What Satellite Navigation system is best for you?

I've met many people on the trail, who carry no more than a paper map. Coupled, with a print out of the route - it works.

Plus, a paper map gives you the bigger picture quickly, if you need to leave your planned route, you're not limited to panning around a small screen on a phone, or tablet.

I use 'ViewRanger' routing software because it suits my needs. ViewRanger supports my Android Phone, and Android Tablet. It's Desktop routing creation software is 'online', and therefore operating system agnostic. You can even a plan a route on your mobile device - I haven't tried that yet.

I also own a Garmin Etrex Vista HCx. It is loaded with the basic topographic map of the UK. Unfortunately Garmin's desktop software, 'BaseCamp', doesn't recognise my five year old device as having a map at all. Therefore, I cannot plan routes on it with any precision. I do carry the Garmin on the trail though, to record tracks, and as a back-up.

I'm going to keep repeating this: ALWAYS CARRY A SPARE BATTERY, OR PORTABLE POWER SOURCE. Or, at least a paper map.

There are many Apps for iOS and, Android devices that utilise the built in GPS receiver.

Many Apps are not suitable for the Walker and Mountain Biker, as they rely on Google Maps, which does not have the detail for those who go off-road. Wikiloc for example, rely wholly on Google Maps. This approach has its problems, as you need to have a mobile data signal on your device to see the map.

Fitness Apps, are not true off-road, route creation Apps, and I believe they are not suitable for the off-roader. I include in this category Apps like the: 'Map My' range, My Tracks, or Strava.


Dedicated GPS  (Global Positioning System) Devices versus Mobile Devices

Dedicated GPS Devices
Their receivers are more sensitive. They are more likely to work in valleys, and dense woodland. The battery life is better than mobile devices.
Mobile Devices
A cheaper option for those who own a smart phone, or tablet with a satellite navigation receiver. The receiver will not be as sensitive as a dedicated GPS device. Using routing software is very battery intensive on mobile devices. I always turn off Bluetooth, and WiFi on the trail.

ALWAYS CARRY A SPARE BATTERY OR, A PORTABLE POWER SOURCE.

Popular Software Options

I am now going to attempt in tabular format to show you the different options for route planning software.

Brand Route Creation Output/Input GPX Device Map
Anquet Desktop: Windows Only (Free and Paid versions) Yes iOS, Android & Dedicated GPS units (Garmin) Ordnance Survey
Garmin Desktop: Windows & Mac (Free) Yes Garmin Devices only, but you can output GPX files. Ordnance Survey & Garmin 'Topo Light'
Memory-Map Desktop: Windows Only (Free) Yes iOS, Android, and Memory Map's own 'Adventurer' GPS devices. And also other GPS manufacturers like, Garmin Ordnance Survey
OutDoors Online and on Device Yes iOS and Android Ordnance Survey & Google Maps
ViewRanger Online and on Device Yes IOS, Android, Blackberry, Symbian, Kindle Fire Ordnance Survey, OpenStreetMap
Wikiloc Online Yes Android, iOS Google Maps/Google Earth

Summary

It is difficult to give the pro's and con's of each system. For instance, if you own a Garmin GPS unit with an Ordnance Survey map loaded. You've already paid a lot of money. If you want to follow one of the routes on this site, just download the GPX file from ViewRanger, and upload it into Base Camp - then upload the file in to your device.

If you own a Garmin without mapping capabilities, you still can download the GPX, from ViewRanger, and upload it into your device, and just follow the prompts on the screen. That's how Anquet and Memory-Map used to work before mapping became available for devices. This method, coupled with a printout of the route, and ideally a paper map will work.

The Smartphone, or tablet only route, I think, is the future for recreational use. I've noticed that Magellan have dropped out of the UK hand held market GPS market totally. That leaves Garmin as the big player in the UK recreational market. It will be interesting to see where the recreational satellite navigation market ends up in 10 years time. By then, Galileo - Europe's answer to GPS will be online. It all depends how European Space Agency decide how to licence the use of Galileo. I doubt device manufacturers will pay anything to use Galileo whilst the use of GPS is free.

