National Geographic Map Kit & AllTrails Smartphone App – Review

Post by blogger | July 25, 2013      
If they'd put the same effort into their smartphone app as they did in this packaging, then wow. But the reality is unfortunately different.

Map Kit retail packaging. If they'd put the same effort into their smartphone app as they did in this packaging, then wow. But the reality is unfortunately different. To be fair, the packaging does have a couple sheets of waterproof Adventure Paper for printing your own maps.

I’ve used the National Geographic Topo! mapping product for years as a desktop computer application. Truly, Topo! was nothing to dance in the streets about, and is even less so considering today’s plethora of mapping products (including free stuff such as Google Earth, Google Maps and Caltopo). Topo! is simply a huge pile of stitched USGS topo maps with kludgy GPS tools overlayed. Indeed, the Topo! route drawing tools are some of the worst I’ve used, but the GPS data manipulation features of Topo! are useful. You can create GPS routes and export resulting .GPX files, manipulate waypoints in various ways, convert coordinates to different systems, and so on.

The NG “Ultimate Outdoor Map Kit” product, desktop component, attempts to provide the Topo! USGS maps (cloud based instead of stored on your desktop) along with five map layers (the usual “free” Google stuff that’s makes you laugh when you see it advertised as part of something you pay for, Trails Illustrated, Topo!). Added on top of that is a truly basic route drawing tool and a database of “trails” that appears to be the AllTrails application lashed on to the National Geographic map base.

If you want simplicity you’ll get it here. Nonetheless, prepare to be confused. For example, if you want to plan a route near Innsbruck, Austria, you’ll see all the mapping layer options. But click on Trails Illustrated and you’ll get a greyed out version of Google Street. This is 2013, would it be so hard for this software to know that you’re looking at a region that’s not covered by Trails Illustrated, and to not show a menu option for that particular map? I mean, come on!

Map Kit Route Planner is about as basic as you can get.

Map Kit Route Planner is about as basic as you can get. Might be good for some folks, way under-featured for my needs.

The Map Kit route drawing tool works by dropping waypoints each time you left-click your mouse, then connecting with straight line segments. I found this to be tedious for long, complex routes. There is no freehand route tool for drawing tight complex curves. When using over Google Terrain view, you can’t enlarge enough to drop points accurately (as pictured). Instead, you have to use the Topo! maps. I found this to be very odd, since when you’re in Google Maps via Google, the terrain view will enlarge several steps bigger. Sometimes Google Terrain view is highly accurate, crisp, and easy to work with. To have it crippled in MapKit is tragic.

Unlike the desktop version of Topo! Map Kit has virtually no way (that I could find, anyway) of working with actual GPS numeric coordinates. In other words, even if you know the precise GPS numbers for a specific location (say, the exact spot you got married) there is no way of simply entering those numbers and creating a waypoint. This is a surprising lack of function, but makes sense if you look at Map Kit as a severely dumbed down mapping product. Granted, with the Pro version of Map Kit you can upload a .GPX file. But in that case, why start or end with Map Kit? If you’re conversant with creating .GPX files and moving them around, scores of other applications exist for your world.

In summary, here is what you get with the Map Kit desktop component:

– A few map layers

– A database of “trails” some of which have GPS tracks, and some that don’t. No way to know till you search.

– Trails can have associated photos, but I never did figure out how to attach a photo to a specific point on a trail — a totally intuitive process with some competitors.

– The “AllTrails” component has a few features some folks might like, essentially a database of trails with somewhat of a user community

Conclusion: Map Kit and AllTrails on the desktop are both underwhelming. Route creation tool is too simplistic. No way to publish/embed created routes on another website (such as here at Interface, retail packaging and PR seem to over-promise and under-deliver. Ultimate simplicity could be a plus if you want the most basic mapping application imaginable. Along with that, AllTrails has attempted to create a large database of North American trails. Problem is, you don’t know which of those trails has details and which are simply a listing of a name and a mark on the map (those appear to be filler that All Trails uses to puff up their database). Overall, the only reason I can see to use Map Kit is that it provides a reasonably interfaced way to print out topo maps with your routes marked on them. On the other hand, $39.95 seems pricey when you can do the same thing for free in various ways — and who needs printed maps, anyway?

