Appendix: how-to’s, links, specifics

Appendix: how-to's, links, and specifics

I did this as one long page. Here are some hop links:

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  1. National Geographic Topo
  2. Paper & printing
  3. Google Maps
  4. Google Earth
  5. US Topo
  6. Land access maps
  7. iPad resources


1) National Geographic Topo

Topos belong to the public, the data is essentially free. What you are paying for here is the convenience of being able to buy one state in a cardboard box for $50, organized by some software that works okay. It’s primitive; it’s also probably the best available for now. As the US Topo project gradually covers the country, things will improve. Various people will get around to packaging the new topo data in more sophisticated ways.

NG Topo is scanned raster images — basically low-quality photos of the old paper maps. This means the maps are fairly ugly, though readable. If you zoom in for more detail, they break up and get super ugly. The modern USGS quads are of course vector-based, except for the satellite image layer. This means on the new maps contour lines are crisp and clean, always, no matter how much you zoom in and out. This is normal for any digital map — most of the data vector-based, with a raster image layer containing the trees and such. I only mention this because if you use NG Topo you’ll be going hey, what’s wrong with this picture?? All that’s wrong is that it’s a bridge product. It’s neither fish nor fowl, it’s trying its level best to present pre-digital paper maps in a pseudo-digital format.

The only tools I use are these:

Toolbar from NG Topo

Note the hand tool for easily moving around the map, which is conspicuous by its absence. They outdid themselves, boldly pioneering new ways to make navigation clunky. Try this technique. Stay all the time in the centering tool. Ignore all the other tools. Starting in level 1, which displays a whole state, poke where you want to go. It will center there. Then right-click and select, say, level 3, essentially zooming in. Poke again where you want to go, it will center again. Right-click now down to level 5.

The whole reason for having the program is level 5. These are the 7.5 minute quads. The other levels 1-4 are just so you can find your way around. This trick, staying with the centering tool always, and right clicking up-and-down the different levels, works good.

I recommend you ignore all the other widgets with the exception of those I marked. Printing, exporting to Jpeg, and occasionally drawing routes — that’s all you want the program for. Forget 3-D especially, because that’s what Google Earth is for. I slightly prefer Google Earth as well for sketching routes and viewing elevation profiles, although it’s nice to draw routes sometimes into NG Topo. The Find tool I use seldom, but when I do, it’s slick. Somebody is talking about some little no-name creek you never heard of, someplace up around Bozeman. You can jump right over and look at it, with the Find tool.

If you want to mount the data to an external drive or a cloud drive like I did, be aware that the program is easily bamboozled by the drive letter, for example D:\ or E:\. If the drive letter switches, the program loses itself. This is easy to fix. Either you can change the drive letter from within Windows to make the program happy. Or even better yet, from inside NG Topo, go to View, Preferences, Data Folders, and permanently fix the problem by entering a variety of alternate paths like E:\Topo Montana, etc.

Astonishingly, as far as I can tell there is no way to see magnetic declination. Oops. Small oversight for a topo product.

When you get to printing and exporting, use Magnify, available from a right click. With the Export tool, Export to Printer. The print area displays as a paper-shaped red rectangle, you can make it landscape or portrait. Then right-click, Magnify Map, Reduce 33%. It will look like this:

Print area screenshot

Then you can just slide the little rectangle all around, for the perfect capture of each particular drainage or trail, sending each one off to the printer as you go. You are still in the centering tool, which you can use to shift the underlying map as needed.

After printing, go back to the Export gadget, drop-down again, and Export to Disk. The same red rectangle is still there, defining the export region, except that now it’s not constrained to 8.5 x 11, it’s completely resizable. So pull back to level four, and set magnification to 25%. This gives you plenty of space to define the export area however you want and grab an enormous chunk. Moving around is easy using the centering tool, combined with grabbing the center point of the export rectangle to scoot it. After you have the boundaries where you like them, return down to level five. The export area you defined in level 4 will remain undisturbed, even though it’s now offscreen. Save map, Jpeg best, into a folder for your trip:

Jpeg in a folder

As you can see they are not overly large. And they are pretty. These screenshots don’t really do them justice. In any Jpeg viewer, now you can just zoom in, and it looks almost like a regular paper topo except all of the quads for the exact region you want are stitched together, no edges or corners:

Mexican Mountain, showing zoom


2) Paper & printing

You can buy an excellent 11 x 17 tabloid printer, the Epson WorkForce 1100, for only $130. But I’ve been surprised how well standard 8.5 x 11 works in practice. Because I prefer Google Earth and the large continuous Jpeg’s for map reading while in camp, the only time I really use paper is on the trail. Any of our standard hikes fit nicely on letter sized paper. The whole issue will go away in the not-too-distant future, when topos migrate to tablets in earnest. So just use any old printer. Printers dry out anyway unless you use them.

