Smartphones in the Backcountry – Part IV

Using Google Earth for Trip Planning

Our series continues and we’re getting close to wrapping it up. Our previous article (Part III) discussed the pro’s and con’s of Google Earth and Caltopo as trip planning tools. In this article we’re going to look exclusively at using Google Earth to create some maps. This will start off with the basics so it should be as good a place as any for even a total novice to jump in. By the time you’ve reached the end of the article you should have the skills to map out routes with confidence. You’ll improve your backcountry planning for runs, hikes, and any adventures where you want to get an idea of possible routes, mileage, and elevation gain… and of course you’ll be able to get your map onto your smartphone. 3, 2, 1… let’s go!

Google Earth Interface and Map Example

This is a quick tutorial on making a map in Google Earth. Refer to the next image below as a reference for the various steps. With some luck everything will make sense.

Google Earth Interface Reference
Google Earth Interface Reference

Getting Started

  1. You’ll need to download Google Earth (free) and install it if you have not already done so.
  2. Sign up for a Google Account if you don’t already have one.
  3. Download a topo map:

    (a) Caltopo: You can select an area to generate a .KMZ file from, which Google Earth can open. This is a limited feature; choosing a smaller area will provide more zoom resolution. Choosing a larger area will result in a low res map. After you have re-sized the red rectangle, click the Download KMZ button. Some trial and error may be necessary. Our examples below use a Caltopo-generated map of a small part of the Sequoia Kings Canyon area.

    (b) EarthPoint: Earthpoint hosts what’s called a Dynamic KML link. Map quadrants are downloaded as you zoom/pan to new areas of the map. The quality is just alright, but’s it’s free and fairly simple to get this going without much fuss.

    (c) Open Street Maps: For locations outside the US this may be your best bet (if you know of something better please drop us a message). This is also a Dynamic KML link. It can be used to pull in overlays for Open Street, Open Cycle, and more.

Caltopo vs. Earthpoint Maps
Caltopo vs. Earthpoint Maps

Finding A Place

The search tool can find many places including mountains, lakes, passes… pretty much any geographical feature that’s named. You can locate cities, towns, and addresses too of course. Our example map is going to be in the Sequoia/Kings area. We can search for “Sequoia National Park” but this doesn’t really bring us to the area we’re looking for. Instead let’s try “Kanawyers”, which is the little community at Road’s End. This will get us close to the trailhead.

  1. In the Search Box, enter “Kanawyers” and press ENTER.
  2. The map will center on the georeferenced location for Kanawyers.
  3. If the map does not refresh after searching for a term it means you have misspelled the place, or the location is not georeferenced.

Creating a Trip Folder

Organizing your trips into folders is a good habit to get into. This will keep all your paths, placemarks, and other trip-related items sorted and you won’t end up with a big mess after a year!

  1. Right click the topmost folder under Places (called My Places) and choose Add > Folder. Let’s call it “Sample Trip”.
  2. You should see the new folder at the bottom of the My Places list.
  3. If you’re downloading a map from Caltopo you’ll want to drag it from temporary places into your trip folder.

Creating a Path

  1. Find the Sample Trip folder you just created. Right click and choose Add > Path.
  2. Enter a name for the path, let’s call it “Our Route”. Choose a color, and set the width to 2.5. Any of these can be changed later. Leave the window open and move it off the map so you can see what you’ll be doing next…
    Path Properties Window
    Path Properties Window
  3. Start clicking points on the map to create a path. Zoom in if necessary to see detail on trails, etc… Your route can be refined later so the first pass doesn’t have to be exact.
  4. When your path is complete, click OK to close the Path Properties window. You will now see your path under the Sample Trip folder.
    Our Newly Created Route
    Our Newly Created Route
    Zoomed to see Detail
    Zoomed to see Detail
    Rotated for 3D View
    Rotated for 3D View
  5. To edit your path right click it and choose > Properties. You can now click a point to select it then… drag the selected point to adjust it’s location, click another spot on the map to insert a new point, or press DELETE to delete the selected point.
  6. To see the length of your path, right click the path name under your Sample Trip folder, then choose > Properties > Measurements.
  7. To see the elevation profile for your path, right click the path name under your Sample Trip folder, then choose > Show Elevation Profile. The map may pan around when you do this, which can sometimes be annoying, but it’s normal behavior for the program.
Showing Elevation Profile
Showing Elevation Profile

Creating a Placemarker

  1. Right click your Sample Trip folder then choose Add > Placemark.
  2. Enter a name for the placemark. Let’s just call it “POI”. Click the yellow pushpin icon and you can choose a different icon if you like.
    Placemark Properties Window
    Placemark Properties Window
  3. The placemark will appear at the center of the map. You can click and drag it to the location where you’d like it, or you can enter coordinates in the popup window. Then click OK.
  4. Notice that the placemark now shows up under your Sample Trip folder.
  5. To edit your placemark, right click it under your Sample Trip folder and choose Properties. You can now edit the location, name, and style of the placemark.
Completed Map with Placemarks
Completed Map with Placemarks

