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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 or iPhone.
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.
Transfer to iPhone
I haven’t relied on a GPS unit (or paper maps) in years. Here are the pros and cons of smart phones over GPS units.
- Large screen
- Excellent resolution
- Fits in pocket, familiar
- Satellite imagery! This is a huge one. You can pre-download any imagery you want. It is very useful to see satellite images instead of 1950s topo maps, especially in glacial areas.
- It is easier to get maps, download tracks, record tracks, upload, share, etc. You can even ‘Airdrop’ a track to a friend’s phone. Imagine being part of a search party, reconvening, collecting the tracks that were covered and identifying new areas to look. Super powerful.
- Battery life, and this is major. We typically carry a normal GPS unit as a back up just for its battery life. I could get an entire year out of a GPS, I can get one week, stingy, with my iPhone.
- Can fail in the cold (store in an inner pocket, some people tape a handwarmer on it)
- Less precise (this has not been an issue for me)
GaiaGPS is the best app for iPhone navigation. GaiaGPS allows you to download basemaps (topo, satellite, etc.) ahead of time, and use your phone’s gps receiver regardless of cell/wi-fi availability. The app costs $20/year. The Pro option ($4/month) offers some additional layers (most of these, like slope overlay, do not work in Alaska). But going Pro allows you to download multiple base layers at once, rather than layer-by-layer. That might be worth $48/year.
I worked with Joe Stock on a GaiaGPS tutorial, here.
To upload a kml, open an account at GaiaGPS. Under your account, choose ‘tracks,’ and ‘Upload a new track file.’ It’s that easy. The track will show up on the app on your iPhone.
Gaia stopped serving google earth imagery, presumably due to “terms of service” conflicts. I strongly prefer the Google imagery because it is what I am familiar with from the route-planning stages. You can still get the imagery, it just takes a few more steps. From your account at gaiagps.com, select ‘Map Sources,’ then ‘Import an External Map Source.’ Paste this text:
in the ‘Copy and Edit Link to Map Tile’ field. Adjust Min/Max zoom levels (I set mine from 6-16). Once you re-sync your iPhone, the layer will be in ‘More Layers’ -> ‘Imported.’ Selecting the layer should move it to the primary layers menu.
Tips for improving battery life:
- Turn off cell service, wifi, all apps, don’t use the phone as a camera, iPod, etc.
- Leave in Airplane mode. You can tell the Gaia app to only find location when told, so that the GPS chip isn’t constantly drawing charge
- Leave the phone on overnight, sleep with it to keep it warm. Powering the phone on/off actually hurts the battery life more than leaving it in idle (with Airplane mode on).