NG TOPO! Report #3
Test Report # 3
Test Series: National Geographic TOPO! mapping software, North Carolina edition, version 2.6.7.
Tester Name: George Cole.
Tester Information: I am a 54 year old male with 40 odd years of backpacking experience, most of it in the Southeastern U.S. I reside in central North Carolina. While I have used maps most of my life, I had almost no experience with mapping software before this test. I did, however, return the DeLorme mapping software I bought awhile back because I found its maps to lack trail level detail.
Associated Equipment: IBM 390E laptop with a Pentium II processor, 256 MB of RAM and a 4 GB hard disk; Lexmark Z 42 printer with standard and photo-quality ink cartridges; Garmin eTrex Vista GPS receiver; Garmin PC data cable; Garmin MapSource TOPO, version 4.06; Brunton 8096 compass; PPG Teslin Synthetic Printing Sheets; and "North Carolina Hiking Trails, Third Edition," de Hart, Appalachian Mountain Club, 1996.
Test Results to DateLike most academics, I foolishly persist in trusting my ability to bring order to a chaotic universe. Accordingly, in my previous report I indicated that I would test the TOPO! program by answering the following questions: 1) how easy is the program to learn to use; 2) does the program actually perform as advertised (feature by feature); 3) how easily, quickly and effectively does the program work with my associated equipment; 4) does the program make it easier for me to reliably get from point A to point B without getting lost or getting into trouble; 5) do I like the program enough to continue using it after completing the test; and 6) what are the program's best/worst features?
As usual, however, the universe had other ideas.
What happened was, first, I procrastinated. Then my friend Susan gave a Christmas party and assigned me the responsibility of making sure the guests had directions to her house. Then I procrastinated some more. Finally, realizing that in 24 hours I was going to have to explain to a weeping Susan why no one had showed up for the first party she'd given in ten years, I crawled under the bed with my laptop and opened up TOPO!, dead-man-walking-desperate for a miracle on Dumbass Street.
Within half an hour, without reference to the printed manual, I had been able to map all the various approaches to Susan's house and email directions to her guests. Further, all the guests got to the party without getting lost. Most importantly, nobody blew my cover. Consequently, I'm beginning this third report with a slightly positive bias, although I can truthfully say that during my whirlwind first tour I found the program intuitive, flexible and easy to use, even under duress and under a bed. It has a lot of features, but does not seem to be over-designed (e.g., features just for the sake of features). And, with one or two exceptions the features work exactly as you would expect them to.
Then, because I had already flushed my test protocol, I just kind of winged it from there.
(Actually, since some NG marketing suit might be reading this, let's say that in light of my positive impromptu experience I revised the protocol so that the test might be more practically interactive. Yeah. Practically interactive. That's the ticket. And, to suggest that intelligence played some role in the test, I'll let the report appear to answer the questions, "For what purposes are you likely to interact practically with this product, and what will those interactions be?")
Now, other than avoiding a beating from Susan, there are three things I'm likely to use TOPO! for: 1) planning a trip, 2) navigating during the course of a trip, and 3) making a record of a trip. So, in this report I'll describe, practically, my interactions with TOPO! in planning a trip. I will report on navigating with TOPO! and making a record of the trip in my final report.Planning a Trip
As best as I can tell, version 2.6.7 of the North Carolina edition of TOPO! covers all of North Carolina and about 50 miles beyond its borders with Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and the Atlantic Ocean. That's a lot of area to cover and a lot of topographic detail to document at 1:24,000 scale (1 map inch = 2,000 actual feet). So, it's not surprising that it takes 5 CDs to store all of the scanned USGS map data, but this means that a virtual tour of the state will involve a lot of CD shuffling. However, you can let your computer do the work if you've got about 3 gigabytes of empty disk space, because you can copy all of the CD map data into the "Tpo_data" sub-folder that the setup program created in your main "TOPO" folder. Good move, NG.
