how-to: backcountry route planning - part I, before the trip
When I first started backpacking, I’d pull the guidebook down from the shelf each weekend before heading for the hills. Once I had a route picked out, I relied on well-marked trails and a National Geographic hiking map to show me the way. As I became more familiar with backcountry navigation and gained a sense of what I liked, I wanted something more custom and began leaving the guide at home to craft my own routes by using the map to connect trails and form my own adventures.
Fast-forward several years. Looking to try out long distance hiking and add some adventure to backpacking, I decided to hike the Sierra High Route. I flew to California with a set of maps, a compass, and a vague idea of what long off-trail miles and backcountry navigation were like. For the next two weeks I bashed my shins, got lost, and rejoiced when I found the trailed sections of the route. I finished the trip at Mono Village with whole new perspective of what backpacking could be.
Have you ever flipped through a guidebook and had a rising sense of tunnel vision? The author’s curated choices of adventures felt like a good starting point when you first moved to town, but now you have a feel for the area and a yearning for an adventure of your own making. If you’re ready to pull the blinders off and open up your horizons, there’s a whole world of custom adventure waiting to be discovered. In this three part-series I’ll walk you through some tools and techniques to make your next trip all your own.
Here’s what we’re getting into today:
Part I. trip planning using Caltopo and Gaia GPS
selecting map layers
showing realtime data overlays
saving pre-trip notes
printing maps with Caltopo
downloading notes and maps to Gaia GPS for offline use
In future articles, we’ll cover:
Part II. taking notes and saving your trip history
Part III. summary of favorite backcountry mapping tools
Note: screenshots and pricing information are current May 2019
plan your trip with Caltopo
The first step I take when planning a backcountry trip is to create a map. A good map allows me to visualize the trip and get a feel for the terrain. Caltopo (www.caltopo.com) is an excellent tool for this. It provides:
a wealth of map information available in layers
realtime data to overlay on the map (Snotel, weather forecast)
excellent route plotting tools (snap to trails, route summary statistics)
a powerful print function
easy map sharing and collaboration
most features available for free
While Caltopo’s functionality is excellent, it’s not particularly intuitive. To get some experience with the features you’re likely to need to plan your own trip, I’ll take you through the steps I used to build a map for a recent hut-skiing trip to the Wallowa Mountains in NE Oregon.
Navigate to Caltopo and log-in to allow you to save your map
Save your map and changes will be made as you work
Select layers so relevant information is visible. For a ski trip like this, I find the following work well:
Forest Service Topo map as a base map (USGS 7.5’ works well in areas not mapped by the Forest Service)
slope angle shading to identify avalanche terrain and aid in finding good pitches to ski
Realtime SnoTel information to show snowpack and temperature history
select maps to use, realtime data to show
To access and customize layers in Caltopo, use the right sidebar:
save pre-trip notes
Toggle map layers and other information on/off as you build your map, and use markers to take notes of relevant information that will be visible no matter what map layer you’re viewing. In this example, I found a Sno-Park location using a Google map layer, and made a note of it so it would show up on my final map, which uses the FS Topo as a primary map layer. Other notes to consider are information from guidebooks, trip reports, and important landmarks along your route (passes, peaks, etc.)
The following map shows notes made in advance of our hut trip.
Now that you’ve made your notes, let’s take ‘em to the field!
print maps with Caltopo
For longer trips I print paper versions of the maps in addition to downloading maps to my phone. For technical navigation 11x17 paper maps work better than a phone screen due to their larger area and fixed scale.
Caltopo’s printing interface produces quality PDFs that include scale and magnetic declination. It’s a bit clunky, but worth learning if your goal is to plan your own backcountry trips. Caltopo article on how to print maps.
Notes for good-looking prints
Use 11x17 page size (requires paid account) and 1:24,000 scale. 8.5x11 prints can be made for free but their small size limits utility. Most topo maps are designed to be printed at 1:24,000, and legibility suffers if printed above 1:36,000
select ‘Geospatial PDF’ for easy printing
note: PDF maps can be imported to the Avenza Maps app, see how-to: free slope-angle maps for your phone for more information
Where to print
Precision Images in Portland offers quick printing and free pickup as well as shipping. They’ll print on ‘write-in-the-rain’ waterproof paper and will print, trim, and have maps ready for pickup in a couple of hours for a few dollars a page. If you’re not in Portland and need prints quickly, FedEx Office offers easy printing through their website with option to pickup prints from a local store.
downloading notes and maps to Gaia GPS for offline use
Note - skip to step 3 in this section if you’re not looking to export notes from Caltopo
1. Exporting your GPX notes from Caltopo
GPX files store geospatial information in the form of waypoints and tracks. To export them from Caltopo:
Select the points and tracks for export:
When you click ‘export’ a gpx file will be downloaded to your computer.
2. Importing to Gaia - see this Gaia article on transferring GPX files from computer to phone
3. Downloading relevant maps for offline access - see this Gaia article on downloading offline maps
Alright! After staring at a computer screen for a few hours getting all that together I bet you’re ready to get outside. Stay tuned for part two, where we’ll kick up some dirt and scribble some notes on our grubby maps before saving our notes for our next trip. See you next week!