Monday, December 22, 2014

Are There Any Backpackers Out There?

No, I don't mean world travellers who stuff everything into a single giant backpack and hop around the world by airliner. I mean people with boots on the ground, hiking into remote areas for two or more days.

Recently I revisited the western end of the Superstition Mountains in central Arizona. The "Sups" as local hikers call them, have special memories for me, because it was the place I started backpacking as a teenager. Before I was old enough to drive, my parents would take me and a couple of my high school friends out to one of the trail heads and drop us off, returning four days or a week later to pick us up. My mom wasn't a soccer mom, she was a trailhead mom, and believe me, that required a lot more driving.

Of course, I soon had a car and a drivers license. I was supposed to use the car to commute to and from university classes, but, funny thing, it soon became a wilderness approach vehicle. Every school holiday was an excuse to go backpacking, usually in the Sups because the Superstition Mountains were the closest wilderness area.

My friends and I pretty much had the backcountry to ourselves, except for a few remnant miners and prospectors searching for the fabled Lost Dutchman gold mine. Then came the backacking boom of the seventies. Pretty soon popular camping areas were crowded with tents and tarps, and formerly obscure trails became well-beaten paths. Although we missed the uncrowded days, it was good to see all those people getting out.

I never did care for day hiking. As Colin Fletcher said, day hiking is like sticking your toes in the sea and backpacking is like diving in. I like the camping part of backpacking as much as the hiking. Watching a sunset while scarfing down dinner, seeing the sky grow light while the comforting blue flame of my little stove heats up hot chocolate for breakfast, and then watching the sun explode onto the surrounding canyon walls just as I swing my pack onto my back- those things are lost to the day hiker.

Fast forward to the 21st century. I've become a reluctant day hiker. I've written so many hiking guides that I'm constantly revising them- and revisions often mean I need new photos of the trails, as well as GPS mapping. I can cover a lot more ground day hiking so a lot of my photo/mapping trips are day hikes.

So there I was, hiking in the western Sups again, only this time day hiking. It was truly weird to be hiking fast past campsites where me and my friends had woken up to the sound of a canyon wren. Or where a friend and I had hurriedly abandoned our plans to camp when a large, striped skunk made an appearance before camp was set up. We knew there would be no sleep at that overused site, so we took off and hike up onto a ridge by headlamp so we could camp where no one had camped before. Or not much, anyway.

There were no backpackers. None. Two miles in from a trailhead, I had the place to myself, apparently having hiking beyond the range of the other day hikers. The trails faded from overuse, eroded treads to narrow, little-used paths. Yet, returning to the trailhead in late afternoon, my car would be lost among a hundred others. Where are all these hikers? Less than two miles from the trailhead.

You people have no clue what you're missing.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Finally, A Usable Touchscreen Trail GPS

Up until now, I haven't liked touchscreen trail GPS, at least as implemented on the Garmin Oregon series of GPS receivers. I found the Oregon 450 to be slow, unresponsive, and awkward to use. It was impossible to use it with gloves, even thin liner gloves. The screen was hard to see in sunlight. I much preferred the buttons on my old Garmin 76Csx, and later, Garmin 62s.

I never tried the Garmin Montana series as they are just too heavy for backpacking use- and I'm more a backpacker than a day hiker. But even day hiking I like to keep my weight down. Of course, then I load up with with heavy photo gear.

Now, touchscreens have their place. They work well on street GPS receivers, e-book readers (I love the Kindle Paperwhite), tablets, and smartphones.

Enter the Garmin Oregon 600. Garmin claimed a greatly improved, multi-touch screen and a revised user interface. So I ordered one to try. And I'm very pleasantly surprised. The touchscreen is smooth and responsive, like my Android phone and tablet. You can do all the things you expect with a touchscreen, like pinch-zooming and two-fingered rotation. The user interface is logically laid out and very customizable.

As a writer of hiking guides, there are two things I do constantly on my trail GPS- marking waypoints, and recording tracks. On the Garmin 62s, two key presses, Mark and Enter, save a waypoint from any screen. On the old Oregon, saving a waypoint was slow and awkward. First you had to get to the main screen, then touch Mark Waypoint and then touch the save icon. As I said above, this didn't work with gloves.

On the Oregon 600, there are two programmable physical buttons- the power button and the user button. The power button can be set to perform two actions in addition to turning the power on and off, and the user button can perform three actions, depending on whether it is pressed, double-pressed, or long-pressed. By default, a single-press of the user button brings up the Mark Waypoint screen, no matter what screen is displayed. Then touch Save to save the waypoint. Since the Oregon 600's screen works well with liner gloves (though not with thick gloves), it's just as easy to save a waypoint on the 600 as it is on the 62s.

