2020 – A Decade of Lessons Learned . . . Navigation and Planning


Lessons Learned:

  1. All miles are not equal.
  2. I’d rather hike than plan.
  3. Flexibility and back-up options are good plans.
  4. Learning to read maps is a valuable skill.
  5. Navigation skills are gained through experience.
  6. Being lost or disoriented is frightening.

Planning:

  • I remember being a planner. I enjoyed the process but somewhere along the line it became more of a burden and I learned to be prepared but not to worry about the details. This philosophy works better when:
    • I’m hiking solo and don’t have to provide expectations or details to others
    • My time is flexible and I can enjoy the journey rather than worry about being driven by time and location
  • These days planning for me includes:
    • Usually having a paper map.
    • Downloading digital maps for offline use.
    • Photographing pages from my trail books or taking screen shots from web pages or saving web information to an offline app such as Pocket.
    • Obtaining permits and getting updated trail/road conditions information from ranger stations and visitor centers.
    • How many days of food do I want to carry?
    • Where’s my first water source?
    • How do I get to the trailhead?
  • Many hikers like to plan for each night’s campsite with daily mileage goals. With limited vacation, many have to get permits 6 months to a year in advance. The process becomes more complicated the more people in a group. This process leads many to what I call analysis paralysis whereby worry or detailed thinking takes priority over actually doing.

Mileage:

Predicting daily mileage is a huge challenge since a trail is rarely consistent. These factors slow me down:

    • Heat
    • Technical terrain
    • Trail obstacles
    • Sustained elevation gain
    • Routes requiring navigation skills
    • Carrying too much weight (usually water or seasonal extras)
    • Being out of shape

I track most of my hikes using a phone app. I’ve done this for many years and one of the best tools is daily mileage per hour versus active miles per hour. The daily average takes into account breaks, for me that means a lot of photo and breathing stops. I also pay attention to elevation gain and loss since those affect my average and also are a telltale sign of my current fitness level.

Navigational Skills:

  • Map Reading – I love maps, so learning to decipher the details has been fairly easy although there are still a few things that give me pause. There are plenty of resources to help you gain map and compass skills but practice and curiosity have been my keys.
  • Digital Maps and Tracking – Using the tracking feature on digital maps has improved my skills and confidence in areas such as these:
    • I can compare where I think I am intuitively to where I am in reality.
    • When a trail disappears on the ground, I can verify that I’m nearby and heading in the correct direction.
    • When there isn’t a trail, I can verify I’m heading toward my trajectory and can adjust based on topographical lines.
    • I like to mark my track with waypoints that might be useful on future trips or during my exit such as water sources and campsites. I’ll indicate whether the water source is seasonal or is a wet feet crossing.

I currently use Gaia as my primary digital mapping app and pay for premium membership which includes helpful layers such as National Geographic, National Parks, USFS, snow levels, fire history, geology, etc. You can find great tutorials on YouTube and the Gaia blog. I also use Avenza and wrote this blog post with helpful tips, Hiking with Geospatial PDF Maps (Avenza).

I don’t have an internal compass or landscape memory. I work really hard at “staying found” as they say when teaching map and compass classes. I know I’d struggle if I couldn’t depend on my phone but I’m very aware of that possibility and try to take precautions. Obviously I could drop and break it, lose it, or run out of battery (although I carry an external battery to minimize this risk).

Itinerary and Safety:

I’m the first to admit that I’m not very responsible when it comes to leaving a detailed itinerary with friends and family. Of course this directly relates to my lack of planning, and even more so to my disdain to commitment. My way of staying responsible and accountable is a little different than many but works for me.

  1. I have a network of friends/family who I text my loose itinerary which basically says the trailhead from which I plan to start, how many days of food I’m carrying, and my exit date ETA.
  2. I’m faithful about using my inReach for check-ins. I send a message at the beginning and end of my trip indicating the location of my car, every evening and morning from my campsite, and each time I change trail or find myself crossing sketchy terrain including uncomfortable water crossings. I can also text any major change of plans.

I wrote this blog post after working with SAR teams on rescues where they lost significant search time not having this information, Dear Friends & Family, If I become a Missing Person . . .

Links:

Me and My CRV – Planning and Organization

What kind of a traveler will you be? Open a map, and the options are endless. Where to go? What to do? How to even get started? 

Thus far my travels have been dictated by seasons and opportunities. Here are a few examples.

  • I was invited to join some friends in Moab. I mapped out a strategy to get to Moab, with potential destinations marked to explore along the way. Once there, a friend was interested in traveling through Southern Utah. We mapped and figured out routes along the way. From there I was invited to visit friends in Colorado, so once again off I went. I prefer this mode of travel. Destinations find me.
  • My priority for early 2016 was the Superbloom in Death Valley. That gave me time enroute to explore more of the eastern sierra before spending time in Death Valley. Next, I had a date in New Mexico and sufficient time to play along the way, including a jaunt through the Grand Canyon. After New Mexico, it was time to to meet another friend to hike sections of the Arizona Trail. And so it goes . . .

I’ve found I don’t enjoy planning, so rather than spending my time on that aspect, I go prepared to plan on the fly.

Preparation- what resources are helpful to gather in advance?