In my opinion, if you really want to buy a dedicated unit now, go for the very cheapest Garmin Etrex - as a backup.

When it comes to using a smartphone, or tablet, I've come down in favour of ViewRanger, for the following reasons:

  1. Online route creation on any Operating System. As long as you have access to View Ranger's website - you can create a route. Route creation is best done on a large screen, like a Desktop, or Laptop, but it can be done any device that has the ViewRanger App loaded.
  2. Free OpenStreet Maps, and cheap Ordnance Survey maps. If you use OpenStreet whilst on route, you will need mobile data reception, but with Ordnance Survey map stored on your device - you don't need a mobile signal. As of September 2017, the 1:25000 map of the Isle of Wight is: £4.
  3. ViewRanger can be used on the following platforms: iOS, Android, Symbian, Blackberry and Kindle Fire.
  4. I can download the GPX file, and load it on to my Garmin Unit, to use as a back up. There's no attempt by ViewRanger to make this difficult. It just requires you have a free account with ViewRanger.

ViewRanger is very simple for following routes. Just hit 'Follow Route', and follow the visual and audio prompts.

What follows is a little lesson about Satellite Navigation. It's for information only.

Satellite Navigation, Maps, and File Formats

Satellite Navigation

GPS (Global Positioning System)

Though GPS has become synonymous with Satellite Navigation. It is just one of several satellite navigations systems worldwide. Only two are truly global: GLONASS, and GPS - the rest are regional

GPS is maintained by the United States Government.

95 pct. of the time, there are at least 24 GPS satellites in orbit. The minimum number of satellites required for a 'fix' is four.

The other global satellite navigation system is GLONASS run by the Russian Government. Some mobile devices, such as phones and tablets, are now able to use both GLONASS , and GPS.

Galileo, is being developed by the European Space Agency, and is forecast to be in service in 2020, and is rumoured to be more accurate than GPS.

GPS, and GLONASS, both have limitations on the accuracy of their devices sold for civilian use. It's the device, not the satellites that make military devices more accurate. Military GPS devices utilise two frequencies which are transmitted from each satellite, instead of one. Making the military devices overcome ionospheric interference.

The US Government is working towards allowing civilian GPS devices to have the accuracy of the military devices.

How does it work?

Simply put, the satellite outputs data with a timestamp and its position.

The GPS receiver then uses the difference between the time it receives the satellites timestamp, and the time on the device. Using that time difference, and the satellites position data, the GPS receiver calculates it's position. You need at least four satellite fixes to calculate to calculate a position.

Augmentation Systems

A GPS augmentation system aids GPS by providing accuracy, integrity, availability, or any other improvement to positioning, navigation, and timing that is not inherently part of GPS itself.

These are usually ground based radio stations, that transmit data to give more accurate fixes. Systems like WAAS, is one, which is unusable in the UK.

Most of these systems are only usable in the USA, with one exception: Global Differential GPS (GDGPS), run by NASA. I've yet to see a GPS device in the UK that supports GDGPS.

File Formats

There are many file formats for GPS (Global Positions Systems).

The two of the most popular are:

  • GPX (GPS Exchange Format)
  • KML (Keyhole Mark-up Language)
GPX - has 2 file types:
  1. A Track - is made of at least one segment containing Waypoints, that is, an ordered list of points describing a path. Waypoints in tracks have time stamps.
  2. A Route - is an ordered list of waypoints representing a series of significant turn or stage points, leading to a destination. It does not hold timestamps. But the Waypoints would contain instructions, i.e. turn left - not quite that simple - but basically true.
GPX is the commonest format, and is supported by most GPS software packages and devices.
KML
Is now owned by Google. It was developed by Keyhole Inc.
KML is used for Internet based 2, and 3 dimensional maps, like Google Earth. It can display shapes, tilt, heading, and camera view. KML is mainly supported by Google's mapping products
KMZ is the zipped up format of a KML file.
File Conversion
There is software, and online resources for converting the various file formats.

