National Geographic releases Trail Maps app

Last week, National Geographic added yet another offering to their growing list of mobile apps available for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. The newest app, entitled Trail Maps, offers a host of options for navigating both urban and wilderness environments, while also remaining useful even when you wander outside of cell service coverage.

The app uses both topographical maps from the U.S. Geological Survey and high resolution satellite imagery provided by Microsoft Bing. The software comes pre-loaded with maps of Yellowstone National Park, and surrounding areas, but you can also download highly detailed maps of just about any other place in the lower 48 States, and add them to your library. The files are quite large – about 100 MB each – but having them installed on the device allows you to use the maps even while you have no data connection.

The amount of detail on the maps is highly impressive to say the least. The app allows you to quickly, and easily, zoom in and out using typical iOS gestures, such as pinching and double tapping. When zoomed out, you get a nice overview of the region the map covers, but as you slowly zoom in, more and more details emerge, right down to topographical lines for indicating slope and elevation. You’ll also find the locations of hundreds of landmarks, including campsites, rest areas, and even mountain peaks, or – in the case of Yellowstone – individual geysers. If the map you add to your device is for a city, you’ll find even more points of interest.

Of course, detailed maps aren’t the only thing that National Geographic brought to the table. The app also allows for live route tracking using your device’s built in GPS chip. It also provides detailed reports of your treks, both urban and wilderness, charting speed, altitude change, direction, distance and so on. There are also built in tools that allow you to measure distances on the maps, place waypoints, and even navigate by compass. In short, everything you need to find your way around just about any place in the U.S.If you already own an iOS devices, you probably know that there are a plethora of navigation apps available, including Apple’s very own Maps app that comes pre-installed. The Trail Maps app is specifically designed for hikers, backpackers, and campers however, giving them the option to download insanely detailed maps for use in the backcountry, where they are not likely to have any kind of data connection or cell service at all. That alone makes it unlike any other navigation tool in the App Store.

Over the past few days, I’ve had the opportunity to play with this app, and I’m quite impressed with the GPS tracking functionality and the level of detail on the maps. However, while those details are fantastic, I didn’t actually see any trails listed, which is surprising since the app is called “Trail Maps.” The maps are also confined to the 48 contiguous States at the moment as well, which means those wanting to go hiking in Hawaii or Alaska are out of luck. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but using the GPS also drains your battery rather quickly, which has the potential to be problematic while using the app in the wilderness. If you’re using Trail Maps while on an extended hike, you’ll need a way to charge your device while away from civilization.

Those shortcomings aside, the potential to have all those USGS topo maps on a portable device is pretty impressive for any hiker or backpacker. With a price tag of just $2.99, Trail Maps offers a lot of value for anyone in need of backcountry navigation.

Nepal to remeasure Mt. Everest

The government of Nepal has announced that it will remeasure the height of Mt. Everest in an effort to settle a dispute with China. This new survey is expected to take up to two years to complete and will likely provide the most accurate measurement of the height of the mountain ever.

Back in 1955 a team of Indian surveyors, using the best instruments available at the time, recorded the height of the mountain as 8848 meters or 29,029 feet. Since then, that has been the official measurement recognized by the Nepali government, despite the fact that both the Chinese and an American survey have offered differing numbers in the year since. Chinese surveyors argue that the snow on top of Everest shouldn’t be included in the measurement, and as a result, they list the mountain as being 8844 meters (29,015 ft) tall. On the other hand, a 1999 U.S. survey using GPS devices pegged Everest at 8850 meters (29,035 ft), a figure that is used by National Geographic when covering the Himalayan peak.

Mt. Everest falls along the border of Nepal and Chinese-controlled Tibet. In recent months, the two countries have been holding talks to discuss issues that have arisen along their common borders, with officials on both sides of the table continually using differing heights when referencing the mountain. This small point of contention has prompted Nepal to re-measure the height of the summit, which is a source of great pride for the smaller nation.

In order to gain the most accurate measurements possible, climbers will carry sophisticated GPS systems to the summit, where measurements will be taken in three different locations. Because of the challenges involved with scaling the world’s tallest mountain, officials say that it could take upwards of two years before they have a new reading on the height. Considering how sophisticated GPS tools are these days, this latest measurement is expected to be the definitive answer as to just how tall Mt. Everest really is.

Gallipoli battlefield being mapped by GPS

Archaeologists in Turkey are making a detailed survey of the famous World War One battle of Gallipoli. Using period military maps and GPS technology, they’re mapping the old trenches and redoubts used by both sides.

