Outdooractive or OS Maps. Which app is best for walking route planning?

There’s a walk out there to suit all my moods. Whether I want to stroll along the coast path, stride across Dartmoor or find a quiet spot for wild camping, all I need is a map to find the best walking route.

Navigation apps can make life easier

I’ve been planning walking routes for a long time now and before the days of navigation apps, we had to measure all the distances (sometimes with string), work out the height gain (by counting contour lines), and calculate section times in our heads.

I’m still proud of my ability to write (and rewrite) a traditional route card but it is a time consuming process.

So these days I often use a route-planning app to speed things up.

But I still teach traditional navigation skills, and prefer a paper map and compass while I’m actually out walking.

Navigation course, Dartmoor, Fi Darby

Which walking route planning app?

As an outdoor writer and instructor, I regularly use the OS Maps app to plan my walking routes, and write up walks (like my station to station walks) for other people to follow.

OS Maps is simple to set up, easy to use and my paid subscription gives me access to detailed Ordnance Survey mapping.

How to plan a walking route with the OS Maps app.

But although it meets all my current needs, OS Maps isn’t the only route-planning app out there.

As an outdoor writer it’s important to keep on top of developments, so I decided to compare my usual OS Maps with Outdooractive (formerly Viewranger).

It’s good to step out of one’s comfort zone once in a while.

Outdoor Active or OS Maps?

Before we start with the app comparisons, it’s important to remember we all have different needs.

Whether these are related to our comfort level with technology, our confidence at map reading or something else entirely, the route planner that suits me won’t necessarily be the right choice for you.

The differences – Outdoor Active and OS Maps

This isn’t my first walking app comparison, and it was much easier to find the differences between Komoot and OS Maps, than it has been between Outdooractive and OS Maps.

So I decided to look first at what Outdooractive and OS Maps have in common:

  • Both apps offer a limited free service plus paid options
  • Both offer paid subscribers access to 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 scale Ordnance Survey maps
  • Both apps allow you to access other people’s routes
  • Both apps allow you to create your own routes

But there were differences between the two mapping apps. I’ve described these under three category headings below.

  1. Level of detail
  2. Ease of use
  3. Additional features

I used paid-for subscription versions of each app to plan routes but have discussed free versions in my comparisons.

1. Best walking route planner for detail?

And the winner is…

OS Maps – if you want to plan accurate UK walking routes with a good level of detail but minimum fuss.

Outdooractive – if you can cope with information overload and/or are planning alpine routes outside the UK.

Read on to find out why I’ve reached the conclusions above.

Accuracy and detail matter when you’re out walking, especially in more remote locations. To navigate safely, you need access to topographic maps.

Related – The difference between 1:25,000 scale and 1:50,000 scale maps.

What are topographic maps?

Topographic maps give land elevations and geographic feature positions to a high level of detail.

Examples would include Ordnance Survey’s Explorer and Landranger series as well as Harvey Maps but some route planning apps (including Outdooractive) use their own topographic maps based on data collected from a range of different maps as well as open source mapping.

All that sounds complicated because it is!

Ordnance Survey topographic maps

When planning walking routes, I prefer access to 1:25,000 scale Ordnance Survey (Explorer) maps. Unlike 1:50,000 (Landranger) maps or OpenStreetMaps, this scale and detail level shows me important navigation features such as boundaries and contour details.

Copyright Ordnance Survey, 2024

Access to Ordnance Survey topographic maps?

  • OS Maps – YESonly on paid plans
  • Outdooractive – YES only on paid plans

Some walkers prefer 1:40,000 or 1:25,000 scale Harvey Maps to Ordnance Survey maps and it’s common, during HML (Hill and Moorland Leader) and ML (Mountain Leader) training to ask trainees to use both types.

Access to Harvey Maps?

  • OS Maps – NO
  • Outdooractive – YES – only on paid plans

Aerial satellite images

Satellite views are very useful when you’re planning routes across open ground. They allow you to see where more obvious (easier to follow) tracks are.

Haytor from above, Copyright Ordnance Survey, 2024

Access to aerial satellite images?

  • OS Maps – YES – on all plans
  • Outdooractive – YES – but only on paid plans

Topographic international maps

If you’ve ever planned a walk overseas, you’ll know how lucky we are in the UK. International maps sometimes don’t give as much detail but are nonetheless a safety essential.

Access to topographic international maps?

OS Maps – YESonly on paid plans – Great Britain, USA, Australia, New Zealand

Related: Planning walking routes in Australia or New Zealand

Outdooractive – YESonly on paid plans – Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, parts of Italy, some UK regions

Additional maps and map layers?