Exporting a Map

When you want to use your map on a smartphone or handheld GPS you’ll need to export it. Usually a .KML file is what you’ll want, but you may benefit from using a .KMZ file if the map includes image overlays (these would usually be other maps you decided to add, but possibly other geographical data/imagery). Most handheld GPS units will support image overlays via .KMZ files, most smartphone apps will not unfortunately. Image overlays are more of an “advanced user” feature anyway, so we won’t worry about that too much right now. The main idea is to get your map exported and onto your smartphone; here’s how…

  1. Right click your Sample Trip folder then choose Save Place As…
  2. Choose the folder you want to save in and enter a file name.
  3. Select the file type from the dropdown box, let’s choose .KML
  4. Click OK. Your file is now saved and ready to be imported by your device.
  5. Tip: Many smartphone apps will look in your device’s “Downloads” folder by default for new maps, so that may be a good place to put the file, otherwise refer to the documentation of your smartphone app for instructions.

Printing a Map

Google Earth really sucks at printing and you should use Caltopo for this. I’m not gonna waste any more space talking about it, you can fiddle with the print function if you want to find out how bad it is.

Tips and Tricks

  • By default you are in panning mode on the map, click and drag to pan around.
  • If you have a mouse with a wheel (hopefully you do, it’s modern times and all) you can zoom in and out by scrolling the wheel.
  • If you noticed the angle of view tilting as you zoom and are annoyed by this, rejoice you can fix it! Go to Tools > Options > Navigation and check the option that reads “Do not automatically tilt while zooming”.
  • Hold SHIFT then click & drag to tilt the angle of view.
  • Hold CTRL then click & drag to rotate the map.
  • Press “N” while working on the map to rotate North back to the correct orientation.
  • For further info about Google Earth you might want to check out Getting to Know Google Earth.

Issues to Be Aware Of

For the most part there are no big pitfalls that will wreck your day, but there is one worth mentioning. For some mysterious reason, Google Earth relies on what is graphically being displayed on your monitor to generate data for elevation profiles. Ermm… another way of explaining this is, when your Google Earth program window is maximized, the data shown on an elevation profile will be different than when the program screen is stretched to a smaller size! Even the distance of the path will vary (according to the elevation profile). It appears that a larger window is more accurate; in any case elevation profiles should be considered a decent estimate. An additional bummer with elevation profiles is they cannot be printed without some computer sorcery… basically you’ll have to make a screenshot and crop out the part you don’t want, then print it. Lame.

In Summary…

Well, if you’ve followed along then you should have all the tools you need to make maps via Google Earth. As you can see it is a powerful tool for visualizing terrain, especially when combined with some decent topo maps. It’s easy to generate maps and export them to your device, or even to Caltopo for making some nice prints. Google Earth does fall short in native topo map support. It also falls way short in printing, or lack of the ability to print, but it otherwise makes up for it by being a solid editing tool. One way you might consider using Google Earth is for preliminary import and editing of GPX files, or other large paths that Caltopo is happy to display but cannot edit natively. As you branch out you can begin to explore image overlays and other fun things like adding photos to your maps for future reference. Our next and final chapter will focus on using Caltopo and should be something you stay tuned in for if you found this useful! And for the love of Science… if you have any questions or suggestions to improve this info please leave a comment!! Hike It. Like It.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he’s not out hiking or running the trails you’ll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy.
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  1. Adan
    June 15, 2015

    Solid material, dude. The best I’ve seen on the subject. Backcountry Navigator on a Samsung S6 here. It’s proved extremely useful during my winter trips this year. 4 days as my only camera, gps, and watch, with no charger or spare batteries. I have also done canyoneering trips where my phone was double bagged in ziplocs and submerged, with no issues. A part 6 that you might consider to this series is choosing a smartphone. Mine doesn’t have the option for a spare battery but the ultra battery saver is fantastic.

    • July 6, 2015

      Hi Adan. If you’re only using the GPS once in a while to check where you are, yeah the batteries will last a long time. I came in from a 5 day trip recently and still had 77% battery life left. I didn’t take any photos with my phone but I did tinker with Google Sky a bit, as well as frequent map checks.

      If you’re using tracking apps though such as Strava, or use the “record path” feature of apps like Backcountry Navigator, Gaia, etc… the batteries will get eaten up much faster. I don’t think it would be possible to track a multi-day hiking trip without having one or two sets of spare batts. I don’t really find a need to do that… but it could be helpful while hiking cross country or when it’s snowing, basically anytime you might need to retrace your steps without knowing exactly where you’ve been.

      I don’t think I’ll get into recommended phones; it’s beyond my scope of knowledge and changes too fast for me to keep up! I always buy a generation or two older to get them cheap 🙂

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