Cycling Navigation

Using BackCountry Navigator

For the past 2 years I have been using BackCountry Navigator PRO, a GPS App for most Android smartphones. This is not, as yet, my primary navigational aid. This remains a Harveys Map for the National Trails or an OS Map for other walks, plus a SILVA compass.

The National Trails are clearly sign posted and waymarked, so it is not unusual to walk the whole day without referring to a map at all. I plan ahead and visualise the objectives and main waypoints, typically for lunch stops, major navigational features and points of interest. Walking without a map is quite liberating, but sometimes I get lost, typically while daydreaming and missing an important signpost.

This is where BackCountry Navigator Pro (BCN) comes in handy. As I walk, my Nexus 5 smartphone is readily accessible in its waterproof case for photographs, in airplane mode to avoid interruptions and to save battery life. Having previously downloaded the maps required, it takes only a few moments to fix a GPS position against an OS Map, either 1:50,000 or 1:25,000 scale. I can then see what has gone wrong and the directional arrow shows me which way I should walk to regain the trail and the next signpost.

So I now have a solution for daydreaming navigational mishaps, but what happens when you are on the top of Cross Fell in a gale, thick cloud and heavy rain?  This is now the time for mountain navigation skills using a map/compass, but I also use BCN for reassurance. I decide on a 1-2 mile objective, set off in the direction my compass is set and calculate my arrival time, knowing my pace over different terrains from experience. If the terrain or something seems wrong, or my waypoint cannot be found, then I stop and check with BCN.

Cross Fell on the PW at 1:25,000

I am trying not to get to a point where I am completely dependant on BCN, but it is remarkably convenient and accurate. I am fairly confident the battery would last a days walking, if I keep it in airplane mode and don’t use other Apps too much. Solar chargers aren’t much good if the weather is bad, but battery boosters work quite well, I am told. So battery life problems have solutions (and additional weight).

The best part about BCN is that the OS 1:25,000 Explorer and 1:50,000 Landranger Maps are free when I set the Map Source as MultiMap UK OS Explorer. I download the whole trail to Level 15, when I am in a WiFi zone, so that the map is stored on the phone and a mobile signal is unnecessary.  Then I test the route by enabling airplane mode and scrolling along the entire trail at each scale.


While the Maps are free, the App costs £7.99 on Google Play. That is a small price to pay for converting your phone into a GPS device. This is an Android App only unfortunately, so not suitable for iPhones. A 21 days demo version is available to try out first. I have been tempted to use ViewRanger, an alternative for iPhones and Android, but it appears to me that you have to pay for the OS Maps. They are quite expensive and I do a lot of walking, so the costs would soon add up. Viewranger is certainly easier to use, but I am geeky enough to be able to cope with BCN quirks and the OS Maps seem up to date enough for me.

What is not to like? Well, the BCN user interface is not the greatest and it defeats me on occasion, particularly if you get into the other functions, such as loading and saving routes using .gpx files. Another area that perplexed me for a while is something called Assisted GPS (AGPS). This I believe is the ability for your GPS to preload satellite position data for a faster GPS fix. But, it needs a data connection for that. I found that when I take the train to another part of the country without a mobile signal, the GPS takes ages to fix on out of place satellites, unless it can load new AGPS data. Once the phone has ‘local’ GPS satellite data, it all works fine. I think you can also reset AGPS, but I haven’t tested that.

I have yet to load a National Trail route (.gpx file) into BCN, as the National Trail is marked on the OS Maps, but if the OS Maps cease to be available then perhaps this could be a work around, overlaid on another map source. Alternatively it is back to map/compass and then use one of the many GPS Apps that will give you your Long/Lat. and an OS Grid Reference.

Give it a try and let me know how you get on.

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