iTopoMaps: Technology in the Wilderness


Like a lot of tech enthusiasts, I end up spending a lot of time sitting in front of my computer. When I do find a chance to break away I like to get out into the wilderness for a little backpacking. Nothing clears the mind like a nice long walk up a mountain and a night spent out in the open and of course, as with most things these days, there’s an app for that.

iTopoMaps makes getting around in the wilds easier than ever with downloadable USGS topographic maps, waypoints, range and bearing tracking and more.

Going for a hike is a great way to get some fresh air, take a break from the hectic pace of modern life and leave behind all the trappings of the modern technology. Well not quite all the trappings, I do of course always bring my iPhone with me. In fact, my 3GS is really well suited for helping me out on the trail.

  • As a camera: An ever-growing catalog of great photography apps means that grabbing a quick panorama of the valley you just hiked out of is easier than ever.
  • As a navigation tool: The built-in compass with both magnetic and true north can keep you pointed in the right direction.
  • For emergencies: If you’re able to get some kind of cellular signal it can obviously be very valuable in an emergency situation for contacting help.
  • As a quick reference guide: Want to identify that bird you just heard? There’s an app for that. Want to remember how to tie that Siberian Hitch knot in your tarp line? There’s an app for that. Want to figure out what animal made that track? You get the idea.

And of course, there’s always the built-in GPS. Being able to quickly place yourself on a map with a high degree of accuracy has obvious benefits on a hike, especially if you’re out bush whacking away from established trails. I suppose you could just bring a dedicated GPS device but if you’re packing light then multi-purpose is the name of the game. If you want it with you on the trail, then you’ve got to carry it around on your back, so the more you can do with less, the better off you are.

While iTopoMaps won’t give you all the functionality of those big dedicated devices, it offers more than enough for most walks. If you’re planning on serious multi-week backcountry trips then something a little more fully featured, not to mention weatherproof, may be necessary. For your average 1-3 day jaunt though, iTopoMaps hits the spot.

Before you hit the trail fire up the App and download the necessary map sections; maps are full 1:24k USGS Quads and free of charge. With the maps cached locally, once on the trail you can go into Airplane mode to save battery life and still zoom around and pan the map as needed. Set a waypoint, select it as your destination, then turn on the GPS to get your distance and bearing. All that’s left to do is start walking.

Once you reach your destination you can even snap a nice photo and load the image in as the default image for that waypoint on the map.

What’s your favorite iPhone app to use while out in the wilds?


Bryan Schuetz

@gregor There are a couple solar charging solutions out there for long hikes. I think you’d be surprised though just how long a full charge can last if you have the radios turned off. If I’m only pulling it out for the occasional photo and only turning on the radios to periodically check my map I can make it through a 3 day trip with plenty of power to spare.


What do you use for power? Or does the battery last if you’ve turned off the radios and are just using it for occasional map reference and photos?

Mike Perry

Yes, and if only Apple would have the good sense to make a line of iPhones, including one rugged and waterproof not to come to harm on a wilderness hike.


Apps to geek out in the wilderness: $10

Tossing your phone into a river while enjoying the wilderness (or turning it off): priceless

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