Tech – navigation

Electronic Navigation

I took the radical decision to dispense with paper maps altogether for this walk.

Yes – ditching the paper maps was quite a bold step to take. But I wanted to do it so I could save weight and also reduce the likelihood of getting lost.

I’d read lots of stories of former “LEJOG” hikers who had managed to go spectacularly off route by missing vital junctions or simply heading off down the wrong valley from mountain tops. Or of having to make complicated logistical arrangements to have maps ready for collection at drop off points along the way.

I’ve been using Ordnance Survey (OS) 1:25,000 maps for all my walking trips ever since I started hiking as a teenager. So I’ve grown to like them and become reasonably competent with a map and compass. Over the last 10 years, satellite based GPS devices had become more widely available but I’d always tended to avoid them because in the older models you weren’t able to load OS maps on them, and they just seemed to represent another bit of kit you had to carry around.

But that all changed when smartphones and tablets started to appear, and with built in GPS systems and advanced mapping apps like “ViewRanger” (which could handle OS maps) they presented an ideal solution to my navigation challenge.   I didn’t have to carry piles of maps, I couldn’t get lost and I could make roué adjustments along the way, knowing that I would never “not have the map I needed”.

For my walk, I used an Apple iPad mini ( the original, Mark 1 version) with 64gb memory (note that if you get one for navigation, don’t buy the wifi-only model as it doesn’t have GPS capability). I used the ViewRanger app, and was kindly given 1:25,000 maps of my entire route by the company (subsequently I have bought the whole of the UK at 1:25,000 which costs about £200 and takes up about 15gb of memory).  I tried out several mapping / navigation apps but I found ViewRanger to be the easiest to use, had the most features, and was most highly rated on the App Store.

iPad in waterproof case
Using the iPad mini with the “ViewRanger” app for navigation in an “Overboard” waterproof case. The shiny metal things on my overglove are magnets which I used to disable the screenlock on the iPad

The iPad / ViewRanger system worked faultlessly for my whole trip. I found navigation accuracy was excellent – normally to within 5m. It achieves this by using GPS and Glonass satellite signals, and speeds up triangulation by using mobile phone (and wifi) signals too. But the great thing is that you don’t have to be “on line” to use it. The maps are all stored on the iPad’s memory and the GPS / Glonass signals work globally and aren’t dependent on the mobile phone network.   I also liked the security the app gave me by transmitting my position via the “Buddy Beacon” system (see “keeping in touch” page) so that I knew that people could be keeping an eye on where I was.

I planned all my routes in advance, largely by downloading “GPX” files of long distance paths from the Long Distance Walkers’ Association’s excellent database, and then connecting them up ( see the “GPX” page for an explanation of what these files are).    NB you have to be a member of the LDWA to downIoad GPX routes but at just £13 per year it’s worth every penny).

I broke the route down into separate files of about 25 miles each, as I did find that the iPad got very slow and occasionally even crashed when trying to follow longer routes.

You can download my original “GPX” route by clicking the button below – but note that it’s out of date and it would be much better to download a copy of my exact actual route from the “GPX” page.

Download original route file here: R
(Note this is a 4MB GPX file and could cause your GPS / smartphone GPS app to crash!)

When I was hiking, I simply followed the pre-loaded route on my iPad and the screen would display my exact position relative the the route I was supposed to be on, so I never got lost. On the two occasions where I went wrong (Rhayader and Dornie) I always knew exactly where I was – the problem occurred because I was trying to follow a path that appeared to be shown on the map but which didn’t actually exist on the ground.

The ViewRanger app also allowed me to gather statistics as I walked, like how far I’d walked that day, what my average speed was, and how far I had left. It also allowed me to save electronic GPX files of my daily tracks – which are all available for download from the “GPX” page of this website. I loaded and downloaded GPX files to and from my iPad using the Dropbox app which is fully integrated with ViewRanger.

A typical navigation screen when using the “ViewRanger” app

There are however four potential disadvantages with electronic navigation. The first is of course that you need a good supply of electricity.  This never really proved to be a problem with the iPad mini as I found that the battery would last at least two days of approximately 8 hours a day of continuous navigation, and would extend to three at a push.  Plus I always carried enough spare rechargeable batteries (see “power” page) to last at least a further week without access to the mains.   I’ve subsequently used the iPad mini for winter hikes in the Alps and have found that below about minus 5 C the battery expires much more quickly – so you have to keep it warm, inside your outer jacket. This wasn’t a problem on LEJOG, as the temperature was only rarely below freezing.

The second problem is is keeping the device dry (though, to be fair, this is also problem with paper maps too – and using electronic maps does at least avoid the nightmare scenario of being stuck on a mountaintop in thick mist and driving rain and battling to fold your paper map to the right point before it turns into paper mâché).   I was able to overcome this problem by carrying my iPad in a waterproof “Overboard” case, which was brilliant – it was 100% waterproof, seemingly indestructible, and didn’t interfere with the touchscreen.

The third problem I found was in operating the touchscreen with gloves on. It was vital to find a solution to this, as I suffer from cold hands and wore gloves a lot of the time as I was hiking. And because Apple insists on adding an annoying “swipe to unlock” feature on the iPad, there is no way of switching it on without touching the screen. There are a variety of gloves available which allow touchscreen operation, but I found they all suffered the same bizarre problem of being extremely tight – so much so that they tended to squeeze all the blood out of my fingers with the result that my hands would be colder than they were without wearing gloves at all!  Eventually I found a suitable pair – they were “TouchTec” leather gloves from Outdoor Research which I had to import specially from the USA. But they worked for me – not too tight, reasonably warm, and worked perfectly with the touchscreen. They aren’t waterproof so I had some goretex over gloves that I put on over them in heavy rain. These block the touchscreen capability but I found that once the goretex was saturated with rain, they conducted the signal well enough to allow the touchscreen capability to work.

Outdoor Research “TouchTec” gloves

The last problem I had was dealing with the risk of accidental damage. I was paranoid that I might drop the iPad, or sit on it, but this never happened. But in case it did, I backed up all my maps and routes onto my iPhone (which has the same GPS capability), so I could still navigate even if the worst happened.  Other than that, I usually took care to hang my iPad on a tree or similar once I arrived at camp, so I couldn’t tread on it while putting the tent up.

Because I was also carrying a small laptop (see “blogging” page), I was able to check out the state of paths using Google Earth and Google Streetview, the night before I walked them. This was handy in the remoter parts of northern Scotland, so I could see if there really were any paths and if not how tricky the terrain would be. And I also used it to check out the road-walk I knew I’d have to do from Snowdon to Capel Curig – it was reassuring to be able to tell in advance that there were wide grass verges, where it would be safe to walk.

google streetview
Using Google Streetview to check whether the road verge would be safe for walking

So – electronic navigation isn’t for everyone, I know, but it worked even better than I expected for me. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again, and in my case it was probably the single factor which had the biggest positive impact on both the feasibility, and enjoyability, of the walk.

The slides below (click to enlarge) summarise the main technical aspects of using the “ViewRanger” app, in case you’re interested in learning more about the detail.  They are taken from a talk I gave at the Kendal Mountain Festival in 2014, on behalf of ViewRanger, who had sponsored me by providing free electronic maps.

Note the app is updated from time to time, so the functions may not appear exactly as they are shown in these photos.

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