If you're not familiar with my route planning series, you should be sure to check it out - it's not hard, and I've found that figuring out where to go is often one of the most daunting aspects of adventuring for folks who want to get out into the world.
Catch Up on the Series
Today, I'm going to cover an exciting - at least for me - new development in the space: a new version of Backcountry Navigator.
First - I'm going to cover a bit of background and soapbox about the new version of BCN. If you're not interested, or already use BCNavXE, feel free to jump down to how it can be used to help with route planning!
If you're not familiar with the existing version of Backcountry Navigator Pro (BCN Pro), it's an Android app that's been around for a while, and that I cover in detail in Planning a Trip/Route Part 2 (Taking the GPX on the Road). For me personally, it has been the most versatile offline mapping app in the market, with the best balance of performance, speed, reliability, and readability of the maps.
But all that is changing - and in a big way. There are now several apps on the market that are starting to get better and better (notably Gaia GPS and onX), and I'm happy to say that the good folks over at BCN aren't sitting idly by - they are hard at work on the next version - Backcountry Navigator XE (BCNavXE).
BCNavXE offers several things that I'm very excited about:
- Support for both Android and iOS. While I plan to continue to use Android, I know plenty of people on iOS who this is going to be great for!
- Marking areas to download, and downloading maps for offline use is much easier and more reliable. You now simply select square areas that you want to download, and the download starts instantly in the background.
- Map downloads - if you use the new Backcountry Navigator World Map (vector) - are much smaller and faster. An entire state at full zoom can be downloaded in 15 minutes, and takes up only 1GB or so of storage. Compare that to 24-48 hours and 16-20GB for previous versions.
- Browser-based access to your trips. Everything you do in BCNavXE can be uploaded to the cloud (if you choose) and viewed in the new companion web site. Of course, exporting to GPX or KML is still also an option.
- Overlays. While overlays were available in BCN Pro, they were separate purchases. Now, they are better integrated and seem to work pretty well.
So, without further ado, let's get into how BCNavXE can help you take your route plan offline and ontrail!
So, you've done your research and created a route that you're super-jazzed about. If you're anything like me, it's taken you days. Or weeks. Months of work (on-and-off), even. That's awesome - you're in a small class of folks who do detailed route planning. Now it's time to get out there!
Seriously though - the hard part is done, now comes the fun part - seeing the beauty that nature has to offer. Here I'll cover how I take a route and use it to guide the adventure. As always, there are many ways to do this using all different sorts of technology. But this is what I do. We'll look at:
- Setting up a tablet for navigation
- Exporting a route to the tablet for in-vehicle use
- Prepping the tablet for offline use when you're on the trail
Before we get into setting up the tablet, let's talk about the hardware itself for a moment. I use an Android tablet - specifically a Lenovo Tab 4 8" device, with 16GB of RAM and a 64GB or larger SD card. Here's why:
- As long as you get one with GPS capabilities, a tablet is much more functional than a standalone GPS unit, if you're willing to create your own maps (which is exactly what we're doing here).
- I choose Android over iOS because of cost - Android devices are a fraction of the cost.
- I choose an 8-inch screen because I like to keep the tablet mounted high on the dash. A larger screen would block either my AC vents or the windshield.
- I choose a tablet with 16GB of RAM (vs. 32GB or more) because I don't care how much storage is on the actual device - that's what the SD card is for. And again, that keeps cost down. A good SD Card is cheap (I recommend this 64GB, or this 128GB card).
And, I should note - I've used other tablets in the past. I feel like the Lenovo is a good compromise from a price/performance perspective. If cost is less important to you, I'd recommend a Samsung Galaxy Tab S2.
Setting up the tablet for navigation
Getting the tablet setup is relatively easy - there are really only a few steps.
- Make sure you have WiFi on and that you are connected to a network.
- Make sure you have location services turned on in your tablet Settings. Obviously, to use the GPS, any navigation app will need access to accurate location information.
- Download a navigation application. I'm a fan of BackCountry Navigator XE: Outdoor GPS App (free to try, then $15-$30/year) onto your tablet because it's got a ton of features and is relatively straightforward to use (as straightforward as any of these type of apps).
- Insert your SD card if it isn't already.
- Configure Backcountry Navigator to save data to the SD card rather than built-in memory by:
- Tap on Menu > Settings > Map Storage
- Select SD Card (if it is not already in the Current section).
Exporting a route to the tablet for in-vehicle use
With the tablet setup, it's time to get the route we created exported so we can see it on the tablet as an overlay on a map. There are two ways to do this, depending on which you find easier.
Uploading through the Internet (doesn't require USB cable)
- Browse to https://bcnavxe.com/#/home and log into your account (the same one you log into on your tablet)
- Click the Upload a Trip button at the top of the page
- Browse to the GPX, KML, or KMZ file you created with Google Earth and Upload it to your BCN cloud account, setting a Trip and Folder name in the process.
