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Reviews > Software > Topographic Mapping > National Geographic National Parks 3D > Test Report by Gail Staisil

National Geographic-
National Parks Explorer 3D
Mapping Software

Test Series by: Gail Staisil, Marquette, Michigan

Page Contents:

Initial Report:
National Geographic
National Parks Explorer 3D
April 20, 2007

Tester Information

Gail Staisil
Age: 54
Gender: Female
Height: 5' 9" (1.75 m)
Weight: 140 lb (64 kg)
Location: Marquette, Michigan USA

For the last 18 years, backpacking has become a passion. I am a four-season backpacker and an off-trail navigator. Although I do take yearly trips to the American West or Southwest, the majority of my trips are in Michigan and Canada. My pack weight varies considerably but my base weight is below 18 lb (8 kg). I am primarily a tarp camper who averages more than 50 nights a year backpacking in a huge variety of weather conditions including relentless rain, wet snow and sub-zero temps.

Product Description

National Geographic
Phone 800.962.1643
National Parks Explorer 3D Mapping Software
GPS Compatible
MAC/PC Compatible
System Requirements


95, 98, NT, ME, 2000 or XP
486 DX/66 MHz PC or higher
64 MB RAM + 8 MB video memory
OS 10.2 or higher
350 MHz G3 or better
128 MB RAM + 16 MB video memory

Year Developed
MSRP $49.95 US

The National Geographic (NG) National Parks Explorer 3D Mapping Software is an interactive mapping CD that uses Trails Illustrated Maps as its base. The software covers 25 National Parks. It allows the user to create or customize and print maps starting with the detailed maps for each park. Some of the features of this software include a route tool, an elevation profile, a 3D fly-thru, both 2D and 3D views and a PDF for each park with additional travel information. The software is GPS compatible so that waypoints and routes can be transferred. The software is compatible with many hand-held receivers made by Garmin, Magellan, Eagle, Lowrance as well as wrist top units made by Suunto including the X9, X9i and X9Mi.

National Parks (Included on software)
Acadia, ME
Arches, UT
Big Bend, TX
Bryce Canyon, UT
Canyonlands, UT (Needles and Island in the Sky)
Channel Islands, CA
Death Valley, CA
Glacier/Waterton, MT/Alberta
Grand Canyon, AZ
Grand Teton, WY
Great Smokey Mountains, TN/NC
Isle Royale, MI
Joshua Tree, CA
Kings Canyon, CA
Mt. Rainier, WA
North Cascades, WA
Olympic, WA
Redwood, CA
Rocky Mountain, CO
Sequoia, CA
Shenandoah, VA
Theodore Roosevelt, ND
Yellowstone, WY/MT
Yosemite, CA
Zion, UT

Initial Impressions

The National Geographic National Parks Explorer 3D Mapping Software consisting of two CD's were packaged in an illustrated soft cardboard box. The box has a flap that opens to reveal many illustrations and featuresNG National Parks Explorer 3D Software of the software. Inside that box, a standard jewel box contained two CD's and an 8-page Quick Start Guide. They were entitled: Installer-Disc 1, version 4.3.0 and Map Data-Disc 2. The start guide provides directions for installation, notes about the software's key features and a short tutorial. More complete information is available on a PDF file.

Maps for 25 National Parks are included on the software. I have hiked in over half of those parks and I will backpack in an additional one this summer (Glacier National Park). Both the soft box and CD case are illustrated with a US map highlighted with numbered red circles that correlate to the parks included on the software. The numbers are in reference to a list of parks that are located underneath the map. All but four of the National Parks are located in the western part of the US. I was happy to note that my favorite park is included on the CD (Isle Royale National Park).

The maps digitized on the software are Trails Illustrated Maps. I am well acquainted with these waterproof paper maps as I have bought and used many of them in my travels to National Parks. The maps are based on USGS information that is modified and revised by National Geographic Maps in cooperation with the National Park Service and the USDA Forest Service.

Installation of Software

According to the manufacturer, the software is compatible with both MAC and PC. Both systems require four installation steps but they are somewhat different. My computer system is PC based. It is a Dell Dimension with Intel Pentium 4 Processor 521 w/HT Technology (2.8 GHz, 800FSB), Windows XP, and 512 MB Dual Channel DDR2 SDRAM at 553 MHz -2 DIMMs. The instructions for PC installation are in four easy steps: 1) Insert the Installer Disc into CD-ROM, 2) Enter D:/Setup.exe, 3) Click OK and 4) Follow the instructions on the screen. Easy enough.

