National Geographic Maps web-based TOPO! Explorer (NG TEX) aims to be the iTunes of electronic mapping. Like iTunes, the application is free, and, like songs, a 1:24K USGS Topographic Quad, including satellite imagery, is only $1 (vs. $8 -$10 for a paper Quad without satellite imagery). If you own a Magellan Triton GPS it’s fairly simple to download that map to your GPS. In the field, the maps look just as good on the Triton GPS as they do on your computer. Like iTunes, the NG TEX application works and looks the same on Mac and PC.
The main mapping screen for National Geographic Maps new program TOPO! Explorer, not to be confused with its predecessor (just plain TOPO!). Note the "Map Store" icon in the upper left. The map is a 1:24K Mt. Olympus Quad that was downloaded on-demand via the web. Imagine the aggravation you’ll avoid by not having to mail order maps or driving the car to a store. Paperless trip planning?
NG TEX departs significantly from the old, PC based, TOPO! application (TOPO! Classic). TEX is based on a Mac version of NG software and looks modern, even sexy, compared to its predecessor. Gone are kludgey non-standard items like the "Traveling Tool" (replaced with the more conventional grabber hand) and the "Import Wizard." TEX is targeted at entry level uses-making basic function easy to find and use.
The Satellite Layer: each TEX Superquad includes a satellite image layer and "Hybrid" layer that overlays some topographic information over the satellite image (see next image).
The third, "Hybrid," layer of a TEX Super Quad.
NG TEX launched early this summer with a small set of essential functions. NG intends to aggressively add functions, eventually including most of the features of TOPO! Classic, as well as adding many new functions. Updates and new functions were posting on an almost weekly basis after the program’s launch. For Summer Outdoor Retailer, NG is releasing new search functionality for TEX.
The Magellan Triton 2000, and the map as it appears on its 240 x 320 pixel Quarter VGA display. The uploaded map is exactly what you see when viewing the map in TEX.
Many new GPS units, and now it appears mapping software programs, focus on a multi-media experience more oriented to the general public. For NG TEX, this includes the ability to load pictures and audio along with your maps and routes. You can create virtual tours of your trips that you can share with friends or with a larger community of outdoor enthusiasts in forums.
NG intends to have a large community of outdoor enthusiasts sharing information on trails and trips on in their TEX web forums. You don’t need to own the topographic quads, just the free NG TEX application, to see routes or tours uploaded by others. This should create a resource full of up-to-date information for outdoor enthusiasts. Not only will TEX have the most current USGS topographic maps (NG has a partnership with USGS), but, via the forums and other NG TEX users, one will be able to get the most up-to-date information on parks, trails, roads, access points, and other information for an upcoming trip. NG hopes that this will create an environment that encourages people to get excited about the outdoors, ultimately getting more people off of their couches and onto trails.
The Magellan Triton 2000 is a good fit with the multimedia direction. With its built-in camera and audio recorder, you can append photographs and audio to waypoints or locations along your route. The whole shebang can be uploaded after the trip to NG TEX and used to create a tour trip report.
The Triton, unlike some newer "general purpose" GPS units, still has a strong suite of navigational functions, and you don’t have to wade through a thicket of non-navigational functions to use them. The high resolution display has a number of screens, thoughtfully laid out with navigational information, but the best part of the Triton is their onscreen maps. They are exact reproductions of USGS Quads. Thus, if you are reading a route description that tells you a canyon exit is just below "T 4,996" on the map, you can actually see the "T 4,996" text on your Triton. If you use maps on other GPS units, such features are often missing and often the information can even be quite out-of-date.
I recently downloaded all of the maps for the Olympic Peninsula to my Triton 400 pre-trip (that’s a lot of Quads!). At the last minute, I ended up going someplace that I didn’t anticipate. Thus, I had no paper maps better than 1:100K for the area. I used the Triton to supplement my lower resolution map with 1:24K detail as needed, such as for finding my way up Mt. Olympus. The unit and its internal maps were golden.
The Triton also has quite good GPS reception. I was able to get a GPS fix even in heavily treed valleys of the Olympic rain forest.
A few things to know about TEX maps:
- A TEX Super Quad contains three layers 1) the actual 1:24K USGS Topographic map, 2) corresponding satellite imagery, and 3) a hybrid layer that overlays some topographic information over the satellite image
- If you purchased map CDs/DVDs with other NG TOPO! products, you won’t have to pay again. You can register your old maps with TEX. However since you only purchased topographic maps, you will not have access to the satellite and hybrid layers. For that, you’ll have to fork over a buck and download the rest of your Super Quad layers.
- While $1 may seem inexpensive for a map, the state of California has around 2,800 Quads. At some point, buying a $100 NG State Series map DVD is much less expensive (but you won’t have the satellite and hybrid layers).
- For many areas of the U.S., there is higher-resolution satellite imagery publicly available from other sources, e.g. Google Earth. You won’t be able to upload these to your GPS until Google decides to buy a GPS or comparable electronic mapping device company and integrate the two.
At high zoom levels, very closely spaced topographic contour lines are hard to resolve (both on the computer based TEX and on the GPS). This was also true of the original TOPO! product maps. It is a limitation of the scanning resolution of these raster maps. In this case, vector electronic maps (based on a mathematical contour model rather than a scanned map) like Magellan’s Accuterra (just released) or Garmin’s vector maps do a better job of resolving closely spaced contour lines at high zoom levels. However, for the most part, this does not impact the field usefulness of the TEX maps. As always, the actual USGS paper maps do a superb job of resolving closely spaced contour lines.