A Complete Guide to Free and Offline Mapping Software
Having the ability to work on your GIS projects offline, when network access is unavailable or patchy, is hugely beneficial. The world’s most popular geospatial software, ArcGIS, does have a disconnected offline option where you can continue to edit features. ArcGIS is not free, and thus is not an option for many. So, what FREE, open-source mapping software is available for use offline? Here, we’ll go through a collection of the most commonly known free mapping software, and some of the lesser-known options.
- Widely popular with a huge support community
- Extensive range of plugins to expand included analysis tools
- Compatible with various file types
After ArcGIS, QGIS is the next most well-known and used GIS software. It’s widely interoperable with different file and data types, and there are a large number of plugins available to extend its abilities. QGIS offers users much of the same functionality and user interface as ArcGIS, but it’s a completely free and open-source software. It offers some advantages, like having a smaller installation size and lower computing power requirements. As a result of its popularity, there is a huge community of support around QGIS, so you’re never without tutorials, updates and bug fixes.
QGIS has an offline editing plugin, or you can use another program called Mergin Maps, which allows you to package your QGIS projects and use them offline on a mobile device.
To learn more about Mergin Maps from the source, listen to our podcast with the creator here!
Overall, QGIS has some limitations in terms of raster and graphics processing, including 3D imagery, LiDAR and remote sensing technology. If it is used in combination with other processing tools, like Grass GIS, or Saga GIS, QGIS is a standout in the field. Really no other open-source software gives you as much flexibility, power, and variety of features in one program.
- Powerful data processing and analysis tools
- Best used in conjunction with a user-friendly cartographic software
- A golden oldie – there’s lots of support and tutorials available
Grass GIS is not a start-up, and certainly not new to the field. Having been around for a long time, and originally developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, it was purpose built for environmental planning and land management. It’s now well-known and popular amongst environmental professionals.
Grass GIS is loaded with tools for data processing and analysis, including 3D, raster, and satellite imagery tools. It almost seems that because it’s so jam-packed with analysis tools, the developers skipped supporting basic cartographic ability. Grass GIS is more commonly used in combination with another design program, like the Adobe suite, for this reason.
As Grass GIS has been around for a long time, there’s an extensive network of support and tutorials available. This is good because it’s considered difficult to grasp initially. Another great benefit of Grass GIS is that it can be used on Windows, Linux, or Mac OS.
- Impressive terrain analysis tools
- Includes geostatistical tools for further spatial analysis possibilities
- Easy to use and learn
Saga GIS, which stands for System for Automated Geoscientific Analysis, was specifically built for geospatial analysis with particular focus on terrain. Similar to Grass GIS, it isn’t great for the simplest of cartographic tasks, but it features powerful raster processing and unique analysis toolsets that other programs don’t have. As a result of the program’s focus on terrain analysis capabilities, Saga GIS offers outstanding 3D visualization. Quality 3D mapping is rare in an open-source GIS software, and is more often a paid extension.
As a completely free, open-source software it really is astounding the tools you have at your disposal with Saga GIS. The program also features a range of geostatistical tools for spatial interpolation. There are a lot of high-tech analysis tools available, and you’ll also find it very user-friendly and easy to learn.
Saga GIS can be run from a Windows or Linux platform and requires very little disk space. You can even save the executable files onto a USB drive and share the program amongst colleagues or classmates.
Whitebox Geospatial Analysis Tools
- Great for hydrological analysis
- Can be connected to QGIS as an extension
- Not all analysis tools are available free
Whitebox Geospatial Analysis Tools (GAT) or Whitebox Tools is a ‘mostly’ free open-source GIS software. The free version provides a wide range of powerful geospatial analysis tools, for the ‘extras’, there are various paid extensions available. As with many of these open-source software programs, they were originally designed with a special purpose in mind. Whitebox GAT is especially good for hydrological and terrain analysis, as well as LiDAR and image processing. The team have developed a unique range of analysis tools, and are constantly developing more, even upon request in some instances.
It was developed to be installed quickly, and take up minimal disk space. As a result, the program will run smoothly as soon as you download it, with minimal set up fuss. It can be added to QGIS and ArcGIS as an extension, which is recommended so you can make the most of the impressive analysis tools of Whitebox GAT, and combine that with the cartographic functionality of something like ArcGIS or QGIS.
