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Reviews > Software > Topographic Mapping > National Geographic Weekend Explorer 3D > Test Report by Sonjia Leyva

National Geographic WeekendExplorer 3D software

Initial Report (4/10/07) - Field Report (6/26/07) - Long Term Report (8/28/07)

Personal biographical information:

Tester Name: Sonjia Leyva
Age: 40
Gender: Female
Height: 5' 7"/ 1.7 m
Weight: 190 lb./86 kg
Email address: leyva_sm AT yahoo DOT com
Location: San Gabriel, CA

Backpacking background: I started backpacking 6 years ago, but I have been hiking and camping in Southern California, with occasional trips to the Sierra Nevada, Oregon and Washington for over twenty-five years . I don't have a particular "style"; I try to keep the weight down, but I'm not an ultralight backpacker! I use a 3-season tent and a 0° F -18° C sleeping bag (I sleep COLD!) when I backpack. Numerous knee injuries and a heel spur keep my pace slow on moderate terrain. I have two "issues": 1) how to backpack with my young children, and 2) how to manage my blood sugar and insulin levels while hiking.

Product information:

National Geographic WeekendExplorer 3D software
Year of Manufacture:
2006 (TOPO! Version 4.2.7)
$29.95 USD

Manufacturer: National Geographic
     TOPO! Software Inquiries National Geographic Maps
     P.O. Box 4357
     Evergreen, CO, USA 80437-4357
     (800) 962 1643 (TOPO! Software Technical Support)

System Requirements:

Windows 95, 98, NT, ME, 2000, or XP: 486 DX/66 MHz PC or higher, 64 MB RAM & 8 MB video memory
Macintosh OS 10.2 or higher; 350 MHz G3 or better; and 128 MB

My System:
PC: Windows XP; AMD Athelon 64 X2 Dual Core CPU(2.00 GHz); 1 G RAM; NVIDIA GeForce 6600 GT video card; two 80 GB hard drives.
Gateway MX6214 Notebook with Windows XP, running on an Intel Celeron M Processor 420 (1600 MHz), 512 MB RAM, & Mobile Intel(R) 945GM Express Video Card.

Picture of WeekendExplorer 3D box
image from National Geographic WeekendExplorer 3D website

Regions available: Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos; Atlanta Area, Northern Georgia; Boise Area; Boston Area, Cape Cod, & Rhode Island; Denver Area & the Front Range; Las Vegas Area; Los Angeles Area & Los Padres, Angeles, San Bernardino National Forest; Nashville, Chattanooga; New York City Area & Catskills, Poconos, Hudson Valley; Phoenix Area & Tonto, Prescott, Kaibob, Coconino National Forest; Pittsburgh Area; Portland Area & Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens; Sacramento, Reno, Tahoe; Salt Lake City Area & Wasatch Range, Uinta Mountains; San Antonio, Austin, Hill Country; San Diego Area & Anza-Borrego, Santa Rosa Mountains; San Francisco Bay Area & Big Sur, Napa Valley; Seattle Area & the Central Cascades; Tucson Area; Twin Cities Area & Boundary Waters, Apostle Islands; Washington, Baltimore Area;
Region testing: Los Angeles Area & Los Padres, Angeles, San Bernardino National Forests.

Initial Report (April 10, 2007):

The National Geographic WeekendExplorer 3D program is cased in a DVD-sized case (roughly 5 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches or 13 1/2 by 19 cm) and contains two CDs. The advantage of using the DVD-sized case as opposed to the traditional CD "jewel" (clear, hard plastic) case or paper sleeve is that both CDs stack neatly inside the case, one overlying the other. Both CDs are in one place and the case has a much slimmer profile in addition to being more durable. Disc 1 contains the installation files and maps for levels 1 through 3. Disc 2 contains the map data for levels 4 and 5. The user has the ability to copy the map files located on Disc 2 to their computer's hard drive. This speeds up the zooming between layers and enables the user to access the data without having to find and insert the appropriate CD ROM, but it does require a bit of hard drive space. The program default is to access the level 4 & 5 maps via the CD ROM so users with limited hard drive space needn't be concerned. As I have plenty of hard drive space available, I chose to copy the files to my hard drive.

