January 28, 2008

TOPO! Explorer Web Site Coming Soon

This is exciting news! I recently learned that National Geographic is working on a new internet-based application, called TOPO! Explorer, that will allow you to browse detailed topographic maps, aerial photography, and a hybrid version of the two. The new site, which will be found at www.topo.com, is set to launch this May.

The site will also include a large trails database full of content from government agencies, National Geographic and their partner organizations, and outdoor enthusiasts. When they launch the new site, they expect to have nearly 10,000 unique files available to download. This is really exciting, because if you live in an area like I do (the greater San Francisco Bay Area), with hundreds and hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails available, then you’re no doubt frustrated by the variability and limited availability of good trail maps for the different park and open space areas, which all seem to be under the jurisdiction of a multitude of different agencies. It will be wonderful having essentially a one-stop shop for good, National Geographic-quality trail maps.

According to National Geographic, “TOPO! Explorer raises the bar to unparalleled levels with the creation of a platform that launches a national trails database that any trail, outing club, or enthusiast can give and get from. As a small example of the content to be had at launch, we’ve digitized every Trails Illustrated map in our collection and will provide the POI and resulting trails database as a free download.”

The site will also have available what National Geographic calls “SuperQuads”. Each SuperQuad is comprised of seven layers, including genuine USGS 1:24,000-, 1,100:000- and 1:250,000- scale topographic maps, i-cubed aerial photography, TeleAtlas roads, geographic names and elevation models, and their new HybridQuad that combines aerial photography and topographic line work. SuperQuads can be freely browsed on the Web and are available for purchase via download for $1.00 each.

In addition, the site will include the following features:

  • Ability to search for street addresses.
  • KML (Google Earth format) import, and full GPX support (import/export)
  • GPS Auto-Connect, which enables you to browse the contents of a GPS unit much like an iPod and then move just what you want to your library, versus having to import everything.

Sounds like this will be the iTunes of Topo maps. Can’t wait!

January 23, 2008

Paperless Geocaching, Part II

Last time we mentioned how programs like CacheMate allow you to load geocache listings onto your PDA, thus eliminating the need to bring geocaching.com print outs on your cache hunts. So all you need to pack is a PDA and a GPSr. If, however, you happen to have a GPS-enabled mobile device, then you have almost everything you need (except the water and the trade items) all in one device.

Not too long ago, Trimble developed the “GeocacheNavigator” program which, according to the web site, “is linked directly to Geocaching.com's geocache listings and provides you with real-time access to caches near your location. Your GPS enabled cell phone becomes both your browser for accessing listings of caches and your GPS unit for navigating to them.”

The newest toy to arrive on the seen is the Garmin Colorado series of GPSr units. These are not GPS-enabled mobile phones, but instead, geocaching-enabled GPS receivers. These devices come pre-loaded with different types of maps (depending which model you buy), and allow you to download geocaching.com cache listings directly to the unit. You can also send and receive waypoints, tracks, and geocaching data with other Colorado users.

The Colorado also comes with the new “Whereigo” player pre-installed. Whereigo is the brain child of the folks at Groundspeak (geocaching.com developers). According to the web site, “Wherigo is a toolset for creating and playing GPS-enabled adventures in the real world. Use GPS technology to guide you to physical locations and interact with virtual objects and characters.” Since it requires either a GPS-enabled pocketPC, or a device like the Garmin Colorado, to play, we’ll have to wait and see if this idea takes off.

An event cache being hosted by Garmin and Groundspeak on Feb. 2nd will give attendees an opportunity to try out the new Colorado and Whereigo application. If you’re in the area, you might want to check it out.

January 21, 2008

Paperless Geocaching, Part I

In the old days (way back in 2003/04), when “gearing up” for a typical geocaching outing, you had to bring everything and the kitchen sink. At a minimum, you needed your GPSr device, and hard-copy printouts from geocaching.com containing the cache information for all of the cache sites you intended to visit that day. It was also a good idea to bring a cell phone for three reasons: (1) for safety, (2) to call the cache owner or recent cache finder for an extra hint for that hard-to-find cache, and (3) to phone home and inform your spouse that you’re going to be late for dinner because there’s one more cache that you just have to find. And of course, you need to bring water, snacks, camera, cache trade items, and extra GPSr batteries.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in the geocaching world was the advent of programs like CacheMate that allow you to load all of the cache listing information you want from geocaching.com onto a PDA or other electronic device. Not only does this free you from having to carry around reams of paper, but you can basically load an entire pocket query worth of caches onto your PDA device so you’ll have all the cache information for hundreds of caches right at your fingertips. It provides you the ability to enter your log information into your device from the field, and then upload your entry directly to geocaching.com when you return home to your computer.

Of course, if you have a Smartphone or PocketPC, you can simply visit the geocaching.com web site from your mobile device and get the cache information directly. But often times you’ll be caching in areas with poor or no phone signal, which makes having cache listings pre-loaded on your device a must. More on this topic in the next post.

January 16, 2008

GPS On Your Bike

As I mentioned in the first post, I really prefer geocaching on my mountain bike, and tend to look for caching opportunities that lend themselves to this mode of travel. I even got myself one of these...

… which allows me to mount my Garmin GPS 12 to my bike. Now I no longer have to try to steer and hold the GPSr at the same time (not recommended). Bike mounting accessories are available for most brands and models of GPS receivers.