All Trails app, Android

National Geographic must have panicked then locked up their wallet when they realized smartphones were taking over the mapping market. Instead of developing a mapping and GPS app from the ground up, they partnered with AllTrails. This essentially gave them a user base and database of North American trails, along with a an under-featured and difficult to use app that I’d prefer to not be reviewing.

But in the interest of the blog nation:

The main deal-breaker for me with the AllTrails app is its lack of user-defined map caching to allow offline use. Yes, the app does cache maps, but to do so you have to find a specific trail, view it, then save to a “list” so the maps can cache in the background. As far as I can tell, the app has no method for you to simply pick a map region and and save it on the phone so it’s available later when you don’t have a data connection. Moreover, I see no option for purchasing map cards, or using third-party maps such as the pile of Garmin compatible charts you’ve acquired over the years.

All Trails offers no choice of map or satellite view layers. The maps they use are fairly crisp topo maps, but lack the detail of classic USGS topo maps. With other apps I’ve gotten used to switching map layers depending on needs. Not having that option is another deal-breaker and appears juvenile.

All Trails GPS app is simple. Compass is nearly useless.

All Trails GPS app is simple and could be all some folks need. Tiny toy compass is nearly useless and the data is laid over a dimmed map, making it all harder to read in bright light. I prefer separate screens for each part of an outdoor app, since screen visibility is the primary concern.

Moving along, while AllTrails does do GPS tracking, the app provides little in the way of GPS information screens and no customized GPS settings such as sampling interval. Moreover, using the maps on my Android device confuses. I tried to zoom and view a mountain some distance from my location. As I finger swipe scrolled, the screen kept jumping from the mountain back to my location. When double finger swiping to enlarge, the screen view hops around in a seemingly random fashion. Frustrating.

Beyond all that, perhaps the biggest turnoff is that you’ll pay $49.99 a year for the privilege of using AllTrails. That’s rather steep, even unrealistic. Or, perhaps the big bummer is that nearly every time I load AllTrails, I get pre-roll advertising on my smartphone screen!? Did I miss something about that in the user agreement? Lame.

Come to think of it, AllTrails claims they have “more than 200,000” members. Do the math. 200,000 x $49.99 = gross revenue of nearly ten million dollars a year! And for that, they give us the meager app I have here on my phone — when independent builders are doing GPS smartphone apps that easily have three times the functionality? Something is off. Perhaps Nat Geo is using that revenue to produce TV shows about treasure hunting? I have to say, I doubt those prospectors are using AllTrails for their GPS.

Conclusion: Not recommended.


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18 Responses to “National Geographic Map Kit & AllTrails Smartphone App – Review”

  1. MtnPavlas July 25th, 2013 12:54 pm

    Lou, All Trails also has a free membership option so the 200K members are not all paying, plus they often give you 50% off the membership (at least they used to some time ago) so their revenues are probably not as fat as you’ve calculated above.
    I used the paid service for a while and liked the simplicity, the fact you can save trails as favorites, mark some as completed, etc. It was good enough for hiking. I let it lapse, however, after I bought the Backcountry Navigator app for Android ($10), which includes many different map options, including CalTopo, which rocks for most of my needs. You can apparently upload or download tracks/trips to/from the Everytrail website, which I haven’t used yet.
    I’ve been quite impressed with the newer smartphones’ ability to acquire and hold the GPS signal, even in trees (currently, I use the Galaxy S3 most often). It seems to work well enough for me and my only gripe is battery life so I just make sure to bring one or two spares along (lightweight enough… definitely lighter than a dedicated GPS unit).
    Anyway, pros and cons to everything… I know you’ve dedicated a few posts to this lately and am enjoying reading what others use/think.