GPSBabel, works on most platforms. It's free,

A search for online 'GPS conversion', will bring up many different options. I use GPX2KML for converting files from GPX to KML, and vice versa.

Maps

In the United Kingdom, for recreational purposes we use OSBG datum, for example: SZ 49327 95658. 'SZ' being the 100 Kilometre square map area, and the number an easting and northing within that 100 kilometre square.

GPX and KML, and all other
Latitude and Longitude GPS file formats are based on the WGS84 (World Geodetic System) datum. The '84' being the latest version. WGS84 is a reference point, which underpins the Latitude and Longitude output. The reference point of WGS84 happens to be the Earth's centre of mass.

It's the software on your device that turns WGS based Latitude and Longitude. into OSBG datum.

When you output a file from a device, it's output with Latitude and Longitude based on the WGS 84 system. And that file format is normally GPX.

Also, the time is output in GMT, or more correctly UTC

Ordnance Survey
The best map, to have digitally, or in paper format.

Over ten years ago I emailed Garmin and asked why they couldn't put OS maps on their devices. Garmin replied that Ordnance Survey wanted too much money for the licence. in America the government mapping agency imposes no charge for the use of its maps. Especially those for recreational purposes.

In recent years Ordnance Survey have dropped their prices dramatically. Ordnance Survey have finally woken up to the fact they are an Agency of the Government, with a monopoly in the UK, which was holding the likes of Garmin and Magellan; and even other Government departments to ransom.

When looking for GPS routing software, or devices, check out their prices for the OS Maps. Map prices vary significantly between retailers, or they offer map areas that are too large for some users. Forcing you into spending over a £100 for the whole of the south of England, for example. Some will sell you individual map tiles, based on raster, not vector formats, meaning they wont be as sharp on screen as true vector maps.

Be aware that for some retailers, selling OS maps is one of their major sources of profit.

OpenStreetMap
OpenStreetMap is built by a community of mappers that contribute and maintain data about roads, trails, cafés, railway stations, and much more, all over the world.

The maps are built by using a mixture of GPS traces, (tracks), and background maps contributed by the likes of Bing and Yahoo. I am contributor myself.

Often, the  Open Street Map can be more accurate than OS especially when rights of way get moved by landowners. However, Ordnance Survey is the gold standard. If in doubt follow the Ordnance Survey right of way.

One of Open Street's faults currently it it doesn't show contour lines at all.

The Open Street method relies wholly on the skills, and accuracy of it's providers. Some contributors have not actually walked the right of way, and have just used background data, from commercial providers. Open Street is built on trust. A bit like Wikipedia

Many companies use OpenStreetMap, including Apple. ViewRanger also uses OpenStreetMap.

Google Maps
If Google were to add the whole of the Rights of Way network in the UK, and then allow route creation. It would cause a revolution. At the moment Google Maps is not suitable for off road navigation, except in a emergency. Satellite view often being the most useful.

Google Map Maker, is Google's answer to OpenStreetMap. It seems to be aimed at citizens in less developed countries, to allow these citizens, to update Google Maps themselves. It does have contributors in every country in the world. The contributions are very urban centric, in developed countries, like the UK. Also contributors cannot up load GPX/KML files. So the additions to Google Maps can only be done by eye, using Google Maps. So, its guess work, not tracks from satellite navigation units.

I do use Google Maps on the trail, especially if I'm near to a town and need to find a shop, or a bus stop. I've also used it extensively on this site.

Google's business model, I believe, is moving towards charging businesses to utilise their maps, or at least making companies pay to be more prominent than freely listed businesses on the map. Try zooming out on Google Maps to see what companies remain visible the more you zoom out.

I do love Google Maps, what other company would give you free access to it's maps, and it's routing capability - for free. I'm not asking for Google to compete with recreational route creation software like Memory Map. Just an opportunity to get from A to B off road, using Google Maps/Navigation. Such as it does now, for road, and rail users.



Buy Ordnance Survey Map