Smartphone, GPS and the Sahara

As of 17:00 GMT today, a small number of TR crew members will be leaving for the Sahara. The Sahara, let’s remind ourselves, is a vast expanse of sand where life is not really striving. But more than life, the really annoying thing is that telephone masts are non-existent. Un-be-lie-va-ble. I wrote a few angry complaint letters to Vodafone but they have refused to comment to this date.
In the absence of 3G, we will be forced to go “offline”, a mode of communication which all but ceased to exist since 1492, when Christopher Columbus twitted that he found the last place on earth not to have cell phone coverage. A few years before that there was the dinosaurs.
Sooo, what to do you may ask. Well, we’ve gone all “time team”, brought out the digger, took our smartphones and searched for the best offline and off-road GPS navigation software out there. The rest of this article is history in the making.
A large number of applications where rejected based on the following criteria:
  • Some did not do offline (all the major free ones like Google Maps)
  • Some couldn’t load GPX files (waypoints are a necessity where roads don’t exist)
  • Some did not have coverage of the Sahara
  • Some had photographic maps as opposed to topographic maps
  • Some had topographic information stored as images as opposed to vectors i.e. too heavy for the limited storage capacity of a phone
 Two real gems were found:
Both have all the features you need to not lose yourself too much in the desert. Downloading the map tiles is a little bit painful on both as the coverage areas and zoom levels have to be specified manually. We went for full country (Morocco) coverage at a medium zoom level (zoom 11 on Backcountry) and a selected number of cities at maximum zoom level (zoom 16 on Backcountry).
The real life test starts tonight. We’ll report on our progresses soon.
PS: I have to come clean and admit that we’re taking the support truck (Defender 110) for this first foray into almost unchartered land. The bikes will follow once we are sure we can come out of there alive. The full benefits of the apps will still apply thanks to our IP54 dust and waterproof motorcycle phone mounts obviously!