Forest Service goes digital

Adventurers sick of the Forest Service's waxy, old-fashioned, hard-to-fold maps are now in luck. The agency has entered the Android and iPhone app business with a new product for Internet-age orienteers.

On Nov. 20, the Forest Service launched its PDF Maps Mobile App, available for free from the Android Play Store and iTunes. The app allows national forest users to buy digital maps for their mobile devices and track their location using GPS technology. Digital maps for the Lolo, Bitterroot, Flathead and Beaverhead Deerlodge national forests are already available for purchase.

"We had this overwhelming cry from the public that they really want to see more of our maps online," says Betsy Kanalley, national manager of the Forest Service map sales program. "What we realized we could do right now was geospatially reference PDFs of our visitor maps, which are now available for download, and allow you to track your location on the map as long as you are in range of a GPS satellite."

Avenza Systems Inc. was the contractor responsible for developing the map app.

Going forward, the Forest Service has still bigger plans for bringing its maps into the digital age: interactive visitor maps. Unlike the PDFs, these interactive maps could eventually show users which campsites are open, advise them about closed trails or even warn them of incoming inclement weather.

"Ideally we will have something that will provide all the information users need," says Kanalley. "We are working toward that. We would love to do that."

There's one obvious catch to this digital craze: What happens if you run out of battery power in the backcountry?

"I have a feeling a lot of people feel more comfortable having that paper product, especially if they will be out in remote areas for a while," says Kanalley. "I would want to have a paper map with me, but there are different users with different desires."

Kanalley, a professional cartographer, says for her, nothing can beat those "busy, beautiful" paper maps for reliability. And rest assured, those old-fashioned maps will continue to be available.

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