How to Use a GPS Map App (OruxMaps) on Android for free!

By MarkR - Last updated: Jan-2016

Many smart-phones and tablets now have considerable processing power, useful screen sizes and embedded GPS receivers. It seemed the right time to explore the possibility of using the smart-phone or tablet as a cheap GPS device for guiding or recording walks.

If you have an Android device with a GPS receiver or are thinking about getting one, then this article might be of interest to you.

Before searching for a solution, a wish-list of features was made:

As it happens, all of these wishes are easily met and this page describes one solution for Android devices. Most likely the same can be achieved for Apple's iOS but that is outside the scope of this article.

Installing Software and Data

There are five steps involved to make your Android device ready to use for GPS mapping:

Selecting and Installing a Mapping Application

Most Android devices come with Google Maps pre-installed. Although you could use this, its usefulness for walking outside cities is limited as Google's maps currently lack most of the countryside footpaths that are used by walkers.

In order to see such paths it is necessary to have an application that is capable of displaying maps that contain these paths. There are many available on the Google Play store, including several very good ones.

Of the apps evaluated, 3 stand out:

Google Play / iTunes Web Site Opensource Cost Devices Developers Updates
OruxMaps oruxmaps.com Propriatory Free or Donate £1.60 Android only European Regularly updated.
Locus locusmap.eu Commercial Free with ads or £6 Android only European Regularly updated.
MAPS.ME maps.me Opensource Free Android, iPhones and Amazon Fire American Regularly updated

These apps do much more than just satisfy the initial criteria. You could try browsing their web sites to get a feel for their varying functionality however they are quite complex and configurable so you won't really know until you try them for yourself. All these apps have a "free" version:

For simplicity, this article describes only OruxMaps.

1) Install the App

This is quite easy. Locate OruxMaps in the Play Store and install it.

2) Installing Maps

Traditionally, walkers in the UK have used maps produced by Ordnance Survey with the 1:25000 "Explorer" maps being particularly useful. There are copyright issues with using these maps that means they are no longer available to mapping apps such as OruxMaps (as of mid 2013). A variety of other maps are accessible by OruxMaps including both online and offline maps.

Online maps require a data connection to retrieve map "tiles" on-the-fly over the internet. This can be unsuitable if you are walking in an area with no signal, or if data is expensive to retrieve (e.g. if you are roaming). Although you can overcome this to some extent by pre-loading the maps, offline maps are recommended.

Offline maps are maps that have been loaded onto your device before venturing outdoors. You need only load maps for an entire country once and then forget about it (although you might update it once or twice each year).

A good source of free maps is the OpenStreetMap project. These maps are crowd-sourced and although they do not currently include all footpaths more are being added on a regular basis. In some places, they are now betteraand more accurate than OS maps.

There are some web-sites that take the OpenStreetMap data and enhance it in some way. One such site that is a good source for maps is OpenAndroMaps.

Do check you have enough space on your device. You'll need about 1GB free in total (the files are uncompressed after being downloaded). If you don't, memory cards are cheap, 32GB for about £10 on Amazon, but configuring OruxMaps to use them can be challenging. If you need to do this, see the appendix below.

After checking you have enough space, download the free maps. Best to do over a free WiFi connection.

  1. use your device's browser to navigate to http://www.openandromaps.org/en/downloads/europe
  2. click on the + next to Great Britain
  3. click install on Oruxmaps

This will take a while to download and install. Update are in the 'notifications' list.

3) Installing a Rendering Style / Theme

The map file that was installed in the previous step contains information about roads, footpaths etc. but does not specify how to display them (e.g. colour, size, or at what zoom levels they should be visible). OruxMaps allows for rendering themes to be installed and to switch between them.

The default theme is not specialised for walkers, so its best to install a new one

  1. Using your devices browser, navigate to http://www.openandromaps.org/en/legend/elevate-mountain-hike-theme
  2. Do NOT install Elevate 3 - its for a beta version only, thats not available in the Google Play Store
  3. Install Elevate 2. Click on Install in Android / Orux Maps

Another theme is Voluntary UK which looks a bit like an OS Landranger map. You'll have to download it manually, though, on to your PC. Scroll dwon that page and look for Voluntary_Atlas.zip. Download, then unzip it. Then drag and drop the folder on to your Android device (connect it with the USB cable) into the mapstyles folder

3) Installing Walk Routes

Walk routes are usually encoded in either GPX or KML format (or KMZ, which is compressed KML). These files are basically just a list of co-ordinates plus a few Points of Interest.

Most SWC walks now have both GPX and KML files available on the individual walk pages. Click on the "GPS Route" button near the top of the page - this shows another page that has buttons for GPX and KML files. There are also many web sites that contain walk routes in these formats, useful for example if planning to walk in other countries.

These files can be placed on the Android device in the directory .../oruxmaps/tracklogs - you might want to create sub-directories of this directory to make the route files easier to find (e.g. by country or region).

OruxMaps currently (version 5.5.14) displays the GPX routes with a pin-like icon at each point on the route, which clutters the screen. As such, you will probably prefer the KML version of the route, which does not have from this problem.

4) Tailor OruxMaps Configuration

There are some configuration options that can be used to make OruxMaps de-clutter the screen - useful on devices with limited screen space. Once you have become familiar with the app you might like to change some things. Here are some to consider.

To access the configuration use the Android menu button and select Settings.

Running OruxMaps

Now that everything is installed you will want to become familiar with OruxMaps. This document gives a quick guide to starting OruxMaps. For more information refer to the manual.

Firstly, turn on the GPS receiver in your device.

Next start OruxMaps.

Screenshot of OruxMaps

Refer to the annotated screen snapshot above. Across the top of the screen, towards the right, there are some buttons.

Next select a rendering mode.

If you are planning to follow one of the routes you have loaded onto the device, you should now load that route onto the screen.

Turn on the GPS tracking function of OruxMaps.

Optionally, you might also want to start recording the track as you walk.

You can now start your walk.

There are many more functions that can be performed with this app - refer to the manual for more information.