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A mouse can plan your trips.

Byline: MIKE STAHLBERG The Register-Guard

THERE ARE FAR MORE serious challenges one can encounter in the backcountry, but few are more annoying than hiking yourself into a corner. And by that we don't mean reaching the dead end of a box canyon, although that can be an unpleasant surprise.

No, the most irritating corners are those areas represented by the point where four U.S. Geological Service (USGS) topographical "quadrangle" maps come together. A trip into such a four-corner area required shuffling among four different maps, or cutting and pasting together the relevant portions of four paper maps to make one usable one.

But that was before computers began helping people cope with the ups and downs in their hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing or other aspects of their recreational lives.

Now, detailed topographical data is available to the masses through the Internet and computer software, with entire libraries of topographic maps crammed onto CDs.

What's more, all that data is ready to be manipulated in all sorts of wondrous ways - including providing 3-D views that can be examined from any angle and marking planned routes or favored campsites on individual maps you can customize for others in your party.

The latest computer mapping software also provides "seamless" maps, with all of the "quads" in the state or region stitched together digitally. When making a printed copy, users can select the area they want their map to cover with the click of a mouse. Voila! - no more hiking into a corner.

Of course, computer mapping programs can do much, much more: From marking Global Positioning System (GPS) "waypoints" along a planned route, to providing precise distances between points, to creating elevation profiles that will show you all the ups and downs of your planned trips - even whether the route you picked leads into a blind box canyon.

Some of the latest handheld PCs even eliminate the need for paper, as their digital screens offer the resolution of a printed page - and in a format that's just as portable.

Computers are still far from replacing paper maps, but some major outdoor retailers are taking steps down that pathway.

Seattle-based Recreational Equipment Co., for one, has begun installing National Geographic's MapMachine in its larger stores. The MapMachine is a kiosk, about the size of a bank ATM machine, that allows customers to browse through maps and print out individually customized, waterproof, tear-resistant maps of the exact area they want.

"Our customers really like them," REI spokesman Mike Foley said, "and it really works for us."

Store managers like the MapMachine, he said, because it requires less space than the storage racks needed for paper maps and because it eliminates the problem of keeping the most popular topo maps in stock.

Indeed, by storing the maps digitally and printing them on demand, topo maps for any location in the entire United States will always be available at a punch of a button.

Technology has "changed dramatically the way maps are made, sold, delivered and used," said William Stoehr, president of National Geographic Maps and a past president of the International Map Trade Association.

Online digital maps offer a big advantage over traditional paper maps because they "can be easily updated by both the producers and users of maps," he said.

Digital map technology has also led to a "profound change" in the way people can enjoy the outdoors, said John Jacobsen, a longtime member of The Obsidians outdoor club in Eugene.

"I find it has really changed the way I get around in the woods," said Jacobsen, who uses computer mapping software in conjunction with a GPS unit that tracks his location via satellite. "Now I tend to just go more from point to point" rather than following a trail.

Last fall, for example, Jacobsen used the map and GPS to locate a small, no-name, off-trail lake in the Three Sisters Wilderness where he and his wife set up camp.

"The next three days of going on day hikes, we never worried about trails, and we literally walked to the tent every night." Doing the same thing with map and compass would have been challenging and time-consuming, he said, because it's difficult to hit an exact point with map and compass, whereas GPS will lead you right to a specific point.

Jacobsen's wife, Janet, is a fan of the new approach to navigation.

"John downloads the maps, then when we go off-trail, I am amazed how easy it is for us to get back where we started," she said. "I can think of a climb of Diamond Peak and several hikes in the Wind Rivers where I was so tired and so glad to hit the trail in the exact spot and know which way to go to the trailhead."

But she said not all members of The Obsidians like the gadgets because they feel "it's distracting to have a GPS looking for satellites while hiking in the wilderness. Do you want to be looking at your GPS or at the trees? We have had some great discussions!"

Maps, however, are necessary even for those who prefer to navigate the old-fashioned way, by compass. And maps are far more inexpensive and accessible than they have ever been, thanks to the digital revolution.

Indeed, you can download a digital USGS map for any quadrangle in the United States (not to mention maps for much of the rest of the world) over the Internet. (Among the Web sites where this is possible is:

Be forewarned, however, that downloading a topo map can be excruciatingly slow through a home computer modem - after all, it takes a tremendous amount of data to tell your computer where to draw all those contour lines at 40-foot elevation intervals. That's why and similar sites offer, for a small fee, to save the map(s) you want on CD-ROM and ship it to you.

