Hiking Project Logo

adequacy of base maps; difference between whats available for mobile devices vs. computer

Original Post
aktrailbreaker 1 · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2018 · Points: 0

Hi.  A couple bits of feedback after a lot of kudos; I spent a week using this and the MTBProject to navigate in Sedona, Nevada, and at the Grand Canyon, and think you've done some great work!  This is a great product that enables the exploration of trails and other recreation features far from home, and in this way is a great gateway for numerous users, hopefully including new recreationists.

That said, while using a mobile device, it appears that the base map is limited to a very dumbed-down Google Maps terrain view, which is pretty crappy in terms of providing accurate topo features, landmarks, water features, and just about anything that one might need to navigate cross-country and not on the pre-loaded trails.  (Also, Google Earth or similar imagery is pretty worthless for navigational purposes, unless there are some landmarks visible in the 'sat' pix, such as roads, etc.  It's got a big gee-whiz factor but is only of marginal value for nav. purposes).  But maybe the base map needs to be dramatically simplified to be able to be supported in the mobile phone environment?  (Not that I need it; I used to do lots of Trimble DGPS mapping last century before it had a Windows or similar interface, and all you got on the polycorder was a black line on a blank background.)

And maybe supporting cross-county navigation is not an objective of the Hiking Project, MTBProject, etc., and/or the lack of this capacity is a known limitation of this program, with the intention is to provide the user the electronic breadcrumbs to follow on some base map, along with the our blue ball location, and that will be enough.  If so, it might be useful to provide some caveats in the user guides (that I haven't really looked at too closely) that states that these programs do not replace paper or other digital topo maps, and should not be used for navigational purposes.  In other words, I'm saying that the user shouldn't depend on these for more objective topographical information, but just use it as a tool to support their knowledge of where their location relative to mapped trail features.  (Which is huge in and of itself, but is really significantly different that enabling or supporting cross-country navigation.  I know there are other programs out there for XC nav, particularly Avenza/PDF maps, which I use extensively in wildland fire and land management and trail work).

I do wish that this program could provide the other base map that is in the computer view (Nemo? or something to that effect) as it has much better and more accurate layers of roads, hydrology, and topography, or something equal or better  Google Maps may look attractive when zoomed out, but otherwise sucks when zoomed in for navigation.  (On the other hand, I've noticed that Nemo doesn't support being zoomed in to the same close-in scale as Google Maps, so maybe you're up against that limitation.)  I know there are better, more accurate layers out there to be had, but perhaps they are not open sourced.  The gold standard would be USGS topo maps (aka the National Map).

Just some questions and thoughts that came to mind while I spent much of the past week looking at my phone while traversing a bunch of hiking and biking trails.  Cheers, Kevin

Bruce Hope · · State of Jefferson, OR · Joined Oct 2015 · Points: 5,610

My take with the Hiking Project thus far (correct me if I'm wrong) is that it's aimed primarily at hiking on a trail, the location of which is defined by a gpx file from contributors who have actually hiked the trail. What cross-country travel there is also seems based on user-supplied gpx files. Because of this seeming emphasis on trails, I don't see the Hiking Project as the one resource for planning extensive cross-country travel but only as one of several possible sources of information you might want to check before heading off into the wild. For me, these other sources might (and usually do) include Google Earth, the USGS historical map database, current USGS & USFS topo maps, BLM maps, new & old guidebooks, other's blogs, etc., etc., all summarized in CalTopo, with waypoints then exported to my GPS and cast on a paper map (or maps) too. So if supporting cross-county navigation is not an objective of the Hiking Project, then I agree that it might be good to add a statement to that effect in some prominent place on the site.

If there's a potential weakness with the Hiking Project's approach, it's when it generates a gpx file for a trail - not from a user's actual experience - but by tracing a mapped trail. This usually works for popular, well-used, or well-known trails. But for others there can be a considerable difference between the trail as mapped and the trail as built.  Throughout the Western U.S. I've found trails that were essentially "sketched" on a map in the 1940s or 1950s (or earlier) and simply copied on all subsequent maps.  Whether these backcountry trails ever existed or were drawn from some old hore packers memory or have been abandoned for years is not clear despite their appearance on USGS topo maps (yes, the gold standard but aging), USFS topo maps (better at logging roads than USGS maps), USFS interactive maps, Nemo, etc. I think it would be good if the Project could indicate whether a trail was mapped from a user's gpx or traced from a map.

Joan Pendleton · · Almaden Valley, San Jose, CA · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 4,780

Thanks to both of you for some great information! I totally agree with Bruce's suggestions of "summarizing" all the source info - GPS, waypoints, etc in caltopo. caltopo is a great tool that supports many base layers, drawing and importing GPS, notes, etc. etc. etc. And being able to export in .gpx, what one has combined in caltopo. This is what i have done for off-trail routes. And then i load this exported .gpx (with all sorts of way points, potential route deviations, etc) into my phone, and use GPX viewer on my phone to watch my blue dot with an underlying base layer (that i make sure is cached before starting off into areas with no coverage (except the GPS satellites). (i also print the maps from caltopo and stick in waterproof plastic in case my phone and/or extra storage batteries run out of juice and/or fall in the river when i fall in and/or ..... ).

