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How (and why) to download offline maps to your phone
Building an offline reference library on your phone, part 1: Offline Maps
I recently got a new phone because my old one kept running out of memory for all my photos, music, etc. Faced with vast amounts of storage I couldn’t possibly fill for years to come, I decided to try to build an SHTF-proof library of offline apps on my phone, to make it as useful as possible if the grid goes down, or if you’re just out of cell reception, traveling abroad with high data roaming costs, etc.
I’m going to break this up into a series, with each post focusing on a category of apps or functionality to make it bite-size and actionable if you want to follow along and build your own offline supercomputer, too.
I have an iPhone but most of these apps should be available on Android devices too.
I tested (including with paid trials) all the top rated mapping apps on the app store. Maps.me, Topo Maps+, Gaia GPS, Avenza, onX Offroad, OsmAnd Maps, and Google and Apple maps.
I’ll save you the effort: on iPhone, the only two mapping apps worth considering for offline use are Apple Maps and OsmAnd maps. Here’s the runner-ups and why they’re not very good for our purposes. Skip ahead to “OsmAnd Maps” below if you just want to get to the good apps.
Maps.me and Topo Maps+ don’t support street address lookup, making them pointless for regular use. Maps.me can at best find the street (but not house number). Topo Maps+ didn’t seem even able to find the street, although it was labeled on the map.
Gaia GPS has decent topo maps but no routing capability at all, kicking you off into Apple or Google Maps. Obviously this would not be useful if you were offline. They also charge $40 a year in subscription fees which is pretty steep in my opinion.
Avenza requires you to download specific maps (similar to buying a specific USGS map for your area). I couldn’t find a way to just zoom out and download the entire state, country, etc. You also can’t search by address - when you do it just gives you nearby maps. There seems to be no routing capability either.
onX Offroad has excellent offline maps in terms of detail, but only for very small areas due to their download limitations, and it doesn’t support routing at all, kicking you off into Apple or Google Maps.
Google Maps has had offline maps for years now, but they’ve always been very small. You’d need to download hundreds if you wanted to get the entire country. A larger state like Texas could easily take 10 of these, so downloading all of these is pretty cumbersome. They also have an “expiration date” on them, so you can’t use them past a certain date in time if you don’t update them, which requires an internet connection. This disqualifies Google Maps as a usable offline maps app for our purposes. Plus, who wants Google snooping on your every move? Good riddance.
This app can actually find your address, can lookup stores nearby, has topographic information like contour lines, trails, etc. and will route offline! The entire United States is around 12gb, a modest and doable amount for most smartphones. I would start here.
A couple of gotcha’s to note with this app:
They disable POIs (Points of Interest) by default, so you have to go and enable these. Otherwise you won’t see parking lots, grocery stores, etc. on the map.
The app crashes when trying to route very long journeys, for instance across the country. It seems to handle 1,000 mile trips just fine though, so if you do need to drive across the country you’ll just have to break up your trip a bit.
To get unlimited offline map downloads, you’ll have to pay. Otherwise you’re limited to 5 maps, which for many people is still plenty. The good news is it’s a one-off $30 fee instead of a recurring subscription like every other map app I’ve seen.
Another cool thing about OsmAnd Maps is that you can download all the wikipedia articles for locations within each state, so as you look at the map, if there’s a wikipedia article for a given location you can click the W button and read the entire article. Pretty nifty for offline intel about locations!
In its latest update, Apple Maps now has downloadable maps. These maps have all the same details you’d get if you were connected to the internet: locations of restaurants and stores, review ratings, opening hours, and routing capability. The best thing is they let you download huge maps - easily big enough to cover a large state in one map. I think you could download the entire U.S. in about 20 maps.
It’s also free! But only available on iPhones. If you’re on Android, OsmAnd Maps is probably your best bet.
I ended up using both. I downloaded the entire country on OsmAnd Maps, and my state and those around it with Apple Maps, just to have two sources of information.
Stay tuned for more posts in this series where we’ll go over what other nifty apps and utilities you can download and use offline!