Keith’s Hut

We did this trip in February 2014 but, for very good reasons I don’t want to discuss, had to delay posting this until now.

A few years ago, we heli’ed up to Keith’s Hut only to find that it was full, and that the heli was unwelcome. We decided to repeat the trip, this time on snowshoes for me and up the traditional winter route.

As I’ve been doing recently, here are the resources:

We set out early from the parking (just off the highway, probably space for 15-20 cars) and the forest section at the start was narrow and tricky. The elevation was gradual but present, and continued as we started to open up into the meadows. Eventually we were deep in the valley before it opens up into a very large bowl. You go to your right (the Eastern side) and make your way up through another wood then loop round into the hut.

Sounds easy? It’s not that easy when you can see, hear and know of all the avalanche risks. We went up on a moderate risk day but it soon became clear that slopes were slipping due to heavy wet snow. We took a conservative, planned approach and were all in possession of avalanche safety gear (all but one person had AST1 and that person was drilled on what to do). Unfortunately it looks like I’ve lost it now, but the other skiers and I were mapping out the avalanches on Backcountry Navigator. I won’t soon forget hearing those rumbles down the mountain.

Anyway, we pitched up at the cozy hut with solar powered lights, an out house and a wood stove. The upstairs is ladder accessed but I chose to stay downstairs for the night, reading a book on my phone (yes this is perfectly possible to do).

The next morning we headed down. The avalanche conditions were much worse. Woomphfing sounds under our feet were making it clear that (what I believe) was an early evening weak frozen surface layer covered in heavy wet snow. This promptly collapsed under us and we had many, many sink-ins that we needed our shovels to get out of.

Pleased to see the cars again!

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Making your own Backcountry Maps, Waypoints and Route, and using them on your phone

For a while now, I’ve been making maps for my backcountry trips. I’m mainly doing this because, unlike the UK, North America doesn’t necessarily have great maps for every area. Furthermore, I sometimes don’t want to pay for a printed map for a quick trip, or perhaps I’ve not found a single map that shows everything I want, or shows too much. To fix this, I’ve dived into the world of creating your own maps. There are a lot of different tools out there to do this, and honestly no one tool is perfect. Even if it was, there is no one data source either.

What I’ve decided to write is the guide that works pretty well most of the time for:

  1. The Tools
  2. Finding the map source that works
  3. Finding relevant data to overlay on the map
  4. Adding data to the map
  5. Printing a paper map
  6. Generating an output that can be read by most GPS units
  7. Offline Smartphone Apps
  8. Loading your route onto your smartphone

I’ve written this with hiking in mind, but you could use it for pretty much anything… biking, snowshoeing, skiing, camping all spring to mind. I’ve broken it up in to sections you can (kind of) take or leave. For example, if you just want a paper map, just do up to that point, or perhaps you use an iOS device, you can export the data then import it into your app of choice.

Before we start, I also want to be clear that I’m not responsible for the accuracy of the maps or data you choose to use. Be mindful though that any source you pick might not be perfectly up to date, and especially in winter, won’t show current conditions (e.g. recent landslides, avalanche dangers, unmelted snow, road closures etc).

UPDATE 11th September 2015: I wanted to add something here, remember that your smartphone might be your only way to call for help. You should preserve battery life for that possibility. External batteries are available to keep your phone going and much like you take extra food into the backcountry, you should take extra power, more than you need. But fundamentally, this guide is more about making a paper map than it is necessarily about using it on your phone. As I emphasize later, always bring a paper map (which can never run out of battery) with suitable knowledge of how to use it. This is just one part of many hiking precautions, North Shore Rescue can give you direct advice from the first hand experience of a Search and Rescue team on what to do before you leave, please read that.

The Tools

As I said in the introduction, there are loads of tools to achieve the same end. For this article, I’m going to skip the debate for a bit, and just pick a few:

  • For finding sources, importing maps, light editing and printing of your maps: CalTopo
  • For mapping in the backcountry (Android smartphones): Backcountry Navigator

Those two are the main two you will need, but there are a few others worth mentioning:

I might not go into full details on those, but they have guides on how to use them.

Also, I stress again these are not the only tools out there.

Let’s start with CalTopo and search for roughly where you are going.

CalTopo, on the default map layer.

CalTopo, on the default map layer.