  • Paper Maps (I order state and regional maps from AAA since I’m a member)
  • Electronic Topo Maps (I download to my phone app)
  • US Atlas (after finding myself in unplanned states, I now carry this as a security blanket)
  • Internet Research (I create documents in Google with links to places I might want to visit)
  • Hiking Guidebooks & Maps (I might buy in advance if I’m committed to hiking a particular area)
  • Hiking GPX Tracks (If applicable I might download to a USB drive)

Organization – how to maintain all that collected stuff?

  • Maps, handouts, printed materials can become unmanageable quickly when you’re spending significant time on the road visiting many places.
  • Plastic pocket folders have become my friend. I find them clearance’d with school supplies in late fall. Initially I might have one per state, but as I spend time in a particular area where I’ve gathered a lot of materials, I’ll make it’s own folder such as Glacier National Park or Grand Canyon. They are stored on a bookshelf at home.
  • As I prep for a trip, I’ll grab the applicable folders, and remove items not needed, being mindful of not overpacking. Tip: (1) bring what you need for first leg of trip and send it home when done; (2) have additional folders mailed along the way.

On-The-Fly Research:

  • Visitor Centers, Ranger Stations and Gear Stores are a wealth of information, but you need to help them know how to help you. With experience you’ll learn how to be more specific about what your looking for. Examples:
    • I’m interested in a trail with views. I prefer ridges and less populated trails.
    • Where would be the best place to watch the sunset, sunrise, full moon, eclipse, etc.
    • What are the dispersed camping options?
    • What permits do I need for backpacking x trail?
    • Where can I refill my water bottles?
  • The internet is your friend. I travel with an inexpensive Chromebook. I prefer it to my phone for research. I like having multiple tabs open while creating hyperlinks on my associated spreadsheet. I also save pages to Pocket, which provides off-line access to web pages on my phone. Free WiFi is readily available. The benefit of a Chromebook is that it isn’t susceptible to viruses. Mine has very little memory so I don’t save anything on it in case it gets stolen. I also use my Chromebook to copy photos from my SIM card to Google and to a USB drive I carry on my key ring.

Travel Tips:

  • I highlight my map with a colored marker denoting the route I drove. This is helpful later when trying to recollect details of the trip, especially if you want to take new routes the next trip.
  • I use either colored markers or removable tape to mark other details such as maybe where I camped, towns I visited, trails I hiked, names & phone numbers of friends, etc. These might become useful for future travels.
  • Keep a journal. Days run into days, and it’s surprising how fast memories can become jumbled. I journal on my phone. The basics include Day # of trip, Date, where I camped, hiked, drove, spent time.
  • When you are done with maps or documents from one area, file them before getting out new stuff. If you dump it in a bag, it becomes overwhelming and may never be of future use.

More posts about Me and My CRV

Hiking with Geospatial PDF Maps

More and more I’ve been seeing references about Geospatial PDF mapping. I finally had an opportunity to research and thought you might be interested in my findings.

Say WHAT?

Although I try to stay current with technology, sometimes I find myself saying, WHAT?

The word geospatial is used to indicate that data that has a geographic component to it. This means that the records in a dataset have locational information tied to them such as geographic data in the form of coordinates, address, city, or ZIP code. GIS data is a form of geospatial data. Other geospatial data can originate from GPS data, satellite imagery, and geotagging. Source: GIS Lounge

WHY?

Whether you use a standalone GPS unit or a mapping app on your phone, there are times when established trails aren’t visible on any available digital maps. This was the case for a local BLM recreation area I recently hiked.

This is what the area looks like on my mapping app. 

This is what the area looks like on the BLM standard PDF map. 

This is what the area looks like using CalTopo in Map Builder Topo format.

You can see the CalTopo map is far more detailed than either of the other two options. I could just print out the map and use it for navigation, but what if there was a way to know exactly where you were on the map?

HOW?

(1) Download a PDF Geospatial Reader app. The most popular seems to be Avenza. I haven’t played with the app much, but it appears powerful with a store to purchase map sets. But you can also use it as a free interactive reader which is what I did.

(2) Download a geospatial map. You may be able to find maps available in this format. Check out this list from the National Park Service. If there’s not one available, you can also create your own which is what I did using CalTopo.

Step 1: On the CalTopo website, after finding your area of interest and marking any details you’d like included, select print, center the red box using the red dot to move it around, change the parameters in the format box to “Geospatial PDF,” then select “generate PDF.” Note: you can make the map details small for this step as you’ll be able to zoom on your phone.

Step 2: I was working on my computer so I saved the file to my computer, then sent it as an email attachment to myself so I could download to my phone. You can also open the CalTopo website on your phone and go to your account where you’ll see a tab for PDF, then download directly to your phone.

(3) Open downloaded map using a Geospatial PDF reader such as Avenza. 

(4) Adjust your phone settings. You’ll need to have “location” turned on. To save battery, you can leave phone in airplane mode.

(5) Select the “location” icon to see your location as a blue dot on the map. It’ll follow you as you hike. On this network of trails, it was very helpful. Note: the location icon is denoted by the yellow star in this photo. 

I was also running my mapping app so I could track my hike. It was great having the option to flip back and forth between the Geospatial PDF map and my track. 

I could have created a track on CalTopo and uploaded to my phone mapping app; however, with so many trail options, I wanted the flexibility to explore on the fly.

Have you been using Geospatial PDF maps? If so, do you have other tips to share?

Resources:

FYI, you can now print your own standard PDF USGS 7.5 minute, 1:24,000 base Quad Maps