Navigating. Seems like it should be simple, right? The simple process of navigating is actually a lot more complex than what we initially thought. Every single day we have to navigate through cities that often have terrible roads and very little signage. Over the course of the last year we have learned an awful lot about navigating and want to share our experiences here. We hope that our experiences will help other people preparing for international travel.
When we first began navigating we used iPhone maps with data. Within the first three days, we used all of our cell phone data and quickly realized that this wasn’t going to work.
While researching navigating, we found little information about how it was actually done. We did see that many travelers used a Delorme GPS and figured that it is the gold standard for navigating. Not only is it a GPS, it allows you to send satellite based text messages from anywhere in the world and it has an SOS button that will call emergency personnel in the case of an emergency. Having used the GPS for over a year now we are pretty disappointed with it for many reasons. Our initial understanding of the GPS was much different than what it actually is. Simply put, it is NOT a tool for navigating. There is no navigating ability other than an arrow pointing towards a preset waypoint. Next, we were under the impression that we could buy the Delorme and use it right away, but that is not the case. To begin using the GPS, a monthly plan must be purchased to begin using it. There are different price ranges but they are not inexpensive. Also, the GPS display is very basic and useless for navigating. To compensate for this, an additional $30 app NEEDS to be downloaded to be used with the phone. We really enjoy being able to share our location on our blog and we really enjoy being able to text our family and friends. Also, the peace of mind of having the SOS button is nice. That said, we think that the whole package from the cost of the unit to the monthly fees is a big waste of money. We wont dog on it more than that, but do some research before buying one. It will be the first thing we sell when we get back to the US!
After struggling with our Delorme for a month in Baja, Mexico we started using Google Maps with the phone. Some other travelers showed us how to use Google maps offline. When connected to wifi, you can select areas on the map to download for offline use. When away from wifi and without data, the phone uses its built in GPS with the app to navigate. If you have ever used a map app on your phone, this works the exact same way just without data. It’s pretty nifty. Best of all it’s FREE! We used Google Maps for a long time and it worked really well for us.
Discussing navigating with other overlanders is a common topic. Often, we would be criticized for using Google Maps. The majority of other overlanders use an app called Maps.me. This app works the same way as Google Maps but the interface is a little different. Initially, we used it parallel with Google Maps as each was better in some ways than the other. Gradually, we began using Maps.me full time and still use it today. The main purpose for this is that the maps used by Google Maps require much more storage than those used by Maps.me. Maps.me is also handy because it has tons of hiking trails available on the maps. Although it is not perfect, it is the best tool for navigating we have come across and, like Google Maps, it is FREE!
Here are some screenshots of the hiking trails on Maps.me. It also has an elevation profile which is always good to know!
Using a standalone GPS unit like a Garmin or Magellan is a choice many overlanders use as well. The trick is that many of these GPS units come with factory installed maps of the US and Canada. Buying maps from the company for each country is VERY expensive. The way around this is using a GPS unit with a memory card slot and open source maps that allows you to download the maps from the internet for free. We do not do this so don’t have much more information on it than this but it IS possible.
Selecting an navigating tool is all about personal preference. That said, there is one HUGE advantage to using a phone based app. The advantage is that there is a seamless interface between the iOverlander app and Maps.me or Google Maps that is not possible with the traditional GPS unit. When using iOverlander to find a camp spot or other point of interest, you can simply click one button to begin navigating to it on the phone. To the best of our knowledge, the only way to do this with a traditional GPS is typing in the coordinates which would be very time consuming. See the screenshot below:
One thing that we haven’t touched on is using paper maps. Ooh, ahh the horror! Yes, paper maps. Actually they are quite fun to use. We don’t use them necessarily to navigate, but more as a way of determining our general route through a country. We planned out our route by looking at the entire country rather than a a small part on a small screen. Before entering a country, we would research a bunch of things we wanted to see then plotted them on a map. From there we would determine the best route. For many smaller countries, the process wasn’t a big deal, but for large countries like Brazil, planning a route is very important. We received National Geographic Adventure Maps from Laughlin’s parents before leaving the US and they have been very useful. Thanks Larry and Barbara!
Anyhow, we hope this is helpful. As always, if you have any specific questions about this or any other topic, feel free to send us a message and we will get back to you!