Gallipoli was the scene of fierce fighting starting in 1915. A peninsula with highlands dominating the Dardanelles strait linking the Black and the Aegean seas, it guarded the western approach to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, now Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire was on Germany’s side during World War One and the British Empire’s high command believed an attack on Gallipoli would be the first step to knocking the Ottomans out of the war.

They were wrong. The Ottoman Empire, long dismissed “the sick man of Europe”, put up a determined resistance and the British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and French troops got stuck on the beaches as Ottoman troops pummeled them from the highlands. After nine bloody months, the allies sailed away.

The international team of Turkish, Australian, and New Zealand archaeologists and historians have discovered large numbers of artifacts from the battle and are busy working out a complete map of the complicated network of trenches, many of which can still be clearly seen today.

The battle started 25 April 1915, and this date is marked as ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, who did some of the toughest fighting in the campaign. Many people in both of these countries feel the soldiers’ efforts proved the worth of the two young nations.

Last year archaeologists discovered the HMS Lewis and a barge sunk off the shore.

Croatia set to offer “world’s biggest welcome”

Croatia is about to extend the “world’s biggest welcome,” thanks to an industrious outdoor enthusiast and a bit of ingenious use of technology.

Earlier this week, adventurer Daniel Lacko set out on a pre-designed course that will see him traveling by foot, kayak, and bike along the Croatian coastline. The 1550+ mile long route will take him through remote backcountry, across open water, and up towering mountains. All the while he’ll be using a GPS device to track his progress, and record his path, which will spell out the word “Welcome” across the map of Croatia when he finished.

Daniel’s planned route will pass through some of the most stunning landscapes in his home country, including eight national parks, three nature preserves, and several other protected areas. He’ll also climb ten mountains and kayak or swim through 370 miles of water along the sea and six different rivers. In order for this project to succeed, he’ll need to strictly adhere to the prescribed path, no matter where it might take him

If all goes as planned, Lacko hopes to complete the journey and arrive in Dubrovnik by June 5th, which is World Environment Day. If he is successful, he’ll also be issuing one giant “welcome” to the rest of the world. Follow his progress on the World’s Biggest Welcome website and on the project’s Facebook page.

Croatia is quite the destination for adventure travelers. The fantastic landscapes offer plenty of great hiking and climbing opportunities and its numerous rivers, not to mention great coastline, make it popular for paddlers as well. it was because of all those things that we put it on our recent list of five great European adventure destinations.

Cockpit Chronicles: Alaska flying – then and now

Last week I found myself flying to London with a captain who had started his career in pretty much the same way I did-he too had worked for a couple of airlines in Alaska, albeit more than a decade before me.

As we headed out to dinner, we happened to run into another pilot I knew who, coincidentally, flew for Era Alaska just as I had. Even more surprising was that his co-pilot flew for an airline in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

We agreed to have dinner together at an Indian restaurant ten minutes from the hotel in London. While waiting for some tandoori to arrive, the subject of the Discovery Channel show, Flying Wild Alaska came up. It led to a few wistful stories about the times when we were doing that kind of flying, twenty to thirty years earlier.

“It looks like a lot of fun and adventure from the comfort of your living room, but it’s not as much fun when you’re low on gas, in a mile visibility while trying to read a map and hoping to cut the Mead River. It makes you appreciate this job (flying a Boeing across the Atlantic to London) so much more,” Hank said.

We all agreed. It’s nice to get a little perspective every now and then, and the Discovery Channel show about flying in the Alaskan bush gave us a not so gentle reminder.

But then someone began to check off the items a modern-day bush pilot has that we didn’t back then. At the top of the list was a GPS. While I had flown with a Loran-C for navigation, its accuracy up north wasn’t anything like the GPS. The other pilots at the table didn’t even have a Loran.

“Just a compass and a map up on the north slope.” Hank said.

Next up, I mentioned the real de-icing equipment they have now, not to mention the hangars. Just a few hours earlier I had been writing the de-icing post for Gadling, so the memories of crawling on the curved and slippery wing twelve feet in the air while scraping the ice off were fresh in my mind. Our de-ice ‘equipment’ at the time was a pump bottle you’d find at a garden store.

As tough as we had it, I imagined inviting perhaps another four pilots back from the past to join us. They would be the early bush pilots of the twenties and thirties who would have given anything to have the airplanes we had. So in deference to them, I thought I’d use a few of my grandpa’s photos to illustrate the differences in air travel in Alaska back then and today.