Track recording is where the Oregon 600 really shines. There's a Current Track page that lets you start and stop track recording, and clear and save the track. You can also view track statistics, view the track on the map, and view the track's elevation profile.

In addition, in Track Setup you can set the unit to start recording a track as soon as it acquires satellites, and to automatically pause when you stop moving. This last feature is really useful because it prevents the little random track points that appear around a point where you've stopped. (These are caused by the GPS receiver continuing to record position fixes up to 10 meters away from your actual location, a result of the accuracy limits of GPS.) In the past, I've had to carefully edit downloaded tracks on the computer to eliminate these extra bits of track. In my tests so far, with automatic track pause turned on, the Oregon 600 records a really clean track, compared to the 62s.

I think I'm going to like the Oregon 600- but only some field experience will tell.

I have the two physical buttons programmed as follows:

Power button long press: power on/off (not programmable)
Power button double-press: Main Menu
Power button single-press: Status screen

User button long-press: Current Track screen
User button single-press: Mark Waypoint screen
User button double-press: Start/Stop track recording

There are four models in the Oregon 600 series:

600: Includes all features above, plus tilt-compensated magnetic compass and barometric altimeter

600t: Adds preloaded 1:100,000 U.S. topo maps

650: Adds an 8 megapixel camera

650t: Adds both camera and topo maps

I don't recommend the "t" models because you can get much better 1:24,000 topo maps free from

Buy the Garmin Oregon 600 series on Amazon here.

Monday, November 26, 2012

GPS Accuracy- Who Needs It?

I'm really impressed with the accuracy of my latest GPS receiver, the Garmin eTrex 30. Capable of receiving the Russian GLONASS satellites as well as the aviation WAAS satellites, it has been achieving accuracy of 7 or 8 feet in the few days that I've been testing it. The eTrex 30 seems to consistently be several feet more accurate than my other trail GPS, a Garmin GPSMAP 62s. The 62s can receive the WAAS satellites but not GLONASS.

So what? The guaranteed civilian GPS accuracy of 30 feet is plenty good enough for road, trail, and cross-country navigation. The most accurate maps available (at least in the U.S.), USGS 7.5-minute series topographic maps, are not as accurate as civilian GPS.

If you can't find a trail, road, or campsite when you're within 30 feet of it, your basic wilderness skills need a bit of work.

More accuracy will certainly make it easier to find a geocache, but on the other hand being able to walk right up to a geocache instead of using the written clues to find it seems to take some of the fun out of it. Of course, when you hide a new geocache, you should take advantage of all the accuracy features of your GPS receiver, including WAAS, GLONASS, and waypoint averaging, if your GPS receiver supports them.

The only other time the 30-feet accuracy standard fails to be good enough is when you're hiking and trying to measure trail distance and speed on the GPS receiver. As I've written previously, the track points recorded at walking speed are too scattered to allow the GPS to accurately measure distance and speed. The more accurate your GPS receiver is, the less scattered the track points are, and speed and distance measurements become more accurate. You can improve speed and distance measurements on most GPS receivers by setting it to record less track points, thus averaging out your route.

Far more important than accuracy is the sensitivity of the GPS receiver and the number of satellites it can receive simultaneously. GPS satellites are in 12,000 mile orbits and the signal is extremely weak by the time it reaches the Earth. Also, the radio signals are line-of-sight and are easily blocked by forest cover and buildings.

The first civilian GPS receivers were not nearly as sensitive as current units, and even worse, they multiplexed. Just one receiver channel was available and it was switched through each of the satellites in turn. These receivers rarely worked well if a significant portion of the sky was obstructed. In forest, I'd usually have to stop in a clearing to get a satellite lock.

So what really impresses me about the eTrex 30 and GPSMAP 62s are their ability to lock on to satellites and stay locked on in forest and canyons where the sky is partly obscured. Even the cheapest of the current trail GPS receivers from the major manufacturers all have high-sensitivity receivers that receive 12 or more satellites simultaneously. Since a minimum of 4 satellites are required for an accurate position fix, the newer receivers stay locked on and generate an accurate position fix even when part of the sky is hidden.

The moral of the story is- don't buy an old, used GPS receiver for serious back country navigation. And don't depend on smartphone GPS for the same reason. The GPS in phones is intended to let 911 dispatchers locate you in an emergency, and is not nearly as sensitive as dedicated trail (or street) GPS units.

