Topo Maps+ the best trail mapping app just got a whole lot more awesome

Glacier Peak Studio updated Topo Maps+ this week to version 4. We reviewed the app a few months ago and deemed it an absolute must-have essential for your outing into the wilderness. Now, founder Stephen Johnson is shipping a brand new version out to the world and we sat down with him to learn about the new features.

The Outdoor Society:
Congrats on shipping TopoMaps+ 4.0. This looks and feels like huge upgrade. Tell us a bit about what’s new and what’s awesome?

Stephen:
The first is trail data overlay the maps. Before version 4 Topo Maps+ knew very little about what it was displayed to the user. It knew the coordinates and zoom level of the map the user was looking at. With version 4, it now knows what trails are on the map, how long those trails are, if the trails intersect other trails, and the elevation profiles for the trails. This makes it much easier to get the information about trails.Simulator Screen Shot May 24, 2016, 9.45.52 AM

Simulator Screen Shot May 24, 2016, 9.46.52 AM

 

Since Topo Maps+ also knows where the trails intersect, you can easily trace new routes over existing trail networks. When you select a trail you can move the crosshairs on the map at the ends of the trail over other trails and Topo Maps+ will create a new custom route. Here is a screen shot of creating a custom route from an existing trail network.

In version 3.0 you can trace you own trails. In version 4.0 the trails you trace will interact with the trail overlays. They become part of the trail network that you can use to create new routes and the map will show you distances between trail segments.

One of the other great things about having the trail data as an overlay is that you can see the trails when zoomed out farther. In version 3 of the app you had to zoom in pretty far to be able to see where the trails where. Now you can get a good overview of the trail network when zoomed farther out. Here is an example of seeing trails when zoomed out around Mount Olympus.Simulator Screen Shot May 24, 2016, 9.40.23 AM

 

I also overhauled the interface for recording tracks and added that to the toolbar. In version 3.0 it was awkward to start recording a track and in version 4.0 it now has a place right on the toolbar.

Simulator Screen Shot May 16, 2016, 9.14.57 AM

 

I also cleaned up the UI in a number of places in version 4.0 and overhauled how the app on iPhone and Apple Watch communicate.

The Outdoor Society:
The apps been around for several years, if I recall. When did you start working on the app and how long on the latest update?

Stephen:
I started working on Topo Maps+ in November 2011. I had spent a little time in 2008 researching how to get a USGS topographic map onto my iPhone, but it didn’t go anywhere. The first version of Topo Maps+ launched on the App Store in July 2013. Between November 2011 and July 2013 I took a nine month break from working on Topo Maps+ when I hit a technical hurdle that I couldn’t overcome working on the app on the side. I then had an “aha” moment in the spring of 2013 and I was able to finish the app for that summer. Up until last fall, I would wake up between 4:00 and 5:00 am and work on it for 1-2 hours before going to my full time job. I now teach computer science part time at Whitworth University so I can spend more time working on the app.

I started working on version 4.0 in December 2015. It took me quite a while to really understand how to process the trail data from the Open Street Map and get it into a good format for Topo Maps+ to work with. The trail database has over 20 million trail segments worldwide in it. It was a ton of fun creating an app that required me to look at trails all over the world.

The Outdoor Society:
How do you envision Topo Maps+ to fit into the hiker’s/outdoor lover’s backpack?

Stephen:
Topo Maps+ helps you have a more enjoyable experience in the outdoors because it makes it so easy to see where you are at and it gives you the peace of mind of being able to find your location. At its core, Topo Maps+ is about downloading USGS topo maps to your phone so you can view your location on the map without cell service.

The Outdoor Society:
In your mind, what do you see is the biggest advantage of using a mapping app vs. printed maps?

Stephen:
The biggest advantage is ease of finding your location on a map. There is are two unnamed lakes at the base of Harrison Peak in the North Idaho Selkirks that I like to hike to and I have stayed the night at one of them. There are no trails from Two Mouth Lakes to either of these lakes. The first time I hiked into these lakes, my friend and I read the bearing off of our topo map and then we then took turns having one of us walk ahead while the other one keep us in line with the bearing. It took us a long time, but we did make it to the lake and we were off by about a quarter mile. The second time I went into these lakes we used Topo Maps+. We just keep the blue dot on the correct “path” and we bush-whacked our way right up to the lake.

Simulator Screen Shot May 24, 2016, 10.20.08 AM

 

While appropriate use of technology can make our adventures more enjoyable, it can also give us a false sense of security. Thankfully, printing maps before you head out is easy in Topo Maps+. Having a printed map can sometimes be the difference between making it out and being lost with an iOS device that ran out of battery. Topo Maps+ makes it easy to print maps on your printer at home, even if you don’t have an AirPrint printer. This is actually one of the main reasons I first created Topo Maps+. I was using National Geographic’s Topo Map application on my Mac. When I would head out somewhere for the weekend, I would print out maps the night before I left. I wasn’t always able to order the maps ahead of time since I would sometimes decide where to go the night before I left. I wanted a way to do this from my iPad and my iPhone. In Topo Maps+ printing maps is really easy and they look great!

