October 10, 2012 00:00
By Philipp Laage
Outdoor orienteering shows the strengths and weaknesses of sat-nav
Motorists the world over have got used to satellite-navigation devices telling them which way to go. But the orienteering gadgets have their own following among hikers and bikers who like a little help exploring the great outdoors.
Many of today’s sat-nav devices promise to deliver point-to-point instructions for outdoor enthusiasts. Still, users need to remember that any technology has its limits.
“There are big expectations,” says Peter Weirether of Garmin. “Most people know street navigation devices, where they just have to type in a goal to get a route. They know they can drive on any street.”
But there are additional challenges in nature.
“A hiker might like to take a small path on a mountain, one that a mountain biker could never get up,” he notes, pointing out that not every path is suited for every kind of outdoor activity. “The kind of results that come out depend a lot on the map material.”
Nature lovers today can rely on digital topographical maps, which list various paths, their attributes and discuss the best way to ascend them. Free versions of such maps are circulated via the OpenStreetMap project, which includes OpenCycleMap, as well as special maps for skiing and other outdoor activities.
These maps can be used with smartphones or outdoor sat-nav devices. There's an especially large variety for Android devices, including Osmand, Maverick, MapDroyd, Apemap and Locus. iPhone users can consider ForeverMap or OffMaps 2.
Not every app can generate a route or a map for offline use.
Still, a whole series of outdoor sat-nav devices helps plot routes, such as Garmin’s eTrax series or models like Dakota, Oregon and Montana. Magellan has an eXplorist series. Also consider the Lux 10 or the Ibex 30 from Falk or the Active 10 from Satmap.
Erik Neumeyer of the German Hiking Association says the sat-nav devices enrich the outdoor experience.
“But some applications, like mapping a route, are still taking their baby steps,” he says. “The devices will map a route, but they don’t always give you nice paths or marked ones.”
People used to car systems might also take a moment to realise that a map of an outdoor area won’t include the same precise landmarks as a city map.
“This kind of information is generally lacking for hiking paths,” says Neumeyer. "Aside from a few high quality paths, it gets tough."
Thomas Fraitzheim, who teaches people how to use sat-nav devices, says, “The results remain unimpressive,” noting that despite what manufacturers say it can be hard to generate a new route. “The results are often variable.”
Bicyclists are usually best off, says Fraitzheim, since they benefit from the device’s knowledge of streets. Hikers who hope a sat-nav will direct them through a specific valley or along a specific river will often be disappointed.
“One thing they can’t do is find the prettiest route,” he says.
Instead, hikers should search for recommended routes on tourism or hiking websites or see what’s suggested on sat-nav community sites. “But that’s not what a lot of people want,” says Fraitzheim. “They want a gadget that includes everything so they can just get going.”
Neumeyer says sat-nav devices’ true value outdoors are best suited for pursuits such as geocaching, where people need exact map coordinates to find hidden items outdoors. They can also be useful for planning a hike.
He sees growth potential in the market. “The market should grow, but it won’t explode.” But he believes people will still be using paper maps in 20 years – especially since they don’t need batteries.