Finding a Map Source that Works

I’m lucky, I live in British Columbia, and CalTopo has access to some great maps from DataBC. You might not be so lucky, or might not like what you see, so in the top right corner, you can change your source:

CalTopo Sources

CalTopo Sources

I’m personally a fan of OpenCycleMap (link to the full service), as it tends to have great data, especially for near populated areas, worldwide:

CalTopo set to OpenCycleMap

CalTopo set to OpenCycleMap

But in some areas, not so much:

A little more sparse in this area

A little more sparse in this area

Play around a bit until you find one you like:

This is actually a scan (most of these are). But it does show some extra details (camp sites by the road, ski lifts)

This is actually a scan (most of these are). But it does show some extra details (camp sites by the road, ski lifts)

This one is nice, but I'm going back to the first for now

This one is nice, but I’m going back to the first for now

Don’t get too hung up on this, pick a usable one even if it’s not perfect.

Where to get your relevant data?

You thought I put a lot of disclaimers in about the data sources being more regional than global? Treble those warnings here.

You’re going to have to look for a source of trails, waypoints, routes etc. These can be from plenty of places, find them with Google. Here are just a few that work for me:

For this example, I’m going to use some waypoints from ClubTread, and a route from EveryTrail. This assumes you want 2 data sources (any number is fine). At the bottom of both pages, you will find download links:

ClubTread's download link for waypoints (at the bottom of the page)

ClubTread’s download link for waypoints

EveryTrail's download link (on lower right of the page)

EveryTrail’s download link (on lower right of the page)

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2 GPX files are yours!

GPX files are the most widely accepted file format for various tools (KML is probably second). For this guide, we’ll just stick with GPX files. It’s important to know that they only contain a small set of objects, like tracks, waypoints and a few others. They do NOT contain the image of the map you overlay them on.

Adding Data to the Map

Back to CalTopo, time to import both those GPX files!

2014-06-11 14_07_24-CalTopo - Backcountry Mapping Evolved

2014-06-11 14_08_36-CalTopo - Backcountry Mapping Evolved

2014-06-11 14_09_48-CalTopo - Backcountry Mapping Evolved

Once the import is complete, our map will show the waypoints above:

Dog Mountain with just the waypoints

Dog Mountain with just the waypoints

Repeat for the other file you downloaded and you’ll get a route too:

Dog Mountain with Waypoints and Route

Dog Mountain with Waypoints and Route

Now is a good time to save your work in CalTopo (creating an account if necessary)

2014-06-11 14_14_04-CalTopo - Backcountry Mapping Evolved

Let’s say you want to add your own objects to the map, you can, in the lower left. For this example, I’ll add a simple marker (lower left of the interface):

You can add a lot of different things to maps in CalTopo as you can see here - but for ease, I'm just going to cover simple markers for now.

You can add a lot of different things to maps in CalTopo as you can see here – but for ease, I’m just going to cover simple markers for now.

Adding a marker

Adding a marker

Printing a Paper Map

Here is where CalTopo really shines I feel. Click Print in the top right corner.

2014-06-11 14_20_49-CalTopo - Dog Mountain

I personally like creating PDFs for this bit, so the guide will show that. The print from browser tool is very good as well and a fine choice, so go right ahead and use it if you prefer.

CalTopo PDF Printing

CalTopo PDF Printing

Hit Generate PDF when you’re ready. You’ll find the result looks better than the preview above:

Screenshot of the resulting PDF

Screenshot of the resulting PDF

Print those and take them with you.

You might want to add some pages or print again for some area maps. It’s easy to make a book-style map for yourself. I recommend taking maps of the area, not just the exact route and nothing else, in case you get lost.

How to make these waterproof you ask? A resealable bag works as good as anything I’ve used.

Need to catch up? Here is a link to the map I was making in the above screenshots.

Generating Output for most GPS Units

Remember GPX files? You’re going to export your own from CalTopo

2014-06-11 14_29_37-CalTopo - Dog Mountain

Export to GPX above (you can also export to Google Earth's KML format if you wish to view your work in Google Earth)

Export to GPX above (you can also export to Google Earth’s KML format if you wish to view your work in Google Earth)

Send the resulting GPX file to your device (check your manual on how to do this).

Using this on your phone

This brings us now to the other tool I really love in wild, Backcountry Navigator. I very much recommend you spend the $10 on the Pro version as it does a LOT for that. You can also quite easily load maps for Offline use (probably not an issue on Dog Mountain, but certainly is when you’re in the backcountry near Pemberton).

Before we start though, let me make it clear that you should always go into the backcountry with a paper map, compass and knowledge of how to use them. Smartphones and non-smartphone GPS devices can and do run out of power, may not be water resistant, be broken in falls or you may have forgotten to set them up before you left. The guide up to this point shows you how, so you have no excuse.

