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Reviews > Software > Topographic Mapping > NG Single Parks Explorer 3D > Test Report by Rick Dreher

National Geographic TI Explorer


Sierra Nevada Explorer Test Series by: Rick Dreher

INITIAL REPORT - November 14, 2009
FIELD REPORT - January 25, 2010
LONG TERM REPORT - March 21, 2010


NAME: Rick Dreher
EMAIL: redbike64(at)hotmail(dot)com
AGE: 56
LOCATION: Northern California
HEIGHT: 6' 0" (2.10 m)
WEIGHT: 175 lb (79.40 kg)
FOOT SIZE US mens' 11.5
TORSO LENGTH 19.5 in (50 cm)

I enjoy going high and light and frequently take shorter "fast- packing" trips. My longest trips are a week or so. I've lightened my pack load because I enjoy hiking more when toting less, I can go farther and over tougher terrain, and I have cranky ankles. I use trekking poles and generally hike solo or tandem. I've backpacked all over the U.S. West and now primarily hike California's Sierra Nevada. My favorite trips are alpine and include off-trail travel and sleeping in high places. When winter arrives, I head back for snowshoe outings in the white stuff.


Product Information & Specifications

Manufacturer: National Geographic
Year of Manufacture: 2009
Manufacturer's Website: National Geographic TI Web Site
Media: CD ROM
Compatible operating systems: Windows (98 through Vista); Mac OS 10.3 and newer
GPS communications: exchanges waypoints, tracks and routes with Garmin, Magellan, Lowrance, Eagle

Initial Impressions

The Trails Illustrated Explorer-National Geographic map software for the California Sierra Nevada comprises an electronic equivalent to the printed 10-map Trails Illustrated series covering the Sierra range. The included territory starts above California Highway 49 to the north and continues through Kings Canyon National Park to the south.

The digital maps and associated program come on a single CD ROM packaged with a brief set of printed instructions and little else. A complete pdf manual is included on the disc, housed in a subfolder: TPO_DATA/PDF/.

Note: All maps displayed in screen captures are Copyright National Geographic.

Reading the Instructions

As noted, the provided written instructions are very brief, just information enough to load and launch the program. A Help button within the program launches the 58 page PDF user's manual, which seems comprehensive and includes external links to more information, including updates. The box provides some technical details for shoppers, including system requirements and compatibilities. My general impression of the literature is is user friendly, detail limited.

Trying It Out

Getting going with Trails Illustrated Explorer is simplicity itself.

Load and Launch: I've used the program on two Windows PCs: a five-year-old XP machine and a two-year-old Vista machine. The program self-launches on both, with virtually no installation required because it launches from the disc. It can be run that way or copied to the computer and launched from there, eliminating the need to load the disc. It runs faster (launches faster, screen-refreshes faster) when copied to the computer than launched from the CD, as expected. The entire data folder, including the .exe program file is about 304 MB, not unreasonable in these days of terrabyte hard drives. I found it helpful to place a shortcut to the .exe file on my desktop for quick launching.

Screen Views: The map has four magnification levels. It opens at the lowest resolution, displaying the entire map range. Highest resolution displays at least the equivalent of the very familiar USGS 15-minute topographic maps, which are about 1:63,000 and perhaps approach the 7.5-minute series (1:24,000). (I can't find a reproduction ratio spec for the maps, so I'm going by eye for my comparison. A sampling of Trails Illustrated printed maps finds a range of scales, typically 1:40,000.) These maps differ from USGS maps in that they have additional details and have been updated (many USGS topos haven't been updated for decades and frequently have errors). The first two levels include terrain beyond the territory included in the Sierra Nevada set (much of California and Nevada) while the highest two include only the subject maps themselves. At the map edges is a plain gray field.

Opening screen shows entire map set area in white.

Across the top of the screen is a series of tool buttons, which access program functions. Initially, the most important tools are the panning and zooming functions. These enable me to access my location of interest and zoom in to my desired level of detail. This happens quickly and easily, with some timelag working from CD and little or none working from the hard drive. Pan, center and travel are the three movement tools. I prefer the click-and-drag action of pan.

Additional map details that add to what's on the source USGS topos include trail numbers and select trail names, tick marks with trail distances between, recreation and service symbols, and campfire and camping restriction zones. National Geographic notes they verify and correct the base map details, which should enhance both the level of detail and its accuracy of this map set.

Maximum zoom view with popup menu and typical detail.

GPS Support: Of personal interest is the ability to communicate with GPS units. I connected my Garmin eTrex Legend Cx and was able to upload waypoints, routes and tracks, data that are then saved as .tpo files. I have yet to upload routes and waypoints in the other direction—from the software to the GPS—but expect to do so in the future. The specs note the software can also communicate with units from Magellan, Lowrance and Eagle. They do not mention Delorme, Trimble or other brands.

(It should be noted that the basemaps themselves cannot be uploaded to GPS units.)

User-selected maps can be output to either graphic files or to a printer. Printed map size is only limited to the printer's capacity, and I dream of a roll-fed wide carriage plotter squirting out wall-size maps for my wintertime trip planning. When I awake, I am limited to the legal-size paper maximum of my home inkjet printer. Drat the luck.


