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Reviews > Navigation and Map Gear > GPS > ViewRanger GPS Application > Test Report by Lori Pontious
ViewRanger GPS Navigation Application
I've backpacked, camped and fished all over the lower 48 states with my family as a kid, and then life happened. I've restarted these activities about four years ago - I dayhike or backpack 2-6 times a month. I am between light and ultralight. I have a hammock system and own a Tarptent. My base weight depends upon season and where I go.
The ViewRanger GPS Application (hereafter "the app" or "ViewRanger app") is a navigation software available for smartphones and tablets that run on Apple, Android or Symbian operating systems.
I received a code to activate the app, and it quickly installed on my HTC myTouch 4G smart phone. A quick browse through the menus led me to realize that this is a full featured GPS app, with many of the same settings and options I've come to expect from my GPS.
There are a variety of maps that can be downloaded for free. It took me a few tries to figure out how to download sections into the phone memory. I quickly learned how to toggle back and forth between online and offline. Other features aren't as intuitive and required going to Augmentra Ltd's website to review the guide on a wiki, which is available in the menu under "support." For example, instructions on the wiki reveal how to save a day's track without wasting battery life but continuing to collect data. This procedure would not have been immediately obvious. There are options in the menus that match what I would expect from a dedicated GPS unit (map datum, coordinate type, unit type, etc.). However, these options have fewer settings than the GPS units I have used.
I set up a short route for my trip the weekend after I received the code to activate the app, to see how that feature will work. Creating waypoints is easy on a touch screen; there is an offset handle to drag the last waypoint around until it is where I want it, then I tap somewhere else to create the next one. In the picture above (on the left) the end result is shown in blue. The software connects the waypoints as you go. It's easy to go back to edit or extend the route after saving it. I also downloaded the maps for the area I would be in. However, I discovered at the trailhead that my download was only partial, and I quickly walked off the map! The app continued to create a track but I could not use it for immediate navigation purposes. Lesson learned: be careful to tap all sections needed and then download. Downloading maps involves toggling back and forth between the "add" icon (which allows you to select areas on the map for download) and the "scroll" icon (a four-way arrow icon, allowing you to drag and locate segments to download). At first I was trying to scroll/drag without changing the icon - perhaps why I missed key parts of my first downloaded map.
While using the ViewRanger app to plan and download maps, I became a little frustrated with how long it was taking to load the maps. I understood that it is a lot of data coming down at 4G, but I am not terribly patient! Scrolling around once the maps are downloaded also feels slower than it needs to be, to me. For a short (two day) trip, I selected four map sections which amounted to about 12 MB of downloaded map. I can anticipate that this will start to have an impact on storage on my phone. My poor budget smart phone is likely not quite as good for this as it could be - more memory would probably help. I only have 1.14 GB of memory available, and 7.5 GB of storage on the phone.
I noticed an option for a beacon, and after reading the wiki I discovered that this is to be used with other ViewRanger app users. The beacon allows me to see other people's location on a website, or at least their last known position - the beacon polls the server at regular intervals. A user name and PIN must be entered on the ViewRanger web page. This does not appear to be a feature that could be used to keep track of hiking companions traveling together, as some dedicated GPS units can do, but may be an interesting option when I go on a trip and I'd like other people with internet connections to check in on my progress. (It does not require a data connection to be active on the smart phone as you hike. Data is accessible only via the website.) There is an option in the menus to send beacon now, marking the user's current position. There is also a way to integrate this feature with Twitter. This is not specifically marketed as a safety device - it is, however, a neat feature and I may on a future trip find a buddy who will log in and watch my progress on the map to give me a report on how well this feature works.
In addition to the usual GPS features of tracking speed, duration, location, tracks, and creating waypoints and routes, the ViewRanger app can download routes from the internet for my use. It will also synchronize trips recorded with Twitter and Facebook, including photos uploaded to Picasa or Flickr. While I don't use social media often, I can experiment with connecting ViewRanger with my Facebook and flickr accounts. What I will not do: rely on this app exclusively. Aside from the general wisdom of not relying on electronic navigation aids entirely while in the backcountry, my phone battery is limited. Part of this process will require me to learn to micromanage the way my phone uses battery power to maximize the life of the battery over several days.
