NatGeo TOPO! vs. DeLorme Topo USA

The top image is from National Geographic’s TOPO! mapping software. It consists of scanned USGS maps of varying scales, with the highest detail 1:24,000 map shown above. It allows you to add your own data, such as tracing trails with a pen tool (tedious to say the least), adding markers, symbols, datapoints, GPS waypoints, and notes, and can generate profiles of any line you draw. TOPO! costs about $100 for each 2-3 state cluster. Frustratingly, you will always find yourself needing the one state not included in the set or buying states you don’t need to get a needed state. For instance this one came with GA, AL and FL. TN comes with KY, and the Carolinas are together. Anybody hiking in the southern Appalachians in general would have to get at least two sets.

DeLorme Topo USA on the other hand is only $50 for half of the USA. It seems to be built on a data model, rather than map graphics. In theory this could allow for greater accuracy and flexibility in building custom maps. In practice I was disappointed. It feels & looks like a program written for GPS navigators, not map readers. The level of detail is abysmal. The accuracy of all trails is brought in to question by being just plain WRONG on some known trails. For instance, Desoto falls is nowhere near the top of Blood Mountain on the AT (unless that is also the name of a sector or signal tower of some kind, perhaps?), and note the lack of switchbacks on their version of the Blood Mountain trail. Side trails are missing, and known trails that I have hiked (e.g. Coosa Backcountry trail at Vogel, not on this map) look nothing like they do on the DeLorme map, while the NatGeo map is pretty much spot on.

Granted DeLorme has more up-to-date street data (and street names…unenthusiastic cheer) but does not show structures. Also on the plus side, building, highlighting and calculating routes is much easier, since you can simply highlight a trail (every line on the screen is “data” not just “graphic”) and command it to do things like label itself, give you its length or profile, or add to another segment. BUT the overall inaccuracy of places I have been makes me reluctant to use this software to plan trips to new places.

Summary. If you have a map fetish (like me), like navigating with a map and compass, or like knowing where you are by observing your surroundings, bite the bullet and get TOPO! to play with. Or get paper USGS maps, if you are on a budget.

(P.S. Now I find that USGS maps can be downloaded as PDF files for free. It’s not as fancy as cutting profiles and placing waypoints, but free is free.)

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