As readers of this site will know, the planning and logging of journeys and capturing of related statistics has been an interest of ours for some time. The earliest of the sophisticated systems we used was the satellite enabled cycle computer reviewed a long while ago. Sadly that is no longer functional, not because the unit has failed, but because the software, operating system and format used for data have now all been superseded. In parallel with that decline there has been a fall in the price of, and growth in the use of, smart phones. These ‘pocket computers’ now do so much more than making phone calls that it seems logical that they should be used for route logging and similar duties.
The availability of Google’s MyTracks as a free logging tool and Google Earth as a viewing and planning tool must have introduced the hobby to a great number of people. Sadly, MyTracks has now been withdrawn and the question is where does one go to get the same facilities without shelling out a lot of cash. Additionally the process of publishing and sharing one’s routes has become popular so this is an area that needs to be added into the discussion.
This is the area in which Google’s MyTracks was so useful to the smart phone owner since it was so easy to use and could also seamlessly link to Google Earth for displaying the track afterwards. Three small programs are now available that focus on just logging your position and then allowing the track to be saved in one of several common file formats. They all offer additional data on such things as distance travelled, average speed and possibly altitude gain and loss. None of them allow the user to see the track on a map after it is completed and require a mapping application for that function. Note that the nomenclature used by this sort of application is ‘track’ for data showing where you have been and ‘route’ for a plan of where you want to go in the future.
The three are GPS Logger, Geo Tracker and Easy GPS Logger and all are available free of charge. I have used GPS Logger and found, as the saying goes, ‘it does exactly what is says on the tin’. However, a desire for easy integration of track and map led to a search for a program that can do more. I already had an old edition of Memory Map which allows logging, display and route planning. The down side was the lack of an update facility for the maps and the large initial outlay for the software. I understand that the cost is now much reduced, but I was seeking a low cost alternative solution. Much internet surfing suggested that Viewranger might be a possible alternative that could be used satisfactorily without cost or at low cost. It is available for Android and iOS as an app plus Windows in web only format. As for most of the ‘free’ applications on the these platforms the user must register and create a password before being able to use the program.
Viewranger users are not bombarded with adverts except for the occasional suggestion of a map purchase or an upgrade to ‘Premium’. This is probably because Viewranger makes its money by selling maps to users. However, Open Street Map and Open Cycle Map are provided for use without charge. The latter is probably the best map to use for walking, handcycling and cycling. Thus the user can download and save a series of map tiles to cover the area in which they intend to walk or cycle. The program will then use the saved tiles which means that internet connectivity is not required when the user is logging a track. The screen will display the map with the current location as a cross and a line recording where the user has been. I have found this feature very useful when visiting strange towns since it is possible when ‘lost’ to use the line and the rest of the map to find right destination or the way out. Any tracks that are logged can be saved.
Saved tracks are recorded in the Tracks sub directory of the app with the VRTP extension which is a proprietary format used only by Viewranger. However, all recorded tracks can be exported as GPX format files from within the app if they are first converted to ‘Routes’.
Under this heading there are a number of contenders worth a look. Three we have tried are BikeHike, Google Earth and ViewRanger. BikeHike is a website [http://www.bikehike.co.uk] while the other two can be downloaded as locally operated applications. In all three apps the mapping displayed, or satellite imagery in the case of Google Earth, is held on servers so that the user has to be online to use them. Viewranger is different in that it is possible to download mapping for use offline. However that is only possible with the mobile version.
Whilst all three can be used for route planning, if loaded on a smart phone, the size of screen makes this task very difficult. It seems much the easiest to use them on a big screen device such as a PC or laptop. Ironically, Google Earth and Viewranger are not the same in their mobile device form and PC app forms. Google Earth seems to have rather fewer functions in its mobile incarnation, while ViewRanger is the opposite. It took a while to realise that this was the case leading to much frustration when trying to do something that was possible according to the Viewranger User Guide, but would not work in practice.
Once loaded on a PC, all three applications allow the user to click on a starting point and then, with subsequent clicks, lay down the route on the map. All three allow the way points thus created to be moved by dragging or deleted so that mistakes can easily be corrected. However, before being able to begin laying down a route the user needs to locate themselves on the map.
BikeHike uses Ordnance Survey maps and has access to the familiar 1:50k scale, but also provides a 1:25k OS map that looks as if it was developed for sale to SatNav vendors. It looks quite similar to Open Street Map and Google Maps in high magnification. Buildings and roads are shown but paths and all other details are missing. This is unfortunate if the plan is to develop a route for walking/handcycling that uses footpaths. In that case one would need to stick at the 1:50K scale. The system also has access to the OS road atlas scale 1:250k scale as well as the OS route planning map which is an even larger scale. These make finding a location very easy despite the limitations of the working screen window. Having found the right area all that is required is to zoom in to the appropriate level of detail.
Once the route has been drawn it can then be saved/downloaded. BikeHike supports .tcx, .txt, .kml, .gpx route, .gpx track and .gpxx. The file can be saved on the computer or sent direct to a connected GPS unit.