An Introductory Run
Welcome screen with park locations
After I installed the software, I inserted the Map Data CD to run the program. The following order must be chosen: Start >Programs>TOPO>National Parks Explorer 3D. I had to enter the serial number to initialize the program. The number was found on the inside of the jewel case. I also registered the product so that I could be assured of receiving updates for the software. The next step was to choose a park and click GO. Choosing a park was as simple as clicking on the red circle for that park or it could be achieved by using the arrow keys on the screen to scan through the parks. Each park is represented not only by its name but by a representative photograph from the park. I decided to choose Isle Royale National Park since I backpack there almost every year. I used the "Getting Started; A Quick Tutorial" to try a few of the functions. This two-page guide covers four of the functions in more detail (Zoom, Route, Print and Save). Labeled icons for all of the Route and UTM Grid lines highlightedfunctions are located on a tool bar at the top of the screen.

I then experimented with the Zoom button that changes the level of detail and the scale of the map by simply using the left click of the mouse. It also had magnification options to reduce or magnify once the zoom level was chosen. The options included magnification of the park map, reference map or the Trails Illustrated Map.

Next, I tried the Route button by tracing a short route on the map. I simply positioned the cursor where I wanted the route to begin and then left clicked the mouse so that the cursor could follow the trail (selected route is highlighted in blue). The route I selected crossed over a large beaver pond. I couldn't draw over it as it resisted so I had to restart a segment on the other side to continue. From actual experience I know that there is an elevated boardwalk over the pond, but I guess that didn't count as a real trail with the software. If I wanted to draw anywhere that is not on an established trail such as over the pond, I could instead hold down the Ctrl key while drawing. Other functions in the short tutorial told how to print a map and save work in a TOPO document. The elevation profile and distance of each trail section shows up in a pop-up window after I clicked on the highlighted route.Elevation profile pop-up window

I went back to check out some of the other icons on the tool bar. Some were a bit intuitive but I mostly had to turn to the Help icon on the tool bar where I found the complete User Guide (Adobe Reader) to help with other information. The User Guide including appendices is 58 pages long but it's easy to navigate as it has a sidebar where the subject matter options are clearly outlined. Additional icon tools not previously mentioned include those entitled: Select, Centering, Traveling, Note, Compass, Find, Grid, GPS, 3D, and Info. The screen also has a status bar along the bottom of the window that provides information by giving tips and help with the use of the tools. I'm sure I will be referring to both sources quite often until I learn the software.

I also checked the website prior to using this product. It has basically the same information that is illustrated on the software's packaging but with a neat addition. It features a "Test Drive" which is a demonstration that automatically runs to show the viewer how the Zoom, and Fly-thru works. So far, the software seems to be mostly what I expected from viewing the website.

What's Next?

I'm really looking forward to testing the NG National Parks Explorer 3D software as this is my first real experience with interactive map software. Although I have an older version of map software for a part of Michigan (another brand), I had never learned to use most of the functions other than to print a section of a map. During the testing period, I will be planning a trip to Glacier National Park and I'll use the software to facilitate plans for both a backpacking trip and multiple day hikes over a 10 day time period in that park. I plan to use a lot of the custom features to explore and print maps for the trip.

Photo of software box: Courtesy of National Geographic

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Field Report:
National Geographic
National Parks Explorer 3D
June 18, 2007

Trip Planning with the Software

During the field test period, I've been able to further explore the intricacies of the National Parks Explorer 3D Software. My main goal has been to plan a small group trip to Glacier National Park in August.
One of the components of this ten-day trip is a four-day backpacking trip. The remainder of the days will be spent dayhiking.

Since this is the first time that I will visit the park, my quest was to actively seek information from different sources of media including the NG National Parks Explorer 3D Software. With the helpful advice of others who had previously backpacked in the park (including BGT tester Jenn K), I was able to narrow down a few choice areas to explore further with the software. My main considerations were to investigate the elevation factor, with the goal of making the trip one of a leisurely nature.


