These days, there's no reason for you to wait until you get to the national park of your choice before you start planning how you'll explore the landscape. Between books and the Internet, there are myriad sources for you to peruse while trying to figure out exactly where you want to go once you get to that park. And if you're planning a backpacking trip, or simply want to figure out some decent day hikes, you can chart the way with Maptech's National Park Digital Guide in the comfy confines of your home.
For years New Hampshire-based Maptech has been making mapping tools for the computer. Many of their high-end products are intended for surveyors and even mariners. However, for those of us simply looking for a walk in the woods, they make the national parks collection of maps and sets of other topographic maps that will help you navigate out in the wilds.
The 2005 edition of the National Park Digital Guide ($50, available at www.maptech.com) is a handy tool if you don't live right down the road from an REI or EMS and want to start charting your trip. The collection of CD-ROMs contains maps of 54 national parks. Accompanying the maps are text files that constitute a "mini-guidebook" to each park. These files provide information on lodging and camping, flora and fauna, geology and even some history, and are accompanied by some pretty pictures of the parks. Frankly, though, these files don't delve deeply into each park. For that sort of information, you'd probably want to pick up a guidebook -- say, one of mine, perhaps!
What I can't replica in my guidebook, though, and what I haven't seen in any other, are the mapping programs that Maptech has produced. Based on USGS topographical maps, these digital maps allow you, at the touch of a keystroke, Touchpad maneuver, or mouse swivel or click, to zoom in or zoom out on a specific section of the park that intrigues you. You also can inspect established trails on the maps, examine elevation profiles so you'll know right up front how badly you'll be sucking air on your hike, and find springs so you won't run out of water. Heck, you can even check out a three-dimensional version of your hike.
Another nifty feature, if you're the adventuresome sort, is that after you return home you can trace any off-the-trail bushwhacking you did on these maps and insert GPS coordinates so the next time you head out you'll know how best to retrace your steps. Conversely, you can plot your hike at home and then download the GPS waypoints to your handheld GPS.
Naturally, once you've settled on a plan of attack, you can print out just that section of the map that you need. No need to run to your local REI or EMS or other backpacking/hiking story to stock up on topos.
Are there any problems with this product? Well, one concern I have is that some of the topo maps are pretty old. OK, make that verrrry old. The Bryce Canyon NP topo dates to 1939. Of course, barring earthquakes or landslides, the topography of any given park is probably going to be pretty much the same as it was way back then. However, roads could have been altered or added, park service structures could have been moved, and campsites could have been added or removed. To play it safe, if the map is old, compare what you find on the CDs with the official park website.
For the latest in topo maps, you could upgrade to Maptech's Terrain Navigator Pro 7.0, but at $300, that's pretty pricey. This product, by the way, is intended for land surveyors, search-and-rescue teams, real estate brokers and the like.
Another drawback with the parks' edition is that the text content isn't the broadest and not always likely to be up-to-date. Of course, guidebooks you buy off the shelf run the risk of being outdated to some extent, too, and the primary reason to consider adding Maptech's product to your bookshelf are the mapping programs.
Overall, though, if you make a lot of national park sojourns and like to head into the backcountry, Maptech's product is pretty handy and excellent for advance planning.
I understand National Geographic has a similar product that will arrive early in 2006, and as soon as I can get my hands on it I'll compare the two.