Searching for topo software for backcountry road exploring (Windows 7 64bit)
Hello everybody,

I'm new to this forum and have a few questions, as I am new into the laptop-gps-thing. I am currently in western Canada and planning on doing a few trips on backroads, logging roads and soft 4wd roads in a slightly camperized Chevy Suburban. The trips will probably take me around Alberta, BC as well as the northwestern US.

I have a 13 inch Dell laptop with illuminated keyboard and sufficient hardware, running on Win7 64 bit, which I'd like to use for navigating, as my old TomTom one isn't the newest anymore and does not provide topographic maps.

I am currently drawn towards the DeLorme Topo maps, but as I am on a tight budget, is there anything else you could recommend?

It seems, as if I can only use DeLorme maps with the DeLorme software, so is there something like an open-source software and community where I can find up-to-date maps, or any other software which might be better suited for my needs?

Fast answers would be greatly appreciated, as I will be on the road in one week.


(Please bear with my English as I am not a native speaker)
Garmin nRoute is free (download here: Index of /perry/nroute) and you could use it with free topo maps such as the ones here: GPSFileDepot - Custom Maps, Ximage hosting, tutorials, articles and more for your GPSr

But almost none of those maps are routable - meaning that they only show your position and cannot give you turn by turn directions. Garmin no longer supports this program though, and it will not work with current versions of their routable City Navigator maps.

OziExplorer can be used for free if you don't need the advanced features of the paid version: Official OziExplorer Web Site - GPS Mapping Software for Tracking and Navigation. Supports Garmin, Magellan, Lowrance and GPS. This software works with raster-based maps however, such as scans of paper maps, so it can't give you directions either. You may need to make your own maps.

Garmin MobilePC was recently discontinued but you may still be able to find it in stock. It isn't free, but it will work with the current routable City Navigator maps as well as free topo maps such as the ones at GPSFileDepot. See:
Ken in Regina
Hey Greg,

I have to run but if you see this before Terry or I have a chance to provide more detail, search for "Backroad Mapbooks GPS maps" and also Ibycus Topo 4.0. Both of these will run with the Garmin nRoute program or Garmin Mobile PC that Boyd mentioned.

Backroad Mapbooks are available for BC and Alberta and are routable on the major highways and most cities. It's not free but it has a lot of features that may well be worth your money. There is a review on here, too, so use the search box above to find it.

Ibycus Topo 4.0 is free. It's basically the same as the paper topos you can buy from the federal government and covers the entire country. It's an excellent topo map but does not have any routing information in it. You can't do any better for free.

If you use the Garmin PC programs you can also buy Garmin's Topo Canada v4. It has routing for everything -- highways, cities and towns -- and it has all the POIs (points of interest) that their Metroguide Canada roadmaps product has.

If you go the Garmin route you can also add the Northwest Trails transparent overlay for free. More about that later if you're interested. In the mean time do some searching on the above, both in the forum and on the internet and you should find some useful information.

Marvin Hlavac
Here's a link to one of the above mentioned products:
Hi guys, and first thanks a lot for the fast answers.

As I dug into GPS a bit I found out the same as you recommend, a Garmin-based setup probably is the best, as there seem to be heaps of maps around.

I think I will be pretty OK with pixel-maps, I mainly want to know where I am and where I want to go, for turn-to-turn directions on highways and in cities I still have my TomTom, which works fine everywhere but on small roads.

The Ibycus Topo map seems to be excellent for a start, I even found a review on it stating that it is more detailed than the Topo Canada from Garmin.

Now to my next question, which is rather hardware related, but I don't want to start a new thread for a probably often used question. I assume there is a broadly used USB-GPS receiver for the Garmin-protocol, which works well with other applications as well, but I am somehow puzzled with all the different ones out there. Which one would you recommend for a good start?

Edit: By browsing around I found those 'shaded maps' (shades drawn by mountains etc) and am wondering how that works. Is the shade in the map or does the software make the shades from vector-based maps? For a newbie like me the shades make the reading of a map much easier ;-)

Thanks again very much for the answers.
Garmin nRoute requires Garmin formatted GPS data to operate but Mobile PC does not. The easiest solution for nRoute is GPS Gate, a program that can work with most USB and Bluetooth GPS devices. It can convert regular (NMEA) GPS data to Garmin (PVT) and provide the data at a COM port. Apparently, there is now a free version of this product. Then you can use any GPS such as the GlobalSat BU-353. There are no recommended Garmin GPS (not PND) products these days and they seem to be dropping out of that market.

nRoute does not support shading (DEM-digital elevation model) but Mobile PC does above certain magnifications. DEM data is included in the Mobile PC basemap and Garmin Topo Canada products.

