Smartphones in the Backcountry – Part III

Trip Planning Software Overview

This post is less about Smartphones than the other articles in this series (Part I, Part II) and more about trip planning software, however it integrates into the subject perfectly and without this piece of the puzzle the other articles are not quite complete. So, in this installment we’ll be taking a quick look at two software packaces: Google Earth and Caltopo. Both of these are available to PC and Mac users and learning to use them will add a dimension to your trip planning, especially when exploring new places or venturing off-trail. Due to the amount of information that needs to be covered we’ll have two more parts coming henceforth! Part IV will focus exclusively on using Google Earth to create maps, and Part V will focus on using Caltopo to create maps. For now let’s talk pro and con of these tools.

Trip Planning Software

For the purpose of this article “trip planning software” is simply put, a mapping tool. The trip planning tools we’ll be looking at will allow the user to visualize routes in any backcountry or urban area. This includes being able to view roads, trails, and terrain, to create paths and waypoints, and obtain elevation profiles. These are key elements when preparing to explore new areas. With these tools you will be able to determine feasibility and/or difficulty of routes as well as create useful maps with your routes charted for taking along on your outings.

Google Earth Overview

Google Earth is free software that can be downloaded from Google and run on your PC or Mac. It requires an internet connection to pull in data from its online database, but an offline mode is available as well. Google Earth’s strength lies in it’s ability to quickly and easily visualize terrain within an easy to use interface. It lacks power in it’s mapping capabilities though and sometimes provides questionable data with discrepancies in path distance (usually small) and in total elevation gain/loss (can be substantial discrepancies).

Google Earth
Google Earth


  • Easily create paths and waypoints and view elevation profiles
  • Can edit paths with up to ~30,000 vertices
  • 3D Terrain Visualization for pretty much any location on Earth
  • Access to photos of many locations posted by other users
  • Ability to easily add image overlays to maps
  • “My Places” allows for easy organization of trips, routes, etc
  • Everything is on your computer, locally, so no need for internet connection to use (once areas of interest have been cached)


  • Limited support for topographic maps is provided only by third parties
  • Exporting/Printing elevation profiles is not possible without using third party tools and is somewhat convoluted even then
  • Path elevation and distance data varies when resizing the application window on the computer screen (yikes! what?!?)

Caltopo Overview

Caltopo is a free to use service on the web developed by a SAR dood, Matt Jacobs. Because it’s on the web, an internet connection is necessary. Everything is accessed via your web browser. The Caltopo interface is very straightforward but it would benefit from some polish. An experienced JQuery programmer (nerd alert!) could make it look and feel like a desktop application, which would be a welcomed improvement. That aside, the maps are excellent, the map layering tools are powerful, and the provided overlays are very useful. Caltopo is an all-in-one solution for your digital AND printed mapping needs.



  • Easily create paths and waypoints and view elevation profiles
  • Excellent maps and very nice elevation profiles
  • Several useful overlays are provided including fire activity and slope angle shading
  • View From Here feature is very cool, even though full 3D visualization is missing
  • Maps can be saved either locally, or to your Google or Yahoo account online
  • Maps can easily be shared with others on the web, and updated instantaneously
  • Ability to print scaled maps is the awesomesauce!


  • Interface can be fiddly
  • Folder organization is not as nicely implemented as with Google Earth
  • Adding image overlays is not as easy as with Google Earth and requires image be hosted online
  • Cannot edit/create paths with more than 500 vertices
  • Elevation profile accuracy is inconsistent. Sometimes it is close, sometimes it can be off by 20% or more

So which is better, Google Earth or Caltopo?

They’re both good and there is a benefit to using both… so you should use both! Google Earth is nice for importing GPX files, editing complex routes, and the 3D visualization with a topo map overlaid is radical. Caltopo has great maps, awesome informational overlays, and is the go-to choice for making printed maps. The next part of this series (Part IV) will focus on how to use Google Earth for making maps, and the final part of the series (Part V) will focus on using Caltopo to make maps. Sometimes in life you have to choose one over the other, this is NOT one of those times 🙂 Hike It. Like It.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he’s not out hiking or running the trails you’ll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy.
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