Google Earth; the NEW navigation?

November 28th, 2011 by Carl D

Hey Folks,

One topic I thought I might write about here that readers might enjoy has to do with navigation; every backcountry traveler has  had issues with getting lost, even if only briefly, and being unsure of direction. So we learn how to read a compass and topographic map. And w learn how to pay attention to our terrain and landscape. We learn about geology and landform features to help us navigate. We learn how to pay attention to the sky, and the sun. Some of us even look skyward after dark and learn to read the constellations.

More recently, we’ve acquired and learned GPS technologies, for pinpoint accuracy, and for better navigation in adverse situations (clouds and fog, flat, featureless terrain, etc).  But even this amazing GPS stuff is years old now. So what’s the “new” navigation technology?

On a recent sojourn down around the Malaspina Glacier and along the coastal reaches of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, I looked around at the available topo maps before setting out. They really aren’t so great. They’re old and the landscape in such a dynamic region, with a crashing coastline and an ever-changing glacier, is different year to year. The topos didn’t seem like the way to go.

But what DID seem to be a good call, and turned out to be a super-helpful tool, was google earth. Here’s the kind of thing we printed out:

Malaspina Glacier coastline, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

So we printed out a handful of these “aerial photos” and that’s how we navigated and found our way around. It’s not perfect, and it’s not foolproof, but the imagery is a lot more current and useful than a topo map here. I carried both topo maps AND the satellite imagery, and the topo maps simply stayed in my pack the whole trip.

I hadn’t tried using imagery like this to navigate with before, but it worked out great. The satellite photos showed us a lot about the ground; the forest, the brush, etc, and were a great tool to have along. Where is water, what water is clear versus glacial silt, and so on were just a few of the things these images help with. Add a scale, and they’re a very helpful resource. I wouldn’t use them in all situations, at all, but nor are a GPS or compass/topos perfect in all situations either. Tools are contextual, and in this situation, there was no better tool for the job than these google earth photos.

Give it a try.




2 Responses to “Google Earth; the NEW navigation?”

  1. At least for daytrips, one thing I’ve sometimes done is cache aerial photos in my iPhone for the area I was planning on visiting. You can’t do this with the standard Maps app on the iPhone but MotionX’s GPS app does allow this.

    Another smartphone app (ESRI’s ArcGIS) will allow offline caching of data in a future version of their app.This will be great because their app can access a ton of different basemap types including USGS topos and some other ortho photo datasets. ArcGIS is available for iPhone, Android, and Windows smartphones.

  2. I was with Carl on the trip he describes here, and definitely agree… we’d been here before navigating with topos in 2007, and decided to not even bother bringing them this time around.

    It’s great when you encounter a situation when you can use both photos and topo. Where we were on the coast along Malaspina, only the photos were useful, but that’s an extreme… usually the topo would be useful, just not here. I find when navigating with just photos I’m often surprised by… topography. Duh. 🙂 You get unparalleled info about vegetation, but sometimes major topographic features can be really subtle. Really tough to pick out a forest shrouded 30 foot cliff band.

    After Carl went on to Icy Bay, we continued east, and encountered one area where we used 5 year old imagery and found an entire river completely missing in that short time. Not many places where there’s so much dynamics that even the 0-10 year old imagery of Google Earth is totally out of date.

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