I write this post with some degree of reticence. You see, there’s an unspoken code amongst walkers that you always take a map and compass even if you know where you’re going and you’ve done it a million times. In fact, it’s something even I recommend in my Beginner’s Guide to Hill Walking. I think it’s a good idea. It’s a sensible idea. It’s something I do… some of the time.
If I’m hiking in the Peak District, I have weatherproof OS Explorer Maps for the Dark and White Peak and I take my OS compass with me on every walk. It’s nothing fancy and it doesn’t add a ton of weight for day walks, but if the whole escapade went to hell, I could use them to find my way to somewhere useful.
Having said that, I was in the Brecon Beacons last week to walk Pen y Fan and the Waterfalls Walk and I didn’t take paper maps. Why? Because I didn’t own them and the Brecon Beacons is split across three maps, which starts to add a considerable cost and bulk to packing. Also, I have subscriptions to OS Maps through both the Ordnance Survey website and through ViewRanger. I’m not a massive fan of spending money when I’ve already paid for a thing in a different format.
I’m planning to walk the Pennine Way at some point this year or next and, honestly, I probably won’t be buying all of the maps for that either. Six weatherproof maps take up a lot of space and come in at over £100. Now, I could plan to have maps delivered to me at drop points along the route or I’m sure I could buy them as I go, but it’s impossible to avoid the fact that the bulk still adds up as quickly as the cost does.
The argument goes that paper maps and a compass will never fail you. This is entirely true, with one major caveat: that you know how to use them and visibility is good enough that you can actually see a couple of landmarks. However, while there’s always a Peak District map set in my backpack for weekend walks, I haven’t needed them in five or more years. Electronic mapping is my preferred choice to find my location and bearing, but ask anyone wearing tweed or decked out in Berghaus for the weekend and they’ll tell you that relying on electronic maps is a recipe for disaster. I have to say, I disagree.
If you don’t know how to use a paper map and compass, you’ll get lost if that’s all you have at your disposal. Similarly, if you don’t make sure you’re prepared to use electronic maps, you’re also going to come unstuck.
The main argument against using electronic mapping is that of battery life. If your battery dies, you’re screwed. Again, this is true, but battery packs that can recharge a device multiple times while it’s still in use are a dime a dozen. I have a couple of RavPower portable chargers – one that will charge an iPhone 8 Plus two or three times (it’s tiny) and a large one that will keep multiple iPhones and an Apple Watch charged for about a week. It’s a little heavy, but it’ll easily fit in your backpack while taking up less space than a single paper map.
Based on recent experience, however, I’ve found my perfect setup: it’s a combination of OS Maps on the web and ViewRanger on the Apple Watch. The latter does a very clever thing where it hands off a lot of the battery-sucking duties to the iPhone, which means that neither your Apple Watch or iPhone take a massive hit. What’s more, the Apple Watch is always accessible and exactly where you need it, and it’s waterproof. This means your iPhone can be safely stowed in a drysack and you never need to touch it. I’ve been trying to work out how far I think I could hike in a single journey using this setup and, based on massively unscientific observation, I reckon I could easily cover 20 miles on foot. On my last 10 mile route, my Apple Watch battery went from 100% down to 65% and my iPhone went from 100% down to 82%. I think 20 miles would be reasonable. Beyond that, you’re chancing it without the means to recharge.
“But what if your phone and Apple Watch break?” I hear you cry. Well, if that happens, we’re already having a Type III fun kind of day, aren’t we? My response to this is that if one of those devices fails, I have the other as backup. If both of them fail, the other three hikers I tend to go walking with will have their own phones with the route pre-loaded. If the five devices we have between us all fail… well, yeah, then we’re well and truly screwed. To people who think electronic mapping is the devil, my counter-challenge is this: what if your paper map blows away?
Of course, the other benefit of electronic mapping over good ol’ orienteering is that if visibility is appalling, you’ll still know exactly where you are and which way to point yourself. Finding your location on a paper map depends largely on a line of sight and reference to at least a couple of landmarks… if you’re on Kinder with its famous fog and visibility down to a few feet (as it can often be and, let’s face it, it’s pretty barren on a sunny day), electronic mapping is your surest and easiest bet. Even the satellites can see you through fog.
With all that said, I wanted to use this post to give a quick appraisal of the two apps I use: OS Maps and ViewRanger. They both excel and fall short in different ways, but happily, these failures and strengths complement each perfectly.
Let’s get this out of the way first of all, because there’s no debate to be had: Ordnance Survey maps are the standard and there’s nothing out there that comes close to beating them for clarity and information. All of my route planning starts on the OS Maps website without fail.
Using either the OS Leisure Maps or National Parkways maps, plotting a route on the OS Maps website is so simple and pleasingly accurate that it almost raises a smile on my wind-beaten face. The website plots the route between two waypoints, following every twist and turn in intricate detail. For anyone with OCD about the route matching the actual path (ahem, that’ll be me), it’s an absolute godsend. Honestly, it’s really satisfying. Even if you’re not going anywhere, just give it a go and feel good about your day.
Once you get to the end of the route and hit Save, that route becomes immediately available in the Ordnance Survey OS Maps apps for iOS and Android, where you can also download an offline map to ensure you have access when you’re in the remote hills without a signal. OS Maps also has an incredible number of pre-plotted routes from AA Walks, Trail Magazine and myriad other publishers, along with community-created routes – all included in your subscription for no extra cost.
