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Several federal and state agencies maintain online data clearinghouses. Find them by searching these websites:

Off-the-shelf mapping software -- including popular products by Route Buddy, DeLorme and Topofusion -- provide a valuable head-start on acquiring the data for your project. Many of these products come with fairly complete basemaps — the underlying data that supports your project.

With off-the-shelf products, all you need to do is add the trail points and supporting labels. Keep in mind, though, that not much can be added in terms of additional data layers. The colors and symbols for your map will also be somewhat limited.

Another option is to make use of online mapping programs from sources like Google Earth, ArcGIS Explorer or Microsoft Virtual Earth. Each of these offers comprehensive data sets, like cities, roads and highways. The programs are somewhat intuitive to use, but expect to spend a good deal of time practicing with them before you can be highly productive.

If you add your own data to either off-the- shelf software or an online source, pay close attention to the geographic references. Do not assume that everything is accurate. A third option is use professional-grade desktop GIS software to leverage data that you collect in the field, typically with a GPS device. This method is the most robust but requires the most experience. The advantage is that a GIS professional can bring together data from different geographic references and formats and create a distinctive map with unique layers, symbols and style.

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