To ensure this part stays up to date, I’m going to link to their getting started guides on how to download maps and use the app: http://support.crittermap.com/forums/21342738-User-Guide

However, here we are  going to import our map data and download some maps for offline use. Do this before going into the backcountry where you will likely not have phone reception or data service.

A prerequisite step, not shown, is transferring the files to your device. Email them to yourself, plug in via a USB cable, use the beloved AirDroid or Dropbox… there are lots of ways.

As I  was creating this, it turned into a screenshot lead tour, so for this next part, here’s a gallery, in step by step order.

When you’re out in the wilderness, you can find your position (well, as good as your phone can tell you) using the options under this menu:

gpsposition-2014-06-11 22_24_08-2014-06-11 21.56.38

Remember: GPS uses considerable power, but will work when you don’t have phone reception (you’d be surprised how many people think you need a phone signal, in fact, you don’t, but you do need data service if you have not stored the map offline).

You’re done

Hopefully now you have a paper map from CalTopo and an Android phone/tablet running BackCountry Navigator with your route and maps available offline.

Remember to waterproof your phone somehow (I just put mine inside a pocket sized MEC dry bag) and bring some extra external batteries with you.

A big thanks to the makers of all the tools and data sources used in this article. Many of them are free, open source or low cost for high value. Consider donating or purchasing. CalTopo’s About Page has details on how the developer likes support, and they have an awesome blog too. Backcountry Navigator is made by CritterMap Software and can be demoed for 30 days and/or purchased on Google Play.

Brew Hut

This is part of my catch-up writing, so this story is from March 2013.

Browsing VOC Wiki one day I found the list of huts in the area and Brew Hut near Squamish caught my eye. None of us had ever done this and we needed a good uphill destination in preparation for Chilkoot in July (more on that in some later posts).

Planning took a couple of weeks of reading trail reports and the wiki page, plus getting people organised etc. We decided all snowshoes for this, and full gear including tents had to come up. Jesse the black lab could join us too as the area wasn’t restricted for this! Avalanche Safety Equipment rule was enforced.

So we headed out from the Powder Mountain Catskiing shed on foot. The first 1km was dirt road but then we switched to snow and therefore snowshoes. The area is very popular with sledders (aka snowmobile users) and we could hear them buzzing along. A few had to be slowed down with hand signals as they were approaching far to fast (but not all I point out).

The first 8km or so is fairly uneventful forest service road into the back country, but the views are great! Better still was Hannah’s home made beef jerky! She bought a dehydrator a while ago. After a long way you’ll see a small sign for the R200 road turnoff, which is actually just after the road as you approach. Keep your eyes on the trees for the sign (photo below) and look out for the long sweeping road joining the FSR and going uphill.

Then you’re into undulating snowfields, not entirely clear where to go here (needs a few more markers if I’m honest). Eventually you enter the trees then come to a somewhat narrow gully (we think this called the draw) you must make your way up (assess avalanche risk before proceeding). Then it’s a few kilometres of tree hiking, all uphill or traversing slopes. You rise out eventually.

The final leg is above the treeline and crossing a few glacial bowls up to the hut. By this point my hip (which I would be later told was inflamed around the socket) was really hurting. More frequent breaks were needed.

You won’t see Brew Hut until you’re almost on top of it, so trust your map. Looping round a ridge you’ll find it and be glad you made it as it’s a great hut! We dug out the wood shed and found some wood was still there, so we got the fire going and waited for the touring parties that had no doubt followed us to arrive. Made a few friends (more Brits, I wasn’t the only one with an accent).

Thinking ahead, we had decided on mulled wine as a luxury item to haul up there! Hannah provided the spices (from her epicure party contacts) and we all carried wine up. Jesse by this point was passed out on a mat behind the fire warming up.

We still had phone reception up there! I had brought my Anker Astro 3E External Battery too charge phones with too. Pretty good being able to give everyone’s phone a boost up there so we could let people know we had made it and send out a few photos of our trip in advance 😛 Yes, I post from the mountain!

Got some sleep, unfortunately I sleep talk so unconsciously cried for help in the night.

Departing the next day, the experience was somewhat tarnished by a skier who really needs to sort out his attitude to sharing huts and dogs, and certainly mind how he speaks to other people. Good news is he is one isolated person in a great number of friendly people who know how to use the backcountry with others in a friendly way.

We headed down, my hip a lot better on the descent, and we moved a lot quicker (took us about 3.5hrs rather than the 8 or 9 it had to do the same 14km the day before). Weather not as good so not as many photos.

Jesse was absolutely exhausted when we got back. I don’t think I had drank enough water either so had a headache.

A great trip and thoroughly recommended!

Thanks and acknowledgements for this post and trip: