Post»Open Trails

Posted by Steve Or Steven Read on Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 5:44 PM in the News & Stuff section

appalachian trail phone

If the meanderings of my work hasn't confused you enough yet, then here is something different. In a recent project I assembled and released the very first free open source topographic maps of the entire 2000+ mile Appalachian Trail (AT). Every Winter tens of thousands of folks (maybe even hundreds of thousands) are preparing/desiring some sort of AT thru-hike or section hike. (I myself am addicted to 100-200 mile section hike trips) In my mind the Appalachian Trial is one of the best things this f***ed up country has. And the more time we as a society spend on computers and networks, the more relevant and important backcountry experiences become. But I'll step off the soapbox because most of you probably wouldn't want to spend weeks or months all dirty and sweaty, constantly hungry and achy in a beautiful "green tunnel" with the bugs and snakes.

Sorry but de-romanticized statements like that are for your own safety. And so are my free Android maps. Two years ago I posted instructions here at the forums on how to make your own free smartphone backpacking maps. The post has received nearly 10,000 hits, but unfortunately those instructions no longer work. All the topographic map sources which were once freely available to Mobile Atlas Creator (MOBAC) have been yanked. Mapping services have matured to a point where the free ride is over as data pushers pay attention to the dollar signs. Luckily I found an alternative map tile source... OpenStreetMap (OSM) to the rescue! An amazing organization. However they too have bills to pay and don't allow map tile downloads via map making software such as MOBAC due to server/bandwidth costs. (Keep in mind that maps *must* be fully downloaded in advance of your backcountry trip and used offline due to network and battery constraints) Luckily I found an alternative OSM tile hosting source... Stamen Design to the rescue! This heavy-duty, San Francisco based visualization agency hosts OSM tiles, and they generously gave me permission to use their server to assemble and release these Appalachian Trail maps. 

Traditionally an AT thru-hiker would spend $100-$200 on paper maps. So many maps are too heavy to carry all at once, and must be strategically snail-mailed to various post offices along the trail. Many of those paper maps, in my opinion, look so "1990's desktop PC". (not that there's anything wrong with that aesthetic!) Nowadays you can also purchase an iPhone or Android app that has topo offline maps of the trail. Costs for those are typically $30-$60, which compared to paper seems fair, but then again is it? Not in my mind, and I didn't spend a bunch of money testing them because I found OruxMaps. This Android app is free (donations welcomed) and is of great quality. I have field-tested OruxMaps for hundreds of mountain trail miles without a single crash or issue. So I chose the OruxMaps format when I compiled the maps.

Something I learned this time around is that OruxMaps is a "dead end" data format - one cannot convert maps from OruxMaps to a different format, yet one *can* easily convert from a more standardized format to OruxMaps plus many others. Perhaps next year I will try to make better maps, in a more open data format so folks can choose their own platform/app. Though I am a software professional with thousands of trail miles under my feet, I am just a map-making amateur. I am learning as I go along, step by step, just like when I am hiking. (oooh that was cheesy) I hope more folks start creating and sharing open source offline maps, as I see them as an integral part of taking breaks and finding adventure off the grid. Sounds weird but yes I am advocating the use of the Internet to help us get away from the Internet!