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MAPS, GPS, & 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, 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 on this page for information on a great Forest Service website.

Strava 

I have an iPhone as well as a Garmin E500 GPS.  I use the Garmin less and less these days as the iPhone is always with me and the applications are truly incredible.  Personally, I only use 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 find a clear winner.  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, I use the app 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 it 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 altitude.  You can link with other friends and they can view your activities.  Most of the map graphics on Beyond Boulder came from Strava. 

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 make 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.  

Avenza 

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.  A grid of all the maps in Boulder County west and north of Boulder can be found here.  The grid for west and south Boulder County is available here.

In the last year or so a new map service, The Hiking Project sponsored by REI has made huge strides in mapping out hikes all over the US.  Below I've added their map for the Boulder area that contains additional information about some of the hikes on this site and many hikes not yet represented here.  (Hey, I still have a day job, ya know!)  While it doesn't provide the level of detail found on Beyond Boulder, it does have more trail representation.  They also offer an iPhone and Android app, free of charge.  A great resource for hiking anywhere across this great country, even if they can't offer the quality photography and reporting found on BB. ;-)

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