GPS and Google Maps

GPSes004 In the latest issue of Adventure Rider Magazine Marty had a piece on how to use Google Maps with a GPS. A problem emerged just as the mag went to print, and we had to leave out some vital info…like how to get the Google Maps info onto the GPS. The problem has been sorted, and we promised in the mag readers would be able to find the full write-up here.

So here it is…

Last issue we had a look at BaseCamp, Garmin’s proprietary software for planning and organising rides. It’s great if you have a PC, a Garmin, and can get settled with it. But Google Maps is a program most people use regularly, and it can be a real asset for adventure riders. From satellite images to Street View it makes planning easy.

Did you know you can convert Google Maps to GPS-friendly GPX files? And you can do it using free programs like the GPS Visualizer conversion utility from

The ground rules

Sure, Google Maps has a few minor issues – through roads are sometimes shown as incomplete, roads are shown on the Google map that mightn’t exist on the ground and Google sometimes gets the exact location of roads in deep bush confused – but generally it’s an amazingly accurate tool for adventure riders, especially if used in conjunction with other maps.

Dualsport Australia swears by Google Maps for the prerun stage of route design, marking out possible variations of a desired course before loading up the bike and actually exploring to find the best adventure-ready trails.

I still prefer Classic Google Maps because the multiple waypoint options suit me better, but the new version of Google Maps can work well with a GPS, as long as the user sticks to a few ground rules.

Walk before you preride

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 9.18.08 amScreen Shot 2015-03-31 at 10.28.19 amBy using the ‘Walk’ feature on Google Maps – the little walking-guy symbol at the top of the directions pane – you get access to all the minor roads we adventure riders crave. Just watch your route doesn’t include actual walking tracks where motorcycles are prohibited.

By using Walk, Google also refuses to use freeways and divided roads, which is fine with me. I detest highways and barely tolerate tar backroads. But if time demands major roads just split the course into two (one Walk and one Car).

Before you start your route, pick your destinations and hit Walk. You never know what Google might find that you hadn’t considered. Parallel roads can be vastly different to ride despite being in close proximity to main roads, and an open mind finds more trails.

The more trails the merrier when it comes to exploring on the ground.

Street delete

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.03.51 amStreet View is an amazing asset that can be used for more than Google intended. It’s not only great for visualising track turns off major roads, spotting No Through Roads or Private Property signs, or even confirming tracks exist, but it also offers a directional guide.

Once you’ve chosen the area you wish to explore on your adventure bike, have Google Maps zoomed out enough to give you an overview of the area. Then simply drag the Street View man out onto the map without letting go. Everywhere he can go instantly lights up the roads in blue.

You now know where not to go. Very rarely will the Google car venture onto second-rate dirt roads, so you can instantly delete areas covered in blue lines and concentrate your trail searches in the gaps. It’s great for double-checking your course progress as you plan.

At the survey-run stage the tracks you delete are more important than the tracks you keep for exploring. It saves wasting time and tyres on the dreaded tar.

I spy

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 10.30.00 amUse the satellite overview to find the bush in the area, zoom in to confirm dirt surfaces and check and follow small roads and trails aren’t dead ends. I’ll often convert my GPS tracks from fieldwork back into KML files (Google Maps’ language) to compare actual routes to planned routes on satellite view using My Maps.

Another tool that’s often overlooked is the ‘Photo’ box. Ticking the Photo box will show scenic places of interest that may be worth a look in your search area.

Don’t forget to cross-reference with maps for more ideas. NRMA maps are quite good as an overview, although they lack some roads. But what I find the best is old maps and forestry maps. I keep my eyes out for more maps constantly, even old map books can contain hidden gems.

Zoom before dragging

By now you should have a general idea of places to visit, roads to avoid and areas to pass through. Now you just have to join them up.

Type in your destination, hit Walk, then zoom in until your preferred road name comes into view before dragging your course over. Look closely for areas that require certain roads to get to first, as less is more with pinning the road down and getting course to reload correctly later.

Destinations around every 50km help if you’re using route sheets. But if your GPS is older or can hold less waypoints than the modern GPS units, break the GPS files (GPX) down into sections.

URL be right

Once you’re happy with your course, look next to the print button at the top of the page. There’s a button for getting the URL code link on classic Google Maps. Otherwise you can highlight the address bar – Control A – then copy the address onto the new Google Maps. This will get the URL code to revisit the course at the click of a button. Or use GPS Visualizer to convert the URL into GPX code you can load into your GPS. The short URL code works fine on classic Google and is easier to store and send to others.

Once you’ve copied your URL, visit GPS Visualizer, then

* Click on ‘Convert a file’ (at the top)

* Then click on ‘GPX’

* In the box below labelled ‘URL address from web’, paste in your URL

* Hit ‘Convert’ at the top and the download link will show. Click on this and you have your GPX code to copy and paste into your GPS

* Done

This process is not hard.

If you struggle, Google ‘how to’ or find a teenager and ask.

Unfortunately, my IT department grew up and moved out. Now he won’t help unless I Google it first. To be fair, that usually works.

Marty HC

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