Smartphone, GPS and the Sahara: The Return

The story so far: a small number of TR crew members took the support truck to the Sahara to participate in a rally with one twist: the GPS navigation would be done entirely with two mobile phones. Yep… the rally organisers were a bit surprised at first. But then we won it so it wasn’t such a crazy idea after all. The rest of the 60 odd participants were mostly on big Garmin GPS units with a few having specialised off road products with very detailed maps.

We used two applications (more on why we choose them on this post):

We downloaded the map tiles to get a 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).


  • You really need zoom 16 everywhere around the route’s track. We discovered that quickly and were able to download the missing tiles on the hotel after day 1 so no biggies.
  • With the tiles in, the accuracy and topographic information provided by the apps was great (especially Backcountry) and in fact better than most of the Garmin units. There has been a number of instances where we have been able to compare the decisions we made with competitors and found out we did better because we had more information than they did.
  • Phones are not super rugged (hence our case) so we were a bit concerned. We only had one issue when one of the phone overheated and decided to shut down. Thankfully we had a backup. The Garmins did not overheat but there has been two reported issues where the unit couldn’t lock on satellites.

Bottom line, it worked really really well. Did I already mention we won the rally? At £10 per app, instead of £300+ for a serious off-road GPS I think it is a no brainer.

A direct result of this adventure is that will be modified this coming year in order to become compatible with these apps. Indeed, with the Garmin app requiring to be constantly hooked to a data connection (not good if you intend to go on a different country) and TomTom dropping the support for ITN files (why TomTom, why?) we believe that the two apps we used for the rally are what is needed for serious touring.

Erg Chigaga


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