While you should always carry a map and compass (and know how to use them!) a GPS device is still a useful bit of kit in the mountains. Our smartphones and tablets have come on leaps and bounds in the last few years and can be as useful as a proper GPS (close, but not quite).
What do they all offer as standard? They all allow you to download mapping to the phone so you can use them when there’s no mobile coverage. They all worked fine on our Xperia Z1 test phone running Android 4.4 and never had a problem with locating ourselves. This final one is probably more phone than app specific however.
We didn’t go too deeply on the system resources used as what we found on our test device might not apply to other devices. As a rule, mapping does take up a fair bit of storage, so beware. We didn’t notice that they slowed our device down either, and probably had all three running concurrently!
All the screen caps are either from one app only, or always in the order – Backcountry Navigator, OS Mapfinder and Viewranger with any exceptions noted.
1 – Pricing
Backcountry Navigator – This is the hands down winner on cost. You only pay for the app and you get all maps included. We don’t know how they manage this, but we’re not complaining! Of course, you don’t actually own the maps for that price and there’s no knowing if the licencing will change at some point in the future.
OS Mapfinder – the OS Landrangers (1:50k) and the OS Explorer (1:25:000 maps) are priced at £0.69 and £1.99 respectively per 100KM2 of mapping . If this seems cheap at first glance, consider that a 1:25k Explorer Map could be 40×40 km – you realise you need 16 £1.99 squares which is a whopping £32, that’s just one side!
Viewranger -Priced per area, this can work out reasonable. Explorer Mapping. The West Highland Way for instance is a bargain at £11.99, or the Offa’s Dyke for £22.00 – much cheaper than any other option, but with limited coverage either side of the map. National parks are reasonable – £27.49 for Snowdonia for instance, which would be 3 maps worth. A bit more expensive than the paper maps, but they also don’t cover the same area either as coverage stops just outside the park boundary. You can also select your own area for around £20 for 2000 KMsq (half the price of the OS maps).
Their Landranger mapping however, is exceptionally well priced. You can get the UK for £89.99, the National Parks for £10 or the whole of Wales for £15. That’s the sort of pricing that makes sense (and ideally, what the Explorer series should be closer to).
Note – you also get free open street maps – so you’ll still have some sort of coverage in those areas.
2 – Map Quality.
Backcountry Navigator – These look fine and are perfectly good enough to locate yourself on the hill.
OS Mapfinder – The quality is outstanding! They blow the Backcountry Navigator maps out of the water!
Viewranger – Again, this is much better than the Backcountry Navigator mapping.
3 – Route Planning.
This is a tough one, as it’s intrinsically difficult to plot a route on a map on a phone! All three allow you to import standard GPX files.
Backcountry Navigator. You can plan your route, but it’s fiddly and rather hard to get the pins exactly where you want them. Also allows you to download from everytrail.com.
OS Mapfinder – So basic, you can only delete previous pin.
Viewranger – You can plan your route, but the method is much less fiddly. You control a pointer that’s offset from where you put the route. This means you can see where you’re plotting and allows you to be accurate with a bit of care.
4 – Social and Sharing.
Backcountry Navigator allows you to share location by posting a Google Map position via whatever share options you have open to you on the phone.
OS Mapfinder likewise allows you to share your position, but this time posts your actual Grid Reference. This could be essential in a text message.
Viewranger -Is totally integrated, though the insistence on logging in and creating an account can be annoying. However, if you do this then you can activate the Buddy Beacon so your location can be known in an emergency. There’s no way of sharing your current location without setting up an account that we could find.
5 – GPS Features
Backcountry Navigator.. Provides a basic android built in – small and difficult to read. Does all the basics. There’s a compass built into the map page.
OS Mapfinder– Logs the route, time and distance but that’s it. Took us ages to find that you need to press the current location pin to get the grid reference.
Viewranger – This stands out! There’s a fully featured and customisable GPS like display with distance, pace, altitude and grid reference. There’s also the Buddy Beacon feature which allows you to share your location with a friend in real time.
6 – Platform Compatibility
Backcountry Navigator. Android all the way.
OS Mapfinder. Android and iOS.
Viewranger – We remember this app when it first released on Symbian. We didn’t even realise you could still get apps for Symbian, but apparently you can. It’s available on Symbian, Android, iOS, Blackberry, Kindle Fire and BBC Micro*.
So you’ll be stuffed if you’ve got a Windows Phone.
Overall – The best quality mapping was found in OS Mapfinder, but their app wasn’t as developed as the others and their mapping rather pricey. You’d be hard pressed to spot the difference with Viewranger’s quality.
Backcountry Navigator provides the best value. It costs the same as an OS map, but you can have national coverage for that price at 1:25k. There’s a route plotter and enough features to make it usable. The downside is that the map quality isn’t high (but perfectly adequate to locate yourself and in conjunction with a paper map – which is still a MUST) and you don’t actually own any of the map data. Who knows for how long you’ll be able to store the maps?
Viewranger is a worthy winner overall. But then it should be, since it’s been around since the days of the old Symbian Nokia phones (around 1983 I think?). Maps aren’t cheap, but the 1:50k tiles are cheap enough and any areas you don’t have coverage for will be filled in with Open Street map data. Add the well designed route plotter, as well as tons of social features, and it’s hard to beat.
Of course – if you use all the features fully then there’s always the issue of the limited battery life on smartphones! That’s why I use a Garmin watch GPS to plot my runs/walks and then supplement it with a quick check on Backcountry Navigator if I can’t be bothered to locate myself on the map!
*We lied about the BBC Micro.