Stepbystep
Fair points. My intent is to encourage a useful alternative. For those who are new to the outdoors, it’s crucial to learn those analog skills, if for no other reason than it teaches you to read the land and pay attention to your surroundings.
Thanks for the feedback.
Folks in whiteouts or the rounded hills of the Australian high country where features can be very hard to distinguish maps can be VERY difficult to use. GPS's on the other hand allow you to be more accurate about your position and your course in those conditions. I carry Map, GPS and Phone (offline maps and in airplane mode). Three levels of redundancy. Maps require constant monitoring to know exactly where you are in some terrain.. and at times I just want to day dream while I walk :) Electronics allow me to do that. Furthermore I have never had my electronics fail in over 6 years - this risk is overstated. The biggest problems with Phones for navigation is the touch screen and fragility of them - nearly useless in the cold and rain whereas a hardcore GPS with physical interface (not touch screen) will be useful in all conditions
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Step-by-step I am not advocating smart phones. My primary eNav is a a ruggedised waterproof Garmin for which I can carry spare batteries. My Smart phone is a backup. And I love to have paper map as Primary. All nav aids can be “broken” in the wild paper and compass included. And the other risk is error ... more likely to happen with paper map and compass.
StuartBarry
I absolutely agree with your statement that all things can fail. The simplest and easiest is the gps navigation system. I use paper maps to mark spots with notes about fish caught, sights seen, and other experiences. I usually frame them or scrapbook them as memories.
Human error using a map is 100s of times more likely than a GPS direction issue
I didn't try to fiddle with CalTopo too much. I use OsmAnd+ which I downloaded some maps to. It is possible to display more than one map at the same time by choosing the opacity for the top map. It can also load various online map sources which is great when hiking in areas with cell reception.
Yeah, maps are great. Unless you have to walk for 5 days straight in foggy conditions. Had that happen to a friend in Sweden.
The ability to read a topo map is indispensable in the back county. If you are hiking along known trails or in a small area with well defined landmarks over a short period of time then by all means take your phone for pictures, tunes and navigation. If you pay attention to your surroundings then you will probably be ok if the phone dies. The batteries won't die in your map and compass. "One is none"
Mike_B
A Garmin Fortrex 601 will last over 48 hours in navigation more or a month as a watch.
A spare set of AAA and how can you go wrong?
i never understood the battery life argument. Plan and pack for how long you are out and add more if you want
How to get lost and or die in a backcountry environment: #1 Rely on your cell phone for navigation rather than developing those "archaic" map reading skills. Anyone ever experienced a lost phone, broken phone, wet phone, or dead battery? Please don't go into a real backcountry environment without knowing how to read a map.
Cynicism aside, phones (like GPS units in general), can be really useful primary or back-up navigational tools, and you've provided some good tips above. They just shouldn't be your only navigational tool.
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idoc72
Before the gps was available, what was your backup to a map/compass?
Cuylar
That was way before cell phones or internet, so there was a lot more emphasis on preparation and knowledge of the environment you were going in to. If you're good with a topo map, you can navigate most anywhere on land. It's hard to answer your question about back-up to a map and compass because I wouldn't go into a backcountry situation without them (or having studied the map ahead of time). In the areas I've most commonly hiked, hunted, or camped, you can typically find civilization by going downstream if lost. There are exceptions to that, but it holds true in most areas.