At best, being lost is disorientating and disconcerting but at worst, can be a risk to life. How many times when out walking in the hills has the cloud quickly descended and you’ve struggled to make sense of your surroundings ? I experienced exactly these conditions when testing the ViewRanger app on a walk up Ben Vrackie in Perthshire on a cold day when the visibility was down to about 50 metres. While a skilled navigator can still adopt strategies to determine their location at times like this, the beauty of a GPS fix is that it gives instant confirmation of location and restores confidence.
The world of mapping has changed significantly over the last ten years. When I first got a dedicated GPS device (a Garmin eTrex with no on-screen map base) its features were pretty rudimentary. But it did the job: if you were lost, it gave a grid reference, compass direction and altitude so you could navigate out of trouble. However, these days, dedicated GPS devices are increasingly obsolete and are being replaced by smartphones with much greater functionality and cheaper mapping software.
ViewRanger has been around for several years – being continually developed – and is an excellent digital mapping aid for walkers, cyclists and other outdoors enthusiasts. The free app for iOS, Symbian and Android systems essentially converts your smartphone into a fully functioning GPS, using the phone’s built-in GPS receiver. It works with a wide range of smartphones and provides a clear interface and features that effectively makes dedicated GPS devices redundant, offering at least the same functionality at much lower cost (assuming you already own a smartphone of course). And of course, since most people will take a phone into the outdoors anyway, that’s one less device you need to carry.
The ViewRanger app works in conjunction with the website, allowing you to plan routes, download them to your smartphone, record tracks of your actual route and sync your tracks online. With a strong nod to growing social media communities, you can share your routes and tracks with others (using Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and GPX) as well as print off route cards. A neat touch is the Buddy Beacon feature which enables friends and family to track your progress online.
Access to open source mapping such as Open Cycle Map and Open Street Map is free to download with ViewRanger and for cyclists in particular, Open Cycle Map may be sufficient for your needs. However, for walkers and other outdoor enthusiasts, OS mapping is available and priced according to area. Currently, the whole of the UK at 1:50,000 (Landranger) scale costs £90, the National Parks cost between £10-£60 at 1:25,000, and each GB ‘regions’ (at 1:50,000) are £8.50. There are 16 GB regions covering, for example Cornwall/Devon, NE England and the Northern Highlands. Internationally, maps for another 20 countries (and counting) are also available including many EU countries, the US and New Zealand.
The beauty of the ViewRanger app is that the maps are stored on your phone and don’t need to be downloaded from the web (like Google Maps, for example). This means that you still have access to your maps in mountainous areas without a mobile signal. In addition, it’s unlikely you’ll walk ‘off the edge of the map’ as can often take place with standard 1:25,000 or 1:50,000 sheets since the GB regional maps cover a much larger area (up to 14,800 km2).
I tested ViewRanger on a number of hill walks and cycle rides to try it out for different kinds of uses. However, I would have liked clearer instructions in first setting up ViewRanger and downloading maps. I had 1000 credits available but it wasn’t immediately clear how many maps I could buy with these credits. Not all my maps downloaded first time but once fully installed the app was intuitive and easy to use. Maps scroll easily, allowing you to pan and zoom, and the compass works well.
The recording of tracks is very effective. Accuracy is excellent and the summary data provided (including distance, duration, average speed and height gain) very useful in assessing progress. Once synced with the website you can then analyse this data in more detail, print it as a pdf and export it as a GPX file to share with others.
On a small screen routes are difficult to plot accurately but on the ViewRanger website it’s easy to search for a location and then use the automatic route generation software. This allows you to tailor routes by foot, bike or car (using footpaths, tracks and so on as appropriate) and then ‘drag’ your route to edit it. It provides frequent waypoints for accurate route mapping. Alternatively, you can find routes near a defined location and download them. Routes are available from community members as well as well-known websites such as Walk Highlands and Trail Magazine. Routes can then be downloaded to your device by syncing it wirelessly. All maps that you have purchased are also available via the ViewRanger website as well as on other devices you have linked to your account (such as a tablet).
At first I found that running ViewRanger continuously on my iPhone provided quite a drain on the battery. For example, my 3-hour walk up the Corbett, Ben Vrackie, used 40% of the battery life while annoyingly, the battery became exhausted completely during a 2-hour cycle ride. However, once I changed the settings, battery life increased significantly, with a 3-hour cycle using only 15% of battery power. To do this you need to switch the GPS to ‘power save’ mode as well as reduce the frequency of track samples (particularly useful for cyclists travelling faster than walkers). (Unfortunately it appears that switching your phone into ‘Aeroplane’ mode won’t offer a solution since this disables the GPS chip).
It goes without saying that hillwalkers in particular should never rely on ViewRanger alone. They should always take a conventional paper maps and compass which don’t run out of battery power!
Buddy Beacon offers a useful way for family at home, or even fellow walkers/cyclists, to track your location in real time. It uploads data at regular time intervals to the ViewRanger website and other websites. I plan to experiment with this on upcoming walks and cycle rides, comparing it with other similar apps including Social Hiking and FollowMee.
Ease of use 8
Features and design 9
Build quality 9
Value for money 9
Using ViewRanger to turn your smartphone into a GPS effectively makes dedicated GPS devices redundant. It offers very clear on-screen mapping (stored offline on your phone), easy transfer of routes/tracks to and from the ViewRanger website, and useful data to analyse on your return home. The ViewRanger app is free and the cost of maps compares well with print versions.
Battery drain can be an issue in continuous tracking mode – switching to ‘power save’ mode and adjusting other settings is advisable.
Great for walkers, cyclists (especially using the free Open Cycle Map), canoeists and other outdoors enthusiasts.
[Note: This review was originally written in January 2015 for another site which is no longer active. Given the continuous improvements being made to the ViewRanger app the review is shared here before it becomes out of date.]