Ever since I flipped through my first ever Backroad Mapbook, I've hoped that its publishers would release those maps for use in my Garmin GPS. Their Digital Edition CD's were a move in the right direction. With those map images, I could load them into mapping software such as OziExplorer or Fugawi, which made them very useful at home, or in the woods...as long as I had my laptop or netbook computer with me. But now, at long last, they've released their Backroad GPS Maps which load directly into my Garmin GPS. Was it worth the wait? Spoiler alert: OH YEAH!
Backroad Mapbooks produces a few different products in their Backroad GPS Maps line. The one I reviewed is the British Columbia SD version. This version comes pre-loaded on a 2gb SD card, and covers all of British Columbia. At a price of CAD$150, I know the first question some of you will ask is why is it so much more expensive than Garmin's Topo Canada product. Topo Canada, which covers all of Canada, costs CAD$99. The difference, quite simply, comes down to the level of detail. In all the locations where I've compared Backroad Mapbooks' product against Garmin's Topo Canada, the latter has consistently showed greater detail and in a more much easily-viewed format. It's very obvious that Topo Canada is built on old topographic data.
To illustrate my point, here are a couple of comparisons between Backroad GPS Maps and Topo Canada. The default view is Backroad GPS Maps. Hover your mouse cursor over the image to see the Topo Canada view of the same area.
Just out of interest, here's a comparison of Backroad GPS Maps, Topo Canada, and CityNavigator:
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.
Besides roads and trails, Backroad GPS Maps are packed full of additional geographic data, such as the names of geographic points (lakes, mountains, etc), campsites, boat ramps, view points, petroglyphs, and plenty of other points of interest. This additional data makes trip planning easier and allows you to enjoy the area more by showing you what's available. Case in point: last year when we went exploring around Nicola Lake, our Backroads Mapbook Digital Edition CD showed us a lookout point on nearby Shovelnose Mtn. That bit of information resulted in us driving to that mountain's peak and being rewarded with a stunning view.
Based on the quality of the data alone, I think the Backroad GPS Maps are the better deal if you are serious about exploring the back country.
Update (June 17, 2010): Backroad Mapbooks has published these points of interest in Garmin's TourGuide POI format. It gives them greater flexibility in how they're displayed but it also severely restricts the variety of GPS units they can be seen on. I don't have a comprehensive list of Garmin units that support TourGuide, but one I found from 2007 lists these units: n�viT, zumoT, and the StreetPilot© c550, 2730, 2820, 7200 and 7500.
The POI data will not appear on Mapsource, nor on most handheld units such as the eTrex, 60-series and 76-series. However, they have now made their POI data available in the Custom POI format. This is an older POI format that is supported by many more of the Garmin units than the TourGuide format (eg: 60-series, eTrex series, etc.) Registered owners of their GPS Maps products can download this file by logging into their website (http://www.backroadmapbooks.com/shop/account/).
The instructions are as follows:
Once you sign in you will have to click the RED "Customer Login/Account info" button again which will take you to your account information menu. Under "My GPS Products" click on "To check my products" which will take you to your registered products page. Click on the appropriate product (e.g. British Columbia - SD) which is to the left of the green "Mapsource Version" button.
But while playing around with the maps, I found something unexpected. The Backroad GPS Maps product has surprisingly good street level data. In some cases, it shows more streets than CityNavigator (albeit my version isn't current). Have a look at these comparisons between Backroad Mapbooks, Garmin's CityNavigator 9, and Topo Canada.
The level of detail is very good. Again, definitely better than Topo Canada, but roughly on par with CityNavigator. The downside, unfortunately, is that Backroad GPS Maps doesn't have as much data as CityNavigator. Besides having fewer points of interest in the cities, it also doesn't support things such as finding stores, services, or street addresses. This reduced data compared to CityNavigator might be the reason why its auto-routing has chosen what I consider to be an inefficient way for getting from the start to the end waypoints in the following test (the route is indicated by the yellow line, which starts at the green flag and ends at the red):
Note: the detail setting in the above example is set to "higher.". This setting isn't necessarily treated the same by all map products, so do not assume by these images that Backroads GPS Maps has more street detail than CityNavigator.
So, while Backroad GPS Maps has very good city detail, I wouldn't choose it as my primary tool for street-level navigation. But, it's not that bad, either. But I'm really getting off-point here, because this product is really about its topographic maps, and that's why you're reading this review. Like I said at the very beginning, this product is worth the money. The map detail is stupendously better than anything else out there. I will be removing Topo Canada from my GPS and using Backroad GPS Maps exclusively.
I can't end this review without talking about the issue of how you can use this product. But before I do, please note that this all stems from how Garmin does things with its Mapsource products, and is par for the course. I'm going to talk about this not to complain, but to explain how things work because I found it a bit confusing at first.
If you buy the SD card version of the product
The Backroads SD card is married to Mapsource; that means the SD card can download (maps, waypoints, routes) or upload (tracks, waypoints, etc.) from Mapsource regardless of what unit the SD card is in. The SD card can also be transferred to any other unit for use as well. The only restriction of course is that you cannot transfer information to or from any other SD card.
If you buy the DVD (Mapsource) version of the product
The backroad maps in Mapsource are married to a specific GPS unit. That means that although they can be uploaded or downloaded to any SD card they can only be used and viewed on the registered GPS unit. They will not display when tried on any GPS unit other then the registered one.
So you need to ask yourself what's more likely to happen to you: that you'll upgrade your GPS, or that you'll lose/destroy the SD card. Myself, I'd probably upgrade the GPS first, so for me, the SD card version would make the most sense.
No matter which version you get, the Mapsource version of the maps will always be able to be used with Mapsource, even if you happen to lose the GPS to which they were originally unlocked with. So, at worst, you'll always be able to view the maps in Mapsource on your PC.
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