A useful new GPS mapping tool for your smartphone from the U.S. Forest Service

A couple of weeks ago this site posted a checklist of equipment recommendations for mushroom forays.  In the comments to that post, Mike Dechter alerted us to the following:

“On the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests, you can get GPS-enabled maps of the forest on smartphones, tablets, and Garmin GPS devices.

You can get step-by-step instructions on how to do this on the Coconino NF website here: http://go.usa.gov/PEa.

Basically, with this tool I never need to carry paper maps, compass, or other orienteering tools. Allows me more room for those mushrooms I find!

Let me know if you need any information on this tool. I helped produce the data and maps for the Coconino.”

I downloaded the software and maps that Mike suggested, and was very impressed to see how useful this new application is.  The Forest Service should get a pat on the back for embracing the capabilities of the smartphone for the benefit of their visitors. I think any Arizona mushroom forager who owns a compatible device will want to get this product. I was able to successfully install maps from several other national forests in Arizona in addition to the Coconino N.F. link above, as shown below.

The iPhone app used for this purpose is called PDF Maps Mobile App, published by Avenza Inc. It works with a vast number of maps, both free and purchased, published by the U.S. Forest Service and many other entities. After installing the app, you download the map via an Internet connection– either on Wi-Fi or over your cellular data link– and the app stores it in your phone’s memory so you can continue to use it with your phone’s GPS receiver even when you don’t have cell service.

Avenza provides a tutorial YouTube video that gives a good overview of the workflow and capabilities of this program:

The first step in the process is to install the free PDF Maps app via the iTunes store on your computer:
Avenza PDF Maps app

You can also install it directly from the App Store utility app on your iPhone or iPad:

Avenza PDF Maps on iTunes App Store

If you have an Android device, Mike has posted a set of online instructions at the Coconino National Forest web site showing you how to do the same thing via the Google Play store.  Moreover, these maps can also be viewed on your computer or installed on a Garmin GPS receiver.

Once the software is successfully installed, you can start downloading maps.  To begin with, use your Safari browser app to go to the link that Mike posted previously on the Coconino National Forest site, and choose the maps you want to install.

Coconino National Forest Map Page

At this point, you’ll see the selected map begin downloading into your smart phone, and then undergoing some processing before you can open it.  From the Advanced Options selection on each map’s information page, you have the option of choosing high or low resolution storage, depending on how much of your memory you’ll want to devote to the map. The low resolution maps save space, and are probably adequate for navigation, but are not as esthetically pleasing as the high resolution versions. You can also set a global option from the Settings tab to choose high or low resolution for all maps that offer the choice.

Importing an Avenza PDF Map

You can use a bar code reader like Red Laser to follow the link from the bar codes posted on the information page. If you do that, or if you choose to type in a URL address manually, or if you download your map via Dropbox or iTunes, you’ll be asked to choose what program you want to use to open the map.  Choose “Open in PDF Maps”:

Opening a new map from Avenza PDF Maps app

The Kaibab National Forest and Prescott National Forest motor vehicle use maps are also available for free in a similar manner. For many other forests, at this point, you’ll need to go to the Avenza web site and pay a very modest amount for them. Of particular note, the Avenza site has excellent, detailed color visitor maps for the Apache and Sitgreaves National Forests, in addition to the Coconino and Prescott forests.

You open the Avenza store directly from the PDF Maps app, after you push the “+” icon to add a new map.  You’ll need to set up an account to download maps from the site, and to bill your iTunes account for add-on maps that require you to pay a fee, but it’s all reasonably straightforward once you get to their web site.  The variety of maps from all over the world is astonishing.

Avenza Map Store

In the following picture, you can see snapshots from USFS maps showing Knoll Lake on the Mogollon Rim and the Inner Basin of the San Francisco Peaks, both on the Coconino National Forest, as well as Greens Peak on the Apache and Kendrick Peak on the Kaibab. Click the image for a more magnified view of the fine detail on most of these maps (other than the bare-bones, black-and-white motor vehicle/road map of the Kaibab forest.)

National Forest map samples from Arizona

One other type of map that will be of great interest to mushroom hunters is the nationwide topo map series based on the US Geological Survey 7.5-minute quadrangles. These show elevations and gradients, unlike the USFS forest visitor and motor vehicle use maps shown above.  They also show more fine-grained details of things like foot trails, springs, and buildings.

It’s not a bad idea to have both types of map available for the area where you are foraging, and at only 99 cents per quadrangle from the Avenza store, you can cover our favored hunting grounds for the price of a couple of lunches. Here’s what it looked like when I bought the Prescott quadrangle:

Buying the Prescott quadrangle map from Avenza

Some Forest Service web sites even have their own versions of these public-domain topographical quadrangle maps available for free.  The collection of topo maps for the Kaibab National Forest is particularly good.

Once you build up a collection of maps, it can become rather confusing to keep track of them. Therefore, PDF Maps allow you to edit the map names, and organize them in folders, using the “Edit” button:

Organizng Avenza Maps in Folders

The PDF Maps app also provides a number of capable tools for use on your maps.  You can measure distances, search for landmarks, search for longitude/latitude coordinates, save a track of your path, and more.

MAp Tools from Avenza PDF Maps app

One feature that will clearly appeal to our readers is the ability to drop place-marker pins on your maps, record their coordinates, and connect them to geotagged photographs taken in the vicinity.  Very useful for saving the location of mushrooms one has discovered. This particular one was the biggest I ever found….

Marking waypoints with Avenza PDF Maps

So what advantages does Avenza provide over dedicated GPS apps like MotionX-GPS?  There are several. Most importantly, these maps include Forest Service road numbers for ease of navigation, as well as other Forest Service-specific information about road closures, camping sites, and other important details. And there is a much wider variety of other organizations and agencies issuing their own unique maps that can be used with it. It’s also a lot quicker and easier to use, based on my experience with both systems.

Mike Dechter and his colleagues at the USFS are to be commended for giving us this robust yet easy way of planning our trips, tracking ourselves on the map, and saving records of where we were and what we found.  Highly recommended!

About Christopher May

Chris is a radiologist in private practice in Scottsdale. He is married to Barbara May, with two grown children, Megan and Nick.
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5 Responses to A useful new GPS mapping tool for your smartphone from the U.S. Forest Service

  1. Mike Dechter says:

    Thank you Chris! What an amazing post. You thoroughly covered this subject and with great visuals.

    I use the Avenza PDF map almost every day. I even use it at work to record GPS tracks and make corrections to the Coconino NF corporate roads data. The Forest Service has also used this app for large wildfires to share maps of fire logistic and access maps. It really is a very effective tool.

    • Christopher May says:

      No, Thank you, Mike! What a good use of my tax dollars.

      • Christopher May says:

        I know I told you that I was writing a “short” post on it, but after I tried it out and saw all the cool features I just kept going and going…

  2. Just downloading this now. Grateful I can still download the PDF map app on my old OS which I dread updating….

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