  2. Charliek July 25th, 2013 1:03 pm

    Hi Lou, I’ve had good luck with oruxmaps for android, they have a nice user manual on their site (for the android app). I haven’t played with the desktop app much but the mobile app has a lot of features typically seen in a desktop app.

  3. Lou Dawson July 25th, 2013 1:28 pm

    Well, let’s say half of AllTrails claimed members actually pay. That’s still 5 million dollars a year! The software sure doesn’t look like something with that kind of cash flow…. Lou

  4. Jim July 25th, 2013 3:50 pm

    It will be interesting to see what other packages you review. I have tried a bunch and never found a perfect package. For desktops I use a combination of Topo! 4.5 (last updated in 2007) and since I spent $$ on several State Map 1:24K sets, I still use it. For some reason it is still the best for printing routes on paper. I also have the Garmin Mapsource and its successor BaseCamp. Good for dealing with may garmin gps (used less and less, but still valuable) and for accessing community updated overlays – actual trails and off-trail routes.

    Finally I also use ExpertGPS, best at editing and cleaning gpx data imported from you gps. (What, you never forget to turn off the gps at the end of a tour). I have a couple of others but they are more for dealing with survey data and legal descriptions rather than hiking or ski tours. Has a wide variety of base maps and is regularly updated

    Again I will point you to Gaia – I navigated to a very nice topo map of Frau Hutt area, north west of Innsbruck in seconds and while the map was based on OSM, so is the Alps map you mentioned in the prior Trimble post (screen shots were from Garmin MapSource) French, English and New Zealand Topos were available – plus there is an option/directions for adding your own map sources. I don’t see any direct export to a website but there is cloud storage and sync.

  5. Lou Dawson July 25th, 2013 5:50 pm

    Jim, I’m using Gaia as well as others. In terms of reviewing packages, I don’t know if I can stand much more disappointment (grin). Though I actually think Trimble is quite good, especially since it allows me to easily embed routes/maps on my websites and use them as the map server. This might be a thing where an active person needs two primary apps, one that’s strong on trip planning, drawing route lines, etc. And one that rocks as a GPS on the smartphone. Lou

  6. Jim July 25th, 2013 11:26 pm

    Or more. Editing of gps data in the gpx format is important, especially if you want share routes or use routes that others have posted. The ability to simplify or smooth tracks, make segments, show alternatives, critical slopes, estimate tour times, etc is helpful. I don’t embed tracks so I haven’t looked at that feature much, usually just post a jpg screenshot, attached like a photo.

    For route planing purposes ala Munter, the ease of exporting not only lat/long/UTM and distance but vertical datum and bearings in both directions are functions that I look for in a desktop program. I haven’t found an app (or even a dedicated gps) that I am willing to plan on. See the tour planning function in the BCA app for example. It works but entering the data is difficult and making corrections to entered points is almost impossible

  7. derek July 26th, 2013 1:23 pm

    I second MtnPavlas’s recommendation for Backcountry Navigator for Android. Its a very powerful app that allows you to download topo maps from multiple sources and use them offline with a GPS overlay. I consider it essential for backcountry skiing. I run my Samsung G3 in airplane mode to extend the battery life and also carry a portable charger just in case (never had to use it). I have heard they are coming out with an iPhone version soon. Great app!

  8. Lou Dawson July 26th, 2013 1:53 pm

    We have Backcountry Navigator in play. Deal maker or breaker will be how functional it is for actually creating a route, as well as publishing the route by embedding on a website. If these features are not built-ins, it’ll have to be pretty good otherwise or I’ll just use something like Trimble. Lou

  9. Hacksaw July 27th, 2013 8:48 am

    After reading all of this my head hurts.

    I think I’ll just stick with buying paper maps at the store.

  10. Lou Dawson July 27th, 2013 5:39 pm

    Kind of how I felt in one of your avalanche courses (LOL). I think I’ll stick with using an avalanche cord.

