Monday, May 30, 2016

Downloadable Garmin GPS Maps

At the beginning of 2015, I tried selling statewide BirdsEye(TM)-format maps on MicroSD cards.  Because Garmin locks your GPS's firmware, you need to install an unlocked copy in order get maps from anywhere other than their paid BirdsEye subscription service.  A naked cash grab if there ever was one; Garmin would apparently prefer to milk its captive market while it can, rather than take steps which might delay or prevent smartphones from eating the consumer GPS market for lunch.

At any rate, the locked firmware is enough to prevent someone like me from selling map cards through a major retailer.  Sales from the CalTopo store were never huge, and always seemed to come at inconvenient times, like when I was on vacation or similarly indisposed.  Because I was selling physical products, an annoying degree of paperwork was required to report marginal amounts of sales tax.  I was always worried about losing a thumbdrive in the mail, or sending it to the wrong address due to a typo.

It's past time for me to move away from selling physical products.  Instead, all of the JNX files I'd sold on thumbdrives and SD cards are now available as downloads to pro-level subscribers.  Simply click on the new downloads tab of your account dialog, and then on an individual layer link

Newer maps are broken up into 1 degree by 1 degree blocks, and named based on the southeast corner.  Older maps have custom boundaries as illustrated here and here.

Although this is only available to pro-level subscribers, a 1-year pro subscription costs the same as the SD cards I was selling, but gives you access to all the maps rather than just one state.


Friday, May 27, 2016

Go North - Alaska Gets (Partial) Elevation Data

The USGS has been adding portions of Alaska to the National Elevation Dataset (NED), and although coverage isn't anywhere near complete, I finally decided it was time to pull the trigger on an initial buildout of elevation data for Alaska.

current coverage footprint
The buildout includes:

  • Normal and enhanced relief
  • 40' contours
  • Elevation data
  • DEM shading, viewsheds and sunlight analysis
  • View from here
  • Fixed and gradient slope shading

Denali looks kind of mellow until you turn on slope angle shading, at which point the West Buttress route becomes a little more obvious.

My viewshed and sunlight layers, as well as the view from here feature, assume that nothing is higher than about 14k, as a performance optimization feature.  So for the moment, the view of Denali from Hunter looks a little messed up:

I still don't have canopy and or land coverage data for Alaska or Hawaii, so while I can display terrain stats, those fields are blank:

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

New Help System

Answering emails has become a growing part of my daily routine, and I've been looking for ways to cut back.  A support forum felt like the obvious answer, but I didn't want to force people to signup for forum accounts, and it would be nice if private account issues could be handled in the same place as public UI questions.

I recently discovered Tender (, not to be confused with the food-dating tender smartphone app), and it looks like a good fit.  Forum-based discussions that anyone can chime in on, email integration, and the ability to set conversations as either public or private.

There's now a new help and support site up at, with a discussion forum and soon-to-be-expanded knowledge base.  Once the kinks are worked out, I'll start routing emails there as well, so that I can make useful conversations public.

Friday, April 1, 2016

New Zealand Topo Coverage

One of the advantages of shifting to a paid, commercial model is that it gives you cash to spend on things.  In one my first expenditures beyond CalTopo's regular operating costs, I've acquired a copy of's tile set, expanding scanned topo coverage to New Zealand.

As with coverage for Canada, none of the elevation based layers - shaded relief, slope angle shading, etc - work in New Zealand.  You're limited to the government produced topo layer, although the small / interactive profile will still work as it uses Google's elevation data.

As with Canada, these maps have been seamlessly integrated with the "USGS 7.5' Topos" layer; there isn't a separate NZ-specific option.  No comment as to when or if CalTopo might expand to other countries, although it certainly helps if there are ready-to-go tilesets, rather than me having to stitch together innumerable PDF scans.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Auto Routing

While the freehand drawing tool helps, it's never been easy to plan long-distance trail hikes using CalTopo.  The only two ways to get realistic mileage estimates were to painstakingly trace over the map, or import someone else's GPS tracks.