I have used the ViewRanger app on backpacking trips to George Lake (1 night, Sierra National Forest), Pine Valley (1 night, Los Padres National Forest), Pat Springs (2 nights, Los Padres National Forest), Case Mountain (1 night, Sequoia National Forest), and Point Reyes National Seashore (3 nights, Marin County), all in California. I was hiking in varied terrain from sea level to approximately 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) in elevation. Temperatures ranged from 75 F (24 C) to 25 F (-4 C). I have also taken out my smart phone on at least six day hikes.
The first few times I used the app, I was unable to complete the trip while it was running. My phone died before I returned to the car. Despite all my efforts to kill all unnecessary apps, dim the screen, turn on airplane mode, and otherwise conserve the battery, the phone would lose power and die before finishing the hike. This was extremely frustrating. My second and third attempts to download quads for use while out of range of cell towers were also frustrating - I failed to capture all the map sections and ended up using the app to capture trip data, and never got a chance to try navigating with it on those day hikes.
Once I got the hang of selecting and downloading the maps without leaving out sections, things started to improve for me. I liked being able to look up my trip statistics, such as speed, distance, elevation gains and losses, and mileage. The menus are fairly easy to navigate and some things can be accessed multiple ways, such as the Organizer, which can be selected from an icon at the top of the screen, or as an option through the main menu.
I also got a portable battery pack, which allowed me to use the phone over multiple days successfully. This allowed me to get complete tracks for the last two backpacking trips using the ViewRanger app. It helped that the battery pack will also recharge other devices such as my camera, taking away a little of the sting of not being able to manage the phone battery life without extra pack weight.
Charging on a picnic table in Point Reyes
I did not successfully use the beacon while backpacking. I managed to get it to work from home, but it gave an error message about not being able to connect while on the trail in Point Reyes. It appears to need an active data connection that I rarely have while hiking.
When uploading trip data after I got home, I had to use the app to export a *.gpx file, which I then imported from the phone (connected to my computer as an external drive) into my topographical software. The phone with the app running does not connect directly to the software in any way. I did not attempt connecting with Twitter, Picasa or Flickr - due to poor battery life and trying to conserve energy to continue using the app while on the trail, I didn't take pictures with the phone so there was nothing to upload.
Navigating with the app was limited; it will zoom to within one mile (1.6 kilometers) and no closer. I prefer a more detailed map scale than that. While using the app, I primarily used USA Topo with Trails, and experimented with USGS plus Trails, two of the maps available free with the app. I mainly used these maps to determine trail profiles and verify we were on the right trail where signs were absent.
I have found the app to be useful for recording data and making it available for use on my topographical software. Overall, it's easily navigated and once I learned the interface it was easy to use. The app has a number of maps that are useful to the hiker, and more are available in the store at the website. I also briefly used the street maps and found them helpful in deciding on a route. Downloading the maps for later use is simple. Much of the trouble I had was due to my cheap phone, and some of it to user error while trying to download maps and failing to select all the sections I needed. On my last two uses of the app, my phone started to give me error messages that I had no more storage left and I had to delete a number of files, a few of the downloaded maps, and clear caches to get the ViewRanger app to work again.
I will likely continue to use the app for day hikes, to record trip data and simple navigational tasks when needed. For longer trips or outings where I need to navigate cross country, I am more likely to use a dedicated GPS unit that will allow me to zoom in more, and leave the phone in the car. If I ever got a better phone it may be different, however, until I can afford a phone with the memory and the processing power to operate the app to its fullest potential, I can tell that I will be less frustrated by taking my GPS instead.
Thanks to Augmentra Ltd and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test the ViewRanger GPS Navigation Application. This concludes my report.
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