Google Earth provides ‘mapping’ as continuous satellite images that allow useful zooming down to about 200ft. The big disadvantage of Google Earth imagery for route planning for cycling or walking is that such pastimes generally occur in the country. If the area is wooded and the path goes under the trees it becomes invisible. Initial position finding is done by entering a location in the search box, usually with the addition ‘UK’. As Google Earth covers the whole Earth, it is possible to get the wrong location with the same name quite easily. The specific location can then be found by dragging the map and zooming.
Once the route has been completed the user has the option to save it in one of two formats. One is .kml which is the basic route data file. The other, .kmz, is a zipped format that allows the user to make use of Google Earth’s facility to attach photos to the route and some text. The photos are compressed and added in to the route data for the .kmz format. These data cannot be exported in any other format than KML or KMZ.
ViewRanger, unlike the other two systems requires the user to create an account and login before any routes can be created. This incurs no cost apart from the time spent doing that task. Once logged in the user chooses ‘Create a new Route’ and is presented with a map screen from Open Street Map. This can be changed to Open Cycle Map which is much better for walkers and hand cyclists. Getting to the desired location follows a similar routine to Google Earth in that there is a search box in which a location is typed. The system then throws up alternatives with the same name but also the rest of their address allowing the user to make the correct choice. Viewranger differs from the other two in that the user can buy chunks of high quality large scale mapping that covers their desired area if Open Street Map or Open Cycle Map are not deemed ‘good enough’.
When the route is completed and saved Viewranger only offers two options. Firstly, the route can be downloaded as a .gpx file and secondly it can be printed out as a .pdf file. This limitation is not as serious as it might sound as Viewranger will run as an app on a smart phone. All the user needs to do is ‘Synchronise’ the smart phone version and the PC version (using the options in the smart phone app) and all routes and track will appear on both machines.
Both Google Earth and Viewranger offer the possibility of taking a recorded track of where one has been and then turning it into a ‘route’. Of the two, Viewranger’s capability is more powerful than that of Google Earth and also very easy to use. In the edit route mode, when used on a PC, it is possible to tidy up the data points which can often be rather out of position in the original track. The edit mode also allows the user to set up an information screen that prompts for all sorts of useful data. These include the type of route, the suggested mode of transport, the difficulty, the surface, car parking, refreshments, toilets, etc. There is also a section for providing a route guide into which one can embed photos. All of these things can be done in the mobile version of the app but I find the desktop machine much easier to use for this kind of work.
The material built up in the ‘information’ screen related to the route is the Viewranger ‘secret weapon’ as will be explained in the next section.
The Viewranger route ‘Information’ screen is a standard template that provides a lot of ‘search keys’ that come in useful when your route is published on the Viewranger website. Your completed route can be kept private or made public and thus available to anybody who searches for a particular type of route on the Viewranger website. It is possible to assign a ‘price’ in credits for your route which is the payment than anybody who downloads it must pay. These credits go to your account and can be spent on downloading other people’s route that are also published with a price. However, a huge number of publishers, Cycling Otherwise included, offer their routes free which means that there is seldom a need to incur any cost in finding a route.
All these free and low cost published routes are the draw that brings customers to Viewranger. Everytime a person wishes to download a route from the site they are offered a variety of suitable map options from no map and just the route to all the different varieties of OS map as well as the Open Street Map and Open Cycle Map versions.
This highlights one of the other main advantages of the Viewranger App. If a user goes to a new place or is planning to go to a new place they can search the Viewranger database of routes for the type of routes that they need. The location is typed into the search box and a series of locations of that name is shown with their fuller address. The user chooses the one that is correct and then the system searches for what is available. It is also possible to make a search for a particular publisher, such as Cycling Otherwise, and the system will show all the routes that they have published. This can be useful if the user finds a particular publisher whose routes match their needs well.
There are, of course, a large number of other free apps that allow one to find, follow and publish routes. However, many of them are very specialist such as Trail Jar, Trail Forks and MTB Project all of which are mountain bike apps. It would seem from my researches that there are few that are oriented towards the less than able bodied cyclist and walker, but Viewranger manages to include both that group and a whole range of others.
Viewranger is an application that seems to be able to tick all the boxes for track logging, route plannning and route publishing as well as providing a huge database of potential routes to follow. It is not a difficult program to use though many parts are far from intuitive. However, a little practice should overcome the initial difficulties and allow it to meet the needs of the less than able bodied cyclist and walker. At its simplest it can just be a source of walks/rides to follow. Alternatively, it can be used to log all your adventures for later review on your main computer. For those that can be bothered it can be used to publish your favourite routes for the benefit of other users. The system also includes a variety of other bells and whistles that might be useful. The ‘buddy beacon’ feature sounds interesting and purports to allow one’s loved ones/friends to follow one’s progress as one follows a route or sets off into the wild blue yonder. We have not tried that facility as it is part of the ‘Premium’ version so we would be interested to hear from any Viewranger users that have experience of it.
Our overall conclusion is that this is the best currently available free application for route finding, track logging, route planning and publishing.
© 2019 Cycling Otherwise