By piggybacking on the MapBuilder database, CalTopo now has an auto-routing feature.  There are still a few quirks to work out, and at least until that happens, I'm leaving the feature off by default.

Start by creating a line, the same way as always:

Once you're in drawing mode, there's a new "snap to" option at the top right of the screen, next to the layer control:

As the names suggest, None turns the feature off, OSM uses OpenStreetMap data, and USFS uses Forest Service data.  With auto-routing enabled, roads and trails show on the map as semi-transparent black lines:

To begin routing, click one of the segments (it will turn red when you mouse over):

Once you are snapped to a segment, mousing over additional segments will automatically create a routable line.

Mouse back out and you'll see the traditional straight drawing tool:

Unlike typical routing tools that require you to specify start, end and mid points, this makes it easy to jump between trails and cross-country travel within the same route.  Some of the known quirks at this point include:

  • Roads and trails need to have a common vertex for the auto-router to recognize that they intersect, so some of the solutions it comes up with will not be optimal travel routes.  Think of it as "auto drawing" rather than "auto routefinding".
  • Some OSM trailheads have small gaps between the road and the trail; the auto-router will not properly jump between these.
  • For performance reasons, only 2000 lines are pulled back at once.  At wide zoom levels, the road/trail network shown will probably be incomplete.
  • Computations can lock up the browser for several seconds, especially when scrolling to a new coverage area.   Clicking on the map during these lock-ups causes the auto-router to loose track of the line you were snapped to.

Accurate trail mileages are an issue that comes up constantly, and there's no easy answer.  However, I thought the JMT would be a good test case.  In the summer of 2014, I had to plot a JMT route by modifying some PCT GPS tracks available online.  This time I was able to trace it out in a couple minutes using the auto-routing tool; the slowest part was making sure I stayed on the JMT proper rather than a nearby variation.

routing mid-trail

The CalTopo-drawn line was 210 miles to Whitney Portal, vs the official number of 221.  So about 5% short, which doesn't seen too bad.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Custom Layers

For advanced users, CalTopo offers a number of custom layers: MapBuilder, viewsheds, sunlight, scanned maps, DEM-based shading and third-party WMS and tile sources.  A persistent issue with these layers is that they are tied to either the map you are working on, or the URL of a blank page.  It's easy to go wild customizing them, and then suddenly find yourself starting from scratch with a new map.

In a long overdue solution, you can now save custom layers to your account.  Every custom layer dialog has a "Save To Account" link at the bottom which adds that layer to your account:

As with maps, these layers are listed on a tab on the account dialog:

And shown in a separate section of either the layer dropdown or the overlay list, depending on how the layer is configured:

Additionally, for subscribers, these layers will show up in your KML SuperOverlay File, or for pro users, WMS or WMTS Service:

A viewshed overlay in Earth
Sunlight analysis viewed in Earth

Friday, January 29, 2016

Improved Google Earth Integration

A lot of people use Google Earth to supplement CalTopo's route planning features.  Given that, I'm happy to announce a big step forward in integration between the two.

First, the export menu now has two Earth options - the traditional KML file, and a KML network link, which provides for automatic syncing between Earth and your CalTopo map.  When you open the network link file in Earth, changes get pulled from CalTopo every 10 seconds - move a marker or draw a new line, and boom, it will appear in Earth within seconds.

Data only syncs one direction; changes made in Earth will not be picked up by CalTopo.

The second big change is better layer integration.  I've always provided a few "super overlay" files for loading topos into Earth, but it was an obscure feature limited to a handful of layers.  Now, basic and pro subscribers have access to an improved file, located on the account tab of the account dialog.

Download this file, open it in Earth, and you can pull in a wide variety of CalTopo layers, including previously-inaccessible transparent ones.

A few examples:

Desolation Wilderness with the MapBuilder Overlay layer
Slope angle shading on a popular Tahoe backcountry ski spot

Public/private land boundaries