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Reviews > Software > Topographic Mapping > National Geographic Weekend Explorer 3D > Test Report by Mike Lipay

Weekend Explorer 3D by National Geographic

Mike Lipay

August 26, 2007

Internal Report Links
Personal Information Product Description Conclusion
Initial Report
April 19, 2007
Field Report
June 21, 2007
Long-Term Report
August 26, 2007

Personal Information
Name Mike Lipay
Age 51
Gender Male
Height 5 ft 8 in / 173 cm
Weight 185 lb / 83.9 kg
Email hiking AT westernpa DOT us
Location Plum, Pennsylvania
BackgroundI've been hiking and backpacking since the '60s. I enjoy hiking solo, with my kids, or with one of the two hiking groups to which I belong. I have taught Leave-No-Trace skills, wilderness survival, and outdoor first-aid. I am no ultra-light backpacker (my pack typically weighs 29-40 lb [13-18 kg] loaded), although I am always looking for ways to cut down on the weight. I'm a low-techie, preferring a hiking staff to trekking poles, compass to GPS, fire to fuel; but I am open to new products when there is a distinct advantage over more traditional "technology".
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Product Description
Version Weekend Explorer 3D - Pittsburgh - Macintosh NG Weekend Explorer 3D
Photo courtesy National Geographic
Manufacturer National Geographic
Year of Mfgr 2007
MSRP $29.95 USD
Mfgr. Specs System: 10.2 or higher
Processor: 300 Mhz G3 or better
Memory: 128 MB, 16 MB Video Memory
Personal Configuration System: 10.4.9
Processor: 2 Ghz Intel Core Duo
Memory: 1 GB, 128 MB Video Memory
Warranty No warranty information was provided.
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Initial Report
Installation Instructions for the Mac were simple enough:
  1. Insert the TOPO! Installer Disc 1 into the CD-ROM drive.
  2. Double-click on the TOPO! CD-ROM icon.
  3. Double-clock on the Install TOPO! icon.
  4. Follow the on-screen instructions,

An additional option is to install the Data CD directly on the Mac's hard drive. This eliminates the need to have the Data CD in the drive to operate the software. To find out about this I had to hunt for the option, it is not readily apparent as an option.

The instructions to do this are simple enough:

  1. Select TOPO > Product Setup
  2. Insert the Data CD
  3. Click on the CD when it appears, then click on Copy Data CD's to Hard Drive

Here is where I experienced my first problem, the Data CD would not load to the drive. I received an error message stating nothing more than that the install failed.

First Usage

My first usage was to do nothing more than just go in, poke around, and make sure everything worked. Not surprisingly, everything does work fine. Zoom, Travel (moving around), Draw, and all of the other functions worked fine. I have not tried creating an elevation profile, or printing anything, short of that I have tried every option.

One thing I dislike is that when I launched the application the map centered on the middle of the U.S., which means I had to "learn" how to move the display to Pittsburgh, not an intuitive process. I thought it would be a simple dragging of the mouse, similar to National Geographic's (NG) Topo application, it wasn't. I had to click on "Traveller", move the mouse into the map area (where it turns into an arrow), then hold down the mouse button to move the map. The distance of the mouse from the center of the map determines what direction (and speed) the map will move when you hold down the mouse button. I found this a bit awkward and, if the mouse wasn't in the "right" place, a bit too fast (I quickly moved out of the area of my package).

My last comment is on the zoom. I am planning a May trip to a city park in Pittsburgh, so I moved the map to center in on the location of the park, clicked on the "Zoom" button, then clicked on the area where the park is located. The map automatically centers the display on where the mouse was at the time I clicked, then zoomed in one level. After moving down to level five (maximum zoom), I could barely make out the trails in this 420 acre park. The thoughts of creating a trail map, with an elevation profile, quickly disappeared. I am now wondering just how small of an area I will be able to use with any accuracy. NGWE does provide a "Magnification" option, but no additional detail is provided, and the image becomes blurred.

Standard Image

Magnification 400
NWGE Magnify

First Impressions

I am less than thrilled with the Weekend Explorer 3D software. While having a package dedicated to a particular area is a plus, and the lower cost (compared to NG's Topo) is pleasing, there are issues that I, as a "Weekend Warrior", would need to consider before laying down the money.

  • Installation of the software itself is easy, but loading the Data CD did not work. This should be an option at installation time, not an after-thought requiring a separate step for which one has to search.
  • At startup, the program should go directly to the location of the installed maps. Or, offer a selection if more than one map is installed.
  • Groups that I take out for a day hike are interested in short trips, 5-8 miles tops (8-13 km). Zoom levels should allow for more than the current 5 levels so as to include detail on areas of less than a square mile (2.6 square km).

