Route Planning and Navigation – Part 1

Introduction to Caltopo

This short series is intended for the novice to intermediate adventurers, hikers, trail runners, or anyone who is looking to broaden their horizons exploring the outdoors. The intent is to provide a very practical guide to understanding terrain, reading maps, planning a route using some tools available online, and navigating using modern methods (GPS/Smartphone) as well as traditional methods (map and compass). The series will be split into small chunks to make the information easy to digest; this is the first of those articles so it will be a good place to start. It’s wonderful to look at a map and begin to dream. There are places the trail goes, and there are places it doesn’t. The limits of our imagination are the only real boundaries to exploring our world.

Overview of Route Planning

What is route planning? Simply the process of identifying a route to follow and understanding what obstacles and hazards might present themselves along the route. It follows that you’d want to navigate on that route after identifying it, so navigation goes hand in hand with route planning. These are the two main points this series will cover. The world opens up when you have the tools to plan new routes and the understanding of how to do it. If you’d like to skip to Part 2 of this series, which covers navigation, here’s a link.


Here’s a quick list of the resources we’ll be using. Some of these may be familiar to you, some maybe not. The series will cover exactly what we’re going to do with each of these items in detail.

  • Internet Access – A PC with a mouse and keyboard will make following along an easy task. May seem obvious, but what we’re about to do is not really suited for a touchscreen device.
  • Digital Mapping Software – We’ll be using Caltopo, an online mapping resource that has both free and paid levels of access.
  • Smartphone or GPS – In the field we’ll be navigating with an Android smartphone, but a handheld GPS can be an equal or better choice.
  • Navigation Software – We’ll be demonstrating navigation using the Gaia GPS app for Android. A dedicated GPS unit means no additional software is needed.
  • Paper Maps – The section on map and compass navigation will rely on paper maps. We will use both printed maps from Caltopo as well as Tom Harrison maps.
  • Compass – Any compass with a baseplate and adjustable declination will suffice (essentially, not a toy compass)

Route Planning & Navigation Process

This will appear in each article in this series. The step(s) in bold are what we’re covering in this section.

  1. Settle on an area to explore
  2. Look at maps to see what roads, trails, and off-trail options look like
  3. Lay out a route using Digital Mapping tools
  4. Examine distances and elevation profiles of your preliminary route
  5. Due Diligence of route logistics
  6. Finalize route and transfer to Smartphone/GPS
  7. Import route into Navigation Software
  8. Navigate in the field using Smartphone/GPS and Navigation Software
  9. Bonus – Navigation techniques using map and compass

Introduction to Caltopo

Caltopo is a free online mapping tool. It is accessed via your internet browser and for this, you’ll want to be on a PC with a mouse and keyboard. The interface is not optimized to be used from a smartphone or tablet. Caltopo is an outstanding tool that can provide a lot of useful information to the user; we’re going to keep it very simple. Let’s have a look at what you see when you browse to

Welcome to Caltopo!

Your default map area may be different, you may also get a popup window if it’s your first visit to Caltopo, you can close that if so. This map is the area directly North of San Francisco. Take note of a few things that we have labeled…

  1. The side bar: The side bar has some short cuts on it that are also found on the top menu if you start poking around. More importantly, the side bar will show the elements of your map as you start to add folders, lines, markers, and other objects to it. At the top of the side bar you will find several methods to sign in.
  2. The top menu: Contains most of the commonly used actions. We’ll be focusing on the ADD menu found there to add lines (paths), markers, and folders (for organization). More on that in a minute when we get started.
  3. The map source menu: This menu will drop down when you hover over it and allow you to choose from various maps, and even combine them.

Let’s sign in first. We’re going to use our email address to establish our account, you can use whatever method you prefer. After signing in, hover over the map source menu, then click in the BASE LAYER drop down box. Find “OpenCycleMap” in the list and click it to make that the new base layer. Now you’ll have a screen that looks a little different.

