Nifty/Essential Tools (updated March 2023)

On this page I will, over time, describe utilities and tools that I use in preparing the entries in this Journal (BLOG). 

On-the-Trail Tools

Being able to have a reference to a trail and to record one’s track while hiking, a GPS device is the “cat’s meow”. Here are the tools that we use:

GAIA GPS (added March 2023)

This has become my Go To tool for reconnoitering at home (along with Google Earth), for planning hikes, for tracking and recording ‘on the trail’, and of course producing the GPS tracks that I include with each BLOG post. It has most of the features of USTopo Maps, shows more trail information on its topographic maps, and … the app is available for both Android and IOS plus it can be used from a web browser.

      • One can download map tiles to your device for on-the-trail use. I find that it’s native maps, Gaia Topo, are the best, but others include USGS Topo and some satellite tiles. And management of downloaded tiles is excellent – a map is displayed of areas already download so one can avoid duplication and .. identify areas that have not yet been downloaded.
      • Recording GPS tracks is easy – [Record], then [Finish]. Then it provides the ability to export .KML and .GPX track files. Similar for marked waypoints.
        • The app is connected to GAIA’s “system in the sky”. To use it’s full features one must create an account (Free or Premium, I opted for Premium) which comes with storage space. Tracks are uploaded as a matter of course when a track is saved. This is handy because they are then available on other devices, including via the web  interface.
      • It does, of course, provide the ability to import track files.
      • And there are many other features that I haven’t explored, such as setting up trips, using the compass,

Note: I avoided using GAIA GPS for a long time because it consumed more battery than USTopo. Maybe the authors updated it to use less power, or more likely I made some adjustments in Android’s background activities. But now I can get a full day’s use without a recharge being required.

USTopo Maps (for Android devices)

My cell phone is an Android device (as is my tablet), do I depend on  US Topo Maps from ATLOGIS. This a -very- versatile tool with the following features that are key:

      • One can download onto your device maps for offline use – that means you will have access to the maps even when there is no cellphone service. The list of available maps is long, including street maps, topographical maps, even satellite views.
      • One can record the track of your movement. Since most phones these days have a GPS receiver in them, the track is quite accurate. As you go, the track is displayed on the map along with other information of your choice such as present position (latitude and longitude), distance so far, and elevation. At the conclusion of the hike, the file can be saved and later downloaded for use later (such as to display it on GoogleEarth; see Using Google Earth Track Files)
      • One can mark waypoints on the fly which are recorded and, as for tracks, can be downloaded for use later.
      • One can import a track and display it on the map (along with the current recording track). Thus one can plan a route: download a .kml  or .gpx file from past hikes or another source, or a file from a sketch on a tool like GoogleEarth.
      • One can create a route in USTopo itself and track it as well as view statistics such as distance to destination. This feature comes in handy when on the trail by marking a waypoint for which distance and elevation are displayed (such as, how far is it “as the crow files” to a feature of interest).

Get USTopo from the Google Play store; I used the Free version for a couple of years but found it to be so essential that I upgraded to the Pro version; I’m happy to reward the developers for their excellent work.  I’m extremely happy with this app.

CalTopo Mobile (offline)

I first encountered CalTopo as an online service, accessed via a web browser (see my description below). Recently I learned that there is also an app which has capabilities for offline use, to take it on the trail.  Versions are available for both Android and IOS.

After downloading and installing the app, to get started go to “Setting up CalTopo  – First Map“. You will be required to establish an account with CalTopo; there is a free account for somewhat limited use, and paid accounts which offer more capabilities; for offline use at least the “Basic” account is required ($20 per year). Settings for the app and track files are stored in your account at CalTopo. There are also links to other sources of helpful information on the “Settings..” page.

As mentioned below, the choice of base layers and overlays is quite extensive:

      • I’ve found the “MapBuilder Topo” base layer shows extensive information about two-tracks and trails, and it provides more topographic detail than some of the others (I have chosen the middle of the three levels of detail).
      • The “Forest Service 2016” base layer is presented in excellent form, great when comparing CalTopo’s rendition with those of others. And there are many other layers and options to work with.
      • Some of the overlays that I find interesting:
        • Slope Angle Shading – displays color to indicate angle of slope
        • Public Lands – colors for various ownership
        • Fire History – names and dates of significant fires
        • and many others

For more information from my review and online use of CalTopo, see my description below.

DeLorme Earthmate PN-60

I occasionally bring the PN-60 along as a backup. It provides most of the capabilities described for USTopo – track, mark waypoints, save tracks and waypoints, load routes, etc. This device is “long in the tooth”, not terribly easy to use and the display is quite small and limited.  But it works well as a backup for recording tracks and it would be useful for extended hiking because one can replace the batteries when battery life of the cellphone would be a limiting factor (‘tho my cellphone is an [old] Galaxy S-5 which I keep in part because it, too, permits replacing the battery on the fly).

Online Tools

Back at home, I use a number of tools on my Windows PC. Firstly, I use them to reconnoiter (find interesting places we might visit), to plan our expeditions and hikes, and to document places we’ve been to – where and when.