One more rant- don't hike along staring at your GPS screen! GPS is a very useful tool. It makes my job as a hiking and outdoor guidebook author much easier. I can set the GPS to record a track as I hike, save waypoints at trail junctions and other landmarks, and then download the data and map the trail back at home. But it's all too easy to pay too much attention to your GPS instead of the trail and the (presumeably stunning) scenery you're hiking through. Put the GPS in your pack as a backup and follow the trail!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Ultimate Trail Reader

For those of us that just have to have reading material on a backpack trip, Amazon has started shipping the ultimate book reader, the Kindle Paperwhite. It weighs just 7.8 ounces and has the same 30-hour battery life as the Kindle Touch that it replaces. Like the Touch, the Paperwhite will last through all but the longest wilderness trips.

The Kindle Paperwhite has built-in front lighting so it can be read in anything from full, direct sunlight to a dark and stormy night in a tent. And the lighting doesn't noticeably decrease the battery life, at least in my tests so far.

How does this work? Unlike a tablet or a computer, which have backlit LCD screens, the Kindle Paperwhite uses E Ink technology like the older Kindles. E Ink uses tiny black ink capsules controlled by electric charges to draw the screen, so the page created much like a printed page, with tiny black dots on a white background. The process uses power only when a new page is drawn, so E Ink Kindle's only use power during page turns. In contrast, LCD screens are constantly refreshed so they use much more power.

Since E Ink screens work like a printed page, the brighter the light, the easier it is to read- just like a printed book. LCD tablet screens, which are dependent on backlights, work better under lower light and wash out under bright light. And the LCD backlight uses even more power, so most tablet computers have a battery life of about 8-10 hours.

Until now, reading an E Ink Kindle in the dark required an external light, just as a printed book does. Since we backpackers carry efficient LED flashlights or headlamps these days, that hasn't been a problem. But the Kindle Paperwhite goes this one better with it's built-in LED front lighting. Four white LED's light up the screen from the edges, and a special screen layer "pipes" the light evenly across the screen. With the light off, the screen looks like the older E Ink Kindles, black type on a light gray background. With the light on, the background becomes white and the black type stands out even more. The light can be adjusted different levels with an on-screen touch slider. This Kindle looks more like a printed book than any other e-book reader.

The Kindle Paperwhite comes in two basic models, the Kindle Paperwhite Wi-Fi and the Kindle Paperwhite 3G. Each of those comes with or without Special Offers- adds that appear as "screensavers" when the Kindle is off, and as small banners on the bottom edge of the Home screen when it is on. Ads never appear when you're reading. Most people don;t seem to mind the ads, and many like them because they save money on the discounts offered. I suggest you save the $20 or 30 and buy the Special Offers version, because you can pay the difference at any time and the ads will be removed. As an aside, I have to say I really like the "screensavers" on the models without Special Offers- they are really elegant.

A more important decision is whether to buy the Wi-Fi-only Paperwhite or the 3G model. For wilderness use the difference is not critical since you should have the wireless off most of the time to save the battery. The 3G models use the At&T cell phone data network to allow you to connect to the Kindle Store on Amazon to shop for and download books. The Wi-Fi-only models require you to be in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot. Since most backcountry areas have neither signal, you'll need to make sure you have enough reading material on the Kindle to last the trip. Since the Paperwhite holds more that 1000 books, this shouldn't be a problem!

Personally, I prefer the 3G model so that I don;t have to look for a Wi-Fi hotspot while traveling to and from the trailhead, and on other non-wilderness trips as well.

You'll want a protective case or cover for the Kindle Paperwrite- see my forthcoming post in Travels With Kindle for reviews.

Kindle Paperwhite Wi-Fi, $119 with Special Offers, $139 without
Kindle Paperwhite Wi-Fi plus 3G, $179 with Special Offers, $199 without

Monday, July 9, 2012

Arizona Summer Hikes

As an Arizona-based hiker, I often get asked where to hike in the state. Usually I'm asked by summer visitors. While summer is the prime hiking and backpacking season on most parts of the United States, it is NOT the best season in Arizona- unless you like hiking in a kiln. We're talking about desert temperatures of 115 F and 2% humidity.

Fall and spring- and even winter in the desert- are the best times to hike in Arizona, But since we can't control the seasons, what to do?

One caution- this post is not a hiking guide to specific trails. I've already written plenty of those- see my booklist. Instead, I'm going to point you to state regions and activities that make sense in the summer.

Actually, Arizona is not all desert, contrary to the Hollywood-TV image. Elevations ranges from 70 feet to 12,633 feet. And there is a lot of Arizona above 8,000 feet, where the highest summer temperatures rarely reach 90 F and high 70's are common. The four major high elevations of the state are the Kaibab Plateau, the San Francisco Peaks, the White Mountains, and the sky island mountain ranges in southeast Arizona.