Copyright Ordnance Survey, 2024 (Scheduled Monuments layer)

This is where things get complicated with different subscription levels. I’m not sure how much additional accuracy you get from multiple map layers but they can add extra meaning to your walk as well as improving its practicalities.

OS Maps – YESonly on paid plans – 20+ optional layers including some fun navigation features such as milestones and scheduled monuments. As well as practical features like the National Cycle Network, (additional) car parks, and pubs. If you’re a collector of Munros, Corbetts, Wainwrights or Marilyns, OS Maps also has an optional map layer for these.

Outdooractive – YES – only on paid plansPRO has outdoor sports trail networks (signposted trails only) for cycling, hiking, mountaineering, mountain biking, horse riding and skiing. It also has a slope angle layer (some European areas) to aid avalanche risk assessment. PRO+ goes further with ‘expert level’ specialised maps including alpine club maps, avalanche reports, detailed weather forecasting, and a webcam map layer.

2. Best walking route planning app for ease of use?

And the winner is…

OS Maps – with a less cluttered screen and one simple route-planning step, OS Maps is far more intuitive, especially if this is your first venture into digital route-planning.

Read on to find out why I’ve reached the conclusion above.

It was always going to take me longer to plan my walking route on Outdooractive than my more familiar OS Maps.

So during my test, I ignored how long it took me to plan a walk and paid more attention to how easy each app made the route-planning process. I focused only on the basic essentials.

First impressions

When you’re using digital tools, interfaces really matter. (An interface is the combination of what you see on the screen and what happens when you do things).

As I usually do, I planned my routes on the web rather than the mobile version of each app.

First impressions – OS Maps

Copyright Ordnance Survey, 2024

If you like things clean and simple, you’ll enjoy the OS Maps interface. A few key tools are visible in the top menu bar and others are more hidden behind a plus symbol.

It’s easy to see (top right) how to start plotting a route.

First impressions – outdooractive

Copyright outdooractive, 2024

In comparison, the Outdooractive initial screen has a slightly confusing list of options, and doesn’t show a map until you’ve clicked through to ‘plan’.

Which you might not do because there’s nothing immediately obvious to tell you to create a ‘plan’ before you convert it to a ‘route’.

Here’s a quick explanation of Outdooractive’s plans and routes.

The difference between plans and routes in Outdooractive

Plans on Outdooractive are the result of an uploaded gpx track or a set of waypoints you have input yourself.

A plan cannot be published until you’ve turned it into a route.

At which point you can also add written directions, pictures and videos.

The routes and plans thing took me a while to understand and is perhaps unnecessarily complicated.

If you prefer simplicity, it’s worth remembering OS Maps only has one stage of route development, helpfully called ‘Create Route’.

The Outdooractive plan page

The Outdooractive plan page is helpfully named ‘route planner’ and, although it’s in a long list of options, easy enough to find.

If you’re using the free basic version, you’ll find an advert on the Outdooractive ‘plan’ page takes up about a quarter of the screen. There is no advert with the paid plans.

On all versions, the plan page map is initially covered by a window showing a range of mapping options (most of which are not available with a free account). Once you clear this screen, the map becomes more visible.

Searching for a start location

Before you start planning a walking route, you need to be able to find your start location on the map.

One thing that has occasionally frustrated me with OS Maps is its place name database. It’s great at finding towns and bigger peaks but sometimes gets stuck on smaller locations.

The start of my walk plan, Haytor Rocks is a good example of this, it’s a popular Dartmoor tourist spot but isn’t recognised by the OS Maps database. I had to use a nearby town and my local knowledge to find it.

Copyright Ordnance Survey, 2024

Outdooractive’s database on the other hand, knew exactly where Haytor Rocks, Haytor Quarry and even Haytor Granite Tramway were.

Copyright outdooractive, 2024

Plotting your own walking route

Both OS Maps and Outdooractive allow you to follow other people’s walking routes but for this comparison I’ve stuck to planning your own route.

There are two ways to do this and both are available in both apps.

Method 1. Plot your own walking route using a free routing tool. You can see below I’ve clicked lots of points and the app has filled in straight lines between them.

Available in all versions on both OS Maps and Outdooractive.

My free route, OS Maps
My free route, Outdooractive

Method 2. Allow the app to choose a recommended route between points for you. In Outdooractive this is called ‘Trail Network’, OS Maps have named it ‘Snap-to-Path’ or ‘Snap’.

Available on OS Maps with paid subscriptions, and on Outdooractive with all subscriptions.

