Preparing my navigation tools for Te Araroa

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m using Google Maps’ My Maps feature to create a map of the route, accomodations (read: huts) along the way, things to be on the look out for, etc. This has been immensely useful.

However, there’s no way to get this information in the Google Maps app when you are offline. Google Maps does have an offline download feature, but it doesn’t work for the “my places” part of the app. Additionally, the only base maps available are ones that Google provides, which are good, to be sure, but they aren’t NZ Topo Maps good. Between these two faults, using Google Maps as my primary on-the-trail navigation aid was not possible. I did it in Japan, but I also had cell reception probably 95% of the time I was on the trail in Japan. I won’t have that luxury in NZ. I’d be surprised if I had cell reception 20% of the time. This isn’t to say anything bad about NZ, more that I’m going to be in some pretty remote areas, and NZ is really sparsely populated as it is.

So I went searching for mapping apps I could use on my phone. Ideal candidates had to support importing KML, which is what My Maps exports, they had to support custom base maps so I could add the NZ Topo Maps, and they had to be able to be usable with airplane mode enabled. They did not need to have any points of interest or anything already in them, available for offline use, but if they did, bonus. Other available map layers would also be very useful, but not necessary.

There are a lot of mapping apps on iOS, but in almost all cases they fell flat. ArcGIS Explorer seemed at first like a very plausible app. It even allows for freehand drawing on the map itself, which could be handy for on the fly handwritten notes or freehand plotting of a diversion course. Sadly, this does not seem to be usable offline, at least not without a costly subscription to ArcGIS online services, and even then I’m not entirely certain about it.

Another app I came across, with strong recommendations (sorry, I don’t have a source for those) was iHikeGPS-NZ. At first this seemed really reasonable. And the price was pretty good. But after trying and failing to get it to show me any maps for several days, I started looking elsewhere. I did eventually manage to get it to show me maps, though. I had set it to download maps for me which was great, but I couldn’t figure out how to get the map display to actually show me New Zealand at all. Eventually I decided to try importing a KML file anyways, which worked! I could pull up a way point that I’d loaded in from the KML and have it show me on the map! From there I could slide the map around and look at surrounding areas, zoom in and out, everything I needed. There were 2 problems though: first, it was incredibly slow. In fairness, this probably has more to do with the fact that I told it to download the maps for the entire South Island, which are probably very large, and it was probably decompressing them on the fly. This told me, though, that it was probably consuming a large amount of CPU to do this, which would eat my battery life. The second problem was the KML file I imported, none of the custom icons made it over. The UI was also really strange, and overall the app didn’t really do it for me.

I spent a lot of time looking through the app store, searching the internet, and didn’t really find anything I felt confident plunking down the money for. Side note: please please please, Apple, won’t you give us the ability to have a trial period for apps? I don’t mind spending $50 for a quality app if it’s what I need, but I do not want to do that not knowing at all what I’m getting. Screenshots don’t tell me enough, I need to actually use it. Anywho, eventually I discovered Galileo Offline Maps. I wish I could tell you how I found it, but I can’t, so I’ll just have to recommend it! They have 2 versions, a free, in-app-purchases version, which appears to have all of the functionality of the “pro” version, but unlockable via in-app purchases, and the paid “pro” version which has everything already unlocked. Either way it was $3, so I went with the one without in-app purchases! This app is nearly exactly what I’ve been looking for!

First of all, it has support for importing KML. Many of the apps I looked at only supported GPX imports, which wasn’t all that useful to me. It even preserves the “folders” that KML supports, and allows you to organize your tracks and “bookmarks” as they call them, all within the app. There’s a flaw with the out-of-the-box usage of the app with importing KML, and that’s that custom marker icons (“categories” in the app) are lost upon importing KML. I mentioned this as a fatal flaw with one of the other apps I tried. The difference was, in this app, I could still add my own custom icons after the import, which lead to believe that I could probably figure out a way to get custom icons imported. Spoiler alert: I can. I am working on some tooling which will convert the output from Google Maps to the correct inputs to Galileo. Once I have this going, I’ll write up a post documenting that.