Forming the highest portion of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the Kaibab Plateau rises to just under 10,000 feet and is covered with a beautiful mixed forest of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, blue spruce, and quaking aspen, broken by alpine meadows. The Kaibab National Forest contains about 75% of the plateau and features plenty of hiking trails, the most famous of which is the 800-mile Arizona Trail. The south end of the Plateau is in Grand Canyon National Park and has some especially scenic hiking trails.

The San Francisco Peaks has the highest summit in the state and rises about 1,000 feet above timberline. An extensive network of trails covers the mountain and its nearby satellite mountains- see my book Hiking Northern Arizona for plenty of suggestions.

Eastern Arizona's White Mountains is the states second highest mountain area, topping out at the 11420-foot summit of Mount Baldy Mountain creeks tumble down from the rounded summits, forming the headwaters of most of Arizona's rivers. Much of the area lies above 9,000 feet and never gets really hot. There are many hiking trails, including two trails to the summit of Mount Baldy. To the east of the White Mountains, the Blue Range Primitive Area straddles the Arizona-New Mexico state line and offers some superb wilderness backpacking at elevations from 5,000 to 9,000 feet.

The basin and range country of southern Arizona reaches its culmination in the isolated sky island mountain ranges in the Tucson area and to the south and east. Several ranges reach above 9,000 feet and offer a network of high elevation trails. The summit area of the Santa Catalina Mountains is reachable by paved road, as the the high ridge of the Pinaleno Mountains. Both ranges have plenty of trails and backcountry wilderness. The Chiricahua Mountains are a bit more remote, though a good dirt road leads to a high elevation trailhead at Rustler Park at the north edge of the wilderness.

For hikes in the White Mountains and southeast sky islands, have a look at my state-wide hiking guide, Hiking Arizona.

Another great summer activity is canyoneering, the sport of descending desert canyons. Because most canyon descents in Arizona involve a lot of wading and swimming, they are best done during the summer when the water is a tolerable temperature and the warm air temperatures make it fun to get wet. Although some canyons require technical means such as rappelling to traverse, others require just swimming and floating your pack. See Todd Martin's book,  Arizona Technical Canyoneering, for descriptions of some of Arizona's classic canyons.

Late summer, July through September, is the monsoon season in Arizona, when tropical moisture moves in from the Gulf of Mexico and sets off almost daily afternoon thunderstorms over the mountains. When the monsoon is active, plan your hikes for the morning hours and get off exposed ridges and summits  before the clouds start to build. Temperatures can drop 50 F during a thundershower, and heavy rain can cause canyons and drainages to flood. Avoid camping in dry streambeds and stay out of slot canyons during the monsoon.

With this post I'm introducing a new subject- where to hike in Arizona by season. Although my published books break out hikes by season, I'm going to offer a few specific suggestions here.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Finding the Trailhead with GPS

Navigating to a trailhead with GPS is not as simple as it sounds because most street GPS receivers don't have trailheads in their points-of-interest (POI) databases, unless the trailhead is located at a park or other general attraction. And street GPS mapping, while remarkably good for highways, county roads, and city streets is often poor for back roads, especially in the western U.S. And finally, when street mapping does show back roads, it often doesn't distinguish between maintained, gravel dirt roads that are passable to most cars and unmaintained roads that often need a high-clearance or four-wheel drive vehicle to travel. Trail GPS units don't do road navigation unless you buy optional street maps, and then you still have the limitations of street mapping.

The solution to this problem involves a bit of planning at home before trying to find a backcountry trailhead at the start of your wilderness adventure. Just look at it as an extension of the planning for the wilderness part of the trip, where you're traveling on foot, by paddle, or other self-propelled means. The secret is to use a variety of resources to solve the problems:

  • Locating the coordinates of the trailhead
  • Finding the best route to the trailhead
  • Setting up your GPS receiver to navigate the route to the trailhead
  • Determining if you need a four-wheel-drive vehicle
Unless you're planning to depart cross-country from an unusual starting point, these days you can find descriptions of trailheads and driving directions in guidebooks. Newer guidebooks often publish the GPS coordinates, so all you have to do is type them into your GPS receiver and save the trailhead as a named waypoint. If the coordinates aren't published, use the guidebook description and an online or computer topo map or Google Earth to locate the trailhead and get the coordinates.