I print to specialized map paper, but I actually think any glossy paper you have, such as lightweight photo paper or brochure paper, would work fine. The waterproofness of map paper is an overrated feature, since inkjet ink just isn’t that durable in any environment. Just put your maps in a ziploc, and go.

Nevertheless I did do a side-by-side test of the two leading map papers, Igage Weatherproof Paper, and National Geographic Adventure Paper. I slightly prefer the Adventure paper, even though it’s a bit more expensive. It’s thinner, but prints well on both sides, and seems just a little bit clearer to read. The difference is insignificant, though, both are good. The Igage paper is a lot thicker, more leathery feeling. Comes down to personal preference.

I have friends who sometimes print images from Google Earth. I never do. I just print topos, and use Google Earth exclusively on screen.


3) Google Maps

Google Maps deserves its own special mention. It’s easy to confuse Google Maps with Google Earth, since you can view a stripped-down Google Earth from inside Google Maps via the GE browser plug-in. But Google Maps is actually a wonderful tool unto itself, different. I jump right into it anytime I want an overview of anywhere. You will be repaid manyfold, if you devote a little time to befriending it.

There are four primary views — map, satellite, terrain, and earth. You want to get comfortable with terrain view, and map view. If you’re spending much time in satellite view or earth view, it’s time to open Google Earth in the full version.

I’m in love with terrain view. It’s quite unbelievable. Try going someplace really far away, like South America. It doesn’t make sense that terrain view should come to the party so humble like it does. It is, literally, a topo of the entire world. Even if it is a little gappy in Siberia.

Here’s something that turns me on. There is a way to use Google Maps bare, without the screen clutter. Perhaps this is the kind of thing that would only stimulate a person like myself. But you should try it. I fabricated this bookmark to the full-screen version of terrain view. Try it out, then switch your entire browser to full-screen. In Internet Explorer can do this with the full-screen button:

Google Maps browser screenshot

… Or, just use F11. You end up with uninterrupted terrain view, edge to edge and top to bottom. How did I do this? I am SO GLAD you asked. I simply appended “&output=embed” to the regular Google Maps URL. I’m not sure why it works it just does. It tickles me so much I made a gesture for it. So now I can start in normal Google Maps using some of the features, especially search, which go away in full-screen. Then I do the &output=embed gesture for relaxed reading. I know. Cool.


4) Google Earth

Google Earth has a robust help system, here. I recommend exploring the help articles whenever you can, to widen your range of motion. But like anything else you gain fluency automatically, with or without help, over time.

To be minimally fluent would mean, for me, smoothly operating the navigation controls, comfortably organizing your saved places into folders, having some opinions on which layers you like to see, routinely using search, and habitually toggling the Hide Sidebar button for a bigger view. You would have discovered Panoramio, but you would be turning it on and off. Likewise you would be toggling roads, labels and borders, depending on what you are trying to do.

For off-line and topo-like use, you will also get comfortable drawing paths, running tours, and comparing elevation profiles. All this comes easy, just relaxing into it.

The only thing I’m going to cover here is how to prepare Google Earth for off-line use in the bush.

First thing to understand is the cache. As you fly around, Google Earth gathers imagery and contour data and saves it to your hard drive in the cache. This continues until it reaches 2 gigs, where it’s capped. After that, nothing bad happens, Google Earth simply starts discarding older cached material and replacing it with whatever you’re doing now. If you are on a slower connection, the cache is the reason Google Earth acts stiff when flying over new terrain, but then when you return someplace you’ve already been, it renders smooth. That’s because it already has what it needs, and can process whatever you”™re asking of it — zoom, tilt, fly around — with material already on the hard drive. Which is the essence of what we are talking about when you want to use Google Earth out where there is no internet.

