Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Getting out of the Paper Map Mindset | The Joy of Digital Maps

On my TODO list for our next backpacking trip is to download relevant trail maps to my phone. I opened up Backcountry Navigator, zoomed to the area we'll be hiking and started marking sections to download. Out of curiosity, I switched from Thunderforest: Outdoor to US Forestry maps and was surprised by the amount of detail shown. Switching map tiles was promising, so I flipped through a number of other choices, including CalTopo and USGS Topo. Here's all four views side-by-side:

I have to say, that's so cool. I'm still used to old school paper maps where you get what you get. Here I can choose the US Forestry maps to see copious amounts of detail, or switch to Thunderforest for a clean view of the topography. And there's no reason to rely on just one view; I can bring them all along.

One type of map I won't be needing this trip are historic maps. The USGS makes these available and there worth checking out. For example, here's a an 1889 map of the area we'll be traversing:

Speaking of exploring, I was delighted to see that the area we'll be hiking is peppered with geocaches, many of them right along the trail:

As long as I'm caching data for maps, I decided to store these locally as well.

I can hear fellow old school hikers groaning about all this talk of e-maps. What if your phone gets misplaced or damaged they'll ask? To which I'd reply: Nu? You can't lose or damage a flimsy paper map?

Oh yeah? Well, does your flimsy map ever run out of batteries? A fair point I'd concede, but not an insurmountable challenge. I carry an extra battery pack, and both Shira's and My phone will have cached versions of the maps. That's a nice bit of redundancy. But wait, there's more!

It occurred to me I could add another backup. Shira is planning to bring her Kindle for camp downtime. A little research showed that Kindles support PDFs. I grabbed the printer friendly PDF of the route we're taking from Hiking Upward and dropped it into Shira's Kindle. The device had no objection to opening the document and letting me peruse the embedded map. Sure, zooming and panning is painfully slow, but as a backup it works great. Best of all, the Kindle's e-ink based tech has legendary battery life.

If you don't have access to neatly formatting PDFs like the one Hiking Upward provides, you're not out of luck. Head over to the USGS maps download area. You can select areas to download and the site will provide them as PDFs. They're even slower to load and zoom in on than the Hiking Upward document, but they're still quite functional. Here's a few Kindle map reading action shots to prove the point:

I'm sure there are many surprises in store for us on the trail, but not having a trustworthy maps shouldn't be on of them.

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