I am lucky to have two computers: a PC that my husband built for me and a Gateway MX6214 Notebook (see above for system information on each). I first installed the National Geographic WeekendExplorer 3D program on my PC. Installation was quick and easy; in fact, the only problem I had was locating the serial number, which was hidden beneath the "TOPO! Quick Start Guide" inside the case. After installation I began playing around with some of the features. I was able to import TOPO! files created in an earlier version and TOPO! files downloaded from the TOPO! mapXchange site. I was able to connect my Magellan Sportrak Pro GPS receiver to my computer and download waypoints from the unit into the WeekendExplorer 3D program and upload a route I created in the program to the GPS unit. All was fine until I tried the 3D function and the program crashed. At this time I am looking into the reason why the program crashes every time I try to use the 3D function.

I next installed the program on my Gateway Notebook. Installation was also quick and easy with no problems. The 3D function works just fine on my notebook. I quickly created a route along the 1.5 mile / 2.4 km Sturtevant Falls trail in the Angeles National Forest, then right-mouse clicked on the route and selected "3D flyover". The program quickly began the 3D flyover of the route. I was impressed not only with the seamless quality of the 3D rendering, but also with the accuracy of the topography. The trail is mostly flat but is very steep at the beginning as the trail enters into Santa Anita Canyon. While the images aren't perfect, they are a fairly good representation of reality. Unfortunately, the program doesn't show how hot and sunny that part of the trail can get!

screenshot of the Sturtevant Falls Trail
Screenshot of the Sturtevant Falls Trail as rendered in the National Geographic WeekendExplorer 3D program. The blue line on the map to the right is the route I drew in the program and the red arrow indicates the direction of the fly-thru. The image on the left is the 3D fly-thru of the route (looking south). The test was conducted on my notebook computer.
Field Report (June 26, 2007):

I have had the opportunity to test the National Geographic WeekendExplorer (Los Angeles Region) software on three hikes during the past few months, in addition to spending several days simply playing with the program. In this field report, I shall focus on how the software performed in general, and how well it worked in conjunction with two hikes in particular.

Field test #1: The WeekendExplorer Program in general

As discussed in the initial report, I have two computers: a PC that my husband built for me and a Gateway MX6214 Notebook (see above for system information on each). My initial plan was to use the PC for most of the testing, and my laptop as a sort of "back up" in case I wanted to check out some features while I was at work. However, I had to abandon that plan as I simply could not get the 3D fly-thru feature to work on my home-built computer. I had intended on contacting National Geographic's customer support on the matter. An extremely busy work scheduled in conjunction with two rounds of the stomach flu forced me to put doing so on hold for a while. Thus, most of my testing was done on my Gateway MX6214 Notebook.

Another problem I noted on my PC was with other National Geographic Mapping software. I had previously installed the TOPO! State Series (California, v. 3.4.2). We are planning a trip to Sequoia National Park (California) in August, and I wanted to check out the area. I navigated my way on the level 1 reference map (the default when the program opens) to the Sequoia area, inserted the appropriate CD into my CD ROM drive, and tried to access the level 5, 7.5' map series just as I did in the TOPO! version 3.4.2. The new version of TOPO! wanted me to register the disk. OK. I'll do that. But it wouldn't let me. I was all set to write a really negative review on the fact that the new version was not backwards compatible with older versions, when I remembered my laptop. The older version of the program had never been installed on my laptop. I opened the TOPO! 4 program, navigated to the Sequoia area, inserted the disk and tried to access the level 5 maps. I again got the "Do you want do register this disk" dialog box. I check the appropriate boxes and was asked to insert the installation CD. I did, the program thought for a minute, and the State Series software was registered. The cool part is that there are 10 disks to the California State series, and I only had to do this once and all of the disks were registered. Very cool.

Field test #2: Cabrillo Beach, San Pedro, CA

I love to go to Cabrillo Beach - it's in the middle of an urban area, but tucked away along the southern edge of the Palos Verdes Peninsula and thus is usually not very crowded. I take my Oceanography students here to study the three types of beaches present, in addition to the tide pools, wave cut terraces, and examples of cliff erosion. I am quite familiar with the area, so I navigated my way to the appropriate area in the WeekendExplorer program to begin the test. My goal was simply to see how the program calculated the profile and 3D rendering compared to the reality of the terrain. First, I used the "route tool" to trace the route along the base of the cliffs. I initially found this difficult to do. But then I used the "hot spot magnifier" (see screenshot below, lower right corner) which magnified the area and made it much easier to trace the route.