It does do offline maps, as per the name, but I think it has had some of that functionality disabled since the review I read (sorry, no link, don’t remember it) had been written, and now the app only supports downloading a limited selection of vector maps for offline consumption. I have a feeling this is in large part due to space concerns, and of course impact on the tile provider while it downloads everything. There’s probably also some copyright / licensing issues (despite the fact that NZ Topo Maps are CC licensed). However, there are 2 ways you can get custom raster tiles into the app. It supports a mapsource file which has some metadata about upstream map tile providers. It also has support for bulk importing custom map databases that you provide, built using third party tools. The mapsource file doesn’t make it so you can download the tiles for the whole country at once, but the app does cache any tiles it downloads, and in the limited experience I’ve had using the app, this functionality is enough to give me what I need in an offline experience. I just have to make sure before I leave the internet that I’ve seen the entire map of the section I need, at both resolutions supported by the NZ Topo Maps, and the cache will take care of making them available offline for me. Fortunately, I have plenty of time to play around with this feature before I get too deep into the sticks, and I can always fall back to the vector maps if necessary. Also, if I have some extra time, I’ll look into creating a custom map database that I can import into the app with the tiles I’ll want for the trip, to then worry less about the faux offline mode. The cache settings seem to only care about the size of the cache, not the age of the items in the cache, so I feel pretty confident I’ll be able to rely upon that functionality while on the trail.

It should go without saying that I am not, however, going to rely on this as my sole navigational aid for the trail.

A friend of mine is letting me borrow her Garmin InReach Explorer, which is a handheld GPS device. I’ll load some maps that I can find, along with at the very least the GPX version of the route map, if not my full KML version from Google Maps. This will be a backup navigation aid, however, as it also doubles as my emergency help summoning tool. It is connected to the Iridium satellite communications network which will allow me to summon assistance as well as do some basic (but very expensive) communication while off the grid, so long as I have battery and a view of the sky. I’ll use this also for on demand weather reports for sections of the trail that are particularly weather sensitive. In sections where I’m at risk of losing my pack (river crossings, in particular), I’ll be sure to carry the Garmin attached to me, and not to my pack, and if possible, do the same with my phone. While my phone is water resistant, it’s also my primary navigation tool, among other things, so I’ll probably keep it in a small dry bag (read: ziplock) during river crossings, just in case.

I’ll also be bringing paper maps of the longer, more remote stretches of the trail. Ones where running out of battery is a real possibility, or where a broken navigation device could leave me lost without much of a clue as to where to go. For shorter legs I won’t bother with the paper maps, as I am not going to be very far from a road, and there’s really only one route to follow, so getting lost would be much harder to do. Another thing I want the paper maps for is if I need to divert around an impassible section of the route (weather, landslide, improper gear, etc), I’ll be able to look at them and see what other tracks are in my vicinity, to either route around the obstacle, or at the very least get me to the nearest road where I can attempt to hitch a ride back to a safe place. I’ll of course be carrying a compass as well!

With Galileo Offline Maps, the Garmin, and paper maps / compass, I am confident I’ll be able to find my way along the trail, no matter what happens along the way.

I would like to call out something I wish I had seen sooner, but in hindsight am actually happy I didn’t see sooner, and that is Guthook (via reddit). This seems to have nearly everything I’d want. Offline access to NZ Topo maps. The route itself. Huts and other important places along the way. It even does cool things like telling you how far to the next hut, next water, notes from other users of the app, elevation profiles, etc. It seems very cool, and I may actually pick it up, but I’m glad I did the work of creating my own map anyways, since it has significantly increased my familiarity with the trail, and increased my confidence in being able to do this. I know where my food is coming from, at the very least!

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