This Sierra Nevada edition of National Geographic Trails Illustrated Explorer represents an easy and alternative to over a hundred dollars' investment in printed maps. I'm a map junkie and this is a nice option to gathering paper maps as I dream of and plan my trips. In addition, no paper map can communicate with a GPS so I gain an entire layer of utility and flexibility with this map set.

Of course, what I don't get is the visual and tactile pleasure of spreading out and poring over a big, nicely printed map (unless I spring for a 40-inch monitor), and if I'm not careful I can easily spend that hundred bucks on ink, home-printing my desired hike maps.

Legend is accessible through help menu.


My sincere thanks to National Geographic Trails Illustrated and for the opportunity to test the Explorer Sierra Nevada maps.

Please check back in two months for the field report.



Field Locations and Descriptions

I've taken one bare trail (the trail was bare, not I) day hike and two snowshoe trips in the Tahoe Sierra region using paper maps and GPS waypoints generated on the software. The day hike was in Desolation Wilderness before heavy winter snows closed access roads and the snowshoe trips were in the I-80, Donner Lake area. Trails varied from fairly flat and smooth to steep, rocky and uneven. Snow has varied from packed trails to virgin drifts up to a yard (1 m) deep. My longest day's distance was 12 miles (20 km).

Blue lines are planned routes & tracks from two trips.

Weather was as cold as 25 F (-5 C) and ranged from clear and calm to windy and snow. My highest elevation attained was 8,500 feet (2,600 m).

Performance at Home and in the Field

I rely on mapping software for trip planning, field navigation and reviewing my actual path back home. I've used the NG TI Explorer Sierra Nevada set quite a bit to ascertain how well the fits my needs.

PC compatibility

In December I replaced my office PC with a new machine running on Windows 7. The NG software works fine on the new computer and since it's a significant hardware upgrade, everything is speedier, especially panning and redraws. The CD is copied onto my hard drive as described in the instructions. This option runs faster than launching it from the CD, and in these days of terabyte drives the program and data take up minimal disk space. To summarize my PC experience, the NG TI Explorer has worked for me on Windows XP, Vista and 7 machines and benefits from being installed on a fast machine with a lot of system and graphics memory and a fast hard drive.

User interface and Controls

The user interface is easy to learn and is not complicated. Basic controls are accessed using the buttons on the top toolbar, beneath the pulldown menu. There are a handful of user preference settings accessible from the pulldown view menu, and include units, compass settings, scrolling speed and the like. Most options I've either left as installed or adjusted one time only.

Routes and Waypoints

Most of my mapping "work" is either planning hike routes or reviewing hikes I've taken. The Explorer software has both strengths and weaknesses in supporting these functions. Tracing a new route along an established trail is literally a snap, so long as I've selected the default "snap to trails" option. The route tool lays a colored line atop trails that appear on the map. This is in stark contrast with the NG Topo! set I have where I have to carefully trace (with a mouse) my route manually--a task I'm barely able to do sometimes. It's sooo easy with Explorer.

Just as I became enamored with this new software I ran into a major disappointment, which is my inability to change route or track color or line style. Every route line is medium solid blue, period. This limitation can create quite a blue tangle on maps having overlapping routes and tracks, and represents a regrettable oversight. I'm hoping for more functionality via a software upgrade.

Route & GPS options menu.

Another limitation (undocumented) is an apparent maximum route length. I tried tracing the entire Pacific Crest Trail segment that passes through the Sierra Nevada set and found it would stop tracing at some point. The maximum allowed length isn't predictable, ranging from mileage as low as the 30s and as high as the 70s. As it is, I have the PCT traced in nine segments rather than the one I had wanted. It's not a major limitation but requires me to use rusty addition skills to tally up multiple trail segment mileages.

Pacific Crest Trail in 9 easy pieces.

The good news is the software automatically sets waypoints while it traces routes, and if I like them I can upload the generated route and waypoints into my GPS, from which I can follow it along with a printed map displaying the same route, waypoints and if I want, a trail elevation profile.

Consistency among Base Maps

I've observed some variation among the many maps that comprise the Sierra Nevada set. In particular, a review of the legends shows different trail symbology. Hiking trails, multi-use trails, horse trails, primitive trails, unmaintained trails, motorized use trails, bicycle trails and the like are variously used on some portions and not on others. Where base map segments join, a trail can switch from dashed red to dashed black with no indication of why, other than perhaps to cross a wilderness boundary. My focus is primarily differentiating between established, maintained trails and use trails (informal trails, climber routes, game trails, etc.) or even cross-country routes, and there's some inconsistency with how they're marked on these maps versus my on-the-ground experience.

Base map trails in red & black vs. my track.

Software Updates

I'm testing software Version 4.3.7. As noted, it is supplied with an update utiity that, if I understand the literature, will update both the software and the base maps. I've run the update and received a message noting my version is the most current. I'll be curious to see whether I get to run an update during the test period. (NG Topo! state series has an extensive update protocol to keep maps current.)

