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Digital maps

Using digital maps on a bushwalk

While some people love owning a physical map collection, others prefer to read from a phone or iPad, or print their digital maps as they need them.

The advantage of using a digital map is that it’s possible to get the information for very cheap or free depending on the region. Digital maps can be printed, meaning that bushwalkers only need to carry with them the exact area they need to use. It’s also possible to access maps on smartphones and tablets, and since most people have these devices, so that’s an easy way to give access to many.

The disadvantage of using a digital map from a digital device is that it’s more complex to make notes and draw tracks on digital devices. Also, the battery of the device can run out, and it can be challenging to use the device in the rain. If printing out digital maps, the print quality may not be high enough to read subtle features.

Use of digital maps has to be carefully weighed up by thinking through the likely terrain, and trip.

Sources Where to source digital maps from

Digital maps can be split into four categories:

  • Basic digital maps
  • Detailed topographic that can be printed out from computer
  • Detailed topographic that can be read from a device like a phone or GPS
  • Bushwalking specific

Basic Digital Maps
These digital maps are not topographic. They show some fire trails, some walking trails but are not informative enough for navigating on anything more than a well known, well-signposted track. They can be helpful to get to the start of a walk i.e. excellent urban street accuracy, pretty good for some more remote fire trails and some campgrounds.

Detailed topographic maps: printable from computer
These maps have excellent topographic information for navigating in remote areas, and can be printed out from a computer and used on a bushwalk.

Detailed topographic maps: for use on smartphones, tablets or GPS units
These maps have excellent topographic information for navigating in remote locations, and can be read from phones or GPS in remote areas.

Bushwalking-specific maps offer information on specific routes or tracks and can be helpful when looking for bushwalking-specific track information. Wildwalks, NSW’s most comprehensive collection of Bushwalking track notes and maps; “Topo not to be” maps, a site for bushwalkers to map and share suggested tracks (it only covers the Greater Sydney Region from about Jervis Bay and as far north as just past Newcastle); Tom Brennan’s canyoning maps, marking major canyoning areas around Sydney.

Planning and field use Things to think through when going digital

If planning to use digital maps for a walk, make sure to download or print out the correct maps before the start of the walk where there may be little or no reception. Ensure that the print quality is high enough to read contour lines and features accurately and that any electronics have enough battery life (and spares!) for the entire trip.

In the field, make sure electronic devices are waterproof, dirt proof (e.g. water protection devices for phones), and that there are backups (spare batteries, extra devices).

For printed out maps – carry an extra set in case one set gets lost. Always print a larger map area than expected to use in case plans change.