Using OsmAnd to Build Custom Routes for Your Mid-Pandemic Joyrides

It came to me just as I sat down to begin writing this, that July of 2020 marks for me a full decade of license-wielding freedom. It’s interesting how such a milestone passes by during a pandemic when people are generally driving less.

I count myself as one of the lucky ones during this crisis in that not only am I still healthy (fingers crossed) but both myself and my husband have remained securely employed through the first few months of this crisis, with things looking to remain that way. 

But being the discerning enthusiasts that we are, we’ve all likely noticed that generally we’re moving around a whole lot less than we used to.

I am not at all surprised to confirm that after three months of severely-reduced mobility, the lack of wheel time is really starting to get to me. I’ve been informed by my employer that we’re remaining remote through the end of 2020 at the very least, so with my commute gone and about 80% of my monthly gas budget going back into my pocket, I’ve taken to a pair of mobile apps (which I’ll talk about in a minute) to plot my favorite driving routes in and around Anne Arundel County. Being a Maryland native and having moved within the state five times, I think I might just map the whole state. Maybe Pennsylvania too! This kind of pet project might very well be never-ending, if my love for maps and on-road wayfinding has anything to say about it.

I started by tagging locations in Apple Maps while out looking for some good local driving roads. I had hoped they existed but was skeptical, as I hail from the Appalachian foothills and was very spoiled with some seriously fun asphalt while coming of age. How could the relative flatness of the Chesapeake compare? Well, I never bothered to go find before I bought the Miata. But after a couple months of aimless wandering and far too many three-point turns at unexpected dead ends, I can confirm that there are in fact some excellent roads out here. You just have to do a bit of extra work to find and enjoy them. Let me explain.

As I would go out on my little driving seances, setting several routes per trip between saved waypoints, my phone kept directing me back to the (very boring, flat, straight, and congested) state route MD-2, which anchors almost every road running the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. And with the scraggled shorelines and inlets sending dozens of creeks and streams inland in all directions, you can never really be sure which road you turn onto will eventually become a dead end without consulting the Goog. That’s partly because there is such a huge quantity of dead-end roads out here that the county and state never bothered posting signage on most of them.

Punctuating the catharsis of exploring new roads in a manual convertible with frequent map checks is not how I wanted to spend the now-quite-limited time I get behind the wheel, and while getting the quickest possible route is ideal in most scenarios, this is not one of them. So to rectify the situation, I would need a way to create and navigate custom loops, on only asphalt. And I needed know I would only be driving on twisty, mostly trafficless, texture-rich two lanes with minimal development. No traffic clogged state routes. No dead ends. Yeah… that sounds good. Now I just needed to figure out how to do it. This turned out to be more complicated than you might think, but overall not too bad.

I am by no means a wizard with GPX files, but I thought it was a bit ridiculous that Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Waze all lack the functionality to navigate custom routes that a user can plot. Apple won’t let you upload any files at all, so that’s out. Google will let you upload GPX files, but you have to convert KML files. And no turn by turn directions are available for uploaded files, so that won’t work. Same deal with Waze.

I used a long time ago when I ran cross country and track to save my favorite local routes, and to this day it still has a great route-building interface… for runners. Its functionality is limited to running routes, so the route building tool doesn’t allow the ability to plot waypoints along any stretch of roadway where foot traffic is prohibited (such as a highway). If you were to use it anyway, it would send your car away from all highways and only on secondary roads, but also through trails that most definitely restrict motor vehicles. So that one is out. Damn.

I thought Strava (a popular cycling subscription service with premium route building tools and a good mobile app) might work better, but that’s still just for cycling. And why would I pay for something if I can find a way to do it for free? There has to be a way to do this.

OsmAnd Maps App Store

Then, in a forum, I found a mobile app called OsmAnd Maps. The user experience in the app is a bit messy, but there is at least a YouTube channel with some tutorials to get you started. Basically, it combines detailed maps, offline navigation and turn by turn directions for custom routes, a route building function, and the ability to upload GPX and KML files from whatever route building site you use just by sending the file to OsmAnd using your phone’s share function. The maps aren’t free (the state of Maryland cost me $6) but your money gets you high-quality map files (they generally seem to be 800 MB or more) with elevation and terrain data for specific regions as you need them, and you can plot routes to your heart’s content and navigate them all turn by turn as a driver, runner/hiker, cyclist, or train/subway passenger. Or you could plot the routes in and just upload them to OsmAnd like I do. So now that I’ve figured all that out, I can finally get turn by turn directions on my own routes without any of the “fastest possible route” behavior you’d typically associate with a navigation app.

OsmAnd route Google Maps

The navigation experience was… fine. Nothing to be blown away by, but it works for its intended purpose, and that’s all I could ask for. I like how it includes detailed elevation change data, and while there really is no need for it, the distance until your next turn is displayed down to the foot. Pretty cool.

I wish everyone reading this good health during this exceedingly difficult time in our history. Especially during stressful times – like in the middle of a pandemic, a racial reckoning, and a national identity crisis in which we’re all confronting some painful truths together – remember to make space in your life to do something or be with someone that makes you happy, even if it’s aimless, and even if you feel you don’t have time. For me, good mental hygiene now includes making time to go on these drives. I thought other enthusiasts might benefit from knowing that a tool like OsmAnd is out there for them. I could see it being useful for planning organized drives, retaining navigation while taking the scenic route to a new vacation spot, or planning an entire road trip.

Disclaimer: I am not sponsored by OsmAnd in any way. These are just the ramblings of my mind.

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