Related – How to use snap-to-path in OS Maps

Below you can see Trail Network and Snap-to-Path have given me the same route from Haytor visitor centre to Smallacombe Rocks. All I needed to do was click on the leg start and end points.

The route given isn’t quite the same as the one I chose but it is all on existing paths. And it took me far less time to plot.

Outdooractive, using Trail Network
OS Maps, using Snap-to-Path

Saving your route

Before you can save a ‘plan’ on Outdooractive, you need to convert it to a ‘route’. On OS Maps the process is more simple, with just a standard ‘SAVE’ button.

3. Best walking route app for additional features?

And the winner is…

OS Maps – not so much for its list of features (Outdooractive’s is longer) but because OS Maps makes the tools you actually need for route-planning easy to find and simple to use.

Read on to find out why I’ve reached the conclusions above.

Other walking route features

Lists of app features can be a mixed blessing. It’s useful to discover functions that meet a genuine need but it can be confusing to sift through when the list is too long.

Both OS Maps and Outdooractive have a range of additional features. For the most part, these are about experiencing enhancement but there are a few that are particularly pertinent to route planning.

I’ve mentioned some of these below.

Length, time and height gain

Understanding how long a route will take you and how many hills you’ll need to climb is as important for your safety as it is for your enjoyment.

Both OS Maps and Outdooractive give distance, timings and height gain for walking routes but they present them in different ways.

OS Maps – distance, time and height

Whilst you’re creating your route, OS Maps keeps it simple and gives total route time and length in numerical form.

Route time and length, OS Maps

Once you’ve saved the route, you can also see both total height gain and an adjustable elevation graph, which slides to correspond to points on the map.

Elevation graph, OS Maps

Outdooractive – distance, time and height

Outdooractive gives distance and height information on a sliding graph below the route as you plot it. You can also see the route time and total height gain in the bar above. The presence of the graph at this stage leads to a smaller available map area.

Elevation graph, Outdooractive

Working with GPX files

GPX files are a useful way to transfer route data from one system (for example a GPS device) or person to another. You can create routes by uploading GPX files or save routes to share by exporting them.

Import GPX files?

  • OS Maps – YES – only on paid plans
  • Outdooractive – YES – on all plans

Export GPX files?

  • OS Maps – YES – only on paid plans
  • Outdooractive – YES – only on paid plans (once you’ve created a ‘route’)

Offline access

Mobile signal can vary, especially in more remote locations; if you need to follow a digital map trace, it makes sense to download your route to your mobile device before you set out.

Both apps give this option but you’ll still need to pay careful consideration to battery power.

Download routes to mobile device?

  • OS Maps – YES – only on paid plans
  • Outdooractive – YES – only on paid plans

Route printing

If you prefer to use a paper map or want to carry a non-digital backup just in case, you might like to print your route. This could save you the cost of a paper map of the area you’re visiting.

Print routes?

  • OS Maps – YES – only on paid plans
  • Outdooractive – YES – only on paid plans

How much does Outdooractive cost?

Outdooractive currently has one free and two monthly subscription levels.

Outdooractive lists a number of features for the app’s PRO and PRO+ subscriptions but to keep things simple, I’ve focused here on the features I might use to plan a walking route in the UK.

  • Basic users – free – includes OpenStreetMap maps. No satellite imagery, offline download or Ordnance Survey maps.
  • PRO users – £2.23 per month (Feb 2024) – Includes offline saving, printing, Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 maps, satellite imagery, some topographic international maps.
  • PRO+ users – £4.45 per month (Feb 2024) – includes the above plus Harvey Maps and weather maps, as well as additional map layers for a range of activities.

How much does OS Maps cost?

For individuals, OS Maps currently (Feb 2024) offers one free and one paid subscription level (monthly or annual).

  • Registered Usersfree – includes OpenStreetMap maps and satellite imagery. No offline download or Ordnance Survey maps.
  • Premium subscribers£6.99 a month or £34.99 a year – Includes offline saving, printing, Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 maps, satellite imagery, some topographic international maps.

So which is best route planner app?

For me that’s easy to answer. I have long admired OS Maps’ simple interface. Not just because it makes things easier for me but because I know it’s accessible for people with less navigation and technological confidence.

Let’s face it; if a tool’s difficult to use, we tend not to bother.

OS Maps makes the complicated process of navigation easier.

That’s not to say however that Outdooractive doesn’t have some good additional features. Whether these are more important to you than ease of use is up to you to decide.

Disclaimer: I am an OS Champion and use the OS Maps app often. I've tried to keep this comparison fair but I have had far more hands-on experience with OS Maps than with Outdooractive.

Leave a Reply