Screenshot of Cabrillo Beach
Screenshot of Cabrillo Beach showing the route drawn in the program by me in red, the regional and hotspot magnifier maps are on the left.
Once I had created the route, I right mouse-clicked on the route and selected "Build Profile" from the dialog box. As I had expected, the profile generated was nice and flat (see screenshot, below) with the exception of the 25' (7.6 m) "hill" at 0.3 mi (0.5 km). I attribute this to the difficulty I had in keeping the route plotted in the correct place and I probably placed the route on the cliff face inadvertently.
Screenshot of Cabrillo Beach
Next, I right mouse-clicked again and this time chose "3D Fly-Over". After a few seconds of calculation, the program opened up a window to the left and "flew" through the short route (see screenshot, also below). Very cool.
Screenshot of Cabrillo Beach
Cabrillo Beach So, how did the program's results compare to reality? To the left is a photos of the wave cut terraces and tide pools at Cabrillo Beach taken during my hike. The photo was taken roughly at waypoint WPT029 on the map above (Santa Catalina Island is visible on the horizon on left side of the photo). While rocky, the "trail" is fairly flat with little elevation gain. This matched with the profile and 3D image created by the TOPO! program, with the exception of the 25' (7.6 m) "hill" at 0.3 mi (0.5 km) (see explanation above).

Field test #3: Eaton Canyon Falls, Pasadena/Angeles National Forest, CA

I decided to test the program's ability to work with GPS units. First, I went to National Geographic's MapXchange site (accessible from the main page at MapXchange is where TOPO! users can download routes and trails for free to use with the TOPO! software programs. I downloaded a series of routes for trails to waterfalls. One of the trails included was the one to Eaton Canyon Falls. This is a trail that my family likes to hike although we have never yet made it all the way to the falls as my nearly five year old daughter would rather play on the boulders than finish the hike. However, we decided to head to Eaton Canyon on Memorial Day and try to hike to the falls.

After I downloaded the trails I opened them in the TOPO! program. The lower portion of the screen shows the trails available to view (see lower left corner of screenshot below). I selected "Eaton Canyon Falls" and the program loaded the trail with waypoints onto the screen. Using the same methods I did with the trail at Cabrillo Beach, I created a profile of the trail and did a 3D fly-thru of the area.

The profile and 3D rendering looked pretty much as I expected - fairly gentle in the beginning, and getting steeper as the trail enters the mountains. Below is a screenshot of the profile and 3D rendering. On the right is the map of the area, with the green line on the map the route I downloaded from National Geographic's MapXchange site, the blue line indicates the profile as calculated by the program (profile is shown on the bottom), and the red arrow indicates the direction of the fly-thru. The image on the left is the 3D fly-thru of the route (looking northwest).

Screenshot of Eaton Canyon

Next, I exported the waypoints and route to my Magellan GPS using the "Export (to GPS or .txt) Wizard". I followed all of the directions in the dialog boxes - and connected my GPS to my laptop - and voila! the data was transferred.

Memorial Day dawned bright and hot. Hiking Eaton Canyon turned out not to be the best decision we could have made that day. Many other people had the same idea, and the trail to the falls narrows and there is a lot of boulder hopping involved. The resulting combination was not good - too many people, too small of an area. Still, we headed off with Ben carried by Robert in Julia's old Yakima Grasshopper Child Carrier and me trying to keep Julia from jumping off the really big boulders and checking the route downloaded from the TOPO! program into my Magellan GPS. I was impressed - the route downloaded AND the profile and 3D fly-by matched very well with the actual terrain. While Robert and Ben had to turn back at what is called the halfway point (thus named because we were halfway to the falls in terms of time; trail wise it is actually roughly three quarters of the way to the falls) as Ben's right leg was rubbed raw by the Grasshopper. Julia REALLY wanted to see the falls, so we kept on going, checking the GPS every now and again to test the accuracy of the route. And she did it! This was the first time Julia made it all the way to the falls! I, and other hikers, were pretty impressed as there is a lot of boulder hopping/climbing towards the end and she was one of the youngest ones at the falls who made it there without help.

Me and Julia at Eaton Falls
Author and daughter, Julia (5 years old) at Eaton Falls.

