maps, gps and waypointing

To me there’s nothing that will stoke up my imagination more than looking at a map.  When I was younger I didn’t seek out the Hardy Boy books on trips to our local library, I always headed straight for the atlases.  Looking at the large, colorful, detailed maps of foreign countries I would picture myself visiting those places, imagining what I would do, where I would explore, who I would meet.  It was always a grand time.  I haven’t changed much through the years although the way we map trips certainly has.  Now, almost everyone has a realtime mapping system in their pocket.  No need for carting a 50 pound atlas around when you have GPS and always know where you are.  However, we’ve lost a bit of the magic and mystery of real maps in the process.  Now we focus more on how to get from point A to point B along the fastest or most direct route, while avoiding tolls.  However, GPS applications can be wonderful for the hiker.  Whether your desire is to know exactly where you are at all times, understand to the foot, yard or meter how far you are from the next trail intersection, understand how many miles and vertical feet you’ve climbed, or you’d just like to keep a record of your route like a photograph in an album to share with others at the end of your trip, GPS apps can do it all.  If you have a smart phone, there are many different apps catering to hikers.  If you don’t have a smart phone (seriously?), you can buy a plethora of dedicated GPS devices for the trail.  However, they are expensive and really should only be considered if you have a real desire to track your hiking, biking, walking and running activities.  Finally, if you just want to print out a simple topographical map of your hike, you can jump to the last two paragraphs in this section for information on a great Forest Service website.


tracking and recording your hike

I have an iPhone I use for capturing all the GPS data for Beyond Boulder.  On the iPhone I keep only two or three different apps when hiking or biking, depending on what I need for that activity.  Unfortunately, I do not know what is available for other smart phones such as the Android or Google Phone.  All of the apps are certainly good, but each has something it does better than the others, so it’s difficult to recommend a specific app best for the trail.  Really it boils down to what you want to do.  

When I only want to map a hike for displaying on this website, or to keep as an activity reference, which is about 90% of the time I use Strava, free on the Apple iTunes store and Google Play.  It’s really more of a running and biking app, but it has very accurate metrics, tracking altitude and distance very close to reality.  However, Strava is not meant to be used for much more than tracking and monitoring your real-time activity.  You turn it on, put your phone in your pocket or backpack, and go.  When finished, you stop your activity and upload it to the Strava website.  It keeps a reference of your activity on the phone along with all the details which is nice, and the website has a very nice display of each activity with distance, time, and elevation profile.  You can link with other friends where they can view your activities and be jealous of all those great trails you are hiking.  

location finding

Hiking Projectan REI funded initiative, is relatively new and becoming more popular with hikers.  It lets you download state maps of trails so you can use the maps when outside normal cell range.  Most of the trails referenced on Beyond Boulder will be listed on Hiking Project which means if you are ever not sure of your location you can easily verify using the app.  

MotionX-GPS is another very good tracking app that has a bunch of great features for downloading and storing tracks from Internet hiking sites.  I don't use it often and so have not kept up with the details, but it gets good reviews.  $1.99 on the Apple iTunes store.


Another app I use when I know I’ll be hiking a trail that is either poorly marked, requires scrabbling over unmarked terrain, or intersects with lots of other trails is SpyGlass.  SpyGlass is a compass/waypoint tracker on steroids, $3.99 from the iTunes store.  I’ll bring up the hike area on Google Earth and map the trail visually, taking GPS coordinates first of the trailhead and summit, then of significant intersections or landmarks, entering all of them as named waypoints in SpyGlass.  For example, if the waypoint is a trail intersection I may name it “Take Left Fork Here”.  If it’s just a landmark, once I reach that location I start tracking the next waypoint.  The display let’s you merge a relational compass over the image from the camera or the map and displays active waypoints as well as the sun, moon, and Polaris.  Simply hold the phone vertically, pointing toward your next waypoint and it will show you in the camera image or on your map where your next waypoint is along with distance to it.  Seriously cool.  While none of the hikes on this website should require this level of trail tracking, if you are ‘into’ that sort of thing (sometimes more accurately termed ‘orienteering’) it can be a lot of fun.  My wife rolls her eyes every time she hears SpyGlass chime indicating we have reached another waypoint.  

If all this technology talk makes you want to crawl into a micro-brewery and forget you ever thought of hiking, fear not, I have included all the map resources you need with each hike.  Also, if you want really detailed maps, you can download fantastic free geospatial PDF topology maps from the US Forest Service. The fancy moniker 'geospatial' means that the PDF has longitude and latitude coordinates built into the map.  Wherever you place the pointer you will get the GPS coordinates you can put into Spyglass as waypoints.  If you prefer, you can just print these maps out and take them with you on the trail.  However, what makes these PDF maps super-useful is that you can download the free iPhone and Android app Avenza PDF-Maps and suck these maps in for use on the trail as offline maps.  They are typically much more detailed than the maps presented on Google, and although it is a little tricky to get the maps into Avenza, it is worth the effort.  

Heard all you need to hear about maps and GPS?  Me too.  Let's take a quick look at Weather Considerations for your hikes.