Double-left-clicking the TOPO! icon on my desktop opens a window with the heading "File Open - Choose a TOPO! Region Document." Had I loaded only the TOPO! NC program just one "region document" would appear in the window - "North Carolina.tpo." However, I've downloaded a dozen (free) customized NC maps from thewww.topo.com website, so I have a window full of "tpo" documents to choose from, one of which traces and labels every trail in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Regardless of which document I choose, however, TOPO! then opens a window showing a reduced image of a map of North Carolina and the contiguous sections of surrounding states. TOPO! refers to this image as "Map Level 1 of 5, General Reference Map, 750.33 x 562.82 miles," and indicates that it was derived from a USGS map at either 1:500,000 or 1:1,000,000 scale. However, when printed out at the magnification suggested by TOPO! this map is about 1:8,000,000 in scale, and I find it useful only for beginning the process of finding where I want to go.
Superimposed on this map is a mouse pointer in the shape of a magnifying glass with crosshairs in the lens. This is the "Zoom Tool," and it does what you would expect it to. Center the crosshairs over the place where you'd like to go, left-click once, and TOPO! zooms in to "Map Level 2 of 5, National Atlas Series, 163.31 x 122.16 miles." Level 2 maps appear to be standard Atlas road maps. They include National Forest, Park and Wildlife Refuge Area boundaries, major contour lines in mountainous terrain and some mountain apex points. When printed out at the magnification suggested by TOPO! they are perhaps 1:1,500,000 in scale. (To reverse the zooming process at any map level either hold down the shift key while you left-click, or right-click and choose a new map level from the menu.)
Center the cross hairs and click again, and you zoom to "Map Level 3 of 5, 500K Map Series, 62.46 x 46.32 miles." These maps include more state road and small town data, and will be useful in getting to trailheads and finding nearby places to stay. When printed out at the suggested magnification they are approximately 1:500,000 in scale, as indicated in the heading. At this scale TOPO!s "Shaded Relief" feature becomes apparent, and it really does give a 2D map something of a 3D effect. This feature can be adjusted for the amount of shadow and toggled on or off. I find that I leave it on most of the time.
Center and click again, and you go to "Map Level 4 of 5, 100K Map Series, 9.57 x 7.07 miles." At this level classic topographic details begin to emerge, such as graduated contour lines and vegetation boundaries, and the maps print out at their nominal 1:100,000 scale. Some trail level detail is present, but at this scale, when I'm not familiar with an area, I need some other reference to locate the exact position of trailheads or major trail intersections. My favorite reference for this purpose is Allen de Hart's "North Carolina Hiking Trails, Third Edition," published by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Finally, you arrive at "Map Level 5 of 5, 7.5' Map Series, 2.94 x 2.17 miles." The images at this level are derived from 1:24,000 scale maps, and, as far as I know, offer as much detail as is available from the USGS. Contour intervals are 40 feet; stream and river courses are depicted and named; coves, ridges, gaps, mountains and knobs are labeled; open rocky spaces (balds, y'all) are defined; roads and tracks of various types are traced; manmade structures and political boundaries are indicated; and trails are noted with dotted black hairlines. The trails are not labeled, however, and for this purpose I again need a supplemental reference. In addition, map detail is only current as of the publication date of the particular map from which the image was derived. The name and publication date of a 7.5' series map can be found by right-clicking while using the "Zoom Tool" pointer (which at Level 5 no longer zooms and has appropriately lost its crosshairs) and left-clicking on the "About This Map" option.
I refuse to join the tiresome debate about the "trail accuracy" of USGS maps. Are trails always exactly where a 7.5' map shows them to be? No. Trails get relocated, and sometimes they relocate themselves around deadfall, slides, etc. I also suspect that aerial photographs miss the nuances of a footpath as it meanders over rocky ground under dense tree cover. However, the worst case of USGS "trail inaccuracy" I ever encountered was finding a trail that went around the west side of a knob when the map showed it going around the east side, and it was no big deal. When using one of these maps correctly and staying alert, either on-trail or off, I have never gotten lost (not for long, anyway). My only beef is that these maps don't always show all the secondary trails (i.e., connectors, access trails, etc.) in an area, and if I'm looking for the third turnoff to the right when actually it's the fourth I may end up walking an extra couple of miles. However, if I'm not familiar with a section of trail when I'm planning an on-trail trip (unless I know that the trail is well marked), I use a supplemental reference.
