GPS app or paper maps?

GPS app or paper maps?

There’s an easy answer: how about both?

If you are on a Great Walk, there’s no real need to have much more than a simple brochure map. The track will generally be obvious, and it would be hard to get lost. Plenty of signage indicates directions and hiking times. You can always ask someone else on these populated tracks.

At the other extreme, on tracks out in the more remote backcountry, you do need a way for direction finding; the easiest method is an app for your phone.

I use NZ Topo50, NZ$6.99 for the South Island, which has the same information as the LINZ Topo50 series, ie, at a scale of 1:50,000. The track, huts, landscape features, contours, etc., are shown similarly to the paper version. You can upload a GPX file if you’re going cross country, like the Olivine Ice Plateau or the Tin Range, and there are no actual tracks or markers.

Other apps may have more features, but they are not essential. The important bit is having a detailed map and locating yourself precisely on it.

Once you download these apps back in town, as the size is immense, the South Island app is 2.8 GB, you do not need cell phone connectivity. The apps ping a few satellites to get your location. This may be a problem when in a deep valley where the phone can not pick up satellites due to the terrain blocking reception. You need a reasonable area of open sky, preferably to the north, where there are more satellites.


Batteries go flat. You lose your phone. You drop it in water, etc.

A paper map is useful despite not showing where you are. It is reasonably failsafe, except if it gets wet and the print rubs off.

Paper maps are much better at showing the bigger picture and for planning in general. But to locate yourself accurately in the landscape, you require the visibility of landmarks, a compass and a knowledge of how to use it. If it is cloudy or you are in a deep valley, that may not be possible.

Best to take a power bank to recharge your phone, encase it in something robust, and look after it.

But also have the backup of a paper map, even if it is a laser-printed extract downloaded off the Internet.

Land Information New Zealand, LINZ as it is more commonly referred to, has the country fully covered in 452 separate maps with the Topo50 series maps, both digital and paper, that’s at the scale of 1:50,000, ie, a high level of detail, and a super level of accuracy. They show the route of the tracks, the locations of huts, or swing bridges, and, once you get a feel of the contours, give a good sense of how strenuous the day may be.

If you are old-fashioned, like me, you can also buy a real, tangible, no-nonsense thing, ie, a big coloured map on paper, at DOC offices, outdoor shops and bookshops where maps are sold. Cost: around $7.90 each.

There’s a nationwide list at LINZ Map Retailers.

More conveniently for some popular tracks, Newtopo, produces a handy detailed weatherproof series of maps at scales around 1:50,000 which are available from $20 to $9 from major DOC offices and some outdoor stores, Macpac keep them The list includes: Marlborough Sounds, Queen Charlotte Track, Abel Tasman, Mt Arthur, Cobb, Heaphy Track, Wangapeka Track Travers-Sabine Circuit, St James Walkway, Lake Sumner Tramps, Arthur’s Pass, Banks Peninsula, Aoraki/Mt Cook, Rees-Dart Track, Five Passes Wilderness, Routeburn, Greenstone/Capel, Milford Track, Kepler Track, Rakiura Track and Rakiura North West & Southern Circuits.

But the usual way is to print off sections you require from screenshots taken from the website

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