Written by Erin Woolbright
BackCountry Navigator is an app for any android device, whether that be a tablet or smartphone. BackCountry Navigator is ultimately not a free app, however you can download the “free” version, but it only lasts 21 days before each map tile is delightfully plastered with the word “DEMO.” To purchase, it’s only $11.99, which is significantly cheaper than another handheld GPS unit. I’ve used both the Garmin eTrex 35t and Oregon 650t and can say that this app is pretty comparable and well worth the price of an expensive 6-pack of craft beer.
I was first introduced to this app when my Oregon 650t decided it didn’t want to live on dry land anymore and jumped (re: I dropped it) into a very, very deep lake. Unfortunately, my wanting to save some money after handing over $300 coupled with poor foresight, I didn’t purchase the insurance (ALWAYS purchase the insurance) on it. I downloaded the app on my phone soon after and have been using it ever since.
This app is not just for the US, but there’re maps of some kind (with various restrictions) for pretty much everywhere worldwide. Some countries/regions have more maps available than others with differing degrees of precision/extent.
One of the neat things you can do with this app is download maps for offline use as if you’re hiking, there’s a high chance that you won’t have any cell service. As long as you keep your phone/tablet’s GPS on, BackCountry Navigator can still track you on your pre-downloaded maps. When I was living out near Mission Ridge in Wenatchee, WA, I had absolutely no cell service unless I stood in a 4”x4” area near the front of my VW bus. When I was someplace that had service, I would download as many maps as I could of the area so if I decided to go wander, which was often, I wouldn’t get lost. If you’re using this app offline due to no cell/WiFi service, then I highly recommend putting your device in airplane mode and shutting off any unnecessary processes as this eats up battery power. I personally always bring a few USB power banks with me for this reason.
Another feature this app has is the ability to track and record the trip. For example, once you get to a trailhead of your choosing, select “Record a Track” and the app will start recording your progress on/off the trail. You can also add waypoints wherever you want by just clicking on the “add waypoint” symbol to the left-center of the screen. You can add a photo or record audio unique to that waypoint if you so choose.
You can also import .gpx, .kmz, or .kml files into the app. It’s a little wonky for sure, but it works. Typically, when I’ve imported trails there are a lot of unnecessary waypoints that I would go through and delete. You can also export your route. To do this you need to connect to a computer or laptop and just search into your device for a folder called bcnav and there you’ll find a .gpx file with whatever name you gave it. You can import those into Google Earth or ArcMap has a conversion tool.
Overall, this is an awesome app to use if you’re outdoors-y. It’s not just for hiking, you can use it for just tracking walks around a neighborhood or cycling. I have a friend who used it when she was looking for relatively easy walks she could take her grandparents on. However, there are a few drawbacks. Some of the maps you do need a subscription to use, such as Accuterra or most of the CalTopo maps. The subscription is for access to those hosting companies, not BackCountry Navigator. Accuterra is something like $20/mo and to my knowledge, both of the subscription-only map providers only cover the US. Don’t get me wrong, they are great quality maps but I’ve done just fine with the non-subscription ones.
Another app called Gaia GPS is also highly rated, however this is a subscription service that costs $20/mo. From what I’ve read, the process of jumping from computer to phone/tablets is a little less jerky, but it’s fairly similar to BackCountry Navigator. My main takeaway from this is that if you want a solid GPS for areas without cell service/WiF and aren’t ready to throw down at least $200 for a separate handheld GPS unit, BackCountry Navigator is the way to go.