This is not a "blog" in the sense of a daily journal but a place for me to post GPS trail maps of mountain biking and hiking trails, particularly but not exclusively, in the western Greenbelt in Ottawa, Ontario.

Date codes do not reflect actual posting dates but are manipulated to allow me to order the posts in a thematic order.

Please note that images, maps and photos, will be displayed in reduced size. To see the enlarged images click (or multi-click) on them.

20001224

Backroad Mapbooks GPS Map Review (Ontario)

Background

Up until now I had used Topo Canada (ver. 2) from Garmin on my GPS for navigation and mapping, along with Google Earth. I was not completely happy with the detail it provided nor the fact that it was getting out of date. When ver. 4 came along (skipping ver. 3) I was interested in possibly upgrading as it did include some new 3D software functions. However, from what I could tell from the sample map utility on the Garmin website the maps did not seem to be particularly updated.

I also experimented with TopoFusion which provides access to the Natural Resources Canada map server and the most recent Canadian government maps. That provided an alternative view but it was still not completely satisfactory, as they are just flat maps without road or street names, etc.

So I was quite interested when the Backroad Mapbooks people contacted me to ask if they could use my GPS maps in a new product they were developing for Garmin GPS units, as I already owned several of their print volumes for parts of Ontario. Those discussions ended up with my offering them the GPS map data with no conditions but suggesting they provide me with a free copy of their Ontario GPS product, to which they responded positively.

I have had it for a few weeks now and it has become the default GPS map on my GPS unit for Ontario, as well as the most used map on my computer. Hopefully, as I continue to provide them with new and updated trail data they will continue to provide me with map updates.

The Review 
 
The first thing I should say, as I have learned as I have worked on writing this is that this should be considered a preliminary review (although I likely won't write another one as I think this will capture the spirit of the product and most of what I want to say) because I sense I still have a lot to learn about the depth and capabilities of this mapping software.

Let us skip ahead to the conclusion to say that it seems obvious from comparing Garmin's Topo Canada to Backroad Mapbooks Ontario GPS Map that Garmin is a technology company and Backroad Mapbooks is a mapping company.

First I should note that I did have a bit of a problem with my first attempt at installation until I went back and carefully read the actual instructions. That is to say, the install is not as intuitive as some of us lazy folk who hate to read instructions would like, but as long as you read the instructions all will be well.

Backroad Mapbooks GPS Maps work with MapSource so you do not have to learn a new software interface on the GPS or computer. One of the advantages of this is that it allows the Backroad MapBooks people to concentrate on what they do best, map-making rather than software development. Although it would be interesting to see what kind of software features they would add, based on their mapping experience.

The look, both on the GPS and computer is different, primarily because there is more detail provided, and that took some adjusting but I quickly decided I preferred BackRoad Mapbooks (BRM) to Garmin's Topo Canada (TC). BRM uses 10,000 and 20,000 scale maps rather tham TC's 50,000 and 250,000 scale maps so I was expecting to see a difference there. However the biggest difference is in what information BRM provides that TC does not.


Map of Choice For Outdoorspersons

One of the first things I noticed was that BRM has trails marked, which TC does not (with a few very rare exceptions). In particular they have the official NCC Greenbelt trails that I ride on (and map) included. I look forward to them adding my GPS maps which includes all the undocumented Greenbelt trails that are not on the official Greenbelt maps, along with the South March Highlands trails which they also lack at the moment.

Seeing this led me to check out the maps on the computer for trails I have recorded in Algonquin and Killarney provincial parks and they were on the map also, along with other trails in the parks. A quick overview of the Ontario map showed considerable trail coverage across the province, including the Bruce Peninsula National Park and the Bruce Trail so I will assume there is pretty decent coverage of all provincial and national parks.

Also included is what appears to be pretty comprehensive coverage of snowmobile trails, which provides a huge market for the product, as well as canoe routes and portages. Another quick review indicates that the map software includes an extensive collection of Points of Interest (POIs). The Backroad Mapbooks website provides an overview of the Ontario GPS Map Features as well as other information and tutorials on their GPS maps products.

This is indeed the GPS map of choice for outdoorspersons.

I also noticed pretty decent coverage of local walking/cycling paths when I was riding and similar decent coverage on the computer map, though there is definitely some room for improvement there. Indeed the biggest complaint I would have with the BRM map is that it is not perfect. 

Computer Map Comparisons
(Click on images to enlarge)

Google Earth View

TopoFusion Natural Resources Canada Map

Garmin Topo Canada Map

BackRoad Mapbooks Map

Unclassified Roads

One thing that did surprise me with TC was when it routed me from Killarney to Sudbury via roads that no longer exist, except as trails and that may not even be open because they go through Department of National Defence lands at the Old Burwash prison site. So I wanted to see how BRM handled the routing, and it used open main roads. BRM does have those roads marked but as "unclassified roads" rather than local roads.

