Planning and Navigation

Gaia Screen shot

Long a map and compass guy, I have for the few last years been varying my areas of exploration so much that trying to obtain paper maps is either impossible, or just too expensive. So the future has finally caught me and drug me by my stubborn neck into the era of electronic navigation.

Canyoneering started it off due to needing, or at least wanting very precise approach info for the up climb route to the top and entry into many Death Valley Canyons. I generally did not have topographic maps for any of these canyons and relied on route descriptions and photos. So I started printing online topos but pretty quickly got tired of that due to many factors including having to print so many pages to cover an area as well as the expense of the ink for the printer. I reluctantly decided to buy a GPS unit but I had virtually no clue as to what to buy or how to use it. Researching online I made the decision to buy an Garmin Oregon 600 series. Along with that I found sites that helped me learn its use and how to create routes. Luc Mehl has a very good tutorial on building routes and importing them into your GPS. In a nutshell it uses Google Earth to plot out your route which you then import into Garmin's Basecamp software, then download to your GPS unit.

I used this system for awhile but it never really grew on me. You have to first download base maps to your unit for whatever area you plan to travel. Buying them from Garmin could get expensive but there are free GPS map repository sites such as GPS File Depot. Downloading those maps with their various formats took some time to figure out as well. The other downside is battery usage. The Garmin unit sucked battery power down like the Joker blacking out Gotham City. Which then required me to carry a way to recharge my external battery pack, in my case a solar panel. It all got very cumbersome and time consuming.

Then I discovered Gaia GPS, a cell app for both Iphone and Android, $20 US. Most of the time my explorations take me far out of cell phone range. Gaia provides a way to precisely navigate without the need for cell coverage...provided you download maps for offline use prior to going out of service areas. This was like a manna from heaven for me. A good 'ol topo interface and you can download satellite imagery to boot! (Luc's page tells you how to get Google Earth vs the default sat imagery). And the double extra bonus is that used wisely and conservatively my 10000mAh battery would power the system for multiple weeks without need of recharging! Maybe I'll get a smaller battery now? There are many Gaia tutorials out there but here's a good you tube to get you started. Do you have to download maps? yes, but the interface in Gaia makes it easy, and you download directly to Gaia vs. yet another software interface. I also use Acme mapper in the initial stages of identifying a viable route. I often go both roadless and trail-less. The ability to easily toggle back and forth between topo and satellite is a huge bonus. Once I identify a route on Acme mapper, I plan a track on Google earth, (be sure to save as file type .kml) import to Gaia, download Gaia map section to cover your route and voila! Electronic bliss! And one more thing. If your route source is a .GPX file you can easily convert to phone friendly .kml using Gpx2kml

For street navigation all over the world there is I have not had the opportunity yet to use this one but it looks good from the outside.

I am not here to say don't stay with, or use paper maps. I still love 'em. But I just can't buy maps for every area I plan to visit. That said if you drop your electronic device in the water or otherwise lose it, well its good to have a backup plan.

More info on the subject of Electronic navigation:
Andrew Skurka
Luc Mehl
Outdoor Gear Lab (written by Luc Mehl)
Gaia you tube tutorial

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