A bigger problem in a state the size of North Carolina is not knowing where the place you'd like to go tripping is, exactly. For example, do you know the way to Lizard Lick? Few except David Letterman do, but TOPO!s "Search Tool" can find Lizard Lick and most other NC places of renown. The secret is knowing how to spell the name of the place or a place nearby, or knowing what type of place the place is (i.e., trail, city or town, lake, airport, cemetery, etc.) If so, you access the "Search Tool" by left-clicking on the toolbar button with the binocular icon. Then, fill in the appropriate blanks in the window that appears and left-click on "Find Now." Information about the place will be retrieved and displayed. (TOPO! says that Lizard Lick is at 350 ft. above sea level and is a "pop. place," but we knew that.) Then, double-left-click on the name of the place to get TOPO! to take you to its exact location on the map (at whatever map level you were on when you began the search).
Once I get to the map image I'm interested in, especially if it's derived from a 7.5' map, I usually need to move the image window either horizontally, vertically or towards a corner in order to see all the detail I need in order to plan my route. Regardless of the type of pointer I'm using, this can be accomplished most expeditiously by moving the pointer towards a map border until a solid white arrow appears, and then holding down the left mouse button until the window has moved enough. The toolbar also provides a "Centering Tool" and a "Traveling Tool," both of which do what you'd expect, but I don't use them much.
Then, once I've decided what trails I want to use (or not use, if I'm bushwhacking) and the direction I want to go, I can mark my intended route on the map image. TOPO!s "Route Tool" is a pointer shaped like a stubby pencil. You can get to it by left-clicking on the toolbar button with the ruler and pencil icon. Then, place the point of the pencil on the spot where you want to begin your route, left-click, and begin moving the pointer along your intended path. A solid, hefty blue line will mark your progress. Left-click again when you reach the point where you want the route to end. Touch the blue line with the inactive pointer and the two dimensional mileage of the route will pop up in a little box.
I find the freehand drawing function of the "Route Tool" to be a bit awkward at normal image magnification, especially when I use the little joystick thingie between the "g" and "h" on my keyboard. At higher levels of magnification it works pretty well, if I take my time. To magnify the map image, you move the pointer away from the blue route line, right-click, choose "Magnify This Map," and then choose the level of magnification you want. However, I prefer the alternative of using the "Route Tool" in conjunction with the "Hotspot Magnifier," which is a toolbar option that opens a highly magnified portion of the map image in a small window that has a red pointer-locating dot in its center. Further, I can draw a more accurate line when I change the default "medium" line to a "thin" line or a "hairline," and because I like to print out finished maps with red, dotted, hairline route lines, I routinely modify the line. The process required to modify the width and/or color of a route line while trying to draw one is difficult to describe, so I won't try. On the other hand, modifying the style and color of a completed line is easy, as is deleting the whole route line. Erasing part of a route line is not so straightforward and is not particularly intuitive, and joining two completed route lines takes a bit of practice.
I find it more straightforward to get TOPO! to add labels and notations to my customized map. Left-clicking on the "Text Tool" (the toolbar button with the capital "A"), and again left-clicking on the place I want the label to go, I am able to fill in the blank on the pop-up "Text Label" window with trail names, shelter and campsite names, and the ever-popular "H20." The labels can be moved so long as I have the "Text Tool" button depressed, and by right-clicking on a label I can access a menu that allows me to modify the label text, font, color and background (whether or not the label appears in a box).