I began my search by experimenting with the Find feature after bringing up the entire Glacier National Park map. This allowed me to focus quickly on the areas that I was interested in looking at further. For example, after entering "Two Medicine" on the Find site, it provided a list of all the places or features that have those words in them. I then selected one of the options such as "Upper Two Medicine Lake" and it would pop up after selecting what level of map option I desired. A red vertical line and a red horizontal line would appear on the map with my desired location placed approximately at the intersection of the two lines. This intersection doesn't seem to always lie right on the target but it is generally found in that immediate area. The Find button can also be used to find a location by coordinates if one desired. This would likely be handy if someone had given me only the coordinates of a particular feature that I might like to investigate.


Before I drew any potential routes, I used the View button on the software to establish my preferences for mapping.
I chose the UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) grid lines and coordinate markings, the datum preference, the distance in miles rather than kilometers, and the elevation in feet rather than meters. Other options are available to personalize. Although I normally navigate off trail using meters, this trip will be on trail and the others in the group are more familiar with imperial units. However, I did choose the UTM grid in case I have the opportunity to navigate off trail. Preferences can be changed at any time.

Route Selection

During the process of selecting a route, my first step was to trace over an intended route with the Route button to determine distance, elevation and terrain. The most obvious consideration for this trip dealt Profile of routewith the difficulty of the terrain so the elevation profiles were of immense interest. The elevation profiles can be easily looked at after tracing a route with the use of the Route button. The elevation profile provides the numbers for the total net gain or loss in elevation. The total gain is the sum of all the uphills and the loss is the sum of the downhills. In the example to the right, there is an overall gain of 323 ft (98 m). The elevation profile does allow the terrain distance to be noted. Pop-up editors allow details to be added such as elevation numbers at certain points, direction arrows and notes. I decided to trace each day's route separately for an intended trip. I tried different options for extra data to be placed on the map including placing elevation numbers along the route but decided that the visual effect of adding the elevation profile to the bottom of the map would give the same information. The actual vertical exaggeration number or grade can be changed by expanding or shortening the profile box. For example, on the profile map pictured to the left, the exaggeration is 7.8 X making the profile appear much steeper than reality. I'm not sure what the usefulness of this feature is as I could definitely scare off the rest of my group with a lot of exaggeration.

Doing the Fly Over -3D Flyover of "Day One" Route
3D View

After drawing a route, I selected the 3D flyover option. It flies over the entire route giving a bird's eye view from above the terrain. When I click an exact location for a vantage point, I can change the angle and height views by using the Tilt and Elevation slider buttons on the 3D Fly window. The fly over gives me an idea of how the route would look if I were hiking it. "Day One" of this route looks to be a real easy day with the trail skirting around most of the higher points.

Compass Option Button
The Compass button is also a neat feature as it gives the bearing and distance from one place to another. For example, I used it to mark an anchor at the Pitamakin Overlook on the third day of the Two Medicine route and then set it again at the summit of Rising Wolf Mountain. The latter is a natural feature that can be viewed from the trail at a distance. The data on the screen told me that it is located about 3.17 miles (5 km) away and can be viewed at 113.13 degrees TN (True North) from the overlook.

Favorite Route Selected

After exploring a couple of possibilities with the software, I copied and sent suggested routes to my traveling partners for consideration and it was agreed that the Two Medicine Route (circular route) might be an excellent choice if we could get permits. The distances, elevation profiles and difficulty of terrain were all determining factors for this decision. Although the trip appears to be very easy for the first two days, the third and fourth day will certainly be more of a challenge for us flatlanders. That would also give us enough time to deal with the altitude differences. Even though the altitude range of approximately (4000 ft /1200 m) to 8000 ft/2400 m) is not high by Western United States standards, all of us live at very low elevation either here in areas of Michigan or Arizona (600 ft (/183 m to 1000 ft/300 m). That factored with our loaded backpacks, and the desire for a moderate-energy type trip lends the route to our needs. The next step was to apply to the Glacier National Park lottery for permits and wait to see if I would get our first choice. Several weeks later, I was informed that I was successful.

Print and Save  Printed copy of "Day One"

It's easy to save any maps that I worked on as an .tpo document. They can be looked at later or sent to someone else that has similar software and they could also view it.
The next step was printing. I chose to print one of the maps at 150 percent making the details so much nicer. Although I don't plan to do any off-trail adventures there, I also added an UTM grid as I wanted the map to be in the format that is the most familiar to me. The grid shows very lightly on the printed map but it could be useful. The scale at the bottom of the printed map shows both miles and kilometers. The declination is also included as well as the UTM eastings and northings. I used plain computer paper for printing but it most likely would be better to use waterproof paper for longevity purposes. I am quite happy with the printed maps as they can certainly be used as a more economical solution to buying a commercial map. However, I have purchased the NG large waterproof map of the park but the daily maps I plan to print will make it a lot easier to focus on the immediate picture. The NG large map will be used for reference and travel in visiting many areas of the park as the group will have six other days to explore besides the backpack trip. The PDF file for extra information on the park that is included on the software is identical to the information on my purchased map. This would be a good source of data for those who don't want or need to purchase the commercial map.

