GPS, offline maps and iPhone

What I enjoy the most is starting in a village and exploring area with no exact plan, taking just any path that feels more interesting while keeping approximate azimuth in my head. As you would expect, this eventually leads to getting lost.

The obvious solution is a map. Although technologically unsophisticated, it has two crucial features: high level of detail and no need of batteries. On the other hand, navigating with a map, especially in a dense forest when there are no distinctive landmarks and no straight routes, is a tricky venture to take. Now add heavy rain and dull sky, and you are asking for problems.

A handheld GPS solves some of these issues:
  • provides precise topographic maps;
  • some models are waterproof and shock resistant;
  • in a high stress situation you are able to give exact location without much thinking.
Seems a perfect solution, right? That really depends on your hiking style. First of all, you will probably have your mobile phone with you anyway, so that’s another device that:
  • needs to be charged;
  • draws unnecessary attention;
  • adds to your weight;
  • costs.
That is why I decided to make as much use of my iPhone as possible. In order to make it useful in hiking conditions I had to solve three problems:
  • prolong battery life;
  • make it waterproof;
  • be able to use maps without Internet connection.
The first one is solved by using external power supply. Although it means additional weight, I can use it for several other devices I usually carry with me and find essential.

Powermonkey Extreme.

Making iPhone waterproof can be easily achieved with a Lifeproof case – believe me, it does work pretty well. My phone ended up swimming in a lake, being dropped into a river, on the rocks and even managed to survive a short swamp bath I once took.

PocketEarth displaying part of Tatra National Park in Poland.

Finally, after testing dozens of various apps for offline maps I decided to stay with PocketEarth. It uses OpenStreetMap as a source, so it’s not the best tool out there for outdoor activities, but at least you can find the right direction back to your place, and that’s most important. Oh, and it doesn’t cost as much as a new handheld GPS, what I find ridiculous about some apps. However, when in a difficult terrain with many natural hazards and uneasy routes (e.g. high mountains), a topographic map is a must have.