Field test #4: Malaga Cove, Torrance, CA

Malaga Cove is located just south of Torrance County Beach on the northern side of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Like Cabrillo Beach, it is somewhat tucked away and is thus not very crowded. Unlike Cabrillo beach, it is somewhat difficult to get to. It had been suggested to me to take a look at the location as it is considered a good spot to take Oceanography classes for a field trip. The problem was access to the beach. It's hard to find on the map, mostly because Palos Verdes is known for curvy, twisty streets that frequently dead-end, and access to the beach is via a short but steep slope. I used the TOPO! program to take a look at the area and try to find an alternative way to get to Malaga Cove. After a short perusal of the area I noticed that Torrance County Beach appears to merge directly with the Malaga Cove area. I didn't see the need to create a profile or a 3D fly-thru of the area - it was a beach, after all, with no elevation gain - but I did use the waypoint tool to create a waypoint at what looked to be the entrance to Torrance County Beach. I then downloaded the waypoint into my GPS, loaded up the car, and headed out to the beach.

I had printed out a map of the area from the program and used that in conjunction with my GPS to find my way to Torrance County Beach. While I did not place my waypoint in the correct location, I was fairly close - a block off, to be precise. The parking lot was nice and big (a plus) however the steps and/or ramps leading to the beach were short but steep. Still, steep steps and ramps are better for 20 or so student to plod up and down than a narrow, crumbly trail! Once on the beach I used my GPS and the printout map to mark various locations of interest. The hike was relatively short - just over half a mile (0.8 km) one way - and flat and, more importantly, showed me that I could access Malaga Cove with my students via Torrance County Beach. Back at home, I uploaded my waypoints established with my GPS into the TOPO! program, then compared where the program located them with the locations I had plotted on the printout. The match was nearly perfect.

Malaga Cove screenshot
Screenshot of the Malaga Cove area, Palos Verdes Peninsula, California. Trail in red shows the route I walked, WPT036 (at top of trail) is the waypoint I created in the program, WPT037 (location waypoint) and PV001 (sand and water sample location) are the waypoints I created with my GPS and uploaded to the program.


Malaga Cove photo

Photo of Malaga Cove, taken at roughly WPT037 and looking to the southwest.


Long Term Report (August 28, 2007):

During the past two months I have been able to use the National Geographic WeekendExplorer TOPO! program for a handful of additional local dayhikes, plus one trip to Sequoia National Park in California. All of the recent hikes were short in duration (i.e., less than 3 miles, round trip) as my 5 year-old daughter was my trail partner and that is the limit of her stamina. I used the program in the same manner as I did for the hikes detailed in my Field Report: look up a hike in a guide book or download a promising hike from National Geographic's MapXchange website, view it in the WeekendExplorer program, and analyze the hike using the profile and 3D fly-thru. Julia and I choose our hikes based upon her abilities. These hikes included Millard Canyon trail, Sturtevant Falls trail, and Vasquez Rocks trail, in addition to her favorite, Eaton Canyon Falls Trail. As with the hikes detailed in my Field Report, I had no problems creating or manipulating the routes, uploading the information into my GPS receiver, or printing out the maps. I found the maps / routes generated to be fairly accurate as well. Also, uploading them to my PDA (a Palm Treo 680) using the Pocket TOPO! program was very simple. As my PDA is one of the higher-end models it has very good resolution. The uploaded maps were just as good as the ones viewed on my computer screen, although a bit smaller.

While this is outside the scope of the review for this product, I am including it to illustrate how the WeekendExplorer program integrates with other TOPO! products. My family and I decided to head up to Sequoia National Park for a four day camping trip. I purchased a book on day hiking in Sequoia National Park and fired up the WeekendExplorer program. I had previously registered the TOPO! California State Series CDs so all I had to do was navigate to the correct location on the map. Using the "find" function I entered in "Dorst" (the name of our campground) and the program took me right there. I was able to use the program to find the location of some of the hikes I thought were interesting, and to determine their relation to our campground. This weeded out a few of them as they were too far away, or in too rugged an area for an almost 2 year old and a five year old. We had a good time - Julia and I climbed Moro Rock, Ben tried to eat lots of dirt and pine cones and hug all of the trees (yup, all of them) - and the program was quite useful in planning our trip. There was one problem, though. While at our campsite I used my GPS to create a waypoint for fun (36° 39.067' N, 118° 48.321'W). When I uploaded the waypoint into the program, it was placed roughly a mile north of the actual site. At first I thought that the program was in error. However, I entered the data into Google Earth and consulted a paper map and discovered that it was my GPS that was in error. Phooey. The actual location I have estimated to be at 36° 38.067' N, 118° 48.321'W.