Park Information on PDF file

So far, so good - after a half dozen hour-long sessions of playing with this software, I find I don't have to refer to the Help icon or feature as often. I have been using it in a
different window on the computer so that if I needed reference I could quickly access the Help PDF file. During the long term period, I will continue to work on maps for the August Glacier National Park trip. As I research more about the route, I will add any notes to the maps that may make it more fun. I plan to make copies of all necessary maps for my travel partners so that they don't have to purchase extra maps.


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Long Term Report:
National Geographic
National Parks Explorer 3D
August 21, 2007

After four months of use, I've come to the conclusion that the National Geographic National Parks Explorer 3D software has been a handy tool for basic mapping purposes. By my own admission I'm not the most computer-savvy person, but I found the software very easy to use. The Information/Help buttons have been very handy to answer most of my questions about the software. The learning curve was very smooth and I feel that most anybody could learn to effectively use the software.
I found the fact that the maps can be run from my hard drive much easier than inserting a CD every time I wished to use a map.

Glacier National Park Maps

During the long term test period, I used the software to make maps for a group trip to Glacier National Park. One of the components of the trip was a four-day backpacking trip. I tried different approaches to map making but I decided that it was best for me to divide the trip into four individual days for mapping purposes. This allowed a clearer breakdown of the distances and the elevation profiles for each day that I added to the bottom of the maps. I printed the maps at 150 percent so that they would be easier for everyone to see without wearing glasses. I used ordinary computer paper and then inserted each set of maps into gallon-size zip bags so that they would be protected from moisture. Overall, my travel partners enjoyed using the maps that were detailed with mileage and elevation notes. I also explored and printed other maps for dayhikes but we ended up doing alternative dayhikes that were suggested by other sources such as rangers and hikers that we met on trails while we were at the park.

Because our area of travel included the Continental Divide, I must admit that the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) marking on the map was confusing to me at first. Not having traveled areas around the Continental Divide much, I thought the highlighted trail on the map was actually on the divide. The trail on the map has a CDT symbol on it but it also labels the linear trail as only the "Continental Divide" along its length, hence part of the confusion. Although it falls on the actual divide some of the time, more often it does not. This is not a big deal but it did make me wonder when I was on or near the actual divide.

Other Thoughts

The software's maps are based on the National Geographic Trail Illustrated Series. Although I've found the maps to be very helpful, I would prefer that they were at a larger scale to see more detail. I have mostly used more detailed 1:24 quadrangle maps for my trips so the smaller scale took a bit of adjustment. I understand that if the printed maps were offered by NG at a larger scale, they wouldn't probably be attractive to most hikers as they would be larger to print and transport. This is hardly a complaint though, as the software covers 25 National Parks all in one program which is very cost effective. The maps in their present form are certainly more than adequate for trail-type hikes. 

Although I found the 3D flyovers to be interesting, it all runs too quickly and can be over exaggerated depending on the settings. It was fun to use but not really that helpful. I much prefer printing the elevation profiles on my maps. My trail partners also liked that element as they could prepare mentally for the day.

I didn't find the Note feature that enticing before an actual trip, but it's neat to make notes on a map after a trip for future reference. It's easy to do with the Note button. I simply positioned the cursor and then left clicked to enter text and then clicked OK. It's handy to edit campsite information, and features along the way for future trips.

One of my favorite features of the software was the Find button. Sometimes I used other references such as books about the park and then I would just enter the name of a place or feature into the Find search and it would bring me to the area on the map where it was located. This certainly saved time over having to scan all areas of the map. 

Overall, I have found the NG National Parks Explorer 3D Software to be useful, relatively concise compared to other park information and easy to learn. I will continue to use it in the future for my favorite national parks and also for other parks that I would like to explore.
This concludes my test series for the National Parks Explorer 3D Software. Thanks to National Geographic and BackpackGearTest for this great opportunity to test the mapping software.

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