Gravel bars, while sometimes rough, were a preferred summertime runway.

During the first few years of flying in Alaska, there were no official runways. The most ideal landing spot was in Fairbanks, where flying really took hold, at a horse track that was converted into a landing strip. Outside of Fairbanks, landings were made in the summer on gravel bars along rivers or ‘domes’ which were treeless hill tops above a village. Locals made attempts at clearing runways, but their lengths were initially too short or had too many obstacles.
A few towns, such as Nome and Kotzebue were essentially treeless, but runways still needed to be built to accomodate airplanes on wheels since the ground was usually soft in the summer.

Winter flying opened up a lot of areas to landing, especially for airplanes equipped with skis. One concern was at the beginning and end of the season; when a decision had to be made whether to depart with skis or wheels. It wasn’t always obvious how much snow the destination airport would have. The short days in the winter presented a problem as well, since there was no lighting to mark the frozen ‘runway.’

What should we go with today, skis or wheels?

Airplanes with floats became an option starting in the thirties and that combination continues today as a popular way to get around during the five or so months out of the year that allow for it.

Bellanca float plane on the Chena river in Fairbanks in the ’30s

Today the main cities and towns all have runways that are lighted and plowed. So ski flying is used mainly for off-airport operations onto lakes, glaciers and even arctic ice-flows. But the airplane is still the most vital way to move about the state, as few towns outside of Anchorage and Fairbanks are connected by roads.

Kenai, Alaska airport today. Note the float plane ‘strip’ next to the paved runway.


Open cockpit flying

Aside from the landing gear choice, a huge number of changes have come about since the early days of flying in Alaska. In 1924, my grandpa, Noel Wien, was operating out of Fairbanks with an open cockpit biplane called a Hisso Standard that could seat two crammed-in passengers in the front seat. They were required to dress as if they were taking a long winter dog-sled ride, as the wind chill, even at 50 degrees fahrenheit, was bone chilling. This, coupled with the air-cooled engine, prevented year-round flying.

Note the two passengers in the front seat. Legroom wasn’t a complaint back then.

Passengers had to bundle up even in the summer when flying in the open-cockpit Standard

Heated, pressurized cabins make it possible to get around in a t-shirt for many passengers.

In winter of 1925, my grandpa toured the states to look for an air-cooled, fully enclosed cabin airplane that would be capable of flying through an Alaskan winter.

Unfortunately, that airplane didn’t exist yet in America. After visiting several manufacturers who insisted they’d have just such an airplane in another year, Noel settled on a Fokker F.III he found in New York. It had no brakes, the pilot sat outside and the engine was still water-cooled. However, the passengers would ride enclosed in a cabin inspired by a Pullman-train that included upholstered couch type seats, and curtains. At least the passengers would be warm. He operated that airplane for the next two winters before a fully enclosed cabin aircraft with air-cooled engines became available.

The first enclosed-cabin air service in Alaska. Although the pilot still sat in the open.

Passengers rode inside in leather armchair style seats

Today travelers flying in Alaska may find themselves tucked in a Cessna with fold down seats and freight strapped down next to them, or they might have the opportunity to fly between the major cities in an Alaska Airlines 737 “combi” configuration that places the freight in the front separated with a wall from the abbreviated passenger cabin.

Passengers behind a wall and freight in front on this Alaska 737 “Combi”

Turboprop aircraft like the Dash-8 and Beech 1900 are a common way to get people and freight around between the towns as well.

An Era Alaska Beech 1900 is loaded with freight from a dogsled


The 150 h.p. Hisso engine mounted to the large WWI Standard trainer provided enough horsepower to get out of some short strips, but only when the airplane wasn’t carrying a lot of weight. I ran across this video from 1927 that shows my grandpa departing Nome in a fully loaded Standard. I was a bit shocked at the lack of performance.

Compare that to a recent bush pilot competition in Valdez where highly modified Super Cubs and Maules compete for the shortest takeoff roll. Granted, the pilots are flying empty airplanes with a bit of a headwind, but my grandpa would have given anything for this kind of bush plane.


The OX-5 and Hisso engines were able to fly between 50 and 300 hours before requiring an overhaul. My grandpa found that he could get closer to the 300 hour time if he changed the oil every five hours (essentially after each trip).

Today, the piston engines flown in Cessna 207s can go for 2,000 hours before an overhaul and the 1,100 horsepower turbine engines in a Beech 1900 can fly for 6,000 hours before being rebuilt.

Continue reading Part 2: Navigation, search and rescue, ticket prices and what HASN’T changed…