There are a lot of apps out there that users bring on the trail with them for mapping and navigational purposes, but I never really enjoyed any of them enough to use out on the trail. traditionally I have always been a paper map and compass guy and would use my phone or Delorme to grab a point to plot myself if I needed a fix.
For almost all my adventures I would create custom maps that use MGRS (Military Grid Reference System) instead of latitude and longitude as I prefer the MGRS coordinate system for navigating. I don't remember how but I stumbled on Caltopo years ago and it has always been my goto place for creating and printing my own maps ever since.
Caltopo the website isn't some shiny super elegant looking website, but it is hands down the best place to build, save, and print customs maps. I won't go to into detail on the website here since this is a review of the app which is in beta but just go check them out.
On 22 December 2018, the Caltopo Android Beta app was announced on the Caltopo Blog, and I was super excited to finally have my extensive Caltopo map library in my pocket! I may prefer paper maps but electronic backups are always nice and can be convenient when I do not have tome to run to the store to print my own maps from Caltopo.
Beta Warning: Yes this app is definitely in beta. I do not recommend taking this as your only means of navigation on the trail. The basics work great, but there are some design quirks that I hope get resolved before being officially released.
The app is free but, if you are already a subscriber to Caltopo you get access to offline maps. I will quote the release blog post to summarize what you get if you subscribe:
The app is free, and for now the only restricted feature is offline map downloads, which are tied to existing CalTopo plans. Basic accounts get 5GB/yr, which is enough to cover the entire JMT at high resolution (2 meter / pixel or zoom 16) with the USGS, NAIP Imagery, MapBuilder Topo/Hybrid/Overlay, shaded relief and slope angle shading layers. Pro accounts get 30GB/yr, which can cover the PCT with those layers twice over at a moderate resolution (4m/px or zoom 15).
The obvious first feature I will talk about is the map itself. One of the reasons why I love Caltopo so much is there basic MapBuilder Topo layer is beautiful. MapBuilder Topo layer is clean easy to read and doesn't look like its a map from the 1920s.
The map interface is clean and uncluttered which made me happy right off the start. In the top right corner, it shows you your center coordinates and elevation. The center of the map has a small crosshair which makes it easy to move around to get coordinates of specific locations.
Along the top, there are 5 buttons:
- Main App Menu
- Map Items
The Main app Menu is where you can access some of the main Caltopo features:
Under the Location Tracking, you can turn on To features:
- Follow Me - Keeps map centered on your location while you move
- Record Me - Will record your data as you move
I honestly just found these two features which make me happy because I was annoyed when I used the app last time while wheeling in my jeep in the desert. Next time the follow me feature will be great for having my map displayed while I drive.
I am excited to also use the record me feature while driving in new locations on off-road trails. I still need to test this feature too, as I am curious as to where or how it will save my track. I am assuming it will just record it as a new line on a map as if I was building one on the website.
I will skip talking about the Offline Layers for now, as I will dive deep into that feature here in a little bit.
Next up is the App Settings:
In the app settings, you can log into your Caltopo account, address different map settings, set your recorded track detail level and your tile Cache size. Currently, there is no explanation on what the different record track details mean. There are currently options for, low, medium, high and highest. I am assuming that is the amount of time between recorded points while recording a track.
The next big app menu option is "Your Maps" and this is where all your saved maps are that you built using Caltopo. I have been using Caltopo for awhile so I have a decent sized list of maps:
The "Your Maps" page is where I was a little disappointed and is where I hope the first big change after the app comes out of beta is made.
At first, I was excited because I saw what looked like a sync button to the left of each map name. From what I can tell these just sync the map data and points from the Caltopo Server to your phone. SO if you edit a map on your computer and then open the Caltopo app you will have to sync them together to get your latest changes.
What I was hoping for was for a download button for an individual map. I was hoping to have a one-click download to save the map and offline map tiles to my phone.
Basically, from the "Your Map" page you can quickly pull up any map you have made but you can not download maps from here. When you click on a map that you have created it will load:
Any points of interest or routes you made will all show up, it is awesome except for not being able to easily download the app.
Downloading Map Tiles
As I already hinted at above downloading maps is not the best experience at this time. If you click on "Offline Maps" from the apps main menu you will be brought to a page with a map with a bunch of grid squares on it:
On the top left drop down you can pick what layer or map type you want to download and to the right, you can pick what level resolution you would like of the map. You then click on the grid squares you want to download and they will turn yellow. Once you select all the grid squares you want to download you then click the small download button in the top right. Once downloaded the grid squares will turn blue.
I have not figured out how to clear downloaded maps at this time.
My biggest gripe about downloads it what I mentioned earlier, there is no one-click download for maps you have already created. If you created a map, you must remember the general area of the world it is in topographically then move to that area and guess which grid squares to download and home your map you created fits within those squares.
I also find the 5/GB per year model for paying customers confusing. I would like to download maps for one trip, clear them after the trip then download new maps for the next trip. The 5/GB per year model makes me think even if I cleared the downloads from my phone, that I will not be able to download more maps after I have downloaded 5/GB. This really concerns me since I am more or less guessing right now which grid squares to download for any particular trip.
Where Caltopo website and the Android app really shine are in its available Map Base Layers and Overlays. There are a ton of awesome map layers to choose from:
- MapBuilder Topo
- MapBuilder Hybrid
- USGS 7.5'
- FSTopo (2013)
- FSTopo (2016)
- Marine Charts
- NAIP (2013-2015)
- NAIP (2011-2013)
- False Color IR
- Shaded Relief
- Enhanced Relief
- Terrain Relief
- Open Street Map
- TF Outdoors
- NPS Visitor
- USFS Visitor
- Daily Satellite
I normally used the MapBuilder Topo for navigating but I was really excited to play around with the NPS Visitor map layer. This layer puts all the Nation Park maps in the palm of your hands! I can't wait to try this one out at a park and really hope I can download and store those on my phone offline too!
In addition to the map overlays above you can place some awesome overlays on top of them:
Unfortunately, as you can see above the Map Layers page in the beta app doesn't quite look like its 100% finished being designed yet but the features are all there and work. Assuming the aesthetics will all be fixed in the final app release.
That is my quick and dirty Caltopo Android App Beta overview. Its amazing work so far, and I hope the ease of map downloads gets fixed in future releases. I will continue to play with this app my future adventures and I will keep this thread updated with any news of new releases and my experiences while using the app.
Feel free to ask any questions below or let me know what you think of the app so far!