Want to know more? Listen to John Lindsay talk about how he developed Whitebox Tools and the functionality of this software.
- Android mobile application available
- Excellent 3D rendering ability
- Offers some innovative geospatial tools
GvSig is not as well-known, yet provides a powerful open-source GIS software that’s compatible with various file types. Its true crowning glory is the Android application, which enables you to move smoothly from field data collection to mapping and data analysis. You’ll even have access to the information stored in these features while in the field.
Boasting over 350 tools in the toolbox, there’s everything from geostatistical tools, terrain analysis, and even remote sensing tools. The GvSig team are also branching into some more innovative tools, including the geosocial toolbox aimed at utilizing the spatial data available in social media platforms like Twitter.
While the maps you can create with GvSig won’t be quite as visually appealing, it is still functional. It has a smaller community of support, but you should still be able to find the documentation and troubleshooting help you need. GvSig is probably not as suitable for any serious analysis compared to other players, it certainly has some impressive features. This software is a really good choice if field data collection is a priority and a no-frills desktop software is good enough, or you have access to another desktop GIS you’d prefer.
Open Jump GIS
- Good for simple vector editing
- Can handle GML files
- Infrequent software updates
OpenJUMP or Open Java Unified Mapping Platform was initially developed to be used for vector data editing and viewing. It will work with different file types, including ESRI shapefiles, but also Geography Markup Language (GML) which may be helpful for some.
This software provides a very limited range of GIS mapping abilities, and while it can handle raster projections, you won’t be able to do much else other than view them. If all you need to do is edit geometry-based features and attribute data, then this will work fine for you. The software is still supported, however updates are infrequent and there’s only a small community around it.
- Easy to use GIS software
- Basic, yet can perform complex vector data processing
- Good all-round use
The uDig acronym (user-friendly Internet GIS) best describes the software as a whole. uDig is user-friendly, compatible across a range of desktop platforms (Windows, Linux or Mac OS), web mapping ready, and provides a nice collection of geospatial analytical functions. uDig was primarily developed for database editing and viewing, especially for biodiversity and forestry management.
There is the ability to import quality base maps and web map tiles, and once you enable the spatial toolbox, you’ll have the ability to complete even complex vector data processing. uDig doesn’t have a big community for support, or provide frequent updates. The concept and framework of this software is good, but it just hasn’t progressed or expanded enough to be competitive.
- Powerful 3D point cloud processing
- Can efficiently handle large files
- Cross platform functionality
For something a little more specialized, there’s CloudCompare. CloudCompare was designed for editing and processing 3D point cloud data, commonly acquired from LiDAR or photogrammetry workflows. As a free software, this kind of 3D processing is quite impressive. The program now includes a wider range of point cloud processing tools and display tools. The software was developed to import and rescale data, so you can process and store these incredibly large files without losing precision (depending on your computer and graphics card of course). It’s possible to use CloudCompare on a Windows, Linux or Mac OS.
- Specialized software for hydrology
- Small community of users
- Not well supported within the GIS community
MapWindow was primarily developed for watershed modeling and analysis in the US and has been adopted by the US Environmental Protection Agency for watershed analysis. It can perform most of the GIS functions you’d need, and is highly specialized in hydrology related functions. Outside of watershed applications, MapWindow probably will not be the best fit for your more general GIS workflows.
OSGeoLive is a little different to the rest in that it is a self-contained program that can be saved onto a DVD, USB drive or even used through a virtual machine. It provides access to a range of open-source geospatial software, many of which we’ve mentioned in this article. Essentially, you can get them all in one with OsGeoLive.
The benefits of this are widely seen in training and workshops. It avoids the hassle of troubleshooting the installation process, and allows you to just turn it on and get started. All the startup information and tutorials are included, and a lot of vector and raster base maps and other sources are preloaded. There is also a plugin available for QGIS. One of the best parts is an OSGeoLive package can be launched and used completely offline.
Want to learn more? Listen here to find out more from our podcast about OSGeoLive.
Open-source GIS Software Won’t Hold You Back
Not being able to afford a GIS software license really needn’t hold you back. The plethora of free, open-source software available today is simply staggering. While QGIS is by far the most well-known open-source software, there are a number of smaller contenders that offer some impressive processing and analytics tools to get the job done, especially if you are working in a specific niche that has developed its own open-source program.