Mikhaila Redovian · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2015 · Points: 5,807

Awesome questions and some great recommendations here! Thanks, everyone for chiming in! 

To answer aktrailbreaker's questions about base maps in the mobile app: You bring up some excellent points, and I know that getting better base maps included in the mobile app is one of our priorities. In the past year, we have transitioned from Google base tiles to Mapbox online. This is in preparation to transfer the base tiles to the mobile app. Once we finalize our mobile code, the same base maps available online should be available in the mobile app, and should also download in the same way that the trail data downloads. This means that no matter where you are, or your cell reception, you should be able to view the full tile under each trail in the areas that you have downloaded. 

A note on off-trail routes: You bring up an excellent point about what the point or objective of Hiking Project might be. Ideally, we're a go-to resource that helps our users get outside. There are many for whom one of the largest struggles to getting into the outdoors is simply "where do I go?". This fundamentally is the question that we hope to answer. Because of this, off trail routes pose a particular puzzle. Because we are trying to build a community based resource, we often push back on routes that might have been lovely one-off events that are unlikely to happen again. However, we welcome these types of submissions if a route travels to a particular (often spectacular) location, or is well known, widely discussed, and has a wealth of information published about it. In short, we prefer popular routes over being a personal route-builder or route-keeper. Let me know if that helps to shed a little light on the subject! 

Because we're a curated though crowd-sourced resource, we acquire data by the various means that our contributors use to map routes. Our team of content managers then does the best that we can to find maps, verify routes, and keep things updated. However, we're a small team, and we really do depend on the community to help with some of the upkeep of our data. 

Let me know if there are any other questions that I can answer, and if I was able to provide enough information. I am more than happy to speak more in depth on any of the great topics brought up here! 

Best regards, 


Joan Pendleton · · Almaden Valley, San Jose, CA · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 4,780

IMHO (and this is NOT to say the hikingproject.com policies and goals should be changed) this issue about off-trail is a symptom of hikingproject.com being a "victim" of its success. Meaning, it is a serious enough trail guide that the user base has gone far beyond those that need a nudge to get outside. The user base (as we probably can all see) has a huge number of very serious hikers and backpackers, with experience from newcomers to those with 50+yrs experience and the accompanying expertise from all those years - thus, users doing off-trail, etc

But, with that said, preparation for off-trail (at least by those of us less risk taking), besides researching and downloading maps and .gpx/routes to take with us, also includes much annotation of these routes (ie advice, hints from blogs, etc), and IMHO it would not be real practical to get this amount of annotation stuck on the routes/maps of hikingproject.com. IMHO hikingproject.com really just isn't there for each of us to sprinkle what we personally need all over the route map. If each of us did, the map might get so covered to not really be able to see it well for its original purpose. IMHO hints and advice can nicely go in the Comment section so we can learn from others experience. 

Just my $0.02

Bruce Hope · · State of Jefferson, OR · Joined Oct 2015 · Points: 5,610

I think the Hiking Project's focus on trails is a good one because if trails aren't known, and hence not used, they are at risk of not being maintained even on a 2-3 year cycle. This can start a downward spiral of neglect ending in the loss of a trail. Given what it costs to build a new trail, losing ones that are already built doesn't make sense. So use them or lose them. 

For those inclined toward extensive cross-country hiking, the Hiking Project is just another - but shouldn't be the only - source of information for planning a possible route, etc.

Joan's point about the Comment Section is a good one. That seems like the place to capture updates and details about a trail based on recent user experience. Given how quickly even a known & used trail can change (due to wildfire, winter storm damage, tree fall during a wind storm, etc.), it would be impractical to be constantly re-writing the trail description or tweaking the gpx track.   

aktrailbreaker 1 · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2018 · Points: 0

Hi Mikahalia (and everyone else), Glad to hear this app is working on better base maps!  And interesting to hear the comments and experiences everyone has had.  

I never meant to suggest that this app be used as the go-to source for cross-country navigation, it clearly has a lot of limitations.  Or the place to record user-developed routes (aka social trails, bootleg trails, etc)(there's always Strava for that!).  As a trail manager, I really support this app including only legitimate trails.

I've certainly seen some of what Bruce is describing on old USGS maps; USGS typically defined an acceptable error in their mapping, I think for 1:63K (which is what we use lots in AK) it's 1 in 400, or a one foot error in every 400 feet (I should probably look it up to confirm, so I could be wrong :-P)  (Plus a lot of the maps in this neck of the woods were last updated in the late 1950's!)

We call it "heads-up mapping" when we hand trace (digitize) a line into GIS from a map source, rather than gathering it in the field.  And of course the accuracy of the field data depends whether it's a phone, a recreation grade GPS receiver, or a resource grade receiver that can possibly be post-processed (with differential correction).  When able to achieve the latter, the levels of accuracy can easily exceed the accuracy of the base-map!

So, I think as Bruce suggested it would be useful to identify the source of the line, whether GPX, or a digitized line from a map.  Anyway everyone, thanks for the insights and happy trails!  KK

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

Post a Reply to "adequacy of base maps; difference between whats…"
in the Hiking Project Feedback & Suggestions

Log In to Reply