You are enjoying a beautiful mountain hike when you hit a fork, just as you emerge from the tree line. Your smartphone is convinced: Turn right! One hundred metres later, your serene hike turns into a wander along the emergency lane of a busy main road.
That is a typical mistake for beginners who use digital maps for hiking, says Thomas Froitzheim, founder of Naviso, an outdoor navigation service. If you use your smartphone like you car’s GPS, you will get to your destination “any which way”, turning your walk from panorama splendour to highway madness.
These days, there is a large selection of digital alternatives, ranging from downloadable maps from park authorities to alpine societies to private publishers like Kompass or software services like MagicMaps, according to Jochen Brune of the German Alpine Association (DAV).
And then there are apps. “Outdooractive and Komoot are the most established hiking apps,” says Eric Magut, who is responsible for digital affairs at the German Hiking Association. Other providers include maps.me, gpsies or phonemaps, as well as countless regional alternatives based on your destination.
The first difference is typically between raster and vector map models. While raster maps are essentially scanned paper maps, vector maps are interactive, providing additional information about the location as you zoom in further.
While Google Maps struggles with hiking, a better alternative is Openstreetmap (OSM), a sort-of topographical version of Wikipedia, but the level of detail provided varies widely from app to app.
“The qualitative differences can be large,” says Magut. Maps from OSM, which are user-based, tend to have a different quality than professionally-researched ones, he says.
The same is true for other portals that offer route suggestions and GPS hikes from users themselves. “If they are not filtered, you might find every last urination stop shown on the map,” says Magut.
Before you set off, once you have settled on a location, it’s not too hard to look up a local hiking organisation to get route suggestions and explore a database of maps. If you find the same tour on multiple portals, it’s probably more reliable. Magut also suggests comparing maps with the homepage of the region to ensure their accuracy.
Some final advice: Always save a map offline in case you lose network reception, and pack a portable charger for your smartphone to recharge a weak battery. Finally, consider bringing a good old paper map, just to be on the safe side. – dpa