National Geographic releases Trail Maps app

Last week, National Geographic added yet another offering to their growing list of mobile apps available for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. The newest app, entitled Trail Maps, offers a host of options for navigating both urban and wilderness environments, while also remaining useful even when you wander outside of cell service coverage.

The app uses both topographical maps from the U.S. Geological Survey and high resolution satellite imagery provided by Microsoft Bing. The software comes pre-loaded with maps of Yellowstone National Park, and surrounding areas, but you can also download highly detailed maps of just about any other place in the lower 48 States, and add them to your library. The files are quite large – about 100 MB each – but having them installed on the device allows you to use the maps even while you have no data connection.

The amount of detail on the maps is highly impressive to say the least. The app allows you to quickly, and easily, zoom in and out using typical iOS gestures, such as pinching and double tapping. When zoomed out, you get a nice overview of the region the map covers, but as you slowly zoom in, more and more details emerge, right down to topographical lines for indicating slope and elevation. You’ll also find the locations of hundreds of landmarks, including campsites, rest areas, and even mountain peaks, or – in the case of Yellowstone – individual geysers. If the map you add to your device is for a city, you’ll find even more points of interest.

Of course, detailed maps aren’t the only thing that National Geographic brought to the table. The app also allows for live route tracking using your device’s built in GPS chip. It also provides detailed reports of your treks, both urban and wilderness, charting speed, altitude change, direction, distance and so on. There are also built in tools that allow you to measure distances on the maps, place waypoints, and even navigate by compass. In short, everything you need to find your way around just about any place in the U.S.If you already own an iOS devices, you probably know that there are a plethora of navigation apps available, including Apple’s very own Maps app that comes pre-installed. The Trail Maps app is specifically designed for hikers, backpackers, and campers however, giving them the option to download insanely detailed maps for use in the backcountry, where they are not likely to have any kind of data connection or cell service at all. That alone makes it unlike any other navigation tool in the App Store.

Over the past few days, I’ve had the opportunity to play with this app, and I’m quite impressed with the GPS tracking functionality and the level of detail on the maps. However, while those details are fantastic, I didn’t actually see any trails listed, which is surprising since the app is called “Trail Maps.” The maps are also confined to the 48 contiguous States at the moment as well, which means those wanting to go hiking in Hawaii or Alaska are out of luck. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but using the GPS also drains your battery rather quickly, which has the potential to be problematic while using the app in the wilderness. If you’re using Trail Maps while on an extended hike, you’ll need a way to charge your device while away from civilization.

Those shortcomings aside, the potential to have all those USGS topo maps on a portable device is pretty impressive for any hiker or backpacker. With a price tag of just $2.99, Trail Maps offers a lot of value for anyone in need of backcountry navigation.