Earlier this year, I went up to Big Bear for some snowshoeing. I went on the Pine Knot Trail, and while it was fun, I definitely got lost more than I like to when I’m in the middle of the woods – both due to the snow covering most of the trail junctions and a very poorly designed map.

While wandering through the snow, I had to resort to checking my iPhone to make sure I was taking the right turns on the area’s labyrinthine system of fire roads – but the low levels of detail on the Google Maps and the poor cell phone coverage in the area made that very, very difficult.

Cut to several months later. I was planning a trip to Yosemite, and noticed AccuTerra was offering a free Yosemite pack, so I loaded it into the phone and gave it a go. It was great for finding which way to go at trail junctions (and much faster than taking my pack off to get at my maps), but I didn’t really dig into the features any more than that. When I found out they were releasing high-resolution map packs for the L.A. area mountains, though, I opened up my wallet to give it a go.

Here’s how it works – you download the free app from the iTunes App Store, and after a sizable download, you’ll be presented with this opening screen, which should give you a pretty good idea of what you’ll be able to do:

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The first thing you’ll want to do is fire up the map store to start loading some topo maps onto your iPhone, so you won’t run into the same problem I did in Big Bear, where you’re relying on a spotty network to download a Google Map that’s vague at best.

The maps are divided into four categories – National Parks, States, State Parks, and Recreational Areas – and mostly range in price from $1.99 to $2.99, which is a pretty great deal. Most physical topo maps of single state parks can run you 12 bucks, wheras the “California South” regional map, which covers from Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands to the Mexican and Arizonan borders and all the way north through Death Valley and Sequoia, is only $1.99 (plus, your first map download is free with the App!)

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“HD” maps are usually $2.99, and cover a smaller area, but in higher resolution. The Angeles National Forest is currently in “standard definition,” but still gets the job done for showing you where all the peaks, trails, and campgrounds are in the Forest. The San Bernardino HD pack lets you zoom in to about this level before it starts getting blurry, and has a higher level of detail in the elevation contours:

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If you’re worried when I say these HD maps cover a smaller area, don’t fret – the coverage area for the San Bernardino Map is shown in red below:

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Of course, all this level of detail and coverage comes at a cost — and that is hard drive space. The App itself will fill up 111MB of space on your iPhone. HD maps like the San Bernardino Mountains are 192MB, while the regional maps like California South will eat up almost twice that amount. Even with a 32GB model, this almost guarantees you’ll only be able to hold a small number of maps on your phone at a time – and will most likely want to delete and reinstall the app before you head out to save on space for more frequently used apps – but again, the level of detail on the maps themselves – along with the fact that you won’t have to rely on network coverage to get your maps on screen – is worth it. Space-conscious iPhone owners can rest easy, knowing AccuTerra keeps track of every map you’ve purchased, so if you need to delete one to save space, you’ll be able to get it back anytime for free.

Now, to the actual field testing.

On Thanksgiving, I took a leisurely, late afternoon hike in Icehouse Canyon, and tested out the route recording functions of AccuTerra. iPhone users know our mobile devices of choice are not known for their battery life – so be sure you turn off Bluetooth, 3G, WiFi, and all the buttons and whistles you won’t need on the trail. If you get cell phone coverage, AccuTerra will use that to triangulate your location before using GPS, but even without the assistance, I found AccuTerra was able to get a lock on my location significantly faster than my Garmin GPS receiver.

If you’d like, you can also save battery power by reducing the GPS accuracy and turning off elevation recording through the App’s intuitive menu system. Once you’re ready to get started, just click the “target” icon (the same one the Google Maps App uses) to center your position. Hit the slideout menu on the right hand side and tap record to start recording your trek!

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In that image, you can also see another new feature in the latest version – Google Maps integration. You can easily toggle between Google Maps original view, satellite hybrid, or the AccuTerra topo maps, which can be helpful if you’re getting lost trying to drive TO the trailhead.

On the trail itself, AccuTerra can be as unobtrusive as you want, but for all intents and purposes, your phone has just become a fully-fledged GPS receiver. You can stop to take pictures with it (geotagged, of course) and mark waypoints with full text along the way, and they’ll all be saved as part of your track. If you’d like, you can even set AccuTerra to play a chime at certain intervals – so you can know every time you’ve hiked another mile without having to stop and check the phone. It’s all pretty cool, and it’s getting more powerful with every update.

Of course, if you just want to lock your iPhone and keep it in your pocket, that’ll work, too.

Checking your route on the trail will be very familiar to anyone who’s ever used a GPS reciever before – you’ll see your track in green, and your current location in a pulsing blue dot. Note the level of detail in Icehouse Canyon, even on this “low res” map:

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If you have a 3GS, you can tap the compass button to use the iPhone’s internal compass to show your true-view position on the map, too:

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When you’re done with the hike, the App has some great presentation options. You can view all of your statistics on a single splash screen, and a detailed elevation chart on a second screen:

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Of course, one of the main benefits of having all these statistics is boasting to your more sedentary friends when you get home, and this App makes that easy, too – you can send an email with your trip in a Google Map (the link expires in a few weeks), email a Google Earth KMZ file, or share the stats and pictures on Facebook. Like the rest of the App, it’s all very easy and intuitive.

Final Word:

While no hiker should ever be on the trail without a hard copy of a map, AccuTerra is by far the easiest, most full-featured, and slickest hiking App I have seen to date. While hard drive space will probably be an issue, the maps are cheap, coverage is wide, and the level of detail is great for most hikers (and the HD maps should be good for pretty much everybody).

On the iPhone 3GS, I found AccuTerra to perform as good as – and in some cases better than – a dedicated GPS receiver. While the iPhone’s battery life will never be as good as a handheld GPS unit, I was able to get great coverage and tracking in a tree-lined canyon that had previously given my Garmin some trouble.

Bottom line – if you have an iPhone and you hike, you should download AccuTerra.

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