  11. David McCanless August 16th, 2013 7:03 pm

    Lou, Do you have a route description for the Colorado Grand Tour that was put together by Paul Ramer back in the 80’s. I did the first day of the thing ( St. Mary’s over to Winter park) years ago and would like to do the rest of it .

  12. Lou Dawson August 16th, 2013 7:45 pm

    Hi David, not really. It’s somewhat artificial in that it attempts to connect ski resorts, and really, who cares to deal with ski passes and crowds just to try and do a poor imitation of what’s available in Europe? Ramer had a good vision about that, but the resorts have never stepped up to the plate in terms of one-ride passes, not to mention affordable accommodations!

    Instead, here are some ideas:

    Jean Vives will probably chime in, he knows the original idea for a route so can inform you about that. Google him.


  13. Halsted August 16th, 2013 10:43 pm

    Gezzs Lou…..

    Dave, I have a copy of Paul Ramer’s route, in my files. I’ll make you a photo copy. Are you still on Wadsworth blvd??


  14. Backcountry Billy December 13th, 2013 8:44 am

    Map and compass and a brain, decades of battery life, no disappointing electronic razzle dazzle.
    I know all you front rangers love your technology, but really you are guaranteed problems with electronics in the backcountry, eventually. Never will you be caught holding your junk if you can navigate with map and compass. Know where you were, where you are, and where you will be going.
    Also I can’t seem to wrap my head around why folks want to save “tracks” on the GPS/computer. Once one has completed a route, doesn’t one know the way? On the sea you find your routes to the best anchorages on your own (well we used to before all of this technology), sailors call this “local knowledge” and it is not given out, occasionally it is sold or bartered for. Trade secrets if you will. Embracing internet trip reports and technological gadgets as a substitute for “local knowledge” is a slippery slope, and ultimately leads to a watering down of the backcountry experience. Now I expect most of you will claim that the gadgets are only a backup or safety valve in case of an emergency, however based on the discussions about technology on this blog, me thinks this is not always the case.

  15. Chris Benson March 4th, 2014 11:20 am

    I became disenchanted with All Trails when they billed me automatically for $49.99 without any prior notification. I understand that I may have originally agreed to annual renewals but I had no idea they would not afford their subscribers a chance to review their options. In my view this isms deceptive practice. My bad for signing up with All Trails to begin with!!

  16. Bryn March 17th, 2014 7:41 am

    Howdy all,

    Looking for a bit of advice here. My sole computer these days is a Chromebook (that has no disc drive). This has rendered my Nat Geo Topo MT disc set pretty useless. Are there any good options out there for cloud/internet based, customize-able maps that one can print?

  17. Lou Dawson March 17th, 2014 8:15 am

    It’s quite a jungle these days regarding maps and applications. I pretty much gave up on my smartphone as GPS project because I can’t see the screen well enough in bright snowscape ambient light. But I did find that both the free as well as paid GPS smartphone apps mostly have good mapping based on many different map sets. Perhaps some of these will work on your Chromebook.

    My take is that I’d continue to work with both Open Street Map as well as Google Maps, (and the USGS online mapping) and see where that goes. Google Earth can be good as well but without an included topographic-lines layer it gets kind of annoying. And the topographic-lines layer in Google Maps lacks necessary information density as compared to USGS topo maps.

    For the alps, Wanderkarte free map is really quite something considering it’s free.

    Also check out our own government’s offering.

    And here is an option for working with USGS topo maps in Google Earth


  18. Jim March 17th, 2014 9:42 am

    I’d try View Ranger, works on all versions of Android and most Linux distros. Should work fine both on your Chromebook and smartphone. Lou is right, polarized sunglasses make it very hard to read the smartphone screen in the field on bright sunny days. Possible but harder than my garmin screen.

    I have yet to see anybody actually using a tablet sized device in the field (although I’d love to try a mini-ipad if I had one) A couple of the larger sized android based phones look interesting but bulk and battery drain of the larger screens are problematic.

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