Ken in Regina
As Terry said, you have the broadest selection to get a good receiver at the least cost by going with a non-Garmin receiver such as the iBlue GM-2 or the Globalsat BU353. These receivers work directly with Mobile PC and you can get the free version of Franson's GPSGate to convert to a signal that nRoute will use.

The shading you are asking about starts with DEM data in the vector maps which the nav program on the PC needs to know how to display.

Topo Canada and Backroad Mapbooks contain DEM data. Ibycus Topo and most free maps do not. You can usually count on getting what you pay for.

Mobile PC can display DEM data if it is present. Even without any detail maps containing DEM data, the North American basemap that comes with Mobile PC contains DEM data that will be displayed when you are zoomed out quite aways.

nRoute does not know how to use DEM data.

I hope that helps.

yeah, it seems like Mobile PC seems to be a good solution for my needs, as well as the Backroad Mapbooks, combined with a GlobalSat BU-353.

Unfortunately, the sale of Mobile PC seems to be discontinued, I read about a good GPS store in Calgary, but if they should not have it in stock, could you recommend any other Garmin and DEM-compatible software? I looked at a few screenshots of DEM and non-DEM maps, and shades make it much easier to read and understand the topographics for me.

Thanks again very much for your help, it is greatly appreciated.
In Mapsource or Basecamp, the DEM shading enhances the map, but I'm not so sure about MobilePC since it tends to display topo maps in the same manner as a Nuvi PND. On the Nuvi, the DEM shading often makes topo maps hard to read, because the colors of the roads tend to blend in with the shading.

The reason that free third party maps don't have DEM is that Garmin has never published their map format and they consider it proprietary. Unless a mapmaker is one of Garmin's partners, they will not be able to use DEM in their maps. I have published a number of free maps at GPSFileDepot myself, and we must use mapmaking tools that have been reverse engineered since Garmin does not sanction them. There are no third party tools that are capable of inserting DEM in a Garmin map.

I see a couple sellers on Amazon that have MobilePC, but I'm always a little leery of purchasing items there that aren't sold and fulfilled directly by Amazon...
Ken in Regina

Boyd makes some good points. The reason it matters that Mobile PC displays maps very much like a Nuvi is the way they both handle the display of various objects in the vector map file. Their default display for many objects in a topo map file is really quite awful. In particular, the contour lines are too thick and dark. At some of the most useful zoom levels, the contour lines of either Topo Canada or the current release of Backroad Mapbooks almost completely obliterate everything else, making the maps virtually useless.

This can be overcome if the map creator provides a "type" file that defines the display characteristics for various object types, like the contour lines. The folks at Backroad Mapbooks have taken the concerns of Nuvi and Mobile PC users to heart and are currently working on a new version that corrects many of the display problems. They have looked at the devices that do a very useful display, like the eTrex and other Garmin handheld models, and have created a type file that forces other devices to use similar display characteristics for the most problematic object types.

Terry and I are currently testing the new version and the display in Mobile PC and on the Nuvi is an immense improvement. It's much more like looking at it in Mapsource or on my eTrex.

I have to apologize for missing something. As Terry pointed out to me privately, the new version of Backroad Mapbooks does not currently contain any DEM data. I overlooked that. I'll try to remember to check with the developer to see if it will be included in the new version or not. They are an approved partner of Garmin and are using Garmin-supplied tools for creating their maps. Their original version appears to contain the DEM data, although at the most useful zoom levels it's all pretty much hidden by the fat dark contour lines when displayed in Mobile PC or my Nuvi 765T.

With respect to the usefulness of any kind of elevation information on maps, I have found it not useful for navigation. Even on a PC with a fairly large display, it is, at best, confusing, and at worst it can hide information that is more useful when navigating. I have found that I prefer a map like Metroguide Canada that has no contour lines on it and overlaid with trail maps like Northwest Trails. (Metroguide Canada has all of the significant hydrology -- lakes, rivers, streams -- that Topo Canada has and it has far better coverage of the rural road system than other roadmaps like City Navigator North America ... pretty much the same coverage as Topo Canada. But it has other issues like being out of date in the cities.)