OpenCycle Map vs. MapbuilderTopo

Let’s start making a route. It’s worth noting that you can have multiple routes and objects on one map. Each line you add, or marker you add will become an “object” on the map. If you think you might have multiple routes on a map, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of organizing them into folders, which can also be added via the ADD menu. Let’s start by adding two folders. From the top menu, click ADD, then choose ADD FOLDER. Let’s call the first one “Route1”. Repeat these steps and call the next one “Route2”. You’ll see the folders on the left side bar.

You may notice the pencil icon to the right of each folder. This is the EDIT action, and it’s the same icon that will appear on any objects you create. This will allow to make changes to the object after you’ve added it. The X icon is to DELETE the object. There is no undo action, so be careful with delete!

You can pan (move) around your map by clicking and dragging. You can also use the search tool to search for geographical features by name. Give it a try. In the top menu, type “rodeo lagoon” into the search bar and hit enter. Your map will center on Rodeo Lagoon in the Marin Headlands area (same general area seen in the images thus far). To zoom in or out, use the plus and minus icons at top left on the map, or use your mouse scroll wheel. Let’s zoom into the lagoon area a little further, then from the top menu click ADD then choose ADD LINE.

The Rodeo Lagoon Area

In the lower right of your map window you’ll see the popup window with some settings for the line that you’re about to add. I’ve called it Coastal Loop. I’ve also set the folder to Route1 which appears in the list of available folders. Lastly, I’ve changed the line type to one with a directional arrow. This can be changed by clicking on the line next to STYLE. Now we start drawing. By default Caltopo will snap onto roads and trails on the map – this makes drawing routes super easy, but sometimes it can be a little stubborn and you have to tinker with it. I’m going to start my route just above the lagoon, near the restroom symbol on the map. My first click will be there, the next click will be on Bunker Road, my next click is going to be way over to the left on Coastal Trail. Try this out and see how the route is traced for you.

  • To Zoom and Pan: The map can be moved (panned) around just like usual – click and drag. You don’t have to stop drawing to do this. Zoom works too.
  • To finish your line: double click.
  • To undo a part of your line: press the ESC key on your keyboard. This can be done multiple times.

The image below shows my completed route, try making a similar one to get a feel for it. It only took me about 4 mouse clicks to draw this.

Drawing a Route

Looking at the side bar, you’ll notice a few things are different. Starting at the top, you have an option to SAVE THIS MAP. We’ll come back to that. Next you see that under the Route1 folder, you now have your Coastal Loop line. To the right of the line name, you have a few icons. The EDIT icon (pencil) that we briefly talked about earlier, the DELETE icon (X) as well as an icon that looks like a graph. That’s the PROFILE icon. Click that one and the elevation profile will be displayed. Give it a try.

The Basic Elevation Profile

The elevation profile appears in the lower part of the screen. By hovering over it, you can see the corresponding point on the map. If you’re paying careful attention while doing this, you might see that sometimes the point being shown is not exactly on your path. That’s because the program “smooths” out your path a little to reduce the number of measurements it uses for the elevation profile. This means the profile shown is a close approximate. Look at the top right side of the profile; you’ll find an EXPAND option there. Click that…

The Expanded Elevation Profile

This profile is more detailed and includes additional information. In our experience, and from polling other users of Caltopo, the “expanded” profile is probably the closest estimate you’ll be able to get. Note that the total elevation gain and loss (shown in green and red above the profile) are a little different than what was shown on the basic profile. This is because the expanded profile uses more measurement points. There are options within the expanded profile to sample (measure) at even closer intervals, but this will lead to elevation gain and loss that are way outside of the range of what GPS devices/watches will report, so our advice is: stick to the expanded profile numbers for a close estimate. What else do we see here… some color coding for slope angles, information on tree cover, as well as which aspect of the hill(s) the route travels along. Useful data depending on the demands of your trip. Alrighty, click OK to close the expanded profile.

Now, back on your map, try clicking anywhere on the path itself. You will get a popup menu that has a little information (distance namely) as well as more options to do other things. The image below shows what we’re talking about here.