If you have a guidebook description of the route, you can follow along on a topo map and mark GPS waypoints at critical intersections. With a trail GPS, you can create a route and download that to your receiver before the trip. It is very helpful to have detailed topo maps of the approach route in your GPS, and you probably already have such maps loaded for the wilderness part of the trip. The guidebook should also tell you if you need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the trailhead.

You can use a street GPS receiver to create waypoints and a route to the trailhead, but most street units won't download waypoints and routes directly from a computer mapping application. You may be able to save the route as a GPX file and transfer that to the street GPS via USB cable. This is worth the effort because of the road routing capability of street GPS receivers.

 If you don't have a guidebook description of the trailhead, then you'll have to work a little harder. You'll need to locate the trailhead on a topo map and then work out the best roads to reach that trailhead. Use caution with U.\SGS topo maps- they are often out of date and don't show changes to roads (although they are the most accurate maps for natural features such as terrain.) Often, you can get a road map from the land management agency in charge of the area that is much more up-to-date on the road system. Privately-produced printed recreation maps and online or computer-based maps are often the most current road maps. And Google Earth is a valuable resource, especially in desert areas where you can often get a good look at roads. Even in forested areas, you can at least tell if a road is likely to be maintained- if the road shows in a cut through the forest, it is wider and therefor more likely to be paved or at least graveled.

Whatever you do, don't blindly charge off onto backcountry roads trusting your street GPS receiver. That's a good way to find yourself at a dead end, or worse, with a broken or stuck vehicle.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

One GPS to Rule Them All

A natural question for GPS users is, "Why can't I use one receiver for both trail and street navigation?" The short answer- you can. The long answer- you shouldn't, mostly.

There are more and more trail receivers that can be used for road navigation by buying optional street mapping. And many street GPS units can be used with optional topographic mapping. (By trail, I mean all backcountry uses, including hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, hunting, fishing, paddling, etc. By street, I'm referring to navigation in cities and on highways and roads.)

The problem is that the the two uses are completely different. On the road, a touchscreen GPS works best, preferably one that accepts voice commands. You need loud spoken directions including street names. You also need a large, bright screen. On the other hand, battery life is not important, because the unit will be powered from the vehicle except for short periods.

On the trail, you need a unit that can be operated easily with gloves. Rubberized buttons work much better than touchscreens in the field. With a little practice, you can operate the buttons by feel and location without looking at them. Though touchscreens do work with gloves, accuracy suffers and even without gloves you have to constantly look at the screen to operate it.

You also need long battery life and batteries that can be replaced in the field. Trail GPS units have replaceable batteries that last 12 to 25 hours, as opposed to 30 minutes to 4 hours for street receivers. And nearly all street receivers have internal, rechargeable batteries that can't be swapped out for a fresh set.

Few trail units have speakers, so they don't give spoken directions. (A few units have headphone jacks and can be connected to the AUX input on your car audio system or to a mount with a speaker.) Trail units have much smaller screens than street units. Trail receivers usually have screens measuring about 2.7 inches diagonally, while street receivers have 3.5 to 7-inch screens.

Many street GPS units come with lifetime map updates and free, ad-supported, lifetime traffic. Traffic information alone is a good reason to buy a street GPS because no trail units give traffic information. Street maps are usually an extra-cost option on trail GPS receivers and you will have to buy updated maps to keep your unit current.

That said, the best two choices for combined trail and street use are currently the DeLorme PN-60 series and the Garmin Montana series.

If you primary use is trail, check out the DeLorme PN-60 series. The PN-60 has a small screen but is light and compact, weighing 7.6 ounces with NiMH batteries. The unit comes with DeLorme Topo North America, which covers the US and Canada with vector topographic and street mapping at 1:24000 scale. Both trails and roads are routable, which means the unit will not only give you directions to the trailhead but also turn-by-turn trail directions to your favorite fishing lake. There is no headphone jack so you will have to look at the small screen while driving, although it does beep to warn you of upcoming turns. With this unit it is safest if a passenger does the navigating.

The Garmin Montana series is one of the heaviest and bulkiest receivers on the market at 10.2 ounces but it has a 4 inch touchscreen that automatically orients to to horizontal and vertical positions. A headphone jack allows to you connect it to your car stereo or an optional vehicle mount with speaker. For street use, you'll have to buy street maps for the area of interest, and then pay to update them. Traffic service is not available.

Here's the clincher- for the price of the Montana 600 you can buy an advanced street receiver such as the Garmin nuvi 2595LMT with lifetime maps and traffic, as well as a mapping trail receiver such as the Garmin Etrex 20 which accepts Garmin topo maps as well as custom maps and weighs just 5 ounces. And if you want, you can load topo maps on the nuvi and street maps on the Etrex.