SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) -- Everybody needs help coping with life's ups and downs. For hikers, bikers, boaters and the like, a new breed of tool is evolving to smooth the way -- custom-made topographical maps.
''Having the ability to zero in on any part of the terrain you want, augment it with a variety of options and then print out a detailed map really expands your possibilities and your ability to plan,'' says Kevin Lacefield, a geographic information systems technician for Sonoma County.
Formerly the province of ''map geeks and techies,'' detailed topographical data ready to be manipulated is now available to the masses through the Internet and computer software. For the computer challenged there are map machines, public kiosks -- often set up in outdoor shops -- offering similar services.
''There is an amazing amount of information out there, and now there's a movement within the GIS (geographic information systems) and mapping communities to share as much of that data as possible,'' says Rich Hunter, geographic information specialist with Sonoma Ecology Center.
National Geographic, one of the industry's leaders in topographical software, sells state-by-state software packages for 36 states and plans to have the remaining 14 completed within six months. The software allows users to create custom maps with their own specifications -- places to remember, places to avoid, good fishing holes or campsites.
''We've had a good response; people seem to be into it,'' says Santa Rosa-based Sonoma Outfitters manager Brian Rashap. ''Some people are a little put off because it's a hundred bucks, but the kind of people who will truly use something like this appreciate what it can do.''
One of those people is Lacefield, who used to work for National Geographic and helped produce the TOPO California software.
''So far, it's been mostly a planning tool, but I can see how it can be more than that,'' Lacefield says. ''You can use the topo software in conjunction with a GPS (global positioning system) to create your own trail sets.''
Some global positioning systems offer a tracking feature that records movement, in essence drawing a line to correspond with the system's path.
National Geographic's maps -- online and software -- accent natural features and tend to downplay man-made landmarks. Cities and roads are included, but if you're going to be driving or staying on paved roads, there are better mapping systems. For natural terrain, however, National Geographic is tough to beat.
From tiny unnamed canyons in the Siskiyou Mountains to vast expanses of Death Valley, everything is there in as much detail as you could want. Users can zoom in and see individual twists and turns of trails, fire roads and creeks. Images are enhanced with 3-D digital shading to distinguish land features such as ridges, mountains and valleys.
The basic information comes from more than 2,700 U.S. Geological Survey maps. TOPO runs on Windows 95, 98, NT and ME, works with black and white or color printers and supports most popular hand-held GPS receivers.
In a move toward ecumenical sharing of information, National Geographic software users can also post and download free, up-to-date recreation overlays from the National Geographic mapXchange at www.nationalgeographic.com/mapXchange.
On the Net:
National Geographic maps: http://maps.nationalgeographic.com/topo/
TopoZone Maps a la Carte: http://www.topozone.com
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