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OpenStreetMap + Mobile Atlas Creator = maps for everywhere
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Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
OpenStreetMap + Mobile Atlas Creator = maps for everywhere on 01/27/2011 16:47:51 MST Print View

[AmyL updated 07/01/2011: After takiing our trip to Turkey, I have summarized what I learned and I just posted that info on another thread about iPhone as GPS device. That new post is more accurate. In particular, MobAC discussed in this thread no longer supports satellite imagery, so Galileo is no longer worth using, since other apps are better.]

I’m very late to the party regarding digital maps. I’ve learned some interesting things, and rather than waiting until I’ve mastered something to write a thorough and accurate post, I think I’ll share what I’ve learned in hopes that 1) others who know more can correct me; and 2) others who know less can learn from me. I’m no expert, but I know more than I did a week ago.

I’m preparing for a six week hike in Turkey. The maps that come with the guide books are probably adequate, but not as detailed as I normally use. Thus began the search for quality maps for Turkey. The best source I’ve found is a solution that is useful for making hiking maps of the whole dang world.

The fundamental map – Open Street Map

Open Street Map (aka OSM) is a free editable map of the whole world. It is built wiki style (i.e anybody can add/correct info). Go ahead and take a quick look. Click the little blue + symbol in the upper right corner of the map and choose “Cycle Map”. Next, go down to the search box in the lower left and search for some place you know and love. Zoom in and out to find the zoom level you like.

See also Open Cycle Map which is a cycling focused presentation of OSM data.

The map is not as thorough as U.S.G.S. quads or U.K. Ordnance Survey maps, no comparison. However, it is available for the whole world; and it often contains trail information that is more current than available printed maps; and it is free. As a wiki-style effort, the quality of the trail information for any particular area will vary, but for some areas it is already awesome, and it will only improve over time.

I am literally wow’ed by what I have found. In particular, the Lycian Way (aka Likya Yolu), a new (~10 years old) 500 km way-marked path in Turkey, is shown on the map! In other words, some generous person has contributed the gps data for the path such that it shows up in OSM. And the map shows 10 meter contour intervals, far better than the 100 meter intervals on my printed map. Holy wow.

Creating custom digital maps

Mobile Atlas Creator, a free Open Source tool (for Windows, Mac, Linux), lets you create your own digital maps using a wide variety of underlying base maps, which you can then save in a format compatible with Garmin, iPhone apps (e.g. Galileo), Android apps, etc. Or, if not carrying an electronic device, you can capture the info and print high resolution topo maps for locations where such maps are hard to find.

It’s easy to install the software, and pretty dang easy to use, given the complexity of what it’s doing. I set the Map source to “OpenStreetMap Cyclemap”. Zoom levels 13-16 seem the most useful, with some info (location of some of the HRP refuges for example) only available at zoom level 16.

I like the fact that I can toggle between different map sources (any of the google formats, OSM cycle, etc). I can create digital maps that use different map sources at different zoom levels, for example using OSM Cyclemap for zoom levels 13-16 and google satellite for zoom level 17.

I can easily load a gpx file into Mobile Atlas Creator, which allows me identify the regions which belong on the maps I’m building. (That gpx track doesn’t appear on the map I save however.) Try the experiment by using your own gpx file, or by downloading a copy of the GPX file of our 2010 HRP hike.

Using Mobile Atlas Creator to make maps for a Garmin GPS

Here are two short tutorials on how to use Mobile Atlas Creator to build and install maps on a Garmin device. (Note that I have not tried this, because I decided that an iPhone is a better solution for my needs than a Garmin, but I read enough forum posts to be convinced it should work.) Beware however, that Garmin has a limit of 100 tiles per map (a tile is a mapping unit of measure), and many of the maps I’ve been making have 2000-3000 tiles. This limitation is one of the reasons I’ve decided to use an iPhone instead.
Garmin Tutorial #1
Garmin Tutorial #2

Displaying maps on an iPhone

Thanks to Doug Johnson’s Staff Picks, I was inspired to study the iPhone as a GPS, and I have decided that using an iPhone for our supplemental maps in Turkey best meets our needs. (Not to worry, our primary system is paper, compass, and altimeter.)

Topo Maps is fantastic for USGS 7.5 minute quads and comparable Canadian topo maps, but is limited to the US and Canada. There is another app from the same developer for the U.K.: UK Map

Here’s a list of iPhone apps that use OpenStreetMaps.

I am working my way down that list of iPhone apps in alphabetical order, trying to find those that meet my requirements.
1. save OSM topo maps (aka Cloudmade Topo, OpenCycleMap) for use when I have no WIFI connection.
2. Upload and manage gpx tracks

Comments on those I have studied
The apps that have potential are listed below:

Galileo Offline Maps is the only iPhone app I’ve found so far that allows me to import maps from Mobile Atlas Creator. (If you know of others, please speak up.) But it doesn’t let me load my own gpx data and it doesn’t display a scale. It only cost $2, and it's definitely useful; but as soon as another developer releases an app that takes Mobile Atlas Creator maps then Galileo will be irrelevant. Since Galileo maps are built on a PC and downloaded to the iPhone via iTunes, I can not update my maps once I leave home, which is a disadvantage for a long trip.

Gaia GPS allows me to download Cyclemap data from within the iPhone app itself, so I can update maps from towns while I’m traveling. I can download large map sections and I can specify the maximum zoom level. I can download gpx files that show my planned route. Unlike Mobile Atlas Creator (+Galileo), it doesn’t let me save satellite images, which is OK since Cyclemap is my primary requirement. So far, this app looks very promising. Since the maps are downloaded via WIFI from within the app, I can save new maps while traveling whenever I’m in a town with a WIFI connection.

GPS Tuner and MapTap might have something useful. I've downloaded the free versions to try them. Trails and OMaps might have something useful, I'm checking those too.