I had already come across this caution about :"unclassified roads" in another review

There's quite a difference, isn't there? While fourwheeling and testing the maps, I did notice that the maps showed some roads that didn't exist, but that's because they were now heavily overgrown and had become single tracks. Personally, I would much rather see them on the map, than not see them at all. These were all marked as "unclassified roads" which was fair warning. The fun in exploring is to see which of these unclassified roads are actually passable and can take you to new places. And in that regard, Backroad GPS Maps is extremely useful for that kind of trip planning. In fact, it's dangerously easy to lose hours of your time, poring over potential trails to explore, and finding possible routes from one trail system to another. But if you're the kind of person that just wants to know where the known-to-be-good roads are, then just stick to using the roads that aren't marked as unclassified.

I must say that I agree with that view, as the more information for people searching for possible hiking or mountain biking trails the better. However BRM might want to put a caution on their "Legend" about unclassified roads.



Updates

One of the things that was annoying about TC was that updates to the map were not available and the only way to update the map was to purchase the newer version of the software. With BRM annual updates are available at a reasonable cost and there is a progam that provides free updates for users that submit trail and Point of Interest information.

It is very clear that BRM wants to make their product as complete and updated as possible for the outdoorsperson and is engaging the user community in that pursuit. My only concern would be that they ensure reasonable review and control over what is included from the submitted information.

Suggested Improvement

I have one suggested improvement and that relates to the comprehensiveness and extent of information provided on the map. There is a fine line between comprehensiveness and clutter and drawing that line is difficult. Rather than arbitrarily limiting the information included on the map I would suggest BRM let the user decide what information is viewed on the maps, not just in terms of degree (less to more) but in terms of categories. I would suggest the use of an interface similar to what Google Earth uses to show what Layers are shown. I would also suggest that users be able to select the categories shown both on the computer and GPS through a computer interface (easier to use than a GPS interface) and then synch the choices with the GPS.



Conclusion

It seems obvious to me, from comparing Garmin's Topo Canada to Backroad Mapbooks Ontario GPS Map, that Garmin is a technology company and Backroad Mapbooks is a mapping company run by outdoorspersons who truly love and believe in what they are doing.

Update 2012-05-05

As of Version 3.0 my GPS maps from this site current as of today have been added to the GPS and computer maps. 

Posted 2011-11-07 
Updated 2012-05-05

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Richard,

I can't believe nobody has left you a review. I just went over your blog after searching extensively for new Topo software. I was just on the BRM website and was impressed, as I too have a few of their map books. However I am always skeptical after seeing what Garmin had offered and its lack of detail for the price.

Your blog has made up my mind, I am going to purchase the BRM software. Thanks for putting in the effort of including screen shots and the time you put into your hobby.

Regards,
Jon

Larry said...

Richard,

Thanks for your efforts. Exactly what I was looking for. Just got a Magellan Triton for Christmas and looking for maps for backpacking. Hope to post trips the way you have.

Thanks again!

Larry

rww said...

@Larry

I'm not sure if these GPS maps work with Magellan GPS units so you should double check that.

rww said...

As of Version 3.0 my GPS maps from this site current as of today have been added to the GPS and computer maps.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in knowing what kind of detail this map would have for canoeing or fishing uses.

I'm using Open Street Maps on my eTrex 20 and it seems satisfactory for both trail and road info, yet quite lacking on lake detail.
Any experience with BRM on Ontario lakes?

thanks,
Jim

Mike O said...

I had been using Topo Canada on my Garmin handheld but switched to Back Road Maps in order to run a 7" tablet as a gps on my side by side. Two issues that I see with it is that it does not have the ability to run in landscape mode and the other major issue is the map does not self orientate the direction you are heading to the top of the screen. It only gives you the choice between north and magnetic north. In other words when you are travelling south for example the breadcrumb shows you going to the bottom of the screen.

rww said...

@ Mike O

I would contact the Backroad Mapbooks people about that. I find their customer service is very good.

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Richard W. Woodley was born in Sudbury, Ontario in 1950. He earned an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Laurentian University where he was the News Editor of the student newspaper Lambda and active in student politics. He was active in the New Democratic Party and Waffle in Sudbury and Kanata, as well as Kanata municipal politics. He was a member of the Bridlewood Residents Hydro Line Committee (BRHLC) and creator of the now archived Bridlewood Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs) Information Service. He worked on Parliament Hill for 33 years indexing the Debates of the House of Commons (Hansard) and it's committees. Richard has been an outdoorsperson and environmentalist for most of his life and a life long cyclist who recently took up mountain biking. He is active on mtbkanata.com and a member of the Ottawa Mountain Bike Association (OMBA).

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To read my thoughts on mountain biking, cycling, social and political philosophy and the current issues of the day read my blog, THE FIFTH COLUMN.