In the Field

Answering a question from the initial report the maps print out at a nominal 1:40,000 scale. They can be magnified to a theoretical higher resolution but there's no more detail because they're not scalable graphics. As it is the magnification is fine for routine navigation—not as good as 7.5-minute quads but I find those to usually be detail "overkill." Paper maps printed from the program are provided with magnetic declination and optionally, the route elevation profile can be printed on the bottom. Longitude and latitude tic marks print along the margins, which is handy for adding GPS waypoints in the field. I print the map or maps I need and keep them in a zip closure bag for use on the trail.

The uploaded route provides the GPS with a string of waypoints to navigate to in sequence, which I can correlate on the map as I proceed. Intermediate waypoints can be added as needed either in the software or on the GPS in the field. Waypoint locations can also be verified/corrected in the GPS and uploaded back home to correct the route.

GPS data quickly uploads and can either be added to an existing .tpo file or saved separately as a new file. I can then use the actual track as a future route.


National Geographic has achieved their goal of making the Trails Illustrated Explorer series maps simple and easy for the casual user. The Sierra Nevada set is of great help in researching and traveling in the range, covering every corner with a reasonable level of detail. The software controls are simple and intuitive, printing is easy and GPS communications works well for my model at least.

Flyout menu provides printable route elevation profile.

My reservations revolve around inconsistencies among the combined map sets, the lack of 1:24,000 scale map detail and the scarcity of user control over some display options. None of these is a fatal flaw but as an experienced map software user I'm a bit frustrated by the limitations.

Suggestions for Improvement

I'd love to have display setting options for routes (line color, weight and pattern). It would be nice if the legend inconsistencies were resolved and more delineation was made between established trails and unmaintained/crosscountry routes. I'd prefer no route length limit.


My sincere thanks to National Geographic and for the opportunity to test the Explorer Sierra Nevada set.

Please check back in two months for the long-term report.


Long-Term Test Locations and Conditions

I took three trips—two snowshoe day hikes and one mixed snow and bare ground day hike during the long term test period. All trips were in the Tahoe Sierra on the western slope and all were within the region covered by the NG Trails Illustrated Sierra Nevada edition.

Weather ranged from overcast and about 50 F (10 C) to cloudy and about 25 F (-4 C). I encountered a bit of snow, but no rain. Trip elevations ranged from 5,000 to 8,500 feet (1,525 to 2,600 m).

Performance in the Field

I settled into a routine with the TI Explorer software, which is to locate my proposed trip area, frame the area and surroundings on the screen, mark key waypoints, upload the waypoints to my GPS and print the map. I print on standard letter paper (8 1/2 x 11 inches, which is similar in size to metric A4). With a little trimming the map fits flat into a large zip baggie and can be used in the field without getting wet or dirty.

My trips have been mostly off-trail because of snow. The 1:40,000 map scale and 50-foot (15 m) contour interval are reasonably detailed for most of my travels but the level of map detail is coarse enough to miss some fairly large surface details (gullies, cliffs and the like).

Printed map features and coloring schemes are good, and easy to read and interpret on the go. They've matched the base maps in my handheld GPS pretty well (both sets are originally based on USGS topographical maps). Printed at zoom level 4 (the highest of the four levels) the base map features reproduce a bit soft, particularly the contour lines and elevation numbers. This hasn't proved to be a problem.

We have agreement.

Back home I enjoy uploading my tracks and recorded waypoints to compare against the maps on my PC. They seem to match pretty well, but again, I haven't been traveling on trails so that comparison will have to wait.

I'm completing this test without having tried a software update. I'm still interested to go through one to see whether the base maps or map detail layers receive any updates. This is an important consideration on whether this package will be a good investment over the long haul.


The National Geographic TI Explorer software is, above all else, easy to use. It loads and launches quickly and it takes scant minutes to learn all the basic features. A couple additional hours of digging and most of its other tools are discovered and mastered. Uploading, downloading and printing are all very simple and robust.

Intelligent route tracing is a big time-saver and my favorite unique TI Explorer feature.

Some limitations I find frustrating are the lack of customization and that the Sierra Nevada region covered doesn't include a lot of Sierra foothill areas I visit in winter. The expanded base map's resolution (zoom levels 1 and 2) is barely good enough for driving into the covered region; it certainly doesn't support walking outside the main map area. I'm still grateful they include all of California and Nevada, even at the low detail provided.

In reality there are just two base maps: the coarse one used for zoom levels 1 and 2 and the detailed one used for levels 3 and 4. The amount of detail available does not change between zoom levels 1 and 2 and between levels 3 and 4.

Finally, the labeling and coloring discrepancies among map subregions can be confusing, not to mention annoying.

Continued Use

I will continue using the National Geographic TI Explorer Sierra Nevada set because of the ease of use and the fact that a lot of my hiking is in the area covered. It also communicates with my GPS without any glitches. I'm hoping for a software update to correct some of the base map issues.


My thanks to National Geographic and for the opportunity to test the Trails Illustrated Sierra Nevada software!

This report was created with the Report Writer Version 1.5 Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

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