GPS Trip Planning

A few years ago I posted an article explaining how I use a GPS and mapping software to plan an adventure.  Those methods worked fairly well for my typical day rides on my dirt bike, but now that I am planning multi-day adventures covering a much larger area, my old methods have proved rather tedious.

New Tools

While planning a six-day adventure ride covering approximately 1000 miles, I found that my old GPS did not have enough memory to hold all of the planned routes.  Furthermore, my mapping software lacked advanced features that would make route planning much easier.  So, I began researching alternatives.  I would like to thank Dave McIntire for helping me evaluate and test alternate strategies and tools.

I haven’t yet selected which GPS I will buy, but I am currently leaning towards the Garmin Montana.  As for mapping software, I have settled on Garmin BaseCamp.  At first I didn’t like BaseCamp – it didn’t seem as nice as Memory-Map – but I found that most of the issues were just a matter of becoming familiar with the tool.  There are three key advantages that convinced me it was time to switch tools:

  1. BaseCamp supports auto-generation of routes.
  2. BaseCamp directly interfaces with Google Earth.
  3. BaseCamp interfaces better with a Garmin GPS than my previous tools.

Note: This article is not intended to be a full tutorial on BaseCamp – there are plenty of tutorials and videos on the web already.  My focus will be on the process of planning an adventure.


I enjoy researching new areas to explore.  The Internet makes it really easy to find a lot of useful information, but I also enjoy reading guide books for the area of interest.  I have found a lot of very useful information in user forums by reading other people’s trip reports.  I also enjoy watching YouTube/Vimeo videos so I can get a sense for the difficulty of a trail or road.

Regardless of how much research you enjoy doing, the first step in planning any adventure is to have an idea of where you want to go.  If your adventure can benefit from a GPS and a little pre-trip planning, perhaps my lessons learned can help you on your way.

You may even find existing GPS files (GPX is a common exchange format) which you can download and import into your mapping software.  This may save you a lot of time, or at least give you a path to follow.


I really liked the maps I purchased for Memory-Map.  There were multiple levels of detail, so I could select the one that worked best based on the scale of my trip.  But as with most older tools, the maps were raster maps – meaning they are essentially a digital photograph of a map.

The newer Garmin Maps have vector data in addition to the base map.  This data provides a mathematical description of major roadways, giving the mapping software and your GPS the ability to compute a route.  So, it was time to buy yet another set of maps.  I ended up buying the Garmin 24k Topo maps for the states nearby.

After installing the maps into BaseCamp (a free application from Garmin), I also installed portions of the map into my GPS.  My older GPS would not directly support map sets larger than 2 GB, so I had to remove my 4 GB micro-SD card and load the maps via an SD card reader.

You can launch the Garmin MapInstall program from within BaseCamp.  You then select the map you want to load and the segments to load (highlighted in red below).  You can even select segments from multiple maps.  The green bar on the right indicates how much memory will be used.  I was able to load 100k maps for the entire western United States, all of Utah and Idaho and portions of surrounding states at 24k resolution on my 4 GB card.  It does take a few hours to transfer this much data to the SD card.



Waypoints are a way of marking a specific location. For example, you can mark key junctions on your route, campsites, towns, points of interest, etc.  You can even select a symbol that visually helps you understand what type of waypoint you have created.

When I transferred waypoints from my older software tools, the symbols were generally lost when transferring to the GPS.  With BaseCamp, many of the symbols are compatible with my GPS, so the symbol transfers intact.  The following snapshot shows a waypoint with a blue flag symbol.

Points Tracks Routes


The above snapshot shows a hand drawn track in the light cyan color.  Because it was hand drawn, it does not follow the road very accurately.

Tracks are useful for highlighting your desired path – both on the map (which you can print out if you wish) and you can transfer the track to the GPS.

With my older software, none of my tracks would be visible in my GPS.  I would manually have to enable each track and select a color.  With BaseCamp, the color of the track is transferred to the GPS and all tracks are visible, reducing the amount of effort on my part.

The GPS will also record the actual track as you follow your path.  By using a different color for the recorded track, you can easily see if you are deviating from your intended path.  And when you return to your computer, you can replace your hand drawn track with the actual GPS recorded track for a more accurate record of your trip.

Note: If you store your planned tracks on the SD card and your actual recorded tracks in internal memory (or visa-versa), it is easy to upload just your recorded tracks to your computer after your trip.


The green line in the above snapshot is a route.  A route is essentially a series of waypoints (notice the small black dots) with a straight line connecting the dots.  It is easier to create a route than a track because you simply drop waypoints along the road rather than tracing the entire road.

With BaseCamp’s auto generate capability, routes are sometimes very easy to build (and sometimes not).  After selecting the route creation tool, click on the map at your starting point.  When you move the cursor to the next point along the route, you see a line between the mouse pointer to the previous point, as shown below.

Rubber Band

Once you click the next point, BaseCamp computes intermediate shape points (the black dots referenced earlier) and fills in the detail for the route to follow the road.  When it works, this is a huge time saver.


The tool generally works quite well if there aren’t a lot of intersections along the way.  But when there are alternate paths to choose from, the tool often gets confused, as shown in this example:

Bizzare Loops

When the tool generates bogus paths, hit Ctrl-Z to undo.  You can sometimes get a better result by zooming in and picking points closer together.  Or you may actually get better results by zooming out so the side roads become hidden.

Sometimes you will get better results if you reverse the route.  This causes the software to recompute the route coming in the opposite direction.  Reversing routes is also handy if you want to combine two or more routes into one.  If one route goes the opposite direction, it may connect the wrong ends together.

When auto generate doesn’t do what you want, you may have to hand create the route segment by segment, or draw a track by hand.

Example Plan

The following diagram is an example plan that combines two nearby canyons into a scenic loop.


The green and blue lines are routes that I created using the auto generate feature.  I did have some trouble on the far left due to all of the side roads in town, but I eventually got it to work.

The red and cyan lines are tracks that I hand drew just for comparison.

After drawing my loop, I entered waypoints at key intersections and points of interest.

Once my plan is complete, I can transfer it to my GPS for navigation.  You can also convert between tracks and routes – so you can load whichever you prefer into your GPS.

When following a route on a GPS, it will show you the distance and bearing to the next waypoint.  This can work great if you are covering a large distance on major roads, but if you are riding on trails, the waypoints may really clutter up your GPS display.  For dirt bike outings, I therefore prefer to transfer tracks to the GPS and simply follow the colored line.

Google Earth

I have found Google Earth to be a great resource for trip planning.  It gives you a satellite image of the terrain as well as a coarse 3D representation of the terrain.  I have learned, however, that the actual trail is generally more technical than it might appear on Google Earth.

You can do route planning directly in Google Earth, which can then be exported and converted to a form that your mapping software can read.  But if you do your design in BaseCamp, you can view it in Google Earth without exporting and converting any files.  This makes it really easy to spot check your design as you go and make sure your plan is sound.

If you find any errors in your design, you should correct them in BaseCamp.  Alternately, you can correct them in Google Earth, export them, convert them, and import them back into BaseCamp – but you generally loose something in the conversion process – so proceed with caution.

Here is a top down view of our loop as viewed in Google Earth.  Notice that it is a little difficult to read because the tracks are overlaid with a large number of waypoints.  The routes also have all of the shape points showing.

GE Top View

You can deselect the points in both the track and the routes to get a much cleaner look.

GE Top View wo Points

You can also view your plan in 3D to get a sense for the terrain.


I have also found it interesting to examine photos that others have inserted in Google Earth along my intended route.  This allows me to get a sense for the terrain and difficulty of the trail.

The following snapshot shows how my hand drawn track deviates from the actual road.  If the deviation is too large, it may be worth redrawing the track.

GE Track Error

I would also note that you should be looking straight down (hit the “R” key) when checking for path accuracy.  Otherwise the inaccuracies in the 3D earth model will exaggerate the errors.


Learning to properly use a GPS and GPS mapping software takes time.  Luckily, I enjoy learning this sort of thing.  And I like to do the research to learn about new areas.  While my old methodologies still work, I have been excited to learn some new tools and techniques that will hopefully help me be better prepared for my trips.

But if you are the type that doesn’t consider it an adventure unless you head off into the great unknown, then by all means, go enjoy your adventure.  But for those, like me, that like to know as much as possible before exploring an area, I hope that some of my tips will be useful.  Plan your adventure and then go enjoy it in safety!



About gardinerfamilyadventures

A really great family!
This entry was posted in Technology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to GPS Trip Planning

  1. Pingback: Have GPS, Will Travel | Gardiner Family Adventures

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s