- Now that you have your trip in the BCNavXE ecosystem, you can easily download it to your tablet.
- On the tablet, open Backcountry Navigator XE
- Tap on Menu > Trips
- Find the Death Valley Trip that you just created in your web browser and tap on it to show the context menu.
- Select Download to download all of your data to your tablet and import it into BCNavXE.
- Once the download has completed, select Pin to quick access. You can now go back to the main screen and you'll see your tracks and waypoints shown on the maps!
Loading directly onto your tablet (requires USB cable)
- Connect the tablet to your computer using the USB cable and make sure you've enabled file transfers (vs. just charging). This is generally done by pulling down the notification menu and tapping USB connection > For file transfer.
- On your computer, find the KMZ or KML route file you created with Google Earth and copy it to the Download folder on your tablet (generally This PC > Galaxy Tab A > Tablet > Download).
- On the tablet, open Backcountry Navigator.
- Import the route file by tapping Trip Data > Import Tracks or Waypoints.
- The next screen should already show the Download folder, and you should see your route file listed. If it doesn't, navigate to your route file (likely KMZ or KML) and tap it to bring up the Import GPS Data screen.
Generally on the Import GPS Data screen, you can simply tap Start Import . However, take a quick look at the settings and make sure they are what you want before tapping Start Import.
- Backcountry Navigator will then import all of the tracks (routes) and waypoints (placemarks) from your file and display them on the map. If they aren't in view, pan and zoom the map to bring them into view.
Nice. You now have maps on your tablet, and if you have internet connectivity (via WiFi or cellular), you can navigate a trip. Of course, on a great trip you won't have either, so let's deal with that situation...
Prepping the tablet for offline use when you're on the trail
When you go offline, the tablet will continue to show your tracks and waypoints - those are stored on the SD card if you followed the instructions above. However, unlike when you're sitting at home connected to WiFi, BCNavXE won't be able to download maps, unless you've stored those on the SD card as well. Follow these steps to download the relevant maps for offline use.
- Open the Backcountry Navigator XE app while you are connected to your home WiFi. (Because you're about to download lots of data.)
- Tap on Quick Menu > Map and then select the map you want to download. I find the following map to be the most useful: BackCountry World Map (vector) because it has great detail and a small download size.
- Tap Quick Menu (+) > Download Map in the bottom right of the app to enter download mode.
- The screen will change do download mode, and you should zoom in to zoom level 7 or higher, at which point you will see squares overlayed on the map. These squares represent areas you can tap on to download.
- Tap a square that your tracks fall under, and then tap Download at the bottom of the screen
- Repeat for all squares that cover your tracks as well as nearby squares - in case you decide to explore further, tapping Download each time.
- As squares download - if if you've downloaded them previously - they will display with a green overlay to let you know that data is available offline on your tablet.
Once the download of any/all the geographies you want offline complete, you can verify that they will work when you are offline by disabling WiFi and using the tablet to navigate the area you downloaded. Make sure to zoom in and out (between zoom level 8 and 16) to ensure you have all the map tiles.
And that's it! You are now ready to head out on an adventure, with offline maps. #gooutside #beadventure
Bonus: Recording tracks and recording points of interest
Besides just navigating with your offline maps, it's often useful to record where you actually go, and things you see along the way - since you often end up off-route, and you discover things along the way that you never found on the internet or didn't mark because they didn't seem interesting at the time. Camp sites are a great example of this.
While you are adventuring, you can record a GPS route of where you've been. You do NOT have to have offline maps of the area to record the track - that is, even if Backcountry Navigator XE shows empty map tiles, it will still record a track correctly, and you can see it on the map later, when you have connectivity again.
- Open the Backcountry Navigator XE app
- Tap on Quick Menu (+), then on Record a Track
- Give the track a name and decide where to save it, then press Start.
- When you're done with the track (end of the day or end of the track), tap on the red Stop button to stop track recording.
Repeat steps 2-4 as appropriate to record as many tracks as you'd like.
Noting Points of Interest
In addition to recording tracks, you can also create waypoints at interesting places (this works whether you are recording a track or not, and like tracks, you do NOT need to have offline maps of the area to record a waypoint).
- While the Backcountry Navigator XE app is running, move the middle of the screen to the location you want to create a waypoint. Note: If the map is not centered on your current location, tap the center on current location icon ( ) to move your current location to the middle of the screen.
- Tap on the Quick Menu (+) > Add new waypoint icon ( ) in the bottom right corner, then give the waypoint a name.
- Tap Save in the top right of the application.
So - with that you're ready to research and create your own routes, transfer those routes to an Android tablet running Backcountry Navigator XE, and use those routes offline while you adventure along them (noting anything interesting you come across). Hopefully this has been helpful, and as always feel free to ask questions!