B.iCycle and GPS Kit are close, but they just cache the maps you have viewed, you can't download a chunk like you can with Galileo or Gaia. This approach may work for a day hike, but it's not viable for a week or a month long hike; they don't meet my needs so I didn't try them. "What you see in the maps is stored until you empty the cache. This includes the zoom levels that you look at. This means that before you go somewhere without cell or wifi service you will want to pan and zoom around the area that you are going."

I have not yet studied MotionX, or a half dozen others that might be useful.

Displaying OSM Cyclemaps on an Android

I have not looked into this, but I’ve seen mention of many apps for the Android that will take maps from Mobile Atlas Creator.

Using the iPhone/iTouch/iPad as a GPS unit

The iTouch does not have a GPS chip. It can derive location from WIFI signal, which is useful occasionally in town, but not while hiking. Same is true for the WIFI only iPad. However, both are still useful for viewing and storing maps as a supplement to viewing paper maps. (we just finished a 3 day backpacking trip with the iTouch, and the ability to look at the pre-downloaded satellite images was quite useful.)

I have no experience with iPhone3, but have heard that the GPS chip is not as good as in the iPhone4. I also have no experience with the Verizon iPhone, but I believe most of this information should be accurate for that device as well.

The iPhone makes a dang good GPS unit, and the initial cost is similar to the fancy Garmin devices. The iPhone requires a two year service contract, and the minimum monthly fee for an ATT iPhone is $15 (data plan) + $10 (phone plan if you can piggy-back onto an existing family plan) + ~$5 taxes and surcharges (varies by jurisdiction). Since the map-viewing apps are really cheap ($2 to $10 per app, and you really only need one) and maps are essentially free, two years of service contract may not actually be all that more expensive than using a Garmin and buying maps. And with the iPhone you get so much additional functionality there really is no comparison.

Battery Life. To conserve battery life, do the following things.

1. Tweak all the Settings as per Apple's recommendations.
But don't turn on Airplane Mode as they suggest, more on that in step #3.

2. Turn off all extraneous apps. iPhone 4 supports a form of multi-tasking or background processing, and you are not likely to know what's running in the background. Some (but not most) apps can actually do work in the background and consume power. To be completely sure you don't have anything consuming power while you are backpacking, it is best to fully shut down all the apps you aren't using, but it's not intuitively obvious how to do this. Instructions:

3. Disable the phone. If you are in a location with no phone signal (i.e. most backpacking locations) you really don't want the device to waste power seeking a phone signal. Unfortunately, the Setting that allows you to disable the phone (Airplane mode) also turns off the GPS receiver. There are two workarounds.

3A. Remove the SIM card. This is easy to do (google youtube iphone sim removal), but also very easy to lose the little card when it's out of the phone.

3B. Use the SIM PIN feature. It took me nearly two hours to figure out how to use this feature - either I'm really slow on the uptake or the ATT/apple documentation is challenging. I finally found out that I need to call 611 from the phone and get the original PIN from ATT. This is a great solution. Whenever I power-cycle the phone it asks me for the SIM PIN. If I want to save battery and just use GPS, then I don't give the PIN. I don't shut down the phone very often, so this should work AOK. Note: Don’t play around with this feature in an undirected attempt to make it work because if you enter the wrong PIN three times the SIM will be disabled (requiring a special code from ATT to revive) and if you enter the wrong PIN ten times the SIM is fried and will require replacement.

4. Don't use Tracking feature of the Map app. Most of the map apps allow you to save a track of where you have been, but to do this it must constantly get a GPS read and store that data, which is a steady battery drain. Instead, make sure you are not in Tracking mode and just get your current location when necessary.

Battery life? I did steps 1 through 3 and then conducted a test of Gaia GPS in Tracking mode. I started with a fully charged battery, turned on Tracking, and put the device to sleep. Once an hour I wake it, check my location and drop a waypoint. After 8 hours, the iPhone reported 50% battery remaining. Next, I will try a similar test but without turning on Tracking - in other words a more typical backpacking scenario, where I check the current location about once an hour, but otherwise have no CPU activity on the iPhone. More later :)

Additional tidbits about the iTouch/iPhone

My biggest frustration with the iTouch/iPhone is that there are tens of thousands of apps available and it is extraordinarily difficult to find the good ones. If you’re just getting started, here are a few that I use regularly and have found to be very useful:

Read It Later (free or $3)
Allows me to flag websites from my iTouch/Phone or desktop browser to read offline on any device. Works amazingly well. I love it.

Dropbox (free)
I use this to seamlessly share data between my iTouch, iPhone, laptop, and Jim’s work desktop. I also use it to share files with others working on a shared volunteer project, and with my sister. Extremely useful.

For birders: Sibley Birds ($30), BirdsEye ($20) and Birdwatchers Diary ($10). All three are useful and worth the money for people who are serious about watching birds.

Schralp Tide (free):
Tide chart for the next five days for thousands of different locations. Not as feature rich or thorough as other Tide apps, but it’s free and it’s easy.

GoodReader ($3)
full featured robust pdf viewer.

Emerald Chronometer ($5)
This is the most beautiful presentation of sun, moon, and planet data I have ever seen. I adore this app. The “Miami” clock face is a masterpiece.

Please add a comment about your favorite apps, I’d appreciate the suggestions.

Edited by drongobird on 07/01/2011 20:47:05 MDT.

Laurie Gibson
(lagibson) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
OpenStreetMap + Mobile Atlas Creator = maps for everywhere on 01/28/2011 07:40:33 MST Print View

Amy, thank you for this nudge along the learning curve. I need maps for an upcoming trip, but have not made any progress in investigating alternatives to buying from Garmin. I'll be experimenting with your suggestions.