Turn your Android device into the ultimate GPS back-country navigator

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If you’re still messing around with bulky, grayscale, tiny-screened GPS units, it's time for an upgrade. Likewise, if you're still using the the backlands-ignorant Google Maps for navigation, then it’s time to graduate to much more powerful source material.

I’ve been successfully using a dust-resistant Sony Z Android tablet for my navigation needs. It's great for both gnarly Southern California off-road desert jaunts as well as across-the-pond, ice-hiking tromps.

I prefer Sony's 10.1-inch tablet, but smartphones will work fine too. Here’s how you can go back-country native with real navigation on your Android device.

Purchase specialist back-country mapping apps

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Apps like BackCountry Navigator let you see landform relief, which helps you traverse tough areas. Specialty maps note landmarks like abandoned mining prospects. Importing lets you place pre-planned route markers.

I use Gaia GPS ($19.99) and BackCountry Navigator Topo GPS ($9.99). Both offer a slew of downloadable map sources, including maps from CalTopo, which is designed for search and rescue. I recommend CalTopo maps for use in California, as they're clearer than standard USGS maps.

Gaia includes online versions of National Park Service Visitor maps—the hard-copy propaganda that the ranger hands you when you cough up your dough at the entrance. Gaia is also strong on European hiking—it recently added French IGN, for example.

BackCountry Navigator, meanwhile, has more pay-for premium maps, including the graceful and striking Accuterra. Both apps are worth owning. Download maps to your device at home-base so you can use them later when you're in more extreme conditions.

Relegate Google Maps to a base-camp position

Google’s Maps Android app is better suited to urban and known-world navigation—like how to get to Starbucks—than re-enacting a Discovery Channel episode. This despite recent improvements in its offline functionality. You'll need offline mapping in the back-country, because a signal will be difficult (if not impossible) to find.

Google Maps fails to expose many minor but relevant historic points-of-interest, whereas Gaia and BackCountry Navigator maps pay more attention to these landmarks.

That said, Google Maps does have its uses, such as the ability to track waypoints.

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Creating markers in Google Maps on the desktop. The Add Marker tool is adjacent to the Hand tool.

The best explorers (they’re the ones who are still alive), will tell you that if there's one skill that differentiates a successful expedition from one that ends ignominiously, it's effective navigation. In other words, you need to plan your route, and Google Maps on the PC lets you do that, and do it well.

In fact, Google Maps is great for creating navigational tracks to import into your back-country apps. Importing into the BackCountry Navigator app is simplest:

Step 1: Choose the Create maps function within My Custom Maps, on the desktop browser-based version of Google Maps. Then drill down to your proposed route—the grey lines are minor roads and dirt.

Step 2: Select the Add Marker tool from the in-page toolbar, and add waypoints along your chosen track.

Step 3: Export that auto-saved map to a prompted KML file on your PC by clicking on the in-page Folder icon, and choosing a cloud folder, such as your Dropbox, and a file name.

Step 4: Look for the Import Tracks function within BackCountry Navigator, and import the KML file from your cloud. You’ll have breadcrumb-like trails, called Placemarks, on your in-app map.

Install GPS utilities

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Utilities tell you how long it’s been since your GPS obtained a fix.

The vagaries of Android, the GPS system and mobile hardware require a GPS optimization tool. I use the GPS Status & Toolbox, which lets you download GPS assistance data, called A-GPS, from the Internet. A-GPS provides a speed-boost for a few days.

Cover your power needs off-grid

Going native is fun, but you won't find many wall outlets in the wilderness. GPS and frequent display use will burn through your juice. So switch smartphones into Airplane Mode to reduce battery-intensive signal searching. And of course you don’t need phone service—you’ve gone native, remember, and there likely isn’t a signal there anyway.

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