mapping GPS with free 24K maps

Hey everybody. I haven’t been here much lately (excpet my visit last month about John Darwin, poor guy - that soap opera still drags on) but I’m still river running and exploring.

I just came across a PDA/GPS program called BackCountry Navigator which uses free maps downloaded from the USGS through Terraserver. That sounds like the answer to all my mapping/GPS dreams from 3 years ago that I used to talk about on here. It looks like for about $400 all in (PDA, software, several SD cards) I can get effective 24K map coverage of the whole US, plus a pretty powerful PDA for other uses.

Has anybody used it? Know of any other programs like it? Have ya’ll been talking about it all the time I was gone?

I understand Garmin is coming out soon with a new line of GPS units that they plan to make the 24K maps available for. But they’re talking about charging $100 per state or section for the maps. I live at the corner of 3 states, with 5-6 more in a 2-4 hour drive, so that could get expensive. And it’s not like Garmin invented the maps - I understand they get their maps free from the same place, USGS, and make very few changes before selling them at their high prices (somebody correct me if I’m wrong about that).

Haven’t use it…
…but I do use a Garmin Ique3600 for work. One drawback with the PDA based systems is that the PDAs themselves are pretty fragile and not at all water resistant.

I’m not at all familiar with BCN. Is this a stand-alone program or a conduit for loading existing maps?

It’s a stand-alone, regular navigation program, with all the regular features like guidance to a goto point and recording the path you’ve travelled for later downloading, and readouts for MPH, compass, etc like a regular GPS. One of the screens shows a map that stays centered around your position as you travel, and leaves a track where you’ve been. You can zoom/unzoom the map and scroll around.

The only difference is that, instead of coming with maps preloaded or having to buy maps separately for loading, you connect to the internet and download them from USGS/Terraserver.

What do you use the Ique3600 for? GPS-related stuff or computational?

You’re right about the fragility thing - the BCN guy says he keeps his in an otter box when in his kayak - which I guess means you can see it but can’t operate the controls, right?

Software vs. hardware

– Last Updated: Dec-24-07 9:59 AM EST –

Backcountry Navigator is a software. You still need a piece of hardware to run the navigation. Compatible hardwares are listed in their website. From what I read, it is a conduit for downloading maps on the fly. PDA type of GPS is ok for mobile navigation. Unlike dedicated marine GPS, such as Garmin 76 series, visibility with those PDAs is poor under direct sun light. If you have a Garmin (marine or mobile), this $30 software allows you to get free topographic maps and aerial photographs.

don’t think so
"If you have a Garmin (marine or mobile), this $30 software allows you to get free topographic maps and aerial photographs."

I don’t think this is correct - if it is, it’s great news. But I don’t think the garmin software will work with these maps. That’s kind of been the holdup all along - you could buy 24K maps from national geographic, but they didn’t sell compatible GPS units, and all the other mapping GPS units required their own maps, none of which were 24K.

I’ve railed before about what’s taking them so long to get out the 24K maps. In my opinion, you HAVE to have the 24K maps for paddling, mountain biking, jeep exploring, hiking, etc - and even more so for small streams in thick woods. The level of detail is so much better than the 100K maps. So, for years, I’ve been using paper maps alongside various GPS devices so I can keep up with where I am. This has required hours of prep before each trip to new territory preparing maps and, when time permits, marking them with GPS coordinates.

So that’s what has me excited about this. At last, electronic 24K maps I can take in the field, on a device that lets me mark and notate them.

Apparently BCN has been around since 2005, but it’s a work in progress. It wasn’t until a few months ago that they released a desktop version, which greatly eases the map download and preparation process, and other improvements are beng added continually. It’s a small operation, apparently run primarily by one guy (Nathan) out of his house. So far, he kind of reminds me of Pat at Onno Paddle - great customer service, quick response to most requests and a friendly guy. He’s a kayaker and he lives in the greater Portland OR area, so he’s got some great waters nearby to explore.

He also has the benefit of Terraserver’s experimental “Urban Areas” imagery, which is a more detailed form of aerial photography than what is available in most of the country.

At one pixel per 1/4 meter, it’s clarity is amazing, in many places providing an even better guide than the 24K maps. There are about a dozen areas in the US that they have covered so far, and if you paddle in any of these areas that’s an additional reason to get this software.
The Terraserver resolution is much better than I expected. The aerial photos I looked at were all from around 2000, but the corresponding USGS is from 1986. Then I compared it to Google Earth, and the resolution of Terraserver is better, unless you go to the Google Earth Pro which has about 4x more clarity than the free download.

I checked on an old dam here on the Maury River to see how it looks from the air. This is an abandoned dam that blew out in the 1985 flood with about a 12 foot breach. In the Terraserver 2000 photos the breach is clearly visible as is the debris field just downstream. In the Google Earth photos the breach is far more advanced, probably 40 to 50 feet wide as a result of the June 2006 flood. The Google Earth photo most closely corresponds to what I’ve seen on the water this season.

This is the kind of information you simply cannot get from USGS maps that are 20 years old, which is reason enough to buy the BCN software for my PC. I also have the National Georgraphic Topo CD’s and find it very useful because I can zoom in to better than 1:24,000 although the resolution gets fuzzy when you do that, and you have to zoom back out to get the road names to pop onto the screen.