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Pune/ India, Irvine/ CA, now Boulder/ CO
Welcome to my blog! I'm Hrishi from Pune, India. I am an earth system scientist currently working as a postdoctoral research associate at Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research at CU-Boulder. These blogs are mostly about my travels, landscape photography, scientific computing, book and film reviews, fitness, cooking, and science communication. Feel free to navigate based on the labels below. My website: hrishikeshac.wix.com/hchandan


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Navigation while hiking: 2. Printing a map from caltopo.com

      Smartphone-based navigation (introduced in the previous blog-post) is not very smart if its battery gets discharged, or it gets wet or falls off a cliff (more so, while still being inside your pocket). Hence, carrying a printed topographic map is a 'smart' idea.

      There are many ways to get a map, but the most cost-effective and yet customized way, I have found, is to print a map yourself using Caltopo.com within 5 minutes.

      1. It is free
      2. It lets you choose from tens of different map layers! It has an excellent map layer called MapBuilder Topo. Not only does this layer have trails and topographic contour information, it looks super pretty. It also has a 3D look to it.
      3. You can add more layers to it. My favorite is Gradient Slope Shading. This layer shows terrain slope below 20 deg, 28 deg, 40 deg, 55 deg, and 60 deg. Experiment with different layers. If you have multiple members in a group, that's great- you can mix and match layers!
      4. You can import your custom trails (say downloaded from hikingproject.com, for example)
      5. You can create your own route! And creating it is super easy as it guides you through its own database of trails. So drawing a trail is not 'freestyle' and would not look like a 3-yr old's work.
      6. You can manually place markers along your routes. These can be, for example used to mark approximate camping spots or simply to count miles.
      7. Once you import or create your own trail, it can also provide information on its slope/ gradient.
      8. Finally, the default printed map shows important map features such as declination (Needed if you would pair the map with a compass), scale etc.

      So, here is the short pictorial tutorial to printing a map from caltopo.com.

        Base layer: This is what the MapBuilder Topo layer looks like. It has info from 7.5' Topo Maps, Forest Service, satellites etc. The layers can be selected from the right-side window, by selecting a baselayer, and adding more layers to it. 

      Additional Layers: The map showing two of my favorite layers: 40ft Contours (which adds contour labels more frequently than the default layer), and Gradient Slope Shading. This layer negates slope estimation using contours and makes for a speedy, color-coded read of the terrain. For most casual hiking, you want to stick to Green and Yellow areas (~ below 28° slope).  

      The trail: A trail file (.gpx, .kml, or .kmz) can be imported (Top Menu bar). Alternatively, a custom trail can be quickly created. Add New Object> Line. Then the trail database becomes highlighted as yellow, and you can just start dropping points while keeping the 'Snap to' option to 'OSM'. Tada! You can also change the color, width, and other properties of the trail line. Here I am creating a trail for Four-Pass Loop in Colorado by roughly tracing over the highlighted, yellow lines.  
      Trail details: By clicking on the trail and selecting 'Terrain Statistics', you get a graph showing how the elevation, slope, as well as the land cover changes with distance along the trail. This is immensely helpful in planning your hiking pace, rest and camping stops, etc.

      Print settings: Finally, for printing, you can specify the paper size, format (Jpeg vs pdf), orientation (landscape vs portrait). I would recommend keeping the scale as 'not fixed'. This will enable printing your map for your given paper size, while keeping the scale variable. 

      Finally, here is how the final downloaded jpeg file looks like! :)

Navigation while hiking: 1. Smartphones

    Why navigate?
    ->For veteran hikers/ backpackers, the answer is obvious. For novice/ casual hikers- even if most trails you will venture on are marked and likely well used, you will sooner or later find that you are lost. Snow, hiking early in the season, lack of people, lack of light (dawn/dusk hours), too many markers ("the cairns point to which trail exactly?") are just a few reasons why you want to be self-reliant in navigating through the trail and back safe to your car.

