Apps and Maps: Using Your Cell Phone on the Trail

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Fun and Easy Ways to Track Riding Adventures

by Robert Eversole

When I was first introduced to navigating, the tools were essentially the same as what Columbus used back when he sailed the ocean blue, in 1492. For hundreds of years, paper maps and magnetic compasses have been, and in my mind remain, the state-of-the-art for navigation. Then, a few decades ago personal, portable GPS devices took the world by storm. These wonder gadgets allowed anyone to know their exact position on the planet, in a country, even down to a pinpoint spot on a trail. Now we have a new product available that has spun the GPS market on its head: smart phones.

Smartphone apps are a useful compliment to a traditional map and compass on the trail.
Smartphone apps are a useful compliment to a traditional map and compass on the trail.

Today anyone with a smart phone can track their route, geo tag photos, plot their speed and elevation and even share that information on the web. GPS equipped smart phones use both triangulation measurements from cell towers as well as the constellation of GPS satellites to determine your position.  Even though phone GPS devices are not quite as precise as the instruments that professional cartographers use, they are still quite accurate. And like a traditional GPS unit, smart phones can also download topographic maps from various sources through a multitude of available apps.  Not too shabby for a tool that you already have in your pocket.

Now you are aware of the possibilities, but which app to use? There are hundreds of apps available to map your route and the list seems to grow every day. To answer this question, I downloaded ten of the most popular mapping and tracking apps to see which would work best for my purposes: ViewRanger, MotionX GPS, GPS Hiker, Gaia GPS, EasyTrails, AllTrails, MapMyHike, NeoTrek, TraceMyTrail and Trimble Navigator (Trimble Outdoors has gone out of business since this article was written. Here is a link with alternatives to Trimble Outdoors app:

The criteria for a good mapping app: It needs to be easy to use and intuitive. Otherwise, it will detract from your ride as you fiddle with the various features. In my opinion, the best app is one that I can turn on at the start of a ride, turn off at the end and then download data once I’m home, knowing my location, the distance I’ve traveled and my pace as I ride along. While it is fun to geo tag photos and look at my speed, distance traveled and elevation change, the challenge becomes one of avoiding distraction. Trail riding should be all about the natural world and escaping our daily onslaught of information, not adding to it.

The apps I liked best after researching were MotionX GPS, Gaia GPS and ViewRanger. They’re designed for people who are offline, off the beaten track and dirty. Each of these apps allows you to easily record, save and share your tracks. Here are the details:

  • The MotionX GPS: This app is under a buck in Apple’s App store and has become my go-to tool for recording where and how far I’ve ridden. The Track Recorder is intuitive to use and the track data is easy to share via email.
  • Gaia GPS: At $20 Gaia is the most expensive app I’ve ever bought. I don’t regret the purchase. Gaia does everything that MotionX does, but adds the ability to download a multitude of high quality topographic maps as well. With this addition, a smart phone becomes a full-fledged back country GPS.
  • ViewRanger: The app most like a GPS that I’ve found. With versions ranging in price from free to $20 ViewRanger can transform anyone’s smart phone into a GPS.  If you’ve used GPS units in the past you’ll quickly recognize the similarity with ViewRanger.

With any phone based GPS app, not just the ones I’ve mentioned, battery life and the durability of the phone can be an issue.  Using the GPS chipset within your phone is a battery intensive operation even in the best of situations.

Not sure what to do with all the data that you collected on a ride? RidersRoutes is a new feature on that allows riders like you to download popular tracks other riders have taken onto your phone as well as upload your own tracks to share with others. Simply record your track using a traditional GPS or an app on your GPS enabled smart phone. Once you’ve finished your ride, upload the track to TrailMeister to view and share.

As always, for more information on this topic and many more, as well as the largest directory of horse trails, horse camps, and equine events in North America visit


Safety Note to Readers

The NWHS wishes to correct information from the March 2015 Trail Savvy column on page 14.

The article specifically addressed the use of smartphones for collecting ride data on the trail and Robert Eversole compares several of the most popular tracking apps. The photo caption suggested smartphones can be used for navigating in the wilderness and while topographical maps can be downloaded, tracking apps are for collecting data, not navigating. Please make sure to carry a reliable map, compass and/or GPS into wilderness adventures. These are complemented by the apps described. We apologize to Robert, and for any confusion that may have resulted from this error.


Published in March 2015 Issue

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