On the plus side, National Geographic's Weekend Explorer 3D does have some nice features

  • Much lower cost than Topo (MSRP $29.95 vs $99.95 USD).
  • Inclusion of roads and landmarks, makes finding the areas easier.
  • 3D view is great for visualizing the area ahead of time.
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Field Report

I reported a problem in my Initial Report with loading the software onto my computer. As it turns out, the reason for the problem is that I have Topo v.3 for Pennsylvania already on my system, and the Weekend Explorer (Pittsburgh Edition) covers some of the same physical area. As such, the Pittsburgh map loaded properly but was "hidden" by the larger Pennsylvania map. What I had to do was to completely uninstall both versions of Topo, including their maps. Next, I installed the Weekend Explorer software and Pittsbugh map; then I installed just the Pennsylvania map from my old Topo v.3 software.

Since the two maps have an overlapping area to use one or the other I need to toggle the Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania maps on and off each time I want to switch between the two. To work with the state maps, for example, I would click on TOPO! in the menu bar, then choose Product Setup; next, I would select the Pittsburgh maps and click on "Deactivate", then I would select the Pennsylvania maps and click on "Activate". This allows me to work with the Pennsylvania map without interference from the Pittsburgh map. To use the Pittsburgh map I would just reverse the procedure.

This issue did allow me to determine something about the map in the Pittsburgh Edition, it is exactly the same map that come in the State edition, only limited to the Pittsburgh area, this is both good and bad.

It's good because the Weekend Explorer is a newer product, so for the price of a regional edition I can use the newer software with my existing maps; all features of the newer software work with the state map. Next time an update comes out I will opt for purchasing a new region (maybe the Shenandoah National Park), comfortable with the knowledge that it will work with my existing maps. Nice way to get new regions.

It's bad because, from the viewpoint of a "weekend explorer," I would want more detail on smaller trails; I do point this out below as an issue.

Detail The software allows zooming in at five different levels:
  • Level 1 (1:4,000,000) shows several states, useful if I had more than one regions maps
  • Level 2 (1:865,000) show a couple hundred miles, enough to show a little more than half of Pennsylvania
  • Level 3 (1:327,260) gives a less than 100 miles width, I find this helpful for locating trails, but still has no useable information
  • Level 4 (1:50,000) this is the first level where actual topographic lines can be seen, but trail detail is still missing
  • Level 5 (1:15,375) is where I can finally make out the trails enough to draw a route

Level 5 I find useable once the trail has been loaded (from a saved or downloaded .tpo file) or drawn. To actually draw a trail I find it necessary to magnify Level 5 to at least 200%. This is a shortfall for Weekend Explorer, an additional level with more detail is needed to accurately draw a trail. I find it helpful to have a local map of the trail handy while I am drawing, as most trails that I have found aren't completely shown on the maps. Magnifying the map beyond 200% starts to blur the lines and wording.

Routes There are three ways to get a trail route into Weekend Explorer:
  • Download a .tpo file from one of the many sources on the Internet, National Geographic recommends mapXchange; after doing search for .tpo on the internet, I found that there are other sources out there for .tpo files.
  • Walk the route with a GPS device, then upload the trail into Topo.
  • Draw the route by hand with the Topo software.

Of the three methods drawing the route by hand is the least accurate, but it is the one I have used the most as the trails I usually hike aren't available for download, and I don't own a GPS device. This as I mentioned above, is where a more detailed map would be a blessing.

Drawing Drawing a route is a relatively easy thing to do (so long as I make no mistakes). I simply click on the "Route" tool, move the cursor to the starting point, single-click to start, then move the cursor (mouse or trackpad) along the route I want to take. When I have finished drawing a single click of the button and the route is done. A pop-up menu appears that lets me name the route, do a 3-D flyover of the route (visual "hike"), build an elevation profile, or delete the entire route.

Making a mistake is not something I enjoy doing, because there is no good method of erasing the mistake. To erase a mistake, provided it was just made, requires holding down the Option key and back-drawing the route. This is near impossible, and I have never been able to accomplish it. I use a trackpad, and reversing the trail has never been something I could accomplish with the precision needed. I always delete the map and start over again, not a fun event.

After drawing the route a single click ends the route and opens a window where I can name the route, and build a profile - these are the two features I use most. The 3D flyby I find interesting to watch, but not very useful.

