Updated: Dec. 2015. I also have a follow-on post here.
This document describes how I use a GPS and mapping software. Most likely your needs will vary. That is okay. Figure out what works for you – you don’t have to do it my way. Perhaps some of my lessons learned will help you on your way, but feel free to adapt to meet your specific needs.
Also note that GPS mapping software has changed dramatically in the last few years. Years ago there were not many choices, and they were expensive. Today there are dozens of free software packages to choose from – some even run on your smart phone. For some packages, you may still have to pay to get high quality maps.
There are a lot of GPS devices to choose from. Many cameras and smart phones include a GPS. My main use of a GPS is for dirt biking, so a handheld GPS best meets my needs.
My first GPS was an older model Garmin eTrex Legend. I then upgraded to a mapping GPS, the Garmin GPSmap 60. If I were buying a GPS today (2015), I would buy the Garmin Montana.As I understand it, the Map 60 is a third generation GPS device. The radio receiver is far more sensitive than my old eTrex. I am amazed at how well it maintains satellite reception even in thick forests or narrow slot canyons.
For trail riding, a GPS with a map display really helps. I upgraded the memory in my GPS so I could store a larger area. At first I used the Garmin map data, but found that it lacked detail for off-road use, and it was hard to read in sunlight.
I found a company, called “Above The Timber“, that sells more detailed trail maps.
I have been amazed at how many small trails are included in this data. The color contrast is also improved, making it easier to see the display while riding a motorcycle. I now have these more detailed maps for all of Utah and Colorado, with the Garmin maps covering the rest of the western states.
When I first got in to this hobby, there were two primary choices for mapping software; National Geographic TOPO, and Delorme. I decided to go with the National Geographic state series TOPO maps.
The TOPO software works okay, but it could really use some improvements for editing. I have never used Delorme, but the reviews I have read indicate that the two are pretty equivalent.
In 2013 I went to purchase another state from National Geographic, only to learn that the product has been discontinued. Thus, it was time to find a more modern mapping software package. After doing a fair amount of Internet research I opted to try Memory-Map. One advantage of Memory-Map is that it will work on a PC as well as a portable device such as a smart phone. Furthermore, you can pre-load the maps on the mobile device so you do not need to have cell coverage.
Memory-Map works fairly well, but it is quite different from National Geographic, so there is a learning curve trying to use it. One thing I really like about Memory-Map is that is many levels of detail. The coarsest level of detail maps cover the entire world, and the next set cover the entire United States. These coarse maps are free. You have to pay to use the more detailed maps needed for trail riding.
The highest level of detail is the standard USGS 1:24,000 topo maps. I seldom use this level of detail because it is difficult to read. For most trail rides I use level 14 or 15, and for longer multi-day rides I usually use levels 11-13. It is really nice being able to select a level that gives enough terrain relief information without being too cluttered.
When I first started using a GPS, I would carry my GPS in one pocket, and a map in my other pocket. Every time I came to a junction I would have to stop and pull them both out to determine which way to go.
Now I mount my GPS and my map onto my handlebars.
I use a “RAM Mounts” GPS mount. It uses a 1″ rubber ball, which provides some vibration dampening and allows you to orient the GPS for the best viewing angle. The below photo is one of my older mounts. I have a new ball mount that attaches to the front of my handguards, which helps reduce the clutter on my handlebar.
The GPS is powered from the motorcycle battery. This avoids dealing with dead batteries while on the trail, and it avoids a common problem of batteries vibrating loose.
I carry a paper map in a “Cyco Active” half sheet waterproof map case. The case simply attaches to plastic clips on the handlebars. I can easily remove the case and flip it over to see the other side of the sheet.
Now that I have covered all of the gear, let’s discuss the methodology I use to plan a trip.
The first task is to determine where to go. This usually isn’t too hard since my list of trails to explore is ever growing. I then do as much research as I can – mostly on the Internet. I read trip reports posted by other dirt bikers and watch their YouTube or Vimeo videos. Sometimes I even post questions in various dirt biker forums.
The next step is to plan out a route using my mapping software. If I have been to the area before, I can start with prior recorded information. If visiting a new area, I start from scratch unless I can find data which I can download from the Internet.
Once I have a route in mind, I will hand draw that route in the mapping software. I will also place waypoints at key junctions or points of interest along the way. I may include alternate routes just in case our primary route doesn’t work out. I then print out the map for use in my waterproof map case. Here is an example.
I also transfer the waypoints to my GPS. I typically do not transfer the route (or track) – just the waypoints. Chances are my “Above The Timber” map will already contain the trail of interest in my GPS. The waypoints help me know exactly where we are and when we are approaching key junctions.
For longer multi-day adventure rides, I have found that it is helpful to load a route into the GPS. This allows me to follow a network of trails without having to place waypoints at every intersection.
When exploring a new area, I will sometimes export my GPS route and drop it into Google Earth. This lets me ‘fly’ around and get a 3D perspective of the terrain.
I am also now starting to do my route planning in Google Earth – especially for multi-day adventure rides. This allows me to get a sense for what the terrain is like – although satellite imagery is often deceiving – always assume the trail is harder than it looks.
After planning in Google Earth, I can export the data as a KML file, then use GPSbabel to convert it to either a GPX file or Memory-Map file (.mmo) and import it into Memory-Map. I then use Memory-Map to load my GPS and print the paper map.
This same process can be used with other tools such as Garmin Basecamp. The details will differ, but the basics are the same.
While riding, my GPS records our exact route. I use the paper map and the GPS for navigation along the way, but I also get a recording of our trip. Here is a record of a mountain bike ride.
When I get back home, I upload the GPS track into my mapping software and replace my hand drawn trail estimate with the actual track. Notice that I can also produce an elevation profile of our ride.
The actual track is usually longer than my hand-drawn estimate. Take this into account when planning your ride.
I have also found the GPS mileage is usually shorter than our bike odometer readings. This is because the GPS samples a new location after you have moved a certain distance. It assumes a straight line between each sample. You may be able to improve the accuracy by setting your GPS to sample more frequently. The downside is that you will not be able to store as many tracks in your GPS.
While riding, I often find that I either misplaced a waypoint in my planning, or I want to add another waypoint for future use. I simple “mark” these new waypoints along the way. After I upload the data from the GPS to TOPO, I can merge the new data with my prior data, thereby improving my “master” GPS record for that particular area.
It is not uncommon to share GPS data with others. Sometimes this is problematic because many GPS devices and the mapping software products use proprietary data formats. “GPX” is a common interchange format that helps get around this problem. You may not get all of the bells and whistles of each product, but you can at least share waypoints and simple routes.
You can also share zip compressed files from Google Earth (KMZ files).
For me, the use of a GPS and GPS mapping software is both a hobby and a safety feature. Generally I am pretty good at keeping my bearings, but on occasion I have gotten pretty confused while out on the trail. The GPS gives me a certain amount of confidence that I can find my way back to the car. I can also record the exact location if someone gets injured and needs to be rescued – although a personal locator beacon would be even better when in need of a rescue.
Trip research, planning, and recording can be fairly time consuming, but since this is a hobby that I enjoy, I feel it is time well spent.