I have been asked quite a few times while leading workshops about what app or device I use for a GPS and for keeping track of locations. I have done a lot of research and given a lot of thought to many of the different apps available for both Android and Apple phones. I purchased a $40 GPS app and also purchased a separate GPS unit and returned it shortly after. The two most important features for me are a good terrain-view, and the ability to easily save locations and label them for future reference. Google Maps makes both of these features possible, and for me it is the best option at this point when not in the backcountry, even though it isn’t perfect.
While scouting out new locations I always have Google Maps up and running and I find that being able to see the terrain, or different elevations, is essential. With terrain, I have an almost 3-d view and can tell where the high and low points are, and even the exact elevation of specific locations. This way I can get an idea where the good views will be. I couldn’t find any GPS app, or separate device with a useable terrain view available.
For me, the ability to just click on the screen of my phone and save a place is really important, especially while scouting, and the ability to click on a location and get directions directly to it from wherever I am is great too. Google Maps allows you to save any location anywhere on the map. The only problem is it doesn’t allow you to simply edit the name of that location. I don’t know why this is, but do know that many people would love this functionality, including myself. There is a work around though.
If you find a good location and want to save it and label it for future reference, here is how to do that. Start by clicking on the screen right where the location is.
Next, click on the red pin. You should now see a star with “save” written under it. Click on that star and it will place a yellow star on the map where your location is. The exact GPS coordinates are available, but as I said before, there is no option to rename it.
There are two ways to keep track of spots that I know of at this time. Hopefully this will become easier in the future. The easiest is to go into Google Bookmarks and you will have the option to rename it there. For me, on my Andriod phone, the new name doesn’t show up by the star on the map, but it is always there in my bookmarks for reference. You can place a shortcut to Google Bookmarks on your phone to it is easy to access and just change the name right when you save the new place.
A feature that has just become available now again after a couple of years, is the ability to use custom maps with the mobile version. If you click on “My Places” in the menu within the app, it will give you a dropdown list of all of your saved places, and maps created within the desktop version of Google Maps. You can create custom maps at home with places to scout and load and use those maps while out on your photography trips. Here is how that works. Go into Google Maps from your computer and create a custom map. When signed into your Gmail account, there should be an option just under the search bar in the upper left called “My Maps”. Click on this and then click “Create”. You can make as many custom maps as you want, and mark and label locations, etc. For me, my starred places don’t show up when I create a new map (they used to in the older version), but I can search for them by cutting and pasting coordinates and mark them that way. You can access these maps on your phone and navigate with them up.
Another feature that is really useful and not available on most other apps and stand alone GPS devices is satellite view. The ability to quickly switch back and forth between terrain and satellite view while out and about is really useful, and can even be done within a custom map.
Another thing that I like about using something like Google Maps vs other apps or stand alone devices is that all of your information will always be with you and linked to your Gmail account. Besides the silly workaround for renaming locations, the other obvious downside to using Google Maps is that fact that you need cell phone reception. I have Verizon and get reception most places so this isn’t an issue too often when on the road. Another thing that helps with this is that Google Maps caches sections of the map so if you do go out of range for a little while you can still navigate. Very helpful, but still not as good as a stand alone device in this regard.
It seems like Google is constantly updating Maps, and many times when they do they take out specific features in an attempt to make it more simple. Then, people complain because those particular features were very useful and they put them back in. The ability to just simply rename starred locations would be an easy update and hopefully something that Google will consider. If any of you have any other ideas or workarounds I would love to hear them. The other GPS apps I have tried just don’t cut it in many ways, and having a separate device with a new learning curve that needed to be plugged in and carried around was a pain. At this point, Google Maps is my go to app for navigation while not in the backcountry where a hand held device is essential especially when venturing off trail or exploring in the snow.
Chip Phillips began his relationship with photography in 2006 when his father gave him his old Pentax Spotmatic film SLR camera. Chip was immediately hooked and soon made the transition to digital. Given his lifelong love of the outdoors, he naturally made the progression to focusing on landscape photography. A professionally trained classical musician, Chip also performs as Principal Clarinet with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, and is Adjunct Professor of Clarinet at Gonzaga University. Chip resides in Spokane Washington with his wife and son.