Rob Knight

Backpacking Catalina Island

April 09, 2007

I just returned from a wonderful backpacking trip across Catalina Island, part of The Channel Islands off the southern coast of California. We had an amazing time and it was quite relaxing, even though the trip involved nearly 30 miles of walking over 4 days.

Before we left for the trip, we spent plenty of time with Google Earth, planning our trip against visible trails and other map features. This got me thinking about a different way to present the trip to friends and family when we returned. Without much experience using Google Earth, I was pleasantly surprised to learn this morning that it is quite easy to create a "tour" in Google Earth. Not only that, using simple HTML, you can add photos and links to the tour. This was exactly what I was hoping for, so I got started on it this afternoon and with a few hours of work, I have prepared a simple tour of our entire trip. Being such a visual person, this makes me incredibly giddy because it allows you to see our trip photos within their geographic context. It is like an interactive globe! First a few details about the trip.

Annoyances and Helpful Aspects of GPS handhelds

I acquired a Garmin eTrex Vista Cx before the trip in hopes that I could add topographic maps to it and plan our routes using the maps. Was I in for a surprise. Garmin (and I assume Magellan is the same), maintains proprietary control over what can be uploaded to the unit. You can only use their map products to upload maps to the unit. Currently they offer 1:100,000 scale topographic maps of the US. This is not a usable map scale for topo maps if you want to navigate with the GPS unit. The base map that comes on the unit is abysmally lacking in detail unless you are navigating a city, which is ironic because the unit I bought was marketed as a hiking unit. Despite the lack of map detail, the unit was very handy for providing some interesting hike metrics I had never seen before. We were able to see our average speed while moving, and our overall speed including breaks. We could see the duration of time we were moving and the duration of time we were stopped. We could see an elevation profile showing our total ascent over the course of the trip, our current elevation above sea level (of course the topo gave us that as well). And one totally useless bit of info that I always felt compelled to inform Kalin of, was the straight line distance to our destination. This bit of info always came with the qualifier, "If we could fly to the next campsite, we'd only have to travel X miles." After day 2, Kalin asked me why that mattered, and after thinking for a moment, I had no answer, so I stopped declaring this bit of info before trips.

This Map is How Old?

Because of the lack of detail in the Garmin GPS unit, I opted for an analog solution, USGS 1:24,000 scale topographic maps of the island. These, combined with a compass, ended up being our second most helpful solution. A simple trail map of the island obtained for free from the ferry terminal was the ultimate guide, with the USGS topos and compass to confirm we were headed in the right direction. I would have liked to use the topos exclusively. But since they had last been updated in 1988, many map details were missing. As much as I trust my compass skills, it helps to see a trail on a map where a trail should be in real life. Do we need to have bake sale so the USGS can update its maps? Or maybe we just need an administration that gives a snot about wild places. But I digress.

The bottom line on the mapping/navigation situation is that we could have certainly lived without the GPS unit, and probably the USGS topos. It's sad when a free ferry terminal map gets you where you want to go better than satellite navigation and government elevation maps. But such is life. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that my fourth navigation piece was Kalin. I'm seriously direction-challenged. Without Kalin to say, "No Rob, that's the wrong way" 2 or 3 times daily, I wouldn't be here to write this. I mentioned to her on the trip -- and I believe this to be true -- the female vagina has a built-in compass.

Google Earth and Flickr: 70's Slideshow for the 00's Techie

Despite it's shortcomings in the map department, the GPS unit was helpful for marking significant points and tracking/storing our movements throughout the trip. I have a mostly accurate (except under areas of dense tree cover) view of our path over the island that helped me build the tour in Google Earth. One amusing aspect of tracking your every move on a trip is that you realize what an idiot you must look like sometimes. Each time we reached a campsite, there were several minutes of wandering, circling, and aimless tracks as we tried to figure out where we wanted to setup and looked for outhouses, etc.

I uploaded all of our trip photos to Flickr last night. And then using the static links Flickr gives you for each image, I created place marks in Google Earth where the some of the photos were taken. If you store all the place marks in their own folder, and order them logically to follow the timeline of the trip, you can playback a nice tour of your trip. And I mean nice. You get flyover views of each point, with a popup image at each stop. It is quite pretty. Combined with the Flickr photo set, this is an awesome way to display a trip of this type. Since Google Earth and Flickr are free, anyone can do this.

Google Earth Tour

Originally, I developed a Google Earth tour for this trip. But I have lost the original .kmz file. So the virtual tour stuff has been removed. -18 March 2012.

Flickr Slideshow

Not all of the photos from the trip made it into the Google Earth Tour. All of the photos from the trip are on Flickr. I haven't gotten to Geo-Tagging them yet.