Navigating Off-Road with Digital Topo Maps

Navigating Off-Road with Digital Topo Maps

Barry is an expert yacht builder and adventure motorcyclist from Maine. Although we share many similarities and a passion for riding, in many ways he is my alter ego. I’m always trying to be on the cutting edge of digital technology, surrounded by e-stuff as I design and develop complex software for a living, whereas he believes in minimal machines that just work reliably. I believe in analysis and long-term future planning, but he loves to live in the moment and trust his feelings. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the topic of satellite navigation is a point we agree to disagree about.

A recent event triggered some heated discussions. In February 2016, Garmin acquired DeLorme, a Maine-based company that specializes in satellite navigation technology and is renowned for highly accurate and detailed paper maps. Barry saw that as the end of those amazing Atlas & Gazetteers. I saw it as an opportunity for invaluable content to reach a much larger audience through Garmin’s vast distribution channels. Not death, but evolution to the e-world of the 21st century.

Know the Terrain Without Packing Extra Weight

Many of us who belong to the rapidly growing ADV camp often go beyond the asphalt and look for adventure on dirt trails. Many adventure riders are also avid outdoorspeople; camping, hiking, riding mountain bicycles, and similar activities. For this kind of outdoor usage, topographic maps are the de facto standard navigation tool, as they describe terrain with natural and man-made features in a very useful and effective way.

For topo maps, resolution is a key factor; 1:100,000-scale (or 100K) maps offer high-level details, useful for overview and basic navigation. But for getting all the needed terrain details, the 1:24,000-scale (or 24K) versions are typically used. Higher resolution means more data and more maps.

The problem is twofold: first, road-oriented GPS devices (including the navigation apps I’ve mentioned in previous articles, as well as Google Maps) have virtually zero coverage of dirt roads, and little terrain details and features, since their underlying maps are road maps. Secondly, even if you’re carrying paper maps, they can be bulky when in quantity and don’t have that wonderful feature all GPS receivers have: locating you on the map.

Enter Topo E-Maps

Garmin has offered GPS receivers with topo maps support for a long time. The zūmo motorcycle line has basic topo map capabilities, and the rugged outdoor Montana 680t and Monterra models come with 100K and optional 24K maps. A very attractive feature of both is the dual support of U.S. GPS and Russian GLONASS satellite navigation systems, which offer superb coverage, accuracy, and reliability. Interestingly, the Monterra runs on an Android operating system, excluding phone capabilities. Garmin’s two concurrent models are similar in functionality but have different systems and user interfaces, probably to target multiple audiences—traditional Garmin users, and Millennials used to smartphones.

On top of those features, both models support an Automotive Mode, which functions as a standalone road satellite receiver with Garmin’s City Navigator, much like the familiar zūmo and nüvi models. Seems like a perfect solution. In fact, I might just go down that route myself, no pun intended.

Well, almost perfect, except for the price. Prepare to reach deeply into your pockets and shell out hundreds of dollars. Barry would cough at that thought; for decades, DeLorme maps provided him all the detail he ever needed and cost $20 apiece. They never crashed, rebooted, or required a firmware update. Their battery never ran out, or worse—they didn’t lose product support after only five years.

But paper maps can get outdated after long periods of time. Terrain and features can change. When I get lost in a remote area, with all due respect to romantic navigation stories, I want to know where I am on the map right away.

Topo Map Apps

There are other solutions for the modern (or cheap) adventurer. Almost everyone has a smartphone these days, and they seem to be getting increasingly more robust. Why not just use an app with outdoor topo maps? The online app stores carry a bunch of them, and they’re really cheap and provide fantastic value.

As an example, I picked the US Topo Maps Pro Android app. It supports 100K and 24K maps, offline caching, and more than 20 map layers: satellite imagery, forests, and others. For $11.17 it won’t make you re-finance your house. Advanced features such as waypoints, routes, and track recording, combined with a simple and functional user interface, make this app a must-have tool. There is a free version, too, but it requires online access, and limited map caching is available.

There are other apps, some only for a certain platform and others cross-platform, but all with very similar functionality and pricing (around $10-20): Gaia GPS, All-In-One Offline Maps +, BackCountry Navigator TOPO GPS, Trimble Outdoors Navigator, and more.

If your smartphone screen is too small, consider a tablet. Some, like the Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact, are even waterproof.


If you want to go off-road to commune with nature, breathe the dust, and get dirty, but don’t want to carry tons of paper, give one of those topo e-maps a chance. Thanks to technology, you can enjoy the benefits and safety of modern satellite navigation. Getting lost has never been safer.