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Free OS Digital Licences and OS Map App

By Dave Roberts   

on November 14, 2015    No ratings yet.

Free OS Digital Licences and OS Map App

You may have noticed that the OS Explorer maps have recently had a face lift on the covers, but maybe not that they represent what’s possibly one of the most significant event since they printed the first OS maps? While digital maps have been around for years now, they can prove to be expensive to purchase, especially at the more useful 1:25k scale. It would also leave a bitter taste in the mouth, not to mention the wallet, having to shell out for a digital copy of a map that you’ve already got on your shelf.

craig fach (19 of 45)

No longer will you need bottomless pockets to own digital mapping at a decent scale as you now get a free digital map when you buy your paper copy, which really is about time! Just make sure you don’t get fobbed off with retailers trying to offload their old stock on you, and ensure that it has the digital download icon on the front!

How does this work? Scratch off the silver panel inside, find out that you haven’t won £100,000 but instead you’ve got a code for a free digital map which then needs to be entered into your app. Ensure this hasn’t already been scratched off before buying!


What App can I use it in? This is where the whole idea starts to get a bit less perfect. You may get a digital download, but you can’t just use it in any app you choose and you must use the OS Maps app. If you’re a long time Viewranger user for instance, you really would want to be able to open and use your digital map in your app of choice. Likewise, you can’t just open it in your desktop mapping application like Memory Map or Tracklogs.

Using the OS Maps App.

You’ll need to set up an account with the OS, and enter the code from the scratch off panel on the map. We had difficulty doing this from the mobile, and ended up completing this all on the website instead.


Your map now appears in your list of Explorer Maps, and all you have to do is to select it and then wait for it to download (don’t do this on mobile unless you’ve loads of data as the files are 100s of MB in size) – and that’s it….


The quality of the mapping in the app is excellent as you can see below from the direct comparison of the OS maps and Backcountry Navigator which has been our app mapping app of choice. The OS Maps are on the right, and the difference in quality is clear if you view the images full size (even though we’ve still still scaled them down slightly).


You can also choose a decent free mapping layer, as well as aerial coverage for when you go off map.


However, the app functionality is rather disappointing. You can plot a route, just, and while you can record your route there’s no way to export these at present which really is one of the minimum functions expected from an outdoor mapping app. It does give you distance and so on, but it’s basically a glorified map viewer and not much else. We used it on a number of walks and it worked just fine for pinpointing our location, following a route and sending a notification if you veer 0ff.

OS App3

What really puts us off the app is that we then had to reinstall the maps two weeks after we did the initial testing.  No reason given, other than we were logged out and had to log in again. Normally that’s no issue, but it seems that once logged out you lose all your downloads.. Frustrating if you’ve logged out, down right infuriating if you’ve just returned to the app after a few weeks and just about ready to step on the hill. It also lost all our data, routes and settings, but fortunately I didn’t have any that I needed and there are only a few settings anyway.This data loss has the potential to happen when you most need that map to be available, which is a serious bug that needs sorting. Of course, this could well just be bad luck on our part, if it hadn’t happened all over again a few weeks later, probably after a software update.

Treat this software as a beta version which is why we’re not posting this as an app review just yet. If it works then that’s a bonus, don’t rely on it for anything mission critical.

Despite that, this is a significant step in the licencing of mapping products by the OS rather than a service to mobile apps. Some will still claim that the taxpayer funded the OS and that these maps should be provided for free anyway. All well and good, but I’m happy enough to pay for my maps if it ensures that I’m provided with world class leisure maps that are kept up to date. How these digital copies affect the whole digital map market, considering the excessive cost of digital maps generally, is something that’s going to be interesting to see over the coming year.

the next logical step will be to be able to use their bundled digital maps with any approved software package

The OS have let the digital mapping genie out of the bottle, and the consumer will now expect these maps to be available much cheaper (certainly less than the price of a paper copy, not three times as much!) and the next logical step will be to be able to use their bundled digital maps with any approved software package. That would free up the OS to work to their strengths by continuing to produce world beating maps, rather than funding mediocre apps. Watch this space.

With thanks to the OS who sent us a copy of the Snowdonia OL 17 Map for review.

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Dave Roberts

Dave Roberts founded Walk Eryri in 2004, with the aim of providing routes that are off the beaten track. Walk Eryri is now part of Mud and Routes which continues to provide more off beat routes and walks in Snowdonia and beyond. Dave has been exploring the hills of Eryri for over thirty years, and is a qualified Mountain Leader. Dave also established Walk up Snowdon, Walk up Scafell Pike and Walk up Ben Nevis just to mention a few.

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