By Peter Dolan, New Jersey Program Coordinator
Typically the youngest face in any room of Trail Conference members, I’m the one people reflexively turn to when the PowerPoint projector fails, the wireless is down, or any other 21st-century mishap befalls them. “He’ll handle it,” they say. “Move over and make room at the computer for the young guy.”
Truth is, I have no affinity for electronics. You could even say that I have an active enmity regarding them. Among friends and acquaintances my age, I was the last person to get a smartphone, and I still relish the chance to leave it behind whenever I can.
My experience with maps began when, as soon as I was big enough to sit in the shotgun seat, my father plopped an atlas on my lap and made me his navigator. Before I acquired a smartphone (my parents “gifted” it to me so I would stay in better touch while traveling cross-country), I had already used paper maps on Appalachian Trail and backcountry Arizona trips, laminate hull-lashed maps for navigating the Boundary Waters, offshore charts to avoid storms in Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands, and taught orienteering in the San Bernadino mountains. My reactions to the idea of a “map app” ranged from incredulity to, I admit, a bit of disdain.
After some gentle (and not-so-gentle) goading, I finally downloaded the free Avenza map app and the new free New Jersey State Park and Forest Maps. And you know what? It’s an incredible tool with some exceedingly useful, practical applications.
First, to clear the air: You do NOT need cell or wireless reception to use this app! It uses your phone’s GPS function and works just fine even if it’s 10 p.m., in the middle of the woods, in the dark, with zero service bars. Of course, your phone still needs battery life to function, but as long as you have that you’ll be able to use this app.
Though you should still always bring a paper map and rely on that for your navigation, there are a few reasons the map apps are a great supplement.
1. New Hikers: If you aren’t familiar with reading maps, or you’re in an area you’ve never hiked before, the map app can potentially save you a real headache. In some of those spaghetti-bowl trail systems, with lots of intersecting trails and potentially poor blazing, it can be easy to wind up on the wrong trail. If you’re still unsure after consulting your paper map, the reassuring blue dot on your map app will confirm your location and get you back on track. The compass feature, which turns the map on your screen to reflect your actual heading, makes it even easier for novice navigators to get their bearings.
2. Social Hikers: The map app allows you to drop location pins, write text, and attach photos. If you find a particularly neat stretch of trail, or a share-worthy vista, you can send a dropped pin with the information to a friend. On their map, they’ll see a pinpoint with your comments and photos from that exact location. You can also reference your own pins later if you mark areas you’d like to return to.
3. Trail Maintainers and Reporters: This is the real reason I’m now a big proponent of the map apps. Reporting trail problems can be a vague affair sometimes, making it difficult for maintainers or crews to get to the right spot to work. With the map app, you can send detailed reports to Supervisors using the feature described in point 2. Imagine you come across a fallen tree on the trail–if you didn’t have the map app, you would finish your hike, drive home, log onto your computer, and email a description of what the tree looked like and where it was, assuming you didn’t fall asleep after dinner. This results in reports that lack specificity, which makes it difficult for the staff and volunteers to find and solve the problem. With your map app, you can simply snap a photograph of the fallen tree, add a brief comment (“14-inch diameter, reroute not possible”), and then send the pin to your local volunteer leader. When they open it, they’ll have the exact GPS location and all the information they need to take action. The same goes for reporting defective waterbars, loose steps, ATV incursion routes, vandalized kiosks, etc.
To sum it up: the map app has a role to play as a tool for hikers of every level, from novice to casual to experienced. It’s a great tool to have in your back pocket (literally) and supplement your Tyvek Trail Conference maps as needed, whether you’re gauging your progress along a straight mile-long ridgeline or collecting trail deficiency reports on a crew scouting trip. I highly recommend giving it a try, especially since, for most of the New Jersey maps, it doesn’t cost a penny.
As a final reiteration, do not rely solely on apps, and always carry a proper hard-copy map! New toys are great, but sometimes you just can’t mess with the classics. Happy hiking!