The contour lines or DEM shading are great for trip planning. But not so much for navigation. Specifically, when I'm actually there, I can simply look around me to see what the contours of the land are!

My prefered mode of operation for motoring about in SW Alberta and SE BC in my CR-V or on my motorcycle is to do my trip planning with anything I can get my hands on. Typically for the trip planning I use a combination of Mapsource with Backroad Mapbooks, Topo Canada and the Northwest Trails ATV overlay plus Google Earth aerial views, both at home and in the evenings on the road.

For navigation I use Metroguide Canada with the Northwest Trails ATV overlay on my Nuvi and eTrex, supplemented by the latest version of City Navigator North America (I have a lifetime update contract for my Nuvi) when I have to navigate in the cities.

I supplement both the trip planning and the navigation with any relevant track files I can find on the internet. For instance, a couple of years ago a friend and I took our mountain bikes out to Cranbrook and Creston area. I was able to find a load of track files for mountain bike trails in those areas, including a bunch for the TransCanada Trail. This was helpful for both the planning and for the actual riding (eTrex in a RAM mount on the handlebars of the mountain bike).

I hope that helps a little more than it confuses.

Ken in Regina

After writing that novel about trip planning and navigation I decided to address the issues of Mobile PC seperately. Again, Boyd raises a useful point about who/where you get Mobile PC from. As it turns out, this is not such a big deal with respect specifically to Mobile PC for a few reasons.

First, it's a discontinued product at Garmin now, so you won't get any support for it no matter who you buy it from. You will, of course, be able to get excellent support right here.

You will need to decide whether or not to buy the "software-only" version (comes with no GPS receiver so you can use any generic NMEA-compliant receiver) or one of the hardware-bundled versions (come with either a GPS10x bluetooth receiver or a GPS20x USB receiver).

Second, if you choose to use free sources of maps -- maps which do not require unlock codes -- you will have no issues with Mobile PC being able to use those maps for navigating. Backroad Mapbooks does need an unlock code for Mobile PC but that's also not a problem. Terry and I have done extensive testing of the unlock code scenarios in partnership with Backroad Mapbooks technical support and can guide you through those issues.

Third, it doesn't matter if you get the very latest version of Mobile PC when you purchase it because the latest updates are freely available for download from Garmin's web site. Regarding that, the latest version has some issues that have caused many of us to revert to an earlier, more stable, version. So getting the latest released version is no bargain anyway.

If you decide to buy it, just shop for it on the basis of price. The Garmin receivers that come with the hardware-bundled versions are good quality but they aren't worth paying a premium for. You have two excellent dealers in Calgary: GPS City and GPS Central. Both are great to deal with. If either of them has a dusty old copy of Mobile PC kicking around for cheap, just grab it and run.

Or you can get started right now for free with Basecamp or Mapsource, nRoute, GPSGate, Ibycus Topo 4.0 and Northwest Trails ATV overlay. This will allow you to see if you need anything more for map data or program features. You don't even need a GPS receiver to start playing with the stuff to get a feel for whether you need more.

and again thanks for those very useful and informative posts.
Please excuse my late answer, I was out on a short trip to find out what general equipment I still need.
I now see much more clearly, especially regarding the differences of planning a trip (where topo maps imho definitely are a plus) and actually navigating a trip (where topo maps rather seem to be a minus), paired with infos on DEM etc. I have to dig into overlaying maps and a few little programs a little bit more, but I'm good with software, so that shouldn't be a problem.

I looked at the Backcountry Mapbooks with more detail, and the BC one seems to be pretty useful for me, maybe in combination with the free Ibycus Topo Canada map.
The new version of Backcountry Mapbooks sounds very appealing to me as well, does anyone by chance know when they will be released, if there is a free upgrade if I buy the current version, or how to get (probably almost impossible) into the exclusive circle of reviewing-guys? I'd be rather frustrated to buy one now, just to find out that a few days later the new version is being released.

Again, thanks very much to everyone contributing to this thread, there is very much very useful information and ressources mentioned (right now I'm stunned by the amount of maps and utilities at GPSFileDepot ;-))

Only Ken is a real tester. I merely sit at my desk and whine about the things it won't do while he goes out in the back country world and tries Backroad Mapbooks in real life situations.

However, I did purchase the product originally and seem to recall you are entitled to something like a year of free updates. I would suggest you contact Backroad Mapbooks for the details though.

Terry About