Brian's Photo Blog — Article 90
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Topo Maps on the iPad
Friday 27 April 2012   —   Category: iPad Workflows
Of all the equipment I take with me when going on a photographic outing, one item that I couldn’t possibly imagine leaving without is the Topo Maps for iPad app. Of course, if you’re remaining in civilization — on paved roads and in towns and cities — then you could most likely get by without this $8 software. But if you are like me, and enjoy hitting the backroads and the hiking trails, you've just got to have maps of some sort. The question is, what kind?

With this awesome little app, I was able to download all 1,826 United States Geological Survey (USGS) 1:24,000-scale maps for Oregon — for FREE! That’s right, you pay only for the app, NOT for the maps! And you can put thousands of maps into your iPad, and it doesn’t increase the weight by one ounce, or even one gram!

How does this compare with the paper version of the USGS maps? If you were to buy them at, for example, all 1,826 maps at $6.95 each would come to $12,690.70! At least they offer free shipping! On the USGS Web site, the maps are $8 each, but they’re having a “spring mega sale” right now, with some of their maps going for only $1. What a deal! Even if you could get ALL 1,826 Oregon topo maps for only one dollar each (which you can’t), it would still cost you around $2,000 with shipping and handling!

Let’s say you have thousands of extra dollars lying around, so you could afford to buy all these maps. Are you going to carry around 140 pounds of paper? Imagine how tall that stack of dead trees would be! You would have to find a place to store them. And keep them dry. And find the one particular map you want out of the more than 1,800! Paper maps wear out, so you would have to replace them once in a while. I think by now you’re starting to see the major disadvantages of going the route of traditional paper maps.

The advantages of an app like Topo Maps are obvious, but I’ll list them anyway. Cost-wise, it’s $8 vs. thousands or tens-of-thousands of dollars. Of course, I’m not counting the cost of the iPad, which, if you don’t have one, will set you back $400 to $829. But since an iPad has so many other uses, even related to only a photographic workflow, that I’m going to leave its cost out of the equation.

This screenshot from my iPad shows a yellow grid over the western two-thirds of Oregon. Each little square represents an individual topo map! No wonder it takes 1,826 maps to cover the entire state!
An iPad can hold thousands of maps. The 1,826 Oregon topo maps I've downloaded take 11.4 GB of storage. If you have a 64 GB iPad as I do, I could add plenty more maps. If you have the 32 GB iPad, that’s still less than half of the storage space. For a 16 GB iPad, that would be a bit tight. But then again, I probably would not have downloaded every single last topo map of Oregon either. Will I use ALL 1,826 maps? Most likely not. I just wanted to have them all, so I wouldn’t have to deal with downloading the one I want in the future. I could always delete some if I need to conserve space.

The nice thing about downloading maps BEFORE you go out into the boonies is that you won’t need a Wi-Fi or cellular Internet connection in order to use the Topo Maps app. To determine your current position, the app relies on the GPS capability of the iPad, which is totally separate from the Internet. And depending on where you are hiking — if it’s by the corner of a map — you might need to use two, three, or even four maps during a single hike. Better to have more maps than you need, than to be missing a necessary one.

The Topo Map app tiles the individual maps together very nicely, usually without any seams or gaps — it’s like you have one large map you can navigate. In the screenshot to the right, the image is of two maps jointed together. The only way you can tell is by the horizontal black line — otherwise, it’s pretty seamless. Because of the curvature of the earth, there are places where the maps occasionally don’t fit together as well as usual, but the maps are still fully functional and useful. And of course, because it’s an iPad, you can pinch to zoom, and drag a finger to scroll, just like you can in other applications. As you can see from the screenshot, when zoomed all the way in, these maps provide an amazing level of detail.

Wonder what map you need for a certain location? Topo Map has a searchable database of over a million towns, peaks, lakes, parks, and other features. Occasionally I have typed in some obscure location out in the middle of nowhere, and immediately up pops the map, centered right on the place I was looking for — very impressive! If you have not yet downloaded the required map, you can do so immediately if you have an Internet connection.

One handy feature is the ability to mark waypoints (drop pins) on the map, with dozens of different types of pins, and arrange these waypoints into groups, as well as import and export waypoints in various standard file formats. It’s a great way to mark specific places on the map, or add your own location marking for features that aren’t on the map. It’s also a handy way to keep track of your journey — simply drop a pin every once and a while at your current location. Mark where you parked the car. Pinpoint where you made a major change in direction, or where a certain event on your hike happened. You can see a couple of the pins I dropped (one with a picnic-bench icon, and the other with a vehicle icon) on the screenshot to the above.

You can also see the three retractable toolbars that are overlayed in the upper and lower left cornes of the map. They contain a number of button that give you easy access to many of the useful features of Topo Maps, including:
Be sure to visit the Topo Maps for iPad page in iTunes for all the details of this awesome app!

Of course, this would be an unbalanced and inaccurate report if I didn’t admit that there are still a couple of areas in which paper maps hold the advantage. Obviously, iPads need battery power to work, and paper maps don’t. So if you are out in the middle of nowhere for days at a time, it might be best to have a paper map. On the other hand, the battery for the iPad 2 lasts a long time, and if you just use the iPad for the Topo Map app, the battery most likely would last for days. Also, it’s possible to carry an external battery — or even a solar charger — to keep your machine running much longer. So all in all, I don’t think the battery issue is that big of a deal.

The other advantage a paper map has is the ability to give you “the big picture.” Being able to see an entire two foot by three foot map all at once can be very helpful. With an iPad, you’re limited to a 9.7-inch (measured diagonally, which is 7.75 by 5.75 inches) screen — that’s 864 square inches vs. 45 square inches, making the iPad screen 95% smaller than the paper map. Of course, on the iPad you can zoom out to see the entire map, but then the details are too small to be useful. If it’s really, really important for you to be able to spread out a map and see the big picture, you will probably want to stick with paper maps. For me, while I do like to see an entire big map all at once, I've found that I can live without it, and that this issue is not really a big deal either.

Well, this brings my brief overview of the Topo Map app to a close. It is such a valuable and useful — indeed, vital — piece of software, that, if I didn’t already own an iPad, I would seriously consider buying one just to have the use of this app! It does also run on the iPhone and iPod Touch, but the screen on those devices is so much smaller than the iPad’s that the app is a lot less useful on them.

If you have used this app, be sure to share your experiences with it in the Feedback section below.
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 90
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