Path Data and Options

In the popup window, the TERRAIN STATISTICS option will bring your directly to the “expanded” elevation profile. By clicking EDIT we will be taken into editing mode on the line. Click that to check it out. While editing, notice how all the vertices that make up the line are displayed. They can be dragged around individually (cool!), but the automatic snapping onto the map is no longer active (bummer). In the editing popup window, you can also change the name of the line, the line type, color, folder, etc… Let’s change the FOLDER to “Route2”, then click OK.

Re-organizing with Folders

Look at the side bar, the line has now been put under the folder “Route2”. Cool. You don’t have to decide right away where you want your nice little objects to live, as Bob Ross might have said, and you can move them around by using the EDIT action at any time, and simply selecting a different folder. Let’s create another route on this map.

Zoom back in to the area you started the previous route at, then click ADD and choose ADD LINE. Let’s call this one “Valley Loop” and put it under the “Route1” folder since that folder is now empty. For the color we’ll use purple and the same line style as before. The image below shows the line settings and the next image shows the completed route. Try to draw something similar.

Starting another Route
The New Completed Route

As you can see, these two routes have some overlap. The visibility of routes can be toggled on and off however. Look at the side bar and notice the check box next to each folder. Let’s un-check the “Route2” folder. Now that route is now hidden. Unfortunately Caltopo doesn’t offer the ability to change visibility of lines or other objects directly, this can only be done at the folder level.

Toggling Route Visibility on the Map

Ok, let’s add a marker to this route. From the menu click ADD, then choose ADD MARKER. You will see a popup similar to the one we had before when adding a line. Call the marker “Start/Finish” and set the folder to “Route1”. Right now the marker type is just a red dot, you should see it at the center of your map if you look. By clicking on the marker and dragging it, you can move it to the start of the route. Go ahead and do that; you may want to zoom in to move it more accurately.

Adding a Marker

Now the marker appears on the side bar in the same folder as our line if we did everything correctly. If it’s in another folder location, that can be changed by editing the marker and changing the folder. Let’s edit it and change what it looks like. By clicking the EDIT icon then clicking on the red dot next to STYLE we get a pop up with some basic choices. We’ll use the flag icon. Click on it, then click OK when done.

Editing the Marker

So now we have a completed route, or a couple of routes actually. We’d probably want to also add a start/finish icon to our other route also since it doesn’t have one currently. Markers can be placed anywhere along a route to indicate camp sites, water locations, or whatever other points of interest you might want on your map. They will also show up on the expanded elevation profile. Ok, we still need to save this map! Do that now by clicking the SAVE THIS MAP action at the top of the side bar.

Saving the Map

The map needs a name, we’ll call it “My First Map”, but usually you’d want it to be something useful. Over time you’ll start to accumulate quite a few maps in your account probably, so do yourself a favor and be descriptive! Most of the time you’ll probably save the map to your account, so let’s leave that default option checked. The SHARING option is up to you. “Viewable with URL” means someone else could look at your map if you gave them the URL to do it (remember, this is all stored online). This is a good default choice if you like to share maps with friends, for planning trips, etc… If you don’t want anyone else to see your map, choose the “Completely Private” option. The “Public” option means that your map will be available on the web via search results (or directly via the URL). Assuming you’re sharing your map with friends, you can give them the ability to make changes to it by assigning a PASSWORD, otherwise there’s no need to bother with the password.