Printing I like the printing of Weekend Explorer the best when compared to the other features. I can resize the image to fit the page, re-orient the page, add the elevation profile, change the magnification, and many more options. The printout looks exactly like the image I see on the screen - fantastic!

Reports on Trip Usage

City Park My first trip was to be to a local (city) park. Pittsburgh has a number of fine parks, with a good network of trails, one of the nicest being in the heart of the university center - Oakland. The park, Schenley Park, boasts six miles (ten km) of hiking trails from easy to difficult, the longest loop of which is three miles (five km). I was disappointed to find that only part of this trail appears on the Weekend Explorer (map A). Even at Level 5, with 400% magnification, hand drawing the trail, accurately, was not an easy task. I worked with a printed copy of the map from Pittsburgh's web site (map B), carefully drawing the trail as close as I could get to its actual path. The erase feature would have been helpful, but I just couldn't get it to work. It took near an hour to draw this short route, having to delete the entire route each time I made a mistake (map C, route is the blue-dashed line). I then ran the elevation profile to get a feel for what the trail was like. Finally, I took the map and walked the three mile (five km) route that I had created, matching the actual path I walked to the Weekend Explorer map. While things did not line up perfectly, it did match well enough for my hike. City Park
County Park The next step up, in physical size, was to Boyce Park in Allegheny County. I know the trails here like the proverbial back of my hand, having spent over 20 years hiking its trails, and blazing the trails every few years. The Outer Loop is a favorite, being just a shade over six miles (ten km) in length, with many side trails which can be used to lengthen it to a ten mile (16 km) trek. This proved to be trickier than the last hike, Weekend Explorer showed no trails within Boyce Park (map A), and the county map was just a hand-drawn sheet of paper with no topographical references (map B). The only thing the two have in common are the physical reference points (roads, buildings, streams). I did a rough drawing of the trail (map C, route is the blue-dashed line), which took near an hour with mistakes, and ran the elevation profile. Again, I hiked the area with my newly created map; a GPS unit would be handy to judge the accuracy, but I think it worked out well enough. I would hate to try this without a solid knowledge of the trails, with no trails included with the software, and the trails not appearing on the topographic map. County Park
State Forest I did a backpacking trip on the John P. Saylor trail in Gallitzin State Forest, this is the furthest eastern area covered by the software. This time I was able to find a .tpo file on the web, so I downloaded the file and merged it into the software. This was a really easy task, taking only a few minutes. Unfortunately, the person who hiked this trail did so as a day hike, doing only the main 10 mile (16 km) loop (map A, route is the solid-red line). The Saylor trail is a unique creation, being a double loop. Halfway through the main loop is a suspension bridge that takes you over the stream to a smaller (six mile, 10 km) loop, together it makes a great backpacking trip. I found that there is no way to add to a trail once it has been created, so I wound up drawing the smaller loop (map B, route is the solid-blue line), running two elevation profiles, and printing two different maps. Not a real problem, but a minor hassle. My concern here comes from knowing the number of places in Pennsylvania where trails merge, and I end up taking different paths each time. Even if I GPS the trail, there is no way to say, "I want to do 10 miles of trail A, then take a different path and continue onto trail B." As to accuracy, the .tpo file was right-on with its section, my hand drawn loop was not as accurate, but still livable. To make the smaller loop I worked with a topo map provided by the rangers at Gallitzin State Forest. State Forest
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Long Term Report
Prior Issues I was able to wrap up (resolve) two of the issues I discovered in the prior reports:
  • Erasing a mistake while drawing a route - As it turns out, the documentation shipped with NG's Weekend Explorer is not correct on this procedure. A couple of emails were necessary to resolve the issue - their technical support is not fast in returning emails as it took 3 days to receive a reply on each email, far below what I would consider an acceptable time limit. At first the support representative (SR) simply echoed what was in the manual, ignoring the part of my email detailing the problem. Their second response was an attempt to help, but it was apparent the SR did not try it before emailing me as it did not work either. Finally, on the third email (after the SR spoke with the 'programmers') I had a solution. To erase a portion of the route (starting at the current end-point on the route) I needed to hold down the Control Key and press the mouse button, this changed the drawing icon to the erase icon, and I was able to backtrack on the route to the last good point that I drew. The nice thing about the erase function is that I didn't have to be exact on following the route back, NGWE realized that I was erasing so close was good enough.
  • Setting waypoints along the route is possible, but it does require accuracy in placing the mouse over the trail. If I was too far off the waypoint would not take when I transferred the route to my GPS unit (Garmin Vista CX). This is a case when close wasn't good enough.

