Route Planning

3/2014: I wrote more detailed notes on this process for Outdoor Gear Lab. View the article

Here are some notes on our route planning for long traverses/Wilderness Classics. I haven’t relied on maps or compasses in years, and though I acknowledge is takes away part of the sense of adventure, I’ve been grateful to have a route on my GPS when it looks like this:

I don’t just tag waypoints and connect the dots- I draw the entire route, including bail-outs, secondary options, potential airstrips, etc.

My workflow is two-step: route selection with Google Earth, then transfer to the GPS unit.

Google Earth
I create a folder within Places (“My Places”) to house the points and line segments for the trip. Google Earth often loses these folders when the program crashes, so I save the folder (right click –> Save Place As –> filename.kmz) at the end of each session.

Satellite Imagery: Resolution varies from being unusable to good enough that you can decipher game trails.

Time-Stamps: The satellite imagery is time-stamped (bottom left corner of the screen) which is particularly useful for gauging crevasse cover. Click on the time stamp to activate a time scroll bar; depending on the historical imagery you can compare snow cover for different months/years.

Photos: I turn on the ‘Photos’ layer and use the photos to gauge vegetation, crevasses, etc. The photos usually get me excited about the trip.

Topo maps: Google Earth’s satellite imagery is much more useful coupled with topo maps. The Geographic Information Network of Alaska (GINA-UAF) provides a free USGS Topographic Map baselayer for Alaksa (download the kml file). I toggle between the baselayers to pick out route options. I’ve heard that similar base maps exist for other areas, so try an internet search for your area.

I use the placemark tool (yellow thumbtack) to tag locations of airstrips, cabins, and other points of interest. I use the path tool (three dots with line) to sketch lines wherever I see good travel options. Initially I have a mess of line segments, and as the route starts to define itself I look for ways to connect line segments for a through-path. I don’t delete the other path options- they could be useful if plans change. I use the ‘Description’ tab to enter segment length (which you can easily pull from the ‘Measurements’ tab) and any other notes. This information does not get transferred to the GPS.

I label all path segments with short labels; my Garmin GPS only takes the first 10 characters of the labels.

Create a new folder to hold a cleaner version of your intended route. You can either copy and paste the original folder and then delete tracks you don’t want, or simply copy and paste tracks from the original folder into the ‘clean’ folder.

Transfer to GPS
Google Earth does not have the capacity to transfer directly to GPS units.

If you have Garmin’s Basecamp (free), save the folder as a .kmz or .kml, open it in Basecamp, right-click the ‘list’ and select ‘Send to your device.’ Be sure to select the ‘tracks’ box. This might be the only option for newer GPS models.

I use GPS Babel, free software very worthy of donation. Export the ‘clean’ Google Earth Folder as a .kml file (not .kmz). Open GPS Babel:
Input: File –> Format –> kml –> “file name”
Select which features to input (Waypoints, Routes, Tracks)
Output: Device –> Format –> Name

The upload takes about 2 seconds.

For the Garmin etrex Vista, you have to turn on the line segments manually by selecting: Main Menu –> Tracks –> select a track –> then activate the ‘Show On Map’ option.

Feel free to contact me if any of that doesn’t make sense.

3 responses

  1. Andrew

    Hey Luc, Thanks for this. I’m stoked about the kml topo baselayer link that you provided. That’s exactly what I was looking for. Now I just need to buy a more capable GPS!

    November 19, 2012 at 11:07 am

  2. Greg

    Luc, this was a very interesting post. I switched to GPS back in late 1990’s but frankly had not figured out how to easily trasfer the info from Google earth. I’ve always done it point by point, manually. Thank you Sir for this information, I’m going to put it to good use shortly.

    November 30, 2012 at 9:48 am

  3. Luc, gosh, you share so many resources and awesome knowledge. You do Alaska proud!
    I specifically liked this post as I am doing a lot of route planning in Google. Was wondering whether you might share the Google routes used above? I aim to be coming through there and could seriously benefit from the ‘leg’ work you have already done! Though, also understand the “do your own work” when it comes to getting rad. So, either way, props.

    July 15, 2015 at 7:34 pm

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