Monday Tip - Using GPS Abroad

Heading off for foreign mountains? Here's how to get the best out of your GPS or smartphone on your travels.


Posted: 1 July 2013
by Jon

SatMap's online store gives a graphical representation of mapping availability. Maps come on a Smartcard and are simply inserted in the unit for use.
ViewRanger gives you the choice of buying topo maps or downloading free Open Source mapping in advance. In either case, maps are stored on your phone so no data signal is needed on the hill.
Don't forget to check out country-specific apps, this Swiss Hike iPhone app for example has free GPS-endabled mapping for a selection of popular trails.

This week's tip is a travel-friendly advisory on how to find overseas mapping for your GPS or Smartphone and, if using the latter, how to avoid ruinous data roaming charges.

Tracking Foreign Mapping

More and more of us are using mapping-based GPS units or smartphone navigational apps running Ordnance Survey mapping in the UK, but being able to do the same thing abroad is down to a combination of where you're going and which GPS unit or smartphone app you have.

With GPS units, because each brand - Garmin, Magellan, Satmap - uses its own propriertorial mapping format, the availability of suitable maps depends on which GPS unit you own and on how the mapping is loaded onto the unit. If your GPS uses a memory card to load additonal mapping, it may be a straightforward case of buying a suitable foreign map on a card and simply slotting it into the unit - the card slot is usually located under the battery though this varies.

Once loaded, you'll probably need to go into the unit's preferences and activated the new map so it loads when you start using your unit abroad.

Which Maps?

Mapping availability can be hit and miss, but is improving all the time. In general, as with UK Ordnance Survey mapping, the best topographical maps tend to cost money and you're more likely to find detailed mapping for popular mountain areas. 

If you can't find official mapping - quite common outside western European destinations - don't despair, you may be able to source and load open source mapping like Open Streetmap or its cycling equivalent. These aren't generally as good as proper topographical maps, but may be a valuable adjunct to a paper map. Some GPS units will be compatible with them, some won't - a bit of internet searching will point you in the right direction.

GPS Smartphone Apps Abroad

As with stand-alone GPS units, the availability of foreign mapping varies with the app. Our favourite UK mapping app, ViewRanger has an extensive range of mapping for Europe, the USA and Oceania in particular that you can purchase in advance, download then use while abroad. ViewRanger also allows you to download and cache open source mapping for free where it's available. 

Don't feel you have to use the same app that you use in the UK however. It's worth searching your app store to see what local apps are available. In some cases, Switzerland for example, there are free topo mapping apps for selected trails available for free.

If you are using a smartphone app, make sure the maps are downloaded and stored on the device. That way you can turn off data roaming when you're abroad and avoid expensive data charges. People sometimes think that mapping apps are dependent on a data connection, but generally they use the phone's built-in GPS so as long as your mapping is stored on the phone, you don't need a connection.

That's different from, say, Google Maps which downloads mapping on the fly, so does need a data connection. Nit that you should be navigating in the hills using those anyway...

If you do want to purchase and download mapping on your travels, your best option is to wait until you have a WiFi connection or at least check your data charges carefully - things have improved in recent years, but downloading big wads of data can still be expensive.

No Mapping?

Even if you don't have mapping for the area you're in, you can still use your GPS or phone app to record your route and create a track file, which you can later share with friends or use to create a retrospective map of your day.

Real Maps

Last but not least, as in the UK, you should alway carry a real, 'paper' map and compass and know how to use them in case your electronics fail.  


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If you've got a Garmin, take a look at openmtbmap.org. Reasonable coverage across the world, footpaths and contours and it is free by way of a bonus.

Posted: 04/07/2013 at 07:51

Talkback: Monday Tip - Using GPS Abroad


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