January 14, 2008

Best Outing Ever

The next time you are up in the Lake Tahoe area and conditions are favorable, I highly recommend you ride or hike the flume trail for both the geocaches hidden along various sections of the trail, and for one of the most spectacular hiking/biking experiences you’ll ever enjoy.

There were five caches hidden along this famous trail when I rode it in late November, 2007 (and they’re all still there as of this post), including a virtual cache and a webcam cache. If you begin your adventure at the Spooner Lake trail head (as I did), you can immediately take advantage of the webcam cache right out of the gate. Following is a list of the caches along the trail, from south to north. In addition, if you look up any of these caches on the Geocaching.com web site, check the “Bookmark Lists” in the right-hand column for one called “Flume Trail”. If you click on this link, you’ll be taken to another page where you can download all the coordinates, and/or set up a pocket query, for all five caches.

1. Great Flume Trail WebCam

2. Spooner’s East

3. Marlette Lake Cache

4. Blasted Flume Cache

5. Ponderosa Ranch Relic

Finally, check out this link to a customized Google Maps page that contains a map of the cache locations, and the GPS tracks from the trail ride: My Maps

Here are some of the pictures from the outing:

North Canyon Road Trail

The Summit. All down hill from here.

Marlette Lake

Ye Be Warned - Here comes the really fun part.

Sand Harbor: Typical view from the trail.

Near the "Blasted Flume Cache"

For more information about the flume trail to help you plan your trip, visit the flume trail web site.

January 9, 2008

Setting Useful Search Criteria

If you just want to see a list of all the geocaches within a given radius of your city center (based on your zip code), then the main “Hide and Seek” page on geocaching.com is adequate for the task. But at some point after you’ve found a fair number of the geocaches closest to your home, you’re probably going to want to perform a more customized search that limits the results to just the closest caches that you haven’t found yet. You can accomplish this by using geocaching.com’s “advance search options”, available by clicking on the link of the same name near the bottom, left-hand side of the “Hide and Seek” page.

Now you can type in your zip code, check the box that says, “Exclude hidden/found items from results”, click the “seek” button, and presto; you’ve got a list of all the nearest geocaches still waiting for you to find.

You can add even more precession by entering your home coordinates instead of your zip code by selecting the coordinates option in the drop down menu.

At this point you’re probably thinking, wow, this is great, but I don’t want to have to type in my entire latitude and longitude every time I want to run this search. Well, you don’t have to. If you’ve paid your $30 Groundspeak membership fee, then you can create a pocket query (more about this in future posts) with even more advanced filtering options, and even save the query. After you set up the query, run it to see what the results look like, and then bookmark it! Better yet, drag the browser icon from the URL address bar down to your browser’s link tool bar, and you’ll always have instant access to an updated list of your closest, un-found geocaches.

January 6, 2008

Getting Started

Before we discuss setting up personalized searches in geocaching.com, let’s take a step back and instead address the basics of geocaching for the benefit of those of you who are just starting, or thinking of starting, to take up this wonderful hobby. To start geocaching, you only need two things: (1) a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, and (2) access to a web site that provides the coordinates of these hidden treasures, or geocaches. You also need a means of transferring or entering the geocache coordinates into your GPS receiver (future topic).

Let’s assume you already have a GPSr and now take a look at item number two above. There are several web sites that provide geocache listings, but Geocaching.com has the largest database of caches and users, and provides the most features. This is the web site we’ll be referencing and using in this blog, but to satisfy your curiosity, I’ve provided links to a few of the other cache listing sites below.

Go ahead and enter your zip code in the search box in Navicache and then in Geocaching.com and compare the results to see which site provides the larger list of geocaches.

At some point you’ll need to decide whether or not you want to fork out the $30 per year for a premium membership at geocaching.com. When I first stared geocaching in 2003, the difference in features between a basic (free) geocaching.com account and the premium account was not that significant. Now, however, the number and type of features available to premium members is far greater. Just being able to create and save personalized geocache searches, called “pocket queries”, is well worth the price of admission. For a list of all the other benefits that a premium membership allows, please visit the geocaching.com subscription page.

Finally, if you are new to geocaching, there is a plethora of helpful information on geocaching.com’s “getting started” web page, including FAQs, a GPS buying guide, a glossary, history, and support information. Rather than repeating all that information here, I’ll simply refer you to that site.

Good luck and happy caching!

January 5, 2008

Hello And Welcome

Welcome to the Geocaching Journal!

The primary intent of this blog is to provide a variety of helpful resources for geocachers. We'll discuss a number of GPS, mapping, and geocaching software, hardware, and online tools that I've found to be useful, and not so useful, over the years. I'll try to share some of my geocaching experiences to the extent that I can help my fellow cachers avoid making some of the same mistakes (as well as enjoy the successes) that I have. I expect that newbie and apprentice cachers might find this blog more useful than those with vast amounts of "finds" under their belts, but my intent is to provide you with information that I wish had been available when I first started geocaching.

While keeping an eye on new tools, technology and related toys as they become available, we'll also maintain a "geocaching on a budget" focus. Finally, I should mention that my favorite mode of caching transport is my mountain bike, but I certainly won't ignore geocaching outings via foot, car, and watercraft.

I welcome your feedback so we can make this a valuable resource for all.

Tomorrow we'll start by looking at a couple of geocaching.com searches you can set up and save so you'll always have quick access to the list of the newest and the closest geocaches.

Best Regards,