What we’re going to do then is delete the old cache, start fresh in our area of interest, and simply fly around until the cache gets almost (but not quite) full. There’s a nice way to automate this. We will even be able to label each specialized cache so we can save them for later trips, just like the individual 2 gig topos they are.

The process of labeling and swapping caches is not that hard to do manually. I recommend, though, that you download a little utility called Cache for Google Earth, henceforward in this article “4GE.” It’s stable, super simple, you can trial it for free, and then if you like it give the author $20. He’s earned the $20. Even though it’s very simple, it’s worth double that.

Doing the same thing manually isn’t bad, though. Here’s how. (You can skip this whole paragraph if you installed 4GE.) Locate the Google Earth cache on your hard drive, and make a shortcut to the folder. Mine is at C:\Users\Pete\AppData\LocalLow\Google\GoogleEarth. It’s a hidden folder, so first go into Folder and Search Options in your file manager, View, and check Show Hidden Files and Folders. Make the shortcut, then be sure to go back and hide your files again. I never show hidden files except to do something specific — I learned that once the hard way. Surprisingly the shortcut will work fine, even after the folder is hidden. So now it’s straightforward to hop in there and delete the cache. It’s actually two files, dbCache.dat and dbCache.dat.index. Just delete them both, Google Earth will cheerfully re-create them. If you are tight for space on your hard drive, be aware that’s probably 2 gb you may not want in your recycle bin. A nice thing about using 4GE is that it makes this cleaning process a one click. But as you can see this whole thing is nothing fancy, just plain-Jane file management. As you create your new cache, you will need to peek into the folder occasionally so you can stop when it gets close to 2 gigs. It’s important to leave a little headroom in the cache; I like to stop before 1.75 gigs. Again, if you have 4GE it will display a little bar graph making this easy, you can watch the cache filling. When the cache is nearly full, you can copy the two files into a folder someplace, giving the folder a name like “Hogsback National Park.” That way you can swap these captured caches in and out of the active Google Earth folder later, as desired; you won’t need to do the building process again. So that’s the manual method. After you’ve done it once, it isn’t bad.

If you are using 4GE, always run it with Google Earth itself closed down, things are cleaner that way. So close Google Earth, open 4GE. Delete the old cache, choosing not to save a backup. 4GE will display an empty cache. Close the utility, start Google Earth, and fly to the area where you want to gather. View, Make This My Start Location. You will notice it working hard already, rebuilding the empty cache. Explore around a little bit, thinking about what you would like to have along on your trip. Simply exploring helps to begin the cache, capturing a high elevation overview layer. Move in on the area you will capture in detail. Sketch in a few of the trails and important access roads. These don’t have to be very accurate, because you can hide them later, but they really help you stay oriented. If you haven’t drawn paths before there’s a nice video here. I draw the trails in pink, the roads in orange, and put them in a GE folder like this:

Cedars trails, drawn in Google Earth

By now you have a good idea of the region you are going to want to collect. The actual collection is accomplished by automating two or three tours, which run in your absence along spirals you drew. Spirals work best; if you draw another pattern like a zigzag, the tours get confused.

This will make sense soon, I promise.

Here is my “recipe” — the settings I use now, based on trial and error. Zoom to a 20 km (or 12 mile) eye altitude. You can see altitude on status bar lower right. The trails and roads you just drew will be easy to see. At this scale if you draw your spiral full-screen height, about half-inch screen spacing, it will be 8 miles across, with three-quarters-mile gaps between each loop of the spiral. This captures roughly 250 Mb, one-quarter gig. So you could do five or six of these, and fill a cache nicely. Use the ruler to get a feel of proportion, it’s a great little tool. Your own screen size will vary, but you’ll be able to see how much data your spirals collect after some experience.