    What is the essential navigation gear?
    -> Topographic maps, compass and GPS. Or their digital realizations. 
    While navigation with compass and map is ideal and robust, it has a relatively steep learning curve that can put off casual hikers from navigation itself. Navigating using a map and GPS is very simple and fast.
    A topographic map tells you the terrain around you, and GPS, at a bare minimum, points your location. Combining these two, you should be able to
    1. See the trail, including its start and end points
    2. Your location  (whether or not on the trail)
    3. Topographic features (hills, valleys, and gradient) around the trail

    Why Smartphone?
    -> If you already own them, smartphones are the most cost effective way of setting up a map and GPS system. All current smartphones have a decently accurate GPS, and there are apps available to facilitate navigation using smartphone alone. Recent iOS upgrades now enable use of GPS while the phone is in airplane mode, thus providing a tremendous battery life advantage. From what I have heard, Android phones have been doing this even longer. Thus, with a smartphone and a navigation app, you have an excellent GPS and map system that can last for several days! And with a lightweight portable battery charger, you can extend the smartphone usage to more than a week!

    Which Apps?
    -> There are several. Gaia, All Trails etc.
    I am not an expert on all of these, but have been using Gaia for several years (even before they hiked the price and added subscription. Even now, at $20 one-time cost, it provides you a complete system to navigate safely). Here is a list of features you would ideally want on your app: I will demonstrate on Gaia, but make sure that your favorite app has these features.
    1. Ability to access maps offline. This is a must because you don’t want to rely on a service provider signal, and you will be keeping the phone in airplane mode anyway (so no reception). Thus, it is a good idea to download the approximate area map before you leave your house!
    2. Ability to clearly see topographic maps. There can be several map layers providing different information: topography, land management, terrain slope etc. Most maps in the US will be based on USGS toposheets, and will likely have contour lines at intervals of 40ft. These, and the contour markings, should be easily legible. If the map has popular trails already marked, that’s even better! Gaia app has their own map called 'Gaia Topo (feet)' which is real easy to read, and has many trails marked and labeled.
    3. Ability to import custom trails. Suppose the map does not show a specific trail, you should be able to import a gpx or kml file into the app. With Gaia GPS, I can do so by emailing the file to myself, and opening it into Gaia (on iphone: click on the attachment and select 'Copy to Gaia GPS'). Once imported, the trail should be visible on top of the map!
    4. An arrow pointing your location, and its direction pointing the direction of the phone. This is super user-friendly. The location of the arrow is your position on the map, and the easiest way to know which direction you are facing is to look at the arrow tip while keeping the phone horizontal and  directly in front of you.
    5. A compass showing your bearing. It is not essential, but the above points will help provide a context to these bearings and make them more intuitive, and significantly lessen the learning curve to use a real compass. 

    Note that there are several apps that can 'record or log' your hike, such as Mapmyhike, Runkeeper etc. But recording a hike takes up a lot of battery. Often time they won't have all of the above features.

    Where to find trail routes files to import as mentioned in #3?
    -> My favorite resource is hikingproject.com. It is a community maintained resource, and lets you download individual trails as .gpx files. It is also a very good tool to choose which trail to hike, and plan your hike: it has information on the trail distance, elevation gain, and the terrain slope (how steep or easy the trail is going to be). Plus it rates its database into easy to difficult hikes (though don't rely too much on it, as it is user based. A difficult trail for you might be an easy one for someone else).

    In fact, hikingproject.com is an excellent navigation app. From our list, it has features  #1, #3, and #4. All its hike database can be freely downloaded, and be accessed offline. It doesn't provide contour information (#2). However, if you have a printed map (see my next blog post), then hikingproject.com is an excellent free alternative to the likes of Gaia and All Trails. Additionally, as it doesn't save maps, it takes up relatively less space on smartphone. 

    Practice using smartphone for navigation on low risk trails - trails that you know quite well. Acquaint yourself with relating contour information with what you see, how you feel at different steepness levels of contours. If you do, in future you would be able to guess the terrain and your hiking pace by just looking at the map!

    Here's a screenshot of Gaia GPS showing all the above features: On upper left it shows a local hike (Mt. Sanitas in Boulder, CO) whose trail was downloaded from hikingproject.com and imported into Gaia. Contour information is available and legible. The brown arrow on the right shows my location, and I had it pointing to the trailhead of Sanitas. The compass shows a bearing of 300°. In other words, the Sanitas trailhead is 300° from my current location.