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Coolest Products -2

How quickly have we opened our mouths and inserted a foot. Right after professing in Coolest Products – 1 that we rarely see things at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Show that really knock our socks off, we saw something that promises to do just that.

Topo! Explorer, an Internet map website being launched by National Geographic in April, rates as the coolest thing we saw at the show this year. We previewed a beta version of the website and it could change how many of us view maps, purchase maps, and obtain our guidebook and geographic information.

The foundation of this website is the ability for visitors to seamlessly view topographic maps in various scales (including the 1:24,000 scale used for 7.5-minute quadrangles) of the entire country. You can search and go immediately to specific features (e.g., Mt. Stuart) or you can pull up a known place and then start scrolling maps. In fact, if you had time to squander, you could pull up Seattle and then seamlessly scroll 7.5-minute maps across the screen until you reached Bangor, Maine. That’s perhaps a tedious cross-country trip yet still amazing.

On top of this, a sliding tab can fade-out any map you’re viewing and fade-in the aerial photograph of exactly the same terrain. Toggle half way and you’ll see a composite image of the topographic map and the aerial photograph from which it was made melded together—it’s an interesting way to view the landscape. Or toggle so the picture is completely visible and hit another tab and every fifth topographic line is superimposed over the picture. Do this with Mt. Rainier and you see the exact elevation of certain crevasse fields and gain a better appreciation for just how big some of those cracks are. Phenomenal. 

Another phenomenon is the ease with which pictures, videos, trip reports, and guidebook information can all be pinned to these maps in the way that you can currently pin photos to the aerial images found on Google Earth. If users of the website embrace this feature and actually start loading these topo maps with such material, we’ll all have instant, free, access to guidebook information for the entire country. Perhaps next year when I want to go backcountry skiing in Utah after the Outdoor Retailer Show, I’ll visit the website, zoom in on Big Cottonwood Canyon, see that there is guidebook information associated with a ski tour up Mt. Kessler, and print the route information and the map for that tour.

This year when we skied Kessler the day following the show, a local skier gave us a landmark to look for as we drove up the canyon marking the start of the tour, then he gave us the verbal lowdown on how to ascend the peak. A printed description of the route and a printed map of the peak would have given us far more comfort.

Printing is, in fact, another free feature of Topo! Explorer. If you want a route description attached to a map, the map itself, or the aerial photograph of the area, you can print the full screen.  If you have a big screen, you get a big map – not some unusable 3-inch by 3-inch map tile that some other Internet map sites give away.

Of course a screen is not nearly as big as a full-sized USGS quad and if you want the entire quad of an area so that you can work with it on your computer, print sections of the quad that are larger than your screen dimensions, overlay the map with route and bearing markings, or load the map into a GPS unit, you’ll now be able to download individual maps of any quad in the country for $1. It’s the iTunes model brought to maps. And it could be the death knell of traditional maps, which cost $6 per quad which you must run down to the store to purchase. Theoretically, it users populate the site with rich where-to information and trip reports, it could also be the death knell of guidebooks and many where-to Internet websites…sites like Wenatchee Outdoors.

(Note: Once Topo! Explorer launches in April, we’ll remind you of this site and let you know how the site, running on the web at Internet speeds, matches up to a beta-version of the software running off a demonstration computer.)