Two Letters Re: Aids to Mapping Your G.O.O.D. Routes

We live at our retreat full time in a very rural county in Virginia. Without going into detail, I’ve had conversations with the locals and my sense is that the road signs will disappear if things where to go south. The locals don’t need them and don’t really care to have folks around that would need them.

So if your plan is to go somewhere then you had better drive it before hand, in fact you should have several different ways. Make a notebook of your turns by intersection count and visible landmarks (that can not be moved). Or you may find yourself on the “white edge of the map” — that is an old aviator’s term. – RH in Virginia


I saw someone mentioned Delorme’s Topo Map product in Thursday’s blog, and I wanted to let you in on a great (and free-to-use) program called USA PhotoMaps. The program is donation-ware, unlimited except for one nag screen which is removed if you donate. It allows you to download Topo Maps and Aerial Photos for any location in the continental US — all free from Microsoft’s Terraserver. I use the program extensively for planning hikes and plotting trails. The program can be used with a GPS to track your location real-time, and it’s got a lot of other bells and whistles. One nice feature is the ability to load in freely available Tiger Street overlay data so that roads on the Aerial Photos or topo maps can be quickly identified. The software won’t automatically calculate routes for you like the Delorme program will, and it is written by one guy so support is limited, but you can’t beat the price. I’ve found it to be a very valuable addition to my laptop. The program can be downloaded from the author’s web site.

While I’m on the subject of software, I should mention one other niche program that’s very useful for keeping a database of locations. The program is called the Geocaching Swiss Army Knife (GSAK). It was designed for geocachers to keep track of coordinates for their geocaches, but it can be used with any coordinate-based location data. I use it to mark the locations of caves, gun clubs, hiking trails, and any other special places I might want to go. GSAK is designed to load and retrieve waypoints from any GPS than can be connected to a computer. All waypoints can be plotted on maps, viewed in Google Earth, or viewed in USA Photomaps. A little setup/tweaking is necessary to make full use of the program, but it’s loaded with features including an extremely powerful macro language. With GSAK I can load my GPS full of locations I need to navigate to in just a minute or so. Anyone who needs a location based database with full GPS integration should check out GSAK. It’s available from and is shareware with a lengthy demo period and $25 registration fee.

And for those who aren’t familiar with the GPS navigation-based hobby known as geocaching, they can learn more about it at The skills learned through geocaching like navigating via GPS, reading topo maps and aerial photos may one day prove useful for much more than just fun and games. Thanks for your blog sir, I enjoy reading it. – Doug in Pennsylvania

JWR Replies: Thanks for mentioning those sites. Along the same lines as geocaching, I highly recommend the sport of orienteering–organized by the US Orienteering Federation. (There is a similar organizsation in the UK.) This is more intellectually challenging than most GPS-based sports, since you will use traditional map and compass for land navigation. You’ll learn how to do calculate magnetic declination offsets, intersection, resection, and so forth, all under time pressure. And, like the more extreme forms of GPS sports, it is essentially a race, so you need to move with a purpose. This makes it great exercise, too.