Unfortunately, the place where we hand over to the mobile app is the place where OS Maps and I take leave of each other. As beautifully-designed and easy to use as the OS Maps app is, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to actually following your route.
This isn’t just a one-off, this is how it always goes for me: load up the OS Maps app in the hills, find the route you previously plotted and hit Follow Route. Simple. Now you start walking. Maybe my expectations are too high, but what I expect to happen next is that the little arrow (which tells me my location) keeps up with me. As I move, it moves. Except, this doesn’t happen. You can walk for one minute, two minutes or five minutes, and that little arrow belligerently stays where it is. Give the screen a poke, move the map a little and the arrow will snap to where you actually are. It’s almost as if it nods off when you’re not looking and then jolts itself awake, pretending that it was with you all along.
This isn’t device-specific either, I’ve experienced exactly the same behaviour on multiple iPhones. Perhaps Android fares better?
The other issue with using the OS Maps app for navigation is the lack of an Apple Watch app. This means I constantly have to have my phone to hand. In an urban environment that would be entirely reasonable, but not in the hills. You see, you can’t keep it in your pocket because it might meet its demise when it falls out as you’re scrambling. You can’t keep it in your larger thigh pocket because you might bash it on a rock. You can’t keep it in your backpack because it’s an almighty pain in the arse to have to take it off every time you want to check you’re on the route. If it’s raining, that means taking off the backpack cover, opening the backpack, soaking half your stuff which you’d previously secured in a drysack, and then exposing your very expensive iDevice to the elements. I know that you can get those bags to put your phone in that allow it to hang from your neck and survive the rain, but… no. Not when there are better solutions out there.
And so, I use the OS Maps website to plot my route, but then I export it as a GPX file and head over to ViewRanger.
ViewRanger suffers from the exact opposite problems to OS Maps – the website is the clunky part, but the route tracking on mobile is unparalleled. Now, you can plot a route in ViewRanger on the website. You can even purchase a separate OS Maps subscription through their app and plot your routes using OS Maps inside ViewRanger. While this sounds like the ultimate solution, ViewRanger’s snap-to-route function is nowehere near as detailed or intricate as it is on OS Maps, and the route line that’s generated isn’t as satisfyingly smooth. It’s more like an approximation of the route; you don’t get every twist and turn, but you get a line that more-or-less overlays the National Parkways paths. This might be fine for some, but I’m not a fan. I like my routes to show me exactly where I’m going, even if it’s blatantly obvious. To solve that, I just use ViewRanger’s helpful Create Route from GPX feature and import the route I previously made in OS Maps. It creates about a billion waypoints, but I’m fine with that as you only see the ones you add detail to when you’re using it in the field.
In the same way that OS Maps provides routes from publishers like AA Walks, so too does ViewRanger. The difference is that, while the publisher routes are included in your OS Maps subscription, they often cost some money in ViewRanger. So get them from OS Maps if you have that as well.
Now, over to the ViewRanger app. I’ll start by saying this: it’s not intuitive. There are buttons everywhere, they all do things you don’t expect, some of them are in places they shouldn’t be, and syncing isn’t automatic. Once you’ve found the sync button (which only uploads and downloads data, it doesn’t sync destructive edits like deletes performed in the app), your route is available. You can now download an offline version of the map (I always grab Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 maps), sync the route across to your Apple Watch and head to the hills.
Once you’re at the start of your walk, you just hit Start on the Apple Watch and ViewRanger takes care of all the clever stuff in the background. You don’t need to think about it anymore. It’s frugal with the battery, it shows you a map you can zoom in and out of, tells you how much further you have to go, and – as if that weren’t enough – the little arrow updates to your precise location every time you look at it. It even shows you where you’ve been as well as where you’re going, which is incredibly helpful.
ViewRanger is second-to-none for following routes. It really is excellent. As you approach a waypoint you get notified of your next instruction and if you veer off the route by more than a reasonable amount, it’ll notify you to tell you to sort yourself out. I genuinely can’t fault the experience here.
Although it doesn’t directly relate to the experience of using ViewRanger in the wild, whenever I’ve had to contact them for technical support or subscription queries, the staff have always been exceptional. The speed, quality and clarity of interactions with them says a lot about the company they’re building.
Neither OS Maps or ViewRanger is perfect, but their strengths complement each other well. OS Maps is great on the web, but I wouldn’t depend on the mobile experience to get me where I’m going, which is kind of the point. ViewRanger, on the other hand, is incredible once you’re in the hills and ready to start following your route, but everything up to that point is a bit of a chore.
Between them, however, I have the perfect setup. Sure, I have to pay for OS subscriptions on both, but that gets me full UK mapping for £40 a year and the best experience wherever I am. The people who are wedded to their paper maps strike me as being the kind of people who still think using in-car sat navs is cheating. You know the kind – they pull out their AA route planner every few miles so that they can have an argument. For me, anything that makes walking easier, safer and removes distractions so you can enjoy the great outdoors around you is good in my book.
A couple of things to note about this article:
- All of the images in this post come from either the Ordnance Survey or ViewRanger websites. I didn’t ask their permission to use them, so if someone gets a bit shouty and this post looks incredibly boring all of a sudden, it was my fault.
- I wasn’t paid to write this review, nor was I asked to. This should go without saying; I’m nowhere near popular enough.