How to Navigate on the Milford Track

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The Milford Track traverses 53.5 kilometers through New Zealand’s stunning Fiordland National Park. The trail is well marked and well maintained, and thousands of hikers successfully navigate it each year. However, the Milford Track is still a backcountry trail requiring you to have a solid plan for navigation. This post will explain exactly how I navigated on the Milford Track, show you how to use some of the tools I employed, and even provide some resources for those undertaking the trek. Let’s get started.

Should I bring a map?

This is the most common question I see related to navigating on the Milford Track. Many wonder whether a map is necessary on a trip that is well traveled and well marked. While I didn’t rely heavily on a paper map, my advice is to always bring a paper map on any backcountry trip. While technology has done a tremendous amount to make navigating while hiking easier, there is simply no replacement for carrying a physical map with you. If that iPhone you brought runs out of battery or you drop it in a puddle you’ll be glad you had your handy paper maps to rely on. I’d recommend bring the NewTopo version found here. A weather proof carrying case like this one wouldn’t hurt to have either. Now that you’ve got your map safely tucked away in case of emergency let’s get on to the focus of this article, which is to show you how to harness the power of your smartphone to navigate your way to a successful Milford Track experience.

Using your smartphone as a GPS

Modern smartphones are incredible machines. You can send email, video chat with someone halfway around the world, and check your bank account all with a swipe of your finger. Another great feature of smartphones is their ability to act as a GPS device. You’ll commonly use this feature when navigating with Google Maps, Apple Maps, or other mapping software that comes standard on most phones these days. The problem is your phone relies on having an internet connection in order to download the background mapping data that needs to be displayed in order for you to know where you are. You see, the GPS in your phone only provides a location point, but the really valuable data is the background map that shows the various streets, businesses and even traffic conditions around you.  Without an internet connection to show the background map, your Google Maps app will look something like this:

Blank TMB map
Not a very effective way to navigate

Solving the background map problem

While the issue of a background map not displaying isn’t typically a problem in cities or towns where ample cell phone service (and thus internet connectivity) exists, it can be a huge problem when you’re, say, on top of Mackinnon Pass on the Milford Track without service. The solution? GPS Navigation apps that allow for downloadable background maps. These apps allow you to select a predefined area-in our case the entirety of the Milford Track-and download the background map to your phone. This allows you to access the map data without a cell phone connection and still know exactly where you are! Even though your phone is not connected to cell service or internet, the GPS will still work without incurring any “roaming” charges. Pretty cool, huh? I’ll show you exactly how I did this for the Milford Track below.

We used the app Backcountry Navigator Pro downloaded on a Motorola G4 Play.  The G4 is a great budget smartphone for traveling since it can be used on a variety of networks and has great battery life. The Backcountry Navigator app is only available on Android phones, but there are dozens of GPS apps available for iOS that will accomplish the same thing.

Setting up your app for offline navigation

Step One – Choose your map source
When you first open Backcountry Navigator you will select the ‘Map Layers’ menu to choose your map source. This will be the background map that you will eventually download and use to navigate, even without cell phone service. There are tons of background maps available for free download, but I found “Thunderforest: Outdoor” to be the absolute best for the Milford Track. To choose this map source, simply select the green ‘More Map Sources’ button, then tap the ‘Worldwide’ folder, and finally select “Thunderforest: Outdoor.”Set up Tour of Mont Blanc map

Set up Tour of Mont Blanc map

Step Two – Navigate to the Milford Track and download your background map
Once you have selected the “Thunderforest: Outdoor” base map you’ll want to download the entire area of the Milford Track. Remember, without downloading this data you’ll have no way to know where exactly you are on the trail. One of the great things about the “Thunderforest: Outdoor” background map is that it already has the entire Milford Track shown! This makes it incredibly easy to read the map and saves the extra step of having to find a GPS file for the entire route. To download the map background data, follow the steps below:

5. Wait for your download to complete and then you’re done! As you can see here the route of the Milford Track is clearly shown for easy navigation!

Using the app on the trail

The final step for navigating like a pro on the Milford Track is to know how to utilize the Backcountry Navigator app when you are out on the trail. To view your current location, simply select the location button on the top menu. At this point your phone will activate its GPS, and if you have a fairly clear view of the sky in a few moments it will show you exactly where you are by displaying a yellow arrow. Use this whenever you want to see how far you’ve gone, how much further you have left until your next stop, or if a fork in the road has you questioning the correct way.  NOTE: The yellow arrow will not necessarily point towards the direction you are actually facing.  This is important to remember when you are orienting yourself! Maybe future versions of this app will have that capability, but the current model does not.

A note on battery life

One of the easiest ways for the app-navigation method to go awry is for your phone battery to die. I recommend two strategies to help prevent an unexpected dead battery from sabotaging your trip. The first is to ensure that you turn off the GPS in your phone when the app is not in use. To do this navigate to ‘Settings’ > ‘GPS Option’ and be sure to uncheck the box marked ‘Keep GPS ON’. This will ensure that your phone isn’t wasting battery finding your location when you don’t need it. You can also keep your phone on “airplane mode” to prevent it from wasting battery life while searching for cell service.

The second way to prevent a dead battery from causing problems is to carry a backup battery system. These are relatively inexpensive and are worth their weight in gold when you find yourself with a dying battery. I like the Anker PowerCore 20100, but any should do.

Check out our downloadable Milford Track hut locations!

If you’re using this navigation method in conjunction with our Guide to the Milford Track we want to provide you with some additional resources. Check out our post on How to find all of your huts on the Milford Track to learn how to use our customized hut location data in the Backcountry Navigator app.

Looking for a simpler way to access maps and trail information on your device?

If downloading GPS/GPX data to your phone using the process described above just feels too complicated, there’s another option! If you’re looking for a simpler way to utilize offline GPS/GPX data, the Hiiker App does all of the work for you. The app allows you to download maps and trail information to your phone so that you can use it without the need for a cell signal or data.


Keep Reading

Be sure to check out all of our Milford Track articles below:

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