For planning purposes, one of TOPO!s most useful features is the "Route Tool" option that creates an elevation profile. To create a profile, you touch the route line with the inactive stubby pencil pointer, right-click, and choose the "Build Profile" option. The profile is then displayed in a rectangular window that pops up underneath the map image window. I find that if the two dimensional length of the route line (or the line section) is about 4.25 miles at 1:24,000 scale, the "Build Profile" option will give an accurate two dimensional "side view" of what the route would look like if it were straightened out. In other words, the angle of the slopes will be about right. You'll know if you've got an accurate elevation profile if you see a 1.0x displayed in the lower left corner of the profile window. If the route is "too short," and the profile has been stretched and flattened out in order to fit the window, you will see a statistic that ranges from 0.0x to 0.9x. If the route is "too long" and has been compacted, making the ups and downs look steeper than they are, the statistic will be greater than 1.0x. With a little practice it's not as hard as it sounds to get an accurate profile, and its real value is in adjusting the route line length estimate to account for vertical gain and loss. You also get statistics in the form of an equation that let you know your total elevation gain, your total elevation loss, and your net gain or loss.
After all this work customizing a map, it was nice to find that TOPO! will print it, complete with all my additions, on 8.5 by 11 inch paper. Further, TOPO! will allow me to print the map in any scale I want and will include, at my option, an elevation profile and its associated statistics, a north arrow with a magnetic declination vector, grid lines of various types and intervals, and my own custom header. The maps that I have printed with my Lexmark Z42 inkjet printer on standard paper are of surprisingly good quality, with excellent clarity and color. More importantly, the maps that I have printed on waterproof PPG Teslin Synthetic Printing Sheet appear to be as good or better than commercial maps on waterproof stock. I will report on how these maps perform in the field in my next report.
Overall, I like TOPO!, and not just because it saved my butt with Susan. I will be using it routinely to help me plan future backpacking trips. However, while the "Route Tool" is crucial to the functionality and ultimate utility of TOPO!, its interface is a little clunky, and I find the learning curve on the left-click-right-click-hold-it-down-with-your-nose-while-choosing-from-the-menu sequences too steep for an occasional user. A dedicated "Route Tool" button bar would help. This bar could pop up at the bottom or side of the main image window and have toggle-on, toggle-off buttons for the various "Route Tool" options, such as "Draw," "Delete," "Erase," "Thin Line," "Dotted Line," "Red Line," etc. And, if NG wanted to market a Lexus version of TOPO!, they might consider offering one with a stylus that draws directly on the computer screen.
Navigating with TOPO! and Making a Record of a Trip: my plan for Report # 4 (Yeah. Right. In whose universe?)
I've been navigating successfully with only map and compass for quite a while, and I never thought I'd carry an altimeter, much less a GPS receiver. Of course, I never thought I'd write with anything other than a pencil, either. Moreover, there are situations when having access to the information that an altimeter or GPSR can provide will save time, if nothing else. For example, bushwhacking in dense fog can be quite time consuming, navigationally speaking, and more than once I remember just sitting down and waiting for the Smokies to get less smoky. Heavy snowfall or snow cover can also make finding your way interesting. So, these days, when I'm likely to find myself in navigationally challenging situations, I gladly put up with the loss-of-macho and weight penalties of a GPSR and altimeter. This is especially true since the introduction of the Garmin eTrex Summit and Vista, which are not only light but can be easily hidden. Consequently, report # 4 will include, at least:
- Placing GPS waypoints on a freehand route, or turning a freehand route into a GPS route;
- Editing a waypoint table;
- Printing a map with both a freehand route and a GPS route;
- Uploading waypoints and/or GPS routes to a GPS receiver;
- Using a TOPO! prepared GPS and associated TOPO! maps (printed on Teslin SPS) in the field;
- Making trail "corrections" graphically to a "tpo" document, with and without the use of tracks and waypoints;
- Downloading waypoints and/or tracks to TOPO! and creating "tpg" documents; and
- My experience with TOPO! customer support.
- Thanks, George, for the best report I've read all year. Of course, the year is only 30 minutes old here!All third reports for Topo! are not complete. The fourth reports covering long term usage are due on April 29.Happy New Year to all,Bill JeffreyBGT Topo! monitor