My experiences with the National Geographic WeekendExplorer TOPO! program have not been problem-free. While I did not have too much trouble using my mouse to draw a route, it does take a bit of skill and trial-and-error to accomplish the goal at times. I find it easier to trace the route using the "hotspot magnifier" - a tool which magnifies the area of interest - and to go slow (very slow) and steady. What I find to be absolutely frustrating is the inability to truly edit the route once drawn. Perhaps this is because I use many drawing programs such as Corel Draw in which this ability is an integral part of the program. In the TOPO! program (all versions, as far as I can tell), once the route is created, the only editing options available are change the style (i.e., red medium line to green dashed thin line), split the line in two, or delete. That's it. Goodness forbid there is an error is made while creating the route, such as wandering "off" the trail, which can occur easily if the mouse jumps or sticks during the creation of the line. There is no ability to add points to the line to help correct errors, or to straighten or curve the line; nothing. While this ability may not seem like much, it would greatly aid in the creation of routes, especially long ones. A work-around for this problem would be to create the route, right-mouse click on it, and select the "GPS Route" button. This tool will create waypoints along the route (up to 30) that can be uploaded to a GPS receiver if desired. These waypoints can then be moved as needed to "correct" the route. It is not a perfect solution, but it does work.

Another frustration is the basemaps. The most detailed level available uses the USGS 7.5' quadrangles. This is both good, and bad. Good, as the USGS basemaps are familiar. Bad, because many of them haven't been updated in literally decades. Bad, too, because if more detail is desired, it's not available. The program does have the ability to magnify the area up to 400%. This does not really show additional details, however, but simply magnifies what is already there. And in some cases, more detail is definitely necessary. This is not a new gripe of mine and it stems from the fact that, as a geologist, I frequently have access to much more detailed maps through civil/geotechnical engineering companies that I still keep in touch with (it's good to have friends . . .). It's frustrating to know that detailed maps are out there, but out of pretty much everyone else's reach.

Finally, I was unable to get the 3D renderings to work on my PC. They worked just fine on my laptop, however. I first used the programs Help files to try to troubleshoot the problem. I then tried the WeekendExplorer website's support section. Finally, I contacted the technical support team via email. The problem seems to be with the "OpenGL" 3D technology used by the WeekendExplorer program and my video card. As my PC is a home built one - i.e., my programmer husband bought all of the parts, put it together, and installed all of the pertinent drivers and software - the conflict is probably due to a mistake on our part and not National Geographic's. None of the solutions posed in the help files, website, or technical support staff were able to solve the problem. Again, I wish to point out that the program had no problems at all on my Gateway laptop.


The bottom line? The National Geographic WeekendExplorer TOPO! program is a useful tool to plan trips. I like the TOPO! programs as they integrate well with other TOPO! products. AND I like the Pocket TOPO! program for my Palm much better than the competitions. The 3D fly-thrus and updated streets are nice features, but I am not sure I would have paid to purchase the program (at $29.95 USD) simply for those features since I had the California State Series AND an older version of the Los Angeles area. Still, $30 USD is fairly inexpensive for a mapping program and is a good value.


  • TOPO! version 4 is very similar to previous versions so I didn't have to relearn where everything was.
  • Older and other TOPO! maps integrate seamlessly with the program
  • Ability to exchange data between the program and my GPS
  • Ability to upload maps to my PDA (a Palm Treo 680)
  • Appears to do a good job in recreating what the terrain looks like both in profile and 3D imaging.


  • Some basemaps are out-of-date; more detailed maps would be nice.
  • I had problems with the 3D function on my PC. This function works just fine on my laptop. However, I found that I really didn't use the 3D fly-thru feature very often.
  • Drawing and editing/correcting routes can be difficult.

Thank you to BackpackGear Test and National Geographic for the opportunity to test the National Geographic WeekendExplorer 3D!



Read more reviews of National Geographic gear
Read more gear reviews by Sonjia Leyva

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