Whether you’re getting off the grid, don’t yet have a local SIM card or just prefer not to be connected all the time, you’ll find yourself traveling without the Internet at some point.
You might remember the old days of traveling — paper maps, hand-written directions and relying on guidance from locals — but we live in the age of technology now, and there are plenty more options to choose from.
First, though, let’s answer a quick question:
Can My Smartphone Really Track My Location Without the Internet?
Yes. Google Maps (and any other mapping apps on your device) has the ability to track your location without needing an internet connection. Without getting too complicated, the GPS inside your smartphone is a ‘receive-only’ sort of radio. With the internet, it’s called Assisted GPS, or A-GPS, using Wi-Fi and the known locations of cell phone towers to figure out roughly where you are.
You’ve probably seen your phone go from a big blue circle to a smaller, more precise circle:
That big circle comes from the cell tower and crowd-sourced wi-fi information, while the smaller, more precise circle comes from putting all the data pieces together.
Without a data connection, the A-GPS doesn’t work, but the GPS radio can still get a fix from the satellites and the cached ‘memory’. It will take a little longer, and the accuracy of the fix will depend on a few things outside of your control (the terrain, for example).
Can My iPhone Track My Location in ‘Airplane Mode’?
Yes, if you’re running a recent version of iOS. If you’re paranoid about being tracked by GPS when you don’t want to be, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services to disable the GPS radio.
All of these options offer offline maps to pair nicely with your location, but those maps usually have to be downloaded first! The apps below don’t include maps of the entire world in their initial download, so download the maps for your trip before you leave the Internet behind!
City Maps 2 Go
Perfect if you’re sticking to cities or well-known tourist destinations, the app itself is free (Apple App Store, Google Play, or on Amazon’s App Store). Between relevant Wikipedia articles and street maps, the GPS in your device interfaces nicely with with their offline maps, which are broken down into country and city guides.
If you’re crunched for time or don’t want the frills, you can opt to just download the maps and not their articles (get both, though!). The free app comes with five guides, which may be all you need.
With data from OpenStreetMaps, this $0.99 app (only on the Apple App Store) includes 2 free maps to over 4,000 cities and tourist destinations. (A free, lite version for Berlin is available, but hasn’t been updated since April 2011.)
More are available for $0.99 per three maps, or a lifetime of maps for $7.99. It looks to cover the biggest cities, but I wouldn’t expect much help if you’re getting too far off the beaten path.
Great if you’re looking for inspiration from travel experts, the free app is only on the Apple App Store as of right now.
Purchase guides on varying themes, which offer pre-cached Google Maps of the area in question. There are some social aspects that are part of this Euro-centric app too, and I’ve actually written a few guides for the site.
Hiking in the US or Canada used to mean carrying topographical maps, the best of which were produced by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
This app isn’t the cheapest at $7.99 (Apple App Store), but it contains complete topographical maps of the US and Canada, all free to download inside the app. The current location and compass are two features your paper maps will have a hard time replacing.
Offline Topo Maps
If you need the world’s topographical maps in your hand, this is the app to get. It’s $9.99 on the Apple App Store, but features layers from several different sources and can work with metric, imperial, or nautical measurements.
The same company sports an even more fully-featured app, Gaia GPS (at $19.99), which adds some extra stats and gets updated quicker. They also claim the highest resolution USGS maps, a claim I’ll leave you dear readers to put to the test.
Galileo Offline Maps
Get the map of an entire country with a single tap! The app is free on the Apple App Store (a pro version costs $3.99) and the OpenStreetMap maps are updated monthly. The pro version (or the in-app purchases from the free version) feature GPS Tracking, bookmarks on the map, and a few other things.
Best of all, it claims compatibility with the iPad 1 and the iPhone 3GS – it’s probably time to upgrade those, but if you still have them this app will work just fine.
Download any of their 10,000+ maps for the US or worldwide, or try one of their other country-specific apps for Australia, Canada, and New Zealand). They seem to take the paper map available from elsewhere and digitize it, then add in the location and so on — not a bad way to go, but it does seem to limit the available selection as a result.
Maps.me ($4.99 on the Apple App Store) claims over 6 million downloads and works fine on your iPhone or iPad (note that a Wi-Fi only iPad lacks the GPS radio, so it can’t show your current location without Wi-Fi).
Maps are taken from OpenStreetMap’s extensive database. I like the location-sharing feature, though of course it requires a connection to send it via e-mail or text message.
While you used to have to mess around typing ‘secret’ codes into the search box (or, for a while, putting up with no offline mode at all), saving maps for offline use is now built into the app — we covered how to do it here.
Note that the cached maps are automatically deleted after 30 days. If you’re going off the grid for longer than that, it’s probably best to look to one of the other solutions.
How do you stay on course without an Internet connection?
All images via their respective companies