Technology & wayfinding…no longer quite as contradictory

As a lifelong outdoorsman, retirement gave me the time I’ve sought for decades to pursue outdoor activities. I was drawn, quite naturally I think, to a role that allowed me to enjoy the outdoors, contribute to my community in a meaningful way, and to hopefully find areas where my love of the outdoors & my fascination with technology converged; I became involved as a Search & Rescue Tech with my local, volunteer Search& Rescue team.

This role ticked off a couple of those important boxes for me; it allowed me to enjoy all things outdoors, and it let me continue with volunteer activities that I’ve engaged in my whole adult life. The one disappointment, if you can call it that, is the relative lack of technology that’s search & rescue (SAR) related or applicable.

Sure, there are lots of specialized equipment that’s found a home in SAR, but one of the most basic tenants of SAR…finding lost people…still relies on technology that's fundamentally unchanged for more than a thousand years; maps & compasses.

GPS, or Global Positioning Systems, spelled a dramatic change in the manner in which we “locate” ourselves on the planet. After all, if we don’t know where “WE” are, it’s much more difficult to find someone who’s lost. GPS initially posed several of new, unique problems though; being a system designed for military use, it needed a LOT of tweaking to make it useful to civilian applications. The equipment, in it’s early days, was expensive, not terribly reliable, and a user interface that left a lot to be desired.

Time marched on, improvements were made, user interfaces developed for different applications over the course of a decade. For SAR use, it was still always the bridesmaid, never the bride. We needed topographic mapping combined with GPS accuracy, and we’re a niche market. Reliability was & is still an issue so our “go-to” equipment remained unchanged; paper topo maps and a good compass.

Smartphones brought the elusive solution closer than ever, with a variety of digital compass apps, as well as a wide variety of mapping applications. Topographic mapping came into the digital age, and a couple of years ago, an application hit the market that showed a lot of promise; Topo Maps +

Downloadable topo maps, routing tools, altimeter functions, the ability to share & save routes, waypoints & tracks both online & offline, showed great promise. although not designed with SAR in mind, it addressed many of our “niche market” needs, with a few workarounds.

In early 2016, the developer, Glacier Peaks Studio’s Stephen Johnson announced a Beta testing program for Topo Maps + 4.0, and I was invited to provide input from a Search & Rescue perspective. During the weeks that followed, many changes were identified, problems highlighted & fixed, & new iterations rolled out & tested.

Launched formally the end of May, Topo Maps + 4.0 takes what was a good, topographic mapping system & turns it into a very useful tool, not only for Search & Rescue applications but also for anyone who ventures outdoors beyond the familiarity of our own backyards. Planning tools allow you to set out a detailed map of your route in advance, with an easily understood, topographic display, including your planned route, existing paths in the area, waypoints, distance measurements & graphic displays of elevation changes as well. Routes can be adjusted to take advantage of existing trails or terrain features to minimize elevation changes, reduce danger, or provide a more easily accessed route. This information can then be shared with others across different telephone or tablet platforms.

It’s “real world” usefulness if undeniable. I’ve put it to use on several occasions, planning out search patterns while enroute to the scene, and sending to other team members so that on arrival, they have a detailed picture of what to expect, where they’re going, what they may face, and can also record their progress.

The applications are endless; hikers, birdwatchers, forestry & conservation personnel, hunters & recreational shooters will all find significant uses and great benefit to this app. Search & Rescue teams will find huge benefit to this app.; it does many things that until now, we’ve relied on pencil & paper & a compass to perform.

In my mind, the biggest limitation this app has is the technology it runs on. GPS, while greatly improved since it’s early days, is still far from perfect. It still relies on batteries, which can fail. Heavy tree cover or buildings can impede or block the signal completely. Even then, it’s still functional to a degree, giving you detailed, topographic maps stored on your phone & accessible with GPS signal or without.

This app is great! I HIGHLY recommend anyone who spends any amount of time outdoors NEEDS to have this on your phone or tablet. You can thank me later…

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