Planning and Navigation

Gaia Screen shot

Long a map and compass guy, I have for the last few 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 is expensive but there are free GPS map repository sites out there 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 phone 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! 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 road-less 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 or .kmz) import to Gaia, (you can directly email yourself the .kml file then send to Gaia from your email message!) download Gaia map/satellite section to cover your route and voila, electronic bliss! If your route source is a .GPX file you can easily convert to phone friendly .kml using Gpx2kml.
* Update: Very detailed Gaia video tutorial

One additional note for route plotting: Be sure to load the topo overlay Earthpoint, into Google Earth, so you can toggle between satellite and topo map views. (Click the "view on google earth" button to download)

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 going 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.

*Its been awhile now now and I wanted to update my thoughts. Gaia continues to be my go-to method for navigation. I sold the GPS on Ebay. I no longer carry the solar panel unless I'm out longer than a week, and even then have rarely needed it. It does come into play when Joannie goes with me because we are both then drawing on the battery for our needs. If the battery does go completely flat it takes 5-8 hours to recharge via the panel in full sun. The battery almost always goes with me/us. For an overnighter we leave it at home. I've also purchased a USB charger for my camera battery but it never goes. It's more for the convenience of charging in the truck. I briefly considered getting a generator (dynamo) hub and relacing the front wheel on my bikepacking rig since many of our adventures are via bike. But as I looked into it, it doesn't seem useful for us. The hubs in general don't begin to charge until 14 kmh or about 8.6 mph or faster, and there is noticeable increased drag when riding. If all we did was bikepack perhaps it would make more sense.

*Update 7/2017: Came across a blog post in Zero To Crusing that sort of validates my reluctance to use a dynamo hub.
"Since we have been traveling too slow for the SON dyno hubs on our bikes to charge our electronics, this solar panel has been a godsend! It was a very last-minute purchase and we’re extremely happy that we made it."

This is the gear we use:
Iphone 6s
Solar Panel
External Battery

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

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