Click SAVE to finish saving the map. The screen will refresh and the SAVE option is no longer on the side bar. Instead, you’ll see the title of your map. If you decide you want to change the sharing options, or anything about the map, use the MANAGE THIS MAP option. To see all the maps you’ve saved, or to open one, click on your login name on the side bar and you’ll get a list of all your saved maps. The list can be sorted by clicking the headers, default is sorted by date updated. Here are a few of ours…

Some maps in the Hike It. Like It. account 🙂

Due Diligence

The digital map sources you find in Caltopo (and elsewhere) may not be 100% accurate. Therefore, you can’t totally depend on the mileage or elevation data. It’s no better or worse than any other map you might use, it’s just something to be aware of. Also be aware that you may draw routes along trails/roads that are temporarily or permanently closed, pass thru private property, or have other restrictions. For these reasons it’s important to cross reference your route against other regional information sources. This may include contacting local agencies to inquire about trails and roads that you’re unfamiliar with. It’s easy to look at all of the possibilities online and get carried away, only to realize 20 miles into a hike or run that your route goes directly through a private fire road, or some similar debacle. This is just good practice when striking out into new territory, and may help you avoid an ass full of buckshot, or rock salt from land owners who aren’t sympathetic to your cause!

In the example above, I’m familiar with the trails and I know they’re open to the public, so no issues there. Other things I might examine are the elevation gain and loss, and any sections of the trail that are particularly steep. These details might be important if I plan to run the route and want to gauge how difficult it will be. Checking for areas that are extremely steep is a quick way to ensure I haven’t plotted a route off a cliff, or over a pass that I somehow didn’t notice.

Exporting Your Route

The last thing we’re going to do with our map is export it. Why? Because Caltopo is not a navigation tool, it’s a mapping tool. By exporting this map, we can get it onto the device of our preference, in this case that will be a smartphone using a navigation app. So to do that we’ll export it as a file. On the top menu find EXPORT, then choose DOWNLOAD GPX FILE. Your browser will download a file (most likely it will be in your “downloads” folder on your computer). The easiest way to get this file to your device will depend on the device. For a phone, emailing the file to yourself may be the simplest way, or transferring via USB cable.

The next article in this series will go over what to do once the file is on your device. Hopefully this will provide a solid introduction to using Caltopo and get you going with looking at some maps and letting your imagination wander! For a few tips and tricks keep reading below, otherwise stay tuned for Part 2 of this series! Hike It. Like It.

Path Editing Tips and Tricks

It’s rare that you’ll create a path and it will be exactly what you want on the first pass. These tips will give you some ideas to make editing a little easier.

Too Many Vertices!

If you go to edit a long path you may get a warning about having too many vertices to edit the line. This can solved by going to the top menu and clicking the CONFIG option. Under it you can change the number of vertices allowed, up to 10,000. Extra large paths may need to be split into separate paths in order to get around this limitation (and improve browser performance).


When you click on a line, the popup that appears has some editing options it. One of them is SPLIT. This can be useful when you need to make a major modification to a route. By splitting it in a couple of places, you can then delete the piece you need to change. To do this, hover over the line and click it, then choose SPLIT from the popup window. The line will be split where you clicked. You’ll notice the new line segment has the same name as the original (a somewhat annoying behavior of the program) so you may want to figure out which is which, and rename them on the sidebar.

After you have deleted the piece that will be changed, you can create a new line, and then join it to the existing pieces. To do this, click the first line segment, and choose JOIN from the popup window. A new window will appear at the bottom of the screen asking you to select a segment to join it to. Choose from the drop down list. Repeat the process again until you have re-joined all of the segments. If there are gaps between segments they’ll be closed by a straight line when joined.

Snap to Lines and Polygons

If you find that you just want to trace over some lines that you’ve already drawn, maybe to create a new path from several paths, or to choose a new starting point of an existing path, you can adjust the snap feature so it only snaps to objects you’ve drawn on your map. From the top menu, click the CONFIG option, then find SNAP TO and change the setting to LINES AND POLYGONS. This will make tracing only your existing lines quick and easy and you won’t accidentally grab any trails or roads in the process.

Import a Route

You may have a route that you’ve run or hiked if you track with your GPS and/or upload to a web app, such as Gaia or Strava. Usually those apps have an option to export the activity to a GPX file. If you do this, the file can be imported to Caltopo using the IMPORT option from the top menu. You can then edit it, including SPLIT or JOIN with other lines that you’ve added in Caltopo.

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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