The Outdoor Society:
With the arrival of the smart phone, life in almost every form has changed. There’s so much computing power at our fingertips now. Talk to me a bit about how you use your smartphone when you’re outdoors. Some highlights, observations, killer features.

Stephen:
When I am doing a “serious” hike (longer hikes in areas I am not familiar with) or backpacking here is how I use my iPhone. Before I head out, I download maps for the areas I will be going to and I make sure I have all of the trail data that we will be hiking on. Then when I get to the trailhead I turn off WIFI, put my phone into airplane mode, and I turn the screen brightness way down. When I get into camp at night, I immediately turn off my phone. I have done this with an iPhone 4, 5, 6 Plus, and 6s and they generally last for a three day backpack trip. While on trail, I have my phone in the waist pouch of my pack and I use it for taking pictures and checking our location on the map. I also check how far we have come on a trail and how much farther we have left to go.

If we are on a ridge or a lookout point and we want to figure out what we are looking at I will orientate the map from the compass and then point my phone at the feature in question to figure out which peak, lake, valley, ridge line, etc it is.

The Outdoor Society:
What drew you to creating an outdoor focused app?

Stephen:
I love the outdoors. I was using National Geographic’s Mac application to trace out routes and to print maps and I really wanted to do this on my iPad and iPhone. I started developing for iOS the very first day the SDK was released from Apple and from the beginning I wanted to create an app for the outdoors. I was at the 2008 WWDC when Apple announced the iPhone 3G with GPS and at that point I knew I wanted to bring my iPhone hiking and backpacking. The day the App Store launched I started looking for an app that would do this. When I did not find one, I started looking it what I would need to do to create one myself.

The Outdoor Society:
How many miles have you logged with the app?

Stephen:
Unfortunately, I am not sure. When I am on very long trips I don’t record my hikes so that I can save battery. One of the great things about version 4.0 of the app is that you can use the elevation view of a trail to see how far you have come without having to leave GPS running which drains your battery. (There will be some really cool features around this coming out later this summer that use this trail data.)

The Outdoor Society:
How many miles have users logged with the app? (Is that something you know? Can share? And brought numbers that might be cool?

Stephen:
I actually don’t know. From the user’s that have synced their data there are 34,000 routes and recorded tracks in the sync database (not all user’s sync their data). Those 34k routes and tracked are made up with 12.4 million coordinates.

The Outdoor Society:
Should I get an Apple Watch?

Stephen:
Yes! :) Though at this point I would probably wait for the next model. I personally use Topo Maps+ on my watch to start, pause, resume, and stop recording tracks. I generally do this while mountain biking. Last week I decided to follow a different trail while mountain biking and I used the map on my watch a number of times to make sure I was still on the right trail. I didn’t have to stop and get my phone out of my pack, I just glanced down at my wrist.

Now that I have been using Topo Maps+ on my watch for a year I have a much better idea of how I want it to work and what kind of data I want it to have. I have more plans for the watch this summer. Honestly, I am pretty excited to get these features in. They are going to be awesome! (I have a ton planed for the summer, hopefully I can get it all done ;)

The Outdoor Society:
Are you planning on making an Android version?

Stephen:
Not at this time. While I love version 4.0 of Topo Maps+ it still needs lots of work. There are areas of the app that have UX issues, are ugly, and I am just not satisfied with. I have tons of ideas for the app, I want to create a web version, and some spin off apps for iOS I want to work on. I just don’t have the time for Android. My life is completely engulfed with Apple products and I don’t think I could make a great experience on a platform that I personally don’t use everyday. That said, technology changes fast so you never know what the future holds.

The Outdoor Society:
What has been your most memorable hike you’ve ever been on?

Stephen:
Five weeks before launching Topo Maps+ I went backpacking in the Glacier Peak Wilderness with my brother (that is where the company name comes from). I was working like crazy to try and get just the basic features working before we headed out so I could test offline USGS topo maps. (I wrote a script that stitched together 80,000 USGS topo quads and then turned them into into 10 million map tiles). I barely had the offline maps working before we headed out. As we were hiking up to the ridge above Larch Lakes the trail became covered in snow. We pulled out the map and we keep the blue dot on the trail on the map. We walked on the snow for about 10 minutes and when we got to the end of the snow we were only 10 feet from the trail! We let out a yell of triumph and I raised both hands in the air. I couldn’t believe it actually worked. I had hit so many technical problems over the previous 2 years, I was shocked that there wasn’t something else wrong.

The Outdoor Society:
And what’s your favorite hike you have to do over and over again?

Stephen:
I love to mountain bike on Spokane’s Beacon Hill. It is an amazing trail network with some of the most spectacular single track and it is just 15 minutes from my house. I test track recording a lot on beacon hill.

For hiking it would be Mt Kit Carson. It is a fun hike that isn’t too far from my house.

The Outdoor Society:
Any cool user stories of how people used your app in an awesome/surprising/unique way you didn’t expect?

Stephen:
The most surprising use was from a user using the app for his landscaping business.


Thanks Stephen for spending this time with us. And thanks for making such a great app.

The app launched this week in the iOS app store and is available for iPhone and iPad. Go download it today. Get the annual subscription as an in-app purchase and you will have one of the most useful tools in your pocket when you’re browsing for trails at home or finding your trail when you’re outdoors.

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