John Muir used to say that getting lost in the wilderness is a good way to find yourself. But getting lost in the wilderness can also lead to dehydration, starvation and other unfortunate results that Muir, no doubt, would not recommend. That's where outdoor recreational mapping software comes in. Melding the technology of global positioning satellites and the convenience of laptop computers, these CD-ROM programs let outdoor enthusiasts draw a wilderness route on a computer screen, download the route into a GPS device and follow the route in the backcountry. We tested two software packages on a popular hiking trail in the Angeles National Forest. Both versions had mixed success at identifying and locating backcountry features.
A REAL TRAILBLAZER
First Look: The folks at Garmin -- known primarily for GPS devices -- offer a three-disc package, dubbed MapSource, that covers all 50 states. Pop a disc into your laptop and a map opens on your screen. Zoom in on a wilderness area and use the route-drawing tool to create a route from, say, a trailhead to a campsite. Give the route a name and with a few clicks, a screen appears, telling you the distance you will cover and the elevation gain on that route. With another mouse click, you can upload the route to a GPS device.
Likes and yikes: We liked that the screen opens to an interactive topographic map. This means that when you put your cursor on a feature, a label pops up and tells you if that feature is a stream, a trail or just a contour line. Of the two programs, MapSource was the more accurate in identifying and locating trails, roads and campsites. The route-drawing tool, however, is a headache because it can draw only straight lines. To draw a route along a serpentine trail, you must click and slide the mouse, click and slide, click and slide -- you get the unfortunate picture.
The 411: $116.65; available at Best Buy, Target, Staples, Circuit City and other electronics stores. Call Garmin at (913) 397-8200 or see www.garmin.com/cartography/mapSource/topo.jsp
A BIRD'S-EYE VIEW
First look: National Geographic's WeekendExplorer 3D offers 11 versions, one for each major metropolitan area in the continental United States. Its Los Angeles Area version covers the Angeles, Los Padres and San Bernardino national forests. The product is designed for outdoor enthusiasts who want to explore local campsites and hiking trails. WeekendExplorer 3D works much like the Garmin software with one very cool extra feature: After you create a route, the program can show you a computer-generated 3-D flyover view of where you'll be going.
Likes and yikes: The WeekendExplorer 3D, unlike the Garmin program, has a route-drawing tool that allows you to draw curves on your computer screen. Plus, the 3-D effect helps you visualize your hike by showing canyons, valleys and summits. The on-screen topo map, however, can be blurry and hard to read, making it difficult to distinguish, say, a trail from a stream. Next thing you know, you are hiking in 4 feet of water.
The 411: $29.95; available at REI and at www.ngmapstore.com or call National Geographic: (800) 437 5521.
- HUGO MARTIN