So let’s draw a spiral. Click the Add Path tool. Give the path a name like Spiral 1. Give it a color, I use green, width 3.0. Altitude is very important. Choose Relative to Ground, and type in 750m. Sometimes this setting won’t stick, so you may have to do it twice. It’s very important for the tour to fly along hovering an adequate distance above the ground, not stuck to the ground. At 750m high, spaced three-quarter mile apart, it will pick up a nice continuous, low-flying image for your cache. Now without closing the Edit Path dialog, start drawing the path freehand with your mouse. Outline the area you want to collect in a sweeping circle to start, then spiral into the center. The path dialogue must be open while you’re drawing. If you accidentally close it, or for making changes to the path later, it’s easy to reopen by selecting the path in the Places sidebar, then Edit, Properties. Here’s what that looks like:

Spiral for data collection, Cedars area

Notice the trails and roads underneath the spiral. Now you are ready to run the tour. If tours are new to you there’s a nice video here: Tours – Google Earth Help. Now follow these steps: Tools, Options, Touring, and in the section called Creating a tour from a line, slide the first two sliders full left, the third slider full right, like this:

Touring parameters screenshot

Now you’ve sketched your spiral, it’s floating 750 m above the terrain, you’ve set your touring parameters to fly the spiral low and fast. Now the fun part. With the spiral selected in the sidebar, simply click the little tour button, and watch it go. As soon as it starts, you need to also click the repeat button. Like this:

Screenshot of touring toolbar

I have a little utility I’ve used for years called NetPerSec, it simply displays my current rate of upload or download. Here’s a picture of a tour running, as you can see these settings resulted in a nice even steady download:

NetPerSec screenshot

It’s nice if you have something like NetPerSec that you can display during the tour, so you can easily see when it’s finished gathering data. You probably have this capability already on your computer, for example in Windows 7 you could use Resource Monitor; it’s not quite as nice as NetPerSec, but it would work fine for this. Because the tour is set to repeat, it will just keep going over the same terrain until it’s vacuumed up everything it can. At some point, depending on your speed of connection, you’ll see the download has gone quiet. Now run the little 4GE utility, and see how big the cache is. Make additional spirals if you want, gathering until you reach about 1.5 gigs or so. Be careful not to go much beyond that, before starting another cache. Multiple caches are fine, it’s easy to label them and swap them around, that’s what 4GE is all about. But full caches create all sorts of problems, in fact I had one that wouldn’t even start at all off-line because it had jettisoned the beginning fly-in sequence. Not only that, you want a little extra space for the bits and pieces of additional data you might pick up later, just exploring around the edges of your region manually while still online.

Some last little fine points. It’s easy if you want to make mammoth connected spirals, and try to get almost everything with one big tour. Just be aware you run the risk of misjudging and overfilling the cache. I did one that looked like this:

San Raphael super spiral
If you start to go off the edge of the screen while drawing your spiral, it’s easy to slide the screen over to a new view, without interrupting your drawing, just by using the joystick gadget provided:

Joystick gadget

When you click on the map again, it joins to the end of the old spiral and you can just keep right on going. In fact it’s even possible to click OK, thus finishing the spiral, then later if you want to expand it further, simply select the spiral name in the sidebar, Edit, Properties, and it will restart the drawing tool. Click close to where the spiral finished, and continue drawing. Edit, Properties, is pretty powerful. One time I forgot to float the spiral 750 m above the ground, and so I simply applied that parameter to it after it was already drawn.

As you create caches, 4GE keeps track of them and lets you name them, making it easy to swap them anytime you want. If your hard drive is cramped for space like mine is, you can move these caches off to an external hard drive, then just move them back before a trip. 4GE stores the repositories in a hidden directory, mine is C:\Users\Pete\AppData\Local\GPSur\Cache for Google Earth. I built a shortcut there, and I usually move repositories onto my external hard drive between trips to save space.

One last thing. When it comes time to use Google Earth off-line, it’s important to start it without any internet connection. If there is a weak or slow connection in the vicinity, turn your wireless off so that you are truly off-line. GE will get a little upset when it sees there is no network connection, but it will work just fine from the data in the cache. Just click past the two complaining dialog boxes saying your internet isn’t working — first No, then OK.


5) US Topo

As a practical matter you would probably never use the new USGS topo quads in their raw form, even though they are free. But you might enjoy looking at one. This link takes you to one I saved on my server. This one happens to be my favorite quad, Hogsback National Park. It’s a bulky PDF, around 12 MB. Use a recent version of Adobe Reader to view it, not some other PDF reader, because it needs to grok GeoPDF®. If you really magnify the image layer, you can see why these quads are so cumbersome — there’s a lot of fine-grained detail. I’m sure this will come in handy as third-party products start to arrive. Switch some of the layers off and on, you’ll see its potential.

