A Map App That Does America's Majestic National Parks Justice
For visitors to the U.S.'s incredible national parks, the words "National Geographic" are synonymous with reliable, sturdy and accurate maps. Now the organization has crammed all its maps for 15 of the country's best parks into an iOS app. Mapping with an iPhone or iPad instead of laminated paper has its disadvantages, but one of the biggest up-sides for the app is its integration with GPS.
I've hiked and backpacked in five U.S. National Parks, and all of them featured stunning vistas and made for amazing, memorable trips. In all of those parks, though, hiking buddies and I always end up purchasing a big, sturdy map, and the go-to publisher is the National Geographic Society. Their "Trails Illustrated" map series is just fantastic.
It turns out that the National Geographic Society has done something even more people-friendly and amazing: They took all their maps of 15 U.S. National Parks and crammed them into a single iPhone- and iPad-compatible app. And get this, they did it for just $4.99. That's a freaking steal, any way you look at it. A paper version for a single park usually retails for at least $10, if not quite a bit more. The National Geographic Society pegs the retail equivalent value to be closer to $300 for all the maps.
While there's something quite valuable about having a map on a large sheet of weather-proof paper, an iPhone or iPad version can offer more, like GPS position pinpointing, the ability to mark your car or campsite for an easy return, as well as the ability to tell you how far away you are from your destination. Oh, then there's this nifty feature: When you're done with the map, you don't have to fold it back up.
For in-your-pocket action, the iPhone version will be quite handy, but I'd be surprised if many National Park visitors go hiking or backpacking with their iPads -- even with some rugged OtterBox iPad case protection. I've taken my iPhone backpacking ever since the first-generation iPhone, and each version has found spots of connectivity from certain peaks or ridges. The trick is to use it in a zipped plastic baggie to give it a measure of moisture and dust protection. (And then be super careful with it lest you smash your leg into a rock while scrambling around a boulder field and bust the iPhone in your pocket.)
But back to the app: You'll be able to pinpoint your location on the maps using the iPhone's built-in GPS system, which will also let you figure out how far and in which direction you need to go to find your destination ... or a trail, if you happened to get lost. One note: I must admit, I haven't yet put this app to the test in the field, since national parks aren't exactly in my backyard, and I usually only hit one each year.
A Great Planning Tool
The biggest immediate benefit of this app that I see is the ability for you to check out a national park at a moment's notice, get the lay of the land, find the local attractions, and plan your trip. If you like national parks, this app will inevitably help stoke some excitement too. National Park Maps HD also lets you download HD maps that let you zoom into topo map levels while retaining point-of-interest information like trails and campsites. As you look around, you'll find symbols you won't recognize -- to get to the map legend and scale, tap the information button at the bottom right, and you'll get a series of links to additional park information, like shuttle bus routes, leave-no-trace ethics, and grizzly and black bear warnings and advice.
National Park Maps HD app is easy to use -- if you know how to tap, pinch to zoom and swipe, you'll be able to navigate the app just fine. Even better, from the opening screen to the execution of the maps, the overall feel is of a gorgeous quality. Of course, you should plan your trip ahead of time, because while you can download extra HD maps, they range in data size from 7 MB to 131 MB for Yosemite. It takes several minutes to download these from a relatively fast WiFi signal. I'm not sure if the app will let you download them at all from a cellular connection out in the hinterlands -- just to download the 170 MB app itself, my iPhone prompted me to connect to a WiFi source first. The last thing you'll want to be attempting is to download an HD map while you're out lost on some back-country trail. (I hope this is already clear to everyone, but please tread with care and don't get in over your head. While you can be overrun with visitors in some parks, there are some wild places where you can get lost, particularly if the weather turns nasty.)
If there's one thing missing -- and I'm hard-pressed to say that it's really missing because this app does what it promises -- it would be links to photos of the areas on the map. It would be nice to have a removable overlay that would let you look at actual photos of the areas or campsites, whether these would be crowd-sourced by park visitors or created by the professional at the National Geographic Society. Still, where do you stop when it comes to adding features?
In any event, the app promises some great maps of national parks and that is what the app delivers. If that's what you're looking for, you'll be pleased.