With today’s topic, I’m starting a new series, a follow up to my Handheld GPS 101 posts. Are you ready to move on to the next class? Alright then. Today’s topic is mapping software — and I’m not talking about maps for your GPS here, but rather desktop or laptop software that will turn you into a power user.
Why use desktop mapping software?
First of all, the scale is much larger, giving you a better feel for the overall area you will be traveling through. And in general, planning a trip is much easier on your computer than on a GPS. A side benefit I’ve noticed is that planning on the big screen helps you gain quite a bit of geographical awareness before ever going out in the field. Depending upon which software you choose, you can do the following with it:
- Create waypoints for trailheads, destinations, trail junctions, geographic features, benchmarks, etc., and then transfer them to your GPS (using the cable that came with your GPS)
- View tracks of trails; these can be hand-drawn or downloaded from various sources online, and transferred to your GPS
- Create routes and transfer them to your GPS
- Toggle between USGS topos and aerial photos
- Download your track and marked waypoints after returning from a trip to keep a record of your travels and stats
My favorite mapping software options
This is my favorite mapping software for Windows. TopoFusion comes in a free demo version that never expires, as well as $40 and $69.95 versions. I love the ability to toggle between aerials and topos, and it has the best track importer around (shown in the screenshot below). Download the free version for that if nothing else. Now if they’d only produce a Mac edition! Click the image below for a full size view.
National Geographic TOPO!
The price on this one was recently cut in half; you can now get the National Geographic Topo state series for $50 or less, and sometimes that includes multiple states. While I’m not a big fan of how they handle routes and tracks, this is my favorite software for printed maps. And there’s nothing quite like having a hard copy of a map in your hand with the same waypoints you have on your GPS. Great for Windows; the Mac version sucks.
While BaseCamp isn’t the most intuitive thing Garmin has ever created, it is free, and it’s the only way to get BirdsEye aerial imagery or BirdsEye topos on your Garmin. Plus, you can use free topos from GPS File Depot with it. Available for both Mac and Windows.
There are many other options out there, including programs like Topo North America for DeLorme owners and ExpertGPS, but I’m not going to try to list them all. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to try a Mac program I’m happy with that has the capabilities of TopoFusion and/or National Geographic TOPO. Those programs are why I keep a Windows machine around.
Stay tuned. I think we’ll look at downloading tracks from the Internet in the next installment of Handheld GPS 201.