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GPS Comparison: Backcountry Navigator vs ViewRanger #4344
Back To Discussion List Written: 2015.03.30 by: Robin Tivy

These days, there are several really good GPS mapping apps that run on smart phones. The purpose of this article is to give you a quick comparison of BackCountry Navigator and ViewRanger. I've been using them on several trips on my Samsung Galaxy S4 smart phone. It took me a lot work to learn all the details, but now that I've documented them in my standard format, I think you'll be able to quickly learn them. After all, they only cost $5 or $12, so you can install both.

The way I did my comparison is to go down a standard list of operations. I had previously written such a standard list of "use cases" for my Garmin GPS. So then what I did was figure out how to do each of them on the new programs. It took me quite an effort to figure out some of the items. The results are in a table. Each row is a "use case", such as "Making a Track Log". Each column has the instructions for a given App. It's main purpose is a user manual, and I refer to it all the time. Here is the framework Standard GPS Operations. Click on each "cell" to read the detailed instructions.

Now here is a quick overview.

 - the phone programs such as Backcountry Navigator and Gaia are much easier to manage, and more powerful. The only thing harder is uploading the raster maps

 - the GPS sensitivity seems equal. Eg: Going up to Watersprite lake via the creek canyon, the Samsung Galaxy maintained a continuous track log, whereas my Garmin Oregon had a gap.

 - the Garmin GPS is easier to read in bright sunlight. On a glacier, the phones are almost impossible to read unless you make shade

 - the Garmin is more robust.

 - spare AA batteries are cheaper for Garmin. The official Samsung spare battery costs $40, whereas a pack of 4 good AA batteries is $15.

 - some phones such as iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S6 do not have user changeable batteries. For these models, on long trips you would have to use battery packs, which are heavier.

 - the raster maps on the phones are nicer maps than the vector ones on the Garmin GPS.

 - the Garmin units have much better compass and altimeter functions

Now as a quick comparison, let's compare the two phone based Apps: Both are able to perform all normal functions such as uploading and downloading .gpx files, getting waypoints, scrolling and zooming the maps, GPS compass, elevation. The most important areas for comparison are (1) Map selection, (2) the map cache management systems and (3) ability to manage track logs.

 - Backcountry Navigator comes with slightly better topo maps: the CanMatrix maps for Western Canada only (the standard 1:50K maps) and also the CalTopo. In BC, the CalTopo maps are the 20m TRIM data, which is slightly more accurate in some areas than the CanMatrix. ViewRanger only has one type of Topo Map for Canada: the Topo Canada maps. Below are screen shots of the different types of map on a Samsung Galaxy S4. The screen shots are somewhat expanded from the size of the phone.

Backcountry Navigator - CanMatrix 1:50K

Backcountry Navigator
 CalTopo with 20m contours and some spot heights(TRIM

ViewRanger - Topo Canada

 In discussing cache management, it is helpful to distinguish between "ad hoc" caching versus deliberate caching of large areas. For ad-hoc caching, ViewRanger automatically caches any map you look at, whereas with BCN, you manually select what you want. When discussing large areas, ViewRanger is better because you can manage the selection from a high level map. The high level map also shows what you've already got in memory. Below is a high level map showing which parts of the Manning park area I currently have in cache:

Green rectangle shows which tiles in cache

With Backcountry Navigator, you have to select maps by pulling a rectangle over the area with your finger. This is difficult for large areas because they don't have a high level map, and you can't really see what you are getting. The screen shot below shows what you would see if you try to download the maps around Manning park. The purple rectangle is the area to be downloaded, not what you already have in memory. The only way to see what is already in memory is to turn off "internet loading" and then zoom down to level 15 and see which tiles are missing. This is a lot of moving around on the map. In the shot below, you can't actually read anything because I am zoomed out to level 11.

Download rectangle in BCN

Most important, when you want to add maps to your cache, ViewRanger will display what you already have. With Backcountry Navigator, you can indirectly see what you might have by going into the Download History, but you only see one download at a time.

So in summary, ViewRanger is simpler because it has the high level map, and because it will display what you already have in cache. And for people who just want to download maps for a single trip, the automatic caching is simpler than using the Backcountry Navigator scheme with the purple selection rectangle.

 Backcountry Navigator has the ability to define separate "Trip Databases". These are like folders. They allow you to keep groups of track logs and waypoints separate for each trip. This is really useful because otherwise every trail you have uploaded to your phone is mixed together.

 - Both programs have compass and GPS altitude. They work best when outside and moving.

COST Backcountry navigator costs $13. ViewRanger is free, but you must pay $5.00 for the Canadian maps and 20.00 for US maps. The hardware for a good phone is more expensive than a stand-alone GPS. The current model of Samsung Galaxy is the S5, which costs about $700.00 if you buy it without a plan. Whereas a Garmin GPS with built in maps such as Garmin Oregon is about $450. In this discussion, I would certainly like to see some comments regarding other phone based GPS programs, particularly raster based ones. I'm hoping this discussion plus the reference table will be a permanent resource to all Bivouac members.


#1820 - 2016.01.25 Robin Tivy - Added Gaia GPS to Comparison table
Since I wrote this comparison, I have purchased yet another cell phone program called Gaia GPS. It cost $22.00. Previously I was using Backcountry Navigator instead of Viewranger, mostly because I like the CanMatrix maps. But Gaia GPS also has those maps, and has some other features, so I'd say it is at least as good as Backcountry Navigator. I am in the process of working out some improvements with them as to how gpx and KML uploads are handled. See the Standard GPS Operations"