But buying or downloading digital versions of USGS quad maps doesn't solve that annoying "corner problem" - or provide you with software to customize or manipulate the maps.

To do that, you've got to turn to commercial map software such as that offered by National Geographic, Maptech or DeLorme, to name three of the leading mapping software providers.

All provide various map manipulation features along with libraries of topo maps in various geographical groupings. (Be forewarned: all rely on USGS topographic maps for their basic information - and some of those maps haven't been updated in decades.)

National Geographic's "Topo! Oregon" is an eight-CD set that includes all 1,900-plus topo maps needed to cover the entire state of Oregon. It now sells for $99 - down $100 from about a year ago - which comes to just more than a nickel per "quad."

But the heart of the "Topo!" series is the software, which allows the user to search for a lake, ridge or other geographic feature by name, draw freehand routes and upload them to a GPS, download a "track" created by a GPS, create elevation profiles of any route, and create custom text, symbols and map overlays.

The software also comes with an adjustable "shading" feature than can be used to create a three-dimensional effect.

Maptech, on the other hand, sells a $149 set of maps that covers all of Oregon and Washington. For the same price, you can buy a set that includes everything within 25 miles of the entire Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada. Or, for $49, Maptech will sell you a single CD-ROM with maps for any one of several regions of Oregon.

Maptech's maps come with its "Terrain Navigator" software, which offers all of the standard map manipulation features, plus two others.

One is a new "Super 3-D feature that requires special glasses (provided) for viewing. The other rotates and tilts a map so that it can be viewed from any angle - an effect similar to flying over the terrain in a helicopter.

"Viewed through the glasses, the topographic maps jump out at you in true 3-D movielike fashion," said Martin Fox, Maptech's spokesman. "The visual impact gives you a deeper appreciation and understanding of the lay of the land. It's truly a `Wow!' experience."

More than one reviewer has described the 3-D map views as being like a video arcade game.

Fox agrees that the feature has a "gamelike quality, because the animation of the 3-D is so vivid." The important thing, he says, is that it accurately represents the terrain for people who have difficulty interpreting the information on a flat topo map.

"A lot of people cannot visualize the contours when they look at a topo map," he said. "As a result, they can make serious errors in calculating how long it will take them to cover a distance - or whether they can even make it over that route."

Visualizing the route may become much easier in the future. At least one company plans to begin providing digital satellite photographs that can be superimposed over its topographical maps.

Photographs would also provide an instant update of changes in man-made features - such as roads, bridges and buildings - missing from many older topographic maps.

Maps created with any of the computer mapping software programs can be printed, in black and white or full color, on any desktop printer.

National Geographic also offers a special waterproof "Adventure Paper" for inkjet printers. Twenty-five 8 1/2 -by-11-inch sheets sell for $19. To demonstrate just how waterproof the paper is, the company displays maps in a plastic jar filled with water.

(The low-tech answer to waterproofing a paper map, of course, is to put it in a Ziploc bag.)

Finally, even people who don't know which end of a map points north can get help planning their recreational trips with the click of a mouse., a Seattle-based company, uses the Internet and computers to sell individual trail overviews (complete with driving directions, detailed route descriptions and sometimes even photos) from published hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, and skiing guidebooks.

More than 27,000 trails from 600 different guidebooks - or about 80 percent of what's available in bookstores and speciality shops - are included the database, according to Rob Holmes, the company's director of marketing.

Users can search the database by location, length of trail, difficulty, whether it is kid-friendly, features such as waterfalls or panoramic views, and a number of other factors. They can read a brief introductory description of each trail meeting their criteria for free but must pay to download the complete overview of any trails they want. Fees range from $4.50 for a single trail to $30 for an annual subscription that allows 10 trails to be downloaded.

The company has agreements with 50 guidebook publishers allowing the online sale of pages from their books to be sold on a shared-commission basis.

"People see the name and they think we're a mapping company and we're not," Holmes said. "We just sell guidebook content, some of which includes maps, and some of which doesn't."


Maptech's software (top right) allows its maps to be viewed from any angle and also gives the option of 3-D. National Geographic's "Topo! Oregon" software (middle right) displays maps with a designated route for a hike and shows the elevation changes over the course of that route. A Global Positioning System tracking option (right) shows the precise route a hike followed. Maptech's Pocket Navigator software can turn a pocket PC (left) into a detailed terrain map or nautical chart. This is an index map for Oregon. Most mapping software allows the user to click on an area for greater detail several times until reaching the desired depth.
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Title Annotation:Digital technology takes mapping to new heights; Recreation
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 4, 2002
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