Topo Toys: Mapping Out Your Next Getaway

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nby Yvonne Seng for Digital Living Todayn

We’ve all heard the hiking disaster stories by now. The guy in the northeast who lost his way and called a rescue helicopter via his cell phone. The two buddies who wandered Death Valley, lost for days, one eventually forced to put the other out of his severe dehydration-induced misery. So that you don’t end up on the menu of the next Donner party, here are some cool high-tech mapping and navigation tools that’ll help you find your way through the Rockies or to the local Starbucks.

First, be prepared – always plan your itinerary and study your routes prior to heading out. Before you load up the SUV, take a virtual trek of your destination with MapTech’s impressive range of topographical software on CD-ROM (www.maptech.com). Not only do you get USGS topographical maps in 1:24,000 and 1:100,000 scales, you can view them in four zoom levels with path elevations and lines-of-site. Marking and measuring distances, and adding your own notes and waypoints takes a simple click of the mouse. Edit an itinerary and print it out, in gorgeous color, for pocket use, or transfer it to your PDA or GPS unit.

For the family hiker with Nancy and Johnny (“Are we there yet?”) in the back seat, there’s MapTech’s illustrated National Park Digital Guides. These little beauts will help you prepare ahead with planned activities, history and geography of each park, difficulty levels for various excursions, and even where to find the burger stands in any of 55 U.S. parks ($30/set). If you have Windows 95, 98 or NT (or PC emulation software for Macs), you can sample MapTech downloads at their Web site.

Also topping our list is the TOPO! Trails Illustrated National Parks series (www.trailsillustrated.com). These CD-ROMs offer National Geographic maps for U.S. National Parks conveniently packaged by region from Alaska to Vermont (around $50 each). The interactive, editable and printable color maps include trail guides, safety and detailed trip planning information, together with the first-rate production and photography we’ve come to expect from the National Geo folks. Another line, DeLorme Topo USA ($50-$100, www.delorme.com) allows you to explore the entire US in 3-D topographical detail and to pan and zoom in for an eagle-eye view.

Now, you can take it with you. For a seamless adventure, you can send your itinerary and topo maps to your Palm or WinCE PDA along with those favorite campfire recipes. All of the software above is compatible with map transfer applications, such as Solus, a free application from DeLorme that transfers maps (created with DeLorme’s mapping software) from your PC to your PDA. If you want to use your maps on a handheld computer of GPS unit, check to find out what software (and possible hardware) is needed before you buy the mapping software you’re interested in.

***DLT Tip: That guy who called for help on his cell phone? He was actually loaded down with high-tech gizmos, but he hadn’t read any of the instruction manuals. So before you head off into the wilderness, make sure you know how to use your topo-toys. Thanks to some of the clueless wonders out there, rescue teams are now charging for their services. We suggest you print out REI’s “How to React if you Become Lost” (www.rei.com) and stash it with your Cliff Bars. And if all this topo talk brings out the closet geographer in you, try exploring Global Information Systems (GIS) with ArcView from the Environmental Systems Research Institute (www.ESRI.com). This is one site you’ll definitely enjoy getting lost in!

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