You can read about the project at the US Topo homepage. If you would like to download some of the maps for yourself, or want to check the status of the project as it progresses across the country, there’s a nice, easy to use interface at The USGS Store. They are working amazingly quickly. In the short time I was preparing this article they leaped across the Idaho line and finished the entire Dillon Montana area.

US Topo is a subset of The National Map, a much larger project. It’s also fun to dabble in the USGS TNM 2.0 Viewer, which allows you to interact with The National Map.


6) Land access maps

The one important thing that’s missing from this Google Earth/NG Topo combo is land ownership and access information. So it’s mandatory to have the most recent federal agency travel plans for the area you are going into, any time you are going to be in an area of mixed public and private ownership with travel restrictions. Which is always. These are currently paper maps, available in outdoor stores or from local BLM and Forest Service offices.

Having either a Delorme or a Benchmark recreational atlas is also invaluable, they are especially good for a wide-angle view of access and ownership. Also I mentioned the Trails Illustrated series, published by National Geographic. These are only available for popular areas like national parks and monuments, or major wilderness areas. But whenever a Trails Illustrated is available for the area you are going into, you should buy it. They are simply a well organized wide-angle paper topo map, on high quality paper, with special emphasis given to trails, campsites, and road access.

Digital maps of land access are starting to show up. Some friends turned me on to Hunting GPS Maps, a very cool little company in Montana. They sell digital land ownership overlays for Google Earth, as well as land ownership maps which load into a handheld GPS. Seriously, you walk up to a fence, pull out your GPS, and it displays the land ownership on both sides, sometimes even the name of the rancher. Cost is around $100/state. This is a wonderful little company, and no self-respecting post about topos would be complete without mentioning them, if nothing else as a great example of the kind of thing which is on the horizon. I haven’t bought their product, just because for my purposes paper maps are enough. But bouncing around their website, it’s easy to see the future. Obviously the BLM and Forest Service will be delivering future travel plans digitally just like the USGS is, and all of this will be working better and better, going forward.


7) iPad resources

CleverWraps is the company I mentioned which makes waterproof ziploc-like covers for using an iPad outdoors. These are specially designed so that the protective film allows for capacitive touch; you can still scroll, zoom and type with the bag on. They are pricey, but they sure look like the going concern, for a plastic bag.

Only the 3G model has GPS. You can drool over it. It’s $830, and of course the 3G piece is inoperational without an additional $50/month plan from ATT or Verizon. Not complaining. The whole package is gorgeous. I’m still surviving without one. But if you’ve been following my posts you’ll see Apple is patiently wearing me down.

The only person I’ve heard about who uses Google Earth off-line on an iPad is this off-road biker calling himself Mexican Mad Dog:

“I spend a lot of time way out in the bush, and GE plus the setup I’m using has gotten me home many times. Hardware: In the Backpack: MacMini, GPS, Battery, DC to DC converter. On the handlebars: iPad. Config: MacMini setup for Remote Management and managed by the iPad running a VNC client. Operation: I pre-save caches (of 1 deg latitude by 1 deg longitude from 2500M height – they usually take just a bit less than 2GB). When I’m good and lost, I move one of the pre-saved caches to the folder where GE expects the cache. Startup GE, and use the GPS in RealTime mode. Pick my route home. This works great, but: If only I could pre-save the caches for GE on the iPad (and, of course, pick the one I need GE to use when the time comes), I wouldn’t need all the stuff in the backpack.”

I love this guy.

Note that he even patched in GPS! At the same time, even if I was willing to work that hard, clearly that’s not a solution for hikers. So we wait.

For simple old-fashioned topos, though, there are several applications now, all of them cheap. The one my friend Kurt uses is called simply Topo Maps. I’ve played with it and can recommend it. It’s only $8, it stitches together adjoining quads nicely, and you can download whatever quads you want for free. As such, it’s a lot cheaper than NG Topo. A similar product is iHikeGPS, which I haven’t had a chance to try. I’m thinking iHikeGPS maybe doesn’t tile adjoining quads as well. But it has the advantage of offering official Forest Service topos for many areas, which are more up to date. And last but not least is Gaia GPS, which is the only product I’ve heard of so far which specifically incorporates real GPS Tracking, integrated with off-line maps, away from cellphone towers.

End of message. Whew!