We have taught these skills to countless people who want to increase their safety in the back country. Another reason people want to learn is because they want to navigate in the dark on unmarked trails or navigate while running on trails with minimal interruption. Of course, we always carry a map and compass – but there are times when it is difficult to use these and. And, while we hate looking at a phone in the back country, your phone has a built in GPS receiver that will function anywhere in the world for free, even without a data connection. Pretty cool, eh? Most of these steps also apply to your GPS enabled watch – but it will be easier to do this on your phone and you will have more features. Why not use google maps? The problem is google maps just is not designed for the wilderness, for recording where you went, following remote trails, etc.
Start by installing a GPS app that lets you get around the back country. You will want to be able to download and import a ‘track’ or ‘route’ and also the associated map layers while you still have a data connection, but once you unplug you should be good to go (and you can always test this before hand by putting your plane into airplane mode). There are many other benefits and you will have all of the features that you find on a handheld GPS device without needing to buy one and carry one.
We encourage you to get started well before your trip because a) it is a lot of fun and will help you find and navigate trail systems (and off-trail) before you even get to Nepal. Also, you won’t want to be messing around too much with learning this in Nepal (though many participants have). We will try to touch on some of those steps here, as of January 15th we have outlined the basic steps; we will do our best to add some screen shots and videos to illustrate these concepts in the near future! Please let us know if you have questions!
First, download a GPS App for your Phone
The market leader is Gaia for iOS (Apple Store) and we really like Back Country Navigator Pro (Android). There are many others out there and many function in a similar manner. Note that we don’t receive anything from these companies; there are a lot of things we wish they would change…but for now they are the best out there. If you are on iOS, we recommend that you pay for the premium version right from the start. We know this is a pain and ~$20 is a lot for an app, but remember you are saving yourself from buying a $300 handheld GPS device. And saving yourself from getting lost in the woods! We promise you that it is worth it! We suggest skipping the free version because we have seen problems from people who try to start with the trial version and then switch; it gets very confusing and isn’t worth it. And usually the free versions do not let you save map layers locally and this is an important feature if you want to get outside of the range of the cell towers and data connections. Note that there is no need to buy any premium map layers if offered (we will explain how to get free map layers below).
Second, Get Located
Learn to locate yourself on the map. Usually this is a small button on the screen that looks like cross-hairs, just like on Google Maps. Also look for a button that looks like sever sheets of paper stacked on top of each other. These are your map ‘layers’ and you can choose what map to have loaded. Some maps layers are satelite, some do well at showing streets, some show average snow cover etc. Some will be free and some might require some kind of payment. The ‘Open Street Map (OSM) layers are free and the Open Cycle Map is a derivative of these and shows contour lines and also many trails. Activate this and learn how to save it locally to your device. Usually when you save a map layer to your device you select a geographic area (tile) to save with your finger; that way you don’t end up downloading the entire country where you will be travelling. You will probably be asked to save your map layer into a folder. In some programs they might refer to the folder as a ‘trip database’.
Third, Go Play.
Pretend you are going to go off the grid. Walk around for a few hundred meters or so and watch yourself move around on the map. Put your phone into airplane mode, or turn off your cellular data, and make sure the map layer is still there and you are moving around on it. If your location turns off, you may need to go into your phone settings and enable GPS or location services. You should always do this step before you head for the trail head!
Fourth, Make a Track
Think ‘Hansel and Gretal’ in this step. It’s good to record where you are going. The GPS in your phone can record your latitude and longitude every second, these are essentially digital bread crumbs. As you move across the map on your screen, you will generate a ‘track’. If you get lost, you can always turn around and re-trace your track to get back to your starting point. You don’t need map layers to do this (though they can help) – so even if you forget to save these locally before you are in the back country, your GPS app will still have a lot of value as you can make a digital track of where you have gone. There is usually a large button on the screen for starting a track. Notice that you can also view statistics for the track – your distance, your speed, vertical gain etc. Don’t forget to hit ‘stop recording’ when you are done.
Fifth, Import a Track
There are a lot of times when you might want a track that someone else has created on your phone so that you can trace/follow that track. We always recommend that when you join one of our trips, that you download tracks that we have created. That way you can preview what we are going to do the next day; and you can always double check a turn. Tracks are often referred to as GPX tracks or routes. Or you might also find them saved as KML files. Don’t worry about this – your app should know what to do with them. So where do you get them from? There are many places! You can do searches on the web for ‘Annapurna Circuit GPX Files’ and sometimes find websites and trip reports where people have posted their tracks. Or you might ask a friend you know who has done something if they ‘recorded it’ and if they would share their ‘track’ with you. Programs like strava often have a ‘Export GPS’ button. You can also ‘draw a track’ in a variety of free mapping tools (either a website tool like caltopo.com or in a local desktop program liek Garmin Basecamp or Adze) and then you can follow that track in the mountains.
We share a lot of GPX tracks here at Himalayan Adventure Labs. We always give all of our participants the highest quality paper maps we can find, but we also find that many are happy having a track on their phone that they can follow. We will either include a link to a shared folder on the cloud, or we will embed an interactive map in the page which has a track loaded. The map has a link in it where you can download the GPX file. You will find one of these in the map below after you click ‘Open in Caltopo’.
The next step would be getting it onto your phone if you have done this from a desktop. We find the easiest thing to do is to email it to ourselves. This also provides a good backup as you should always have the attachment in your email to return to in case you delete the file by accident once you import it. The next step can be a little tricky for people. But essentially you need to save the file (Android) and then go into Back Country Navigator and import it by opening a trip database and selecting the import menu option. Or in iOS on Gaea touch the attachment, scroll to the right and select open in app (this step needs confirming).
Sixth, Recognize the Capabilities and the Limitations.
It’s important to realize a GPX track can contain a lot of errors. Anyone who argues that a marathon course was not 26.2 miles because their GPS watch recorded something different is misinformed. We find GPS tracks are great for navigation (following a breadcrumb) but they can also be pretty inaccurate for recording distances and altitude gain. This is because you can be deep in the woods or in a narrow canyon and momentarily lose your GPS signal which means losing some data points (in other words it will think you went in a straight line between two points but really you were doing a bunch of switchbacks during that time). Perhaps more common, is the GPS recording too many points which makes it look like you went further than you really did. This happens a lot when you stop for lunch, as you stay in one place but still record your location every second – small errors in your location will add up. So what can you do about this? Don’t put too much stock in your overall measurements being super accurate. The gold standard is still using a measuring wheel; that is how they certify marathon courses. But we are not going to measure trails in Nepal with wheels so we use GPS tracks and we try to ‘clean’ or ‘smooth’ the tracks up by removing redundant data points. Not every track gets processed like this. Sometimes there are reasons to leave them in their original state.
Seventh, Don’t Stop
We recommend becoming familiar with doing the same steps with a GPS enabled watch so that you have a backup on your wrist. And we also recommend carrying an InReach Satellite Communicator. We are big fans of these devices as they allow you to send and receive texts from anywhere in the world, as well as request location based rescue services. We always carry one of these on our trips. It is worth noting that these devices, and their smartphone based apps that are connected by blue tooth) also have many of the features at the GPS app on your phone including the ability to save map layers, import tracks and follow them, create way point etc. It is good to learn and utilize these features as a backup, but our vote is still to stick with something like Gaia or Back Country as your primary application.