The one major bug-a-boo that remains (kind of) unsolved is modification of an existing route. I found that I can "add" to the start of the route by drawing from my new starting point to the old, NG automatically makes the connection (cool). I can do the same at the end point of the route (also cool). But modifications anywhere along the route are not possible, this creates a problem when a trail must be rerouted (temporarily or permanently) due to: washed out bridges, issues with land owners, or the park service just deciding to change the route for the fun of it (their fun, not mine). I have been told by the SR that this can be done (sort of) by doing one of two things:

  • Start at the end point and erase the route back to the point where the route changes, then redraw from there -- this can be a real pain on a long route, or one where the change is at or near the beginning.
  • Use properties to change the color of the existing route then, starting at the beginning trace over the old route, making the necessary changes along the way. After the "new" route is drawn I can leave both of the routes (for temporary changes), or delete the old route (for permanent changes).

Neither solution is ideal, but I'm sure the programming needed to allow mid-route changes would be a nightmare on their end (I am a programmer, so I can envision what would be necessary). I have tried both methods, and find the second to be the best, even though it is the most work. The reason I say this is that, for the unchanged sections, I can make sure that the old route is followed as closely as possible. If I had to erase and redraw I doubt that I could recreate the route accurately.

New Stuff A bit of fortune hit during this test, the gods of the woods blessed me with a GPS unit (Garmin Vista CX). Actually, it was more the gods of the forests (park rangers), who gave me a unit for some trail work my club is doing for them. This enabled me to test the GPS interface functions of NG Weekend Explorer.

My first experiment was to walk a trail that I was familiar with, using the GPS to track my path. When I completed the trek I connected the GPS unit to my Mac, then proceeded to upload the tracks into the NGWE software. This is when I discovered that all GPS units (even by the same manufacturer) are not created equal. NGWE couldn't "find" the GPS unit. The instructions here are not as good as they could be; there is a bit of a setup in the software so that it knows what GPS unit I am using. The manual can use some changes here, as it does not do a good job of explaining that this needs to be done, nor how to accomplish the task. Once I determined how to inform NGWE what GPS device I was using, uploading was a snap. In seconds I was proudly looking at the trail, creating elevation profiles, adding waypoints, printing, and all the other good stuff that NGWE allows.

My second experiment was to download a route to the GPS device. There are a number of different websites which contain compatible .tpo files, including NG's own site mapXchange (it's in the documentation). I was leading a hike at Roaring Run in Western Pennsylvania. I was able to find a .tpo file that someone else had uploaded; I downloaded it onto my computer, then loaded it into NGWE (a few simple clicks). Knowing the area I set some waypoints along the trail using the NGWE waypoint tool, then downloaded the trail onto my GPS unit. I was immediately able to bring the trail up on the GPS, and when I arrived at the trail head I could easily follow the trail. The waypoints weren't exactly located (memory isn't an exact thing), but were close enough to find what I marked. I was able to re-mark the correct locations, then when I got back home I uploaded the corrected trail into NGWE (neat!). Now, I could save the route onto my Mac for future use. I ran the elevation profile and found it to be very accurate.

Thumbs Up
  1. Works with State series maps, letting me use one application for all my National Geographic maps.
  2. Printing options make it easy to select only what I want to print, sizing it to a single page.
  3. Easily imports .tpo files from the internet (where others have done the hard work).
  4. Elevation profile makes it easy to see the hike before I take it, and makes it easier to identify just where I am on a hike.
  5. Once drawn, a hike can be saved for future usage, and shared over the internet.
  6. Interfaces well with GPS units, making the software even more usable for trip planning.
  1. Hand drawing a trail, accurately, is hard to do with a trackpad, I don't even want to attempt it with a mouse.
  2. Once a trail is drawn it is a difficult procedure to modify it, requiring either: erasing back to where the changes are to be made; or tracing over the trail, making changes along the way, then erasing the original trails (real pain on a long or complex trail).
  3. The manual needs some rework. Some keystrokes are incorrect (ex: erasing a route), and some functions are not fully explained (GPS setup, for example).
  4. Support is weak, it can take a while to get a response, and the answers are not verified first. I have contacted their support group for each of the problems identified above, so this ascertainment was based on more than one experience. The support website is difficult to navigate, and even more difficult to find from the NG home page. An electronic manual on the website, which is updated with corrections, would be a god-send.
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I would like to take this opportunity to thank both National Geographic and BackpackGearTest for the chance to test the Weekend Explorer 3D, Macintosh version.
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