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Backpacker Magazine – May 2010
If you think you missed the age of exploration and discovery, you haven't tried the latest mapping tools. Join our tech scout as he learns how to hike like a cartographer--and sees the wilderness in an entirely new way.DOWNLOAD THE GOOGLE MAP>>
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Use our cheat sheet to get mapping.
The first map of Bainbridge Island, Washington,was created by George Vancouver, one of the last of the British Empire's great seafaring cartographers. In the spring of 1792, Vancouver dropped anchor at a rocky point near the island's southern end and sent his men out to map the meandering coastline. Using sextants and marine chronometers--the GPS units of the day--Vancouver and his men produced coastal charts so accurate that they were used for the next half century.
Vancouver's accuracy was widely renowned but it wasn't perfect. He and his men missed the minor detail that the island that would later be called Bainbridge was, in fact, an island. As mistakes go, that's a big one. But it wasn't even Vancouver's most famous whiff. A few weeks earlier he and his crew sailed right past the Columbia River and failed to note its presence.
It's instructive to keep Vancouver's screw-ups in mind when undertaking a mapping project. Cartography, as practiced for centuries, was a rarefied skill that combined science, art, adventure, and luck. In Vancouver's era, it was often much more difficult--and important--than anything else an explorer did. To map a place was to prove it existed.
In that light, we live in an unprecedented moment in the history of mapping. Until recently, you essentially had one choice: Head to the local retailer or ranger station, buy whatever map was available, roll it up. But today, a massive merging of technologies--everything from GPS to digital photography and video, 3G wireless, Google Earth, GIS layering, smartphone apps, and on-demand map and even book publishing--has radically democratized the world of cartography. GPS units and smartphones can track a hiker's movements with spooky precision. Google Earth offers a satellite view of the planet as a blank template on which to layer routes, waypoints, photos, video, links, and text annotations. Websites like MyTopo.com let you create your own custom waterproof maps using detailed USGS quads as a base layer. You can even hand-draw your own maps entirely from scratch with software like MapDiva's Ortelius. With instant publishing sites like blurb.com, you can bundle it all into your own hardcover guidebook--shiny jacket, author photo, and all--and have it delivered to your buddy's door within a week. Imagine what Vancouver would give to have a do-over with today's cartography tools.
What's now possible is the ability to map any patch of land you can put your boots on, from remotest Alaska to your own backyard. And more--the ability to map those places with unprecedented detail, allowing any average Joe to engage in a revolutionary intimacy with any landscape he desires. For me, the desire has been local: to make my new home feel like home.
Last summer, I decided to put these new tools to the test by hiking my way around the coast of Bainbridge Island and mapping it as I went. George Vancouver might have made the first map of the island, but I would make the last. Or at least the latest. And if a guy with zero cartographic experience could take on one of history's greatest explorers, imagine what you could do in your own favorite park or wilderness.