Google Earth

This is definitely my main -go to- tool when not on the trail.  I use it to identify areas of interest for exploring, to review hikes others have done and recorded the .kml (or other) GPS file, to sketch out plans for hikes, and to review and prepare the .kml files that I post in the Journal.  On another page I’ve discussed on another page, Using Google Earth Track Files how one might use the .kml files that I publish for each hike (others do as well). I will compose a page with more information about how I use GoogleEarth,  including some enhancements that come in handy.

I’ve found two overlays for GoogleEarth to be of –great assistance–

      • Earth Point Topo Map – provides a topographic overlay on the current GE view. I use Earth Point’s “Tools for Google Earth”, the “Topo Maps – USGS Topographic Maps on Google Earth“. It’s great for determining names for geophysical features, for finding interesting features, for planning routes based on topography, any of the interesting and useful things one can do with topographic maps. And even better that one can switch between the topo overlay and the native Google Earth “3D” view.
      • Surface Ownership – An overlay of New Mexico that identifies ownership of land: BLM, USFS, Indian Reservations, State Lands, private lands, and more. The date of the file is 2017, so there may have been changes since then, but such changes are typically slow to happen. Meantime, it is a great starting point. (On Reddit: “Google Earth Land Ownership for NM — Great for camping, hunting, fishing or any kind of exploring!“)

GAIA GPS

In addition to being an excellent app for On the Trail Tools, it is equally good at your desktop. Since it is on the Web, you may use any browser to take advantage of its features. Check out its features above.

USGS Topo View

This appears to be superb map viewer, zoom in or out, even select the vintage of the topo map to view.  It will take some exploring of its features to exploit it; it’s Help function will be essential.

Earth Point

Earth Point provides an overlay of USGS Topo Map for Google Earth. 

ArcGIS – USA Topo Maps

Do you want a quick way to review USGS Topo Maps?  This map viewer, ArcGIS USA Topo Maps is Super! It seems to cover the whole US, permits zooming in to the greatest detail, yet zooming out to help find what you’re looking for.  It also permits choosing other “basemaps” (satellite, with or without labels; street maps, even National Geographic basemap).  A very cool resource.

CalTopo

This tool provides a topo presentation and various tools to plan/plot your next outing.  The default basemap (MapBuilder Topo) presents topo information with roads and hiking trails clearly marked. And it provides a selection of tools for measuring and drawing on the map.  I’ve not explored it enough to exploit it’s capabilities, but it looks very interesting.

UPDATE – April 2020
This year I reviewed CalTopo and … found it to have many features that add significantly to the capabilities of tools that help track down places to visit and hike. I’ve spent only a few hours exploring it’s capabilities with only the Free account. I will continue my exploration and update this page as my use expands. Here are highlights so far from using CalTopo in a web browser:

      • The choices for Layers is extensive. It has the usual topographic presentations, and the resolution is superb. Included is a variation that shows Slope Angle  Shading, highlighting steep slopes in red. There is a Hybrid Satellite/Topo layer that is interesting. And the MapBuilder Topo includes more prominent marking for roads and .. trails (presented in red, including the Continental Divide Trail).
      • It offers the ability to Import tracks and display them on the map. Formats include GPX, KML, KMZ and GeoJSON files.
      • A really cool feature is the ability to create a track from a trail or road and export the KML or other file format to use elsewhere (e.g. on US Topo).
        • Choosing [Add New Object], [Line],
        • Select “OSM” (Open Street Map) in the [Snap To:] drop-down box
        • Zoom in until a road to trail is highlighted in yellow when the mouse pointer is over the track
        • To create your track:
          • Click on a point on a track line (road, two-track, or trail) for the beginning of your track.
          • Click on another point on the track line Move the mouse pointer from the initial point to another point on the line will highlight the track line.
          • A second click will bound your track. Additional click on track lines will further extend your track.
          • In the track dialog box in the lower left corner
            • Add a label, comments, choose line weight, color, opacity, and style
            • Click [OK] and the track will be added to the “Lines & Polygons” list
            • You may return to edit these choices
        • To export your track, from the [Export] menu
          • Choose Download type
          • From the list select the objects to be exported
          • Then [Export]; the file will be downloaded via your browser
          • Copy the file from your browser’s download list into your system for filing hiking records
        • Now you can take it with you on your favorite GPS device
      • Another cool feature is the ability to save maps, and to share saved maps with a line sent via eMail. The eMessage has a link that will open the web browser to show the map as saved, the zoom level and other baseline settings, and will include the tracks that were saved with the map.

I can see that there is much more capability with CalTopo than I have explored let alone exploited. As I get more experience, I will update this description further. And if -you- have tips and techniques to share, please send them to me via eMail hiking@pngyoung.com, or in the Leave a Reply form at the bottom of this or any other page in Hiking in New Mexico.

MappingSupport.com

This is a replacement for Gmap4, which was popular as it provided online tools for planning and documenting particularly hiking activities.  Check it out.

Download & Offline Tools

Other tools, particularly for working with GPX and KML files.

GPS Track Editor

Load .gpx files, great editing features.  In particular, a Filter feature that makes it easy to exclude (or delete) track points that are inconsistent, such as speed that exceeds some maximum allowed value.  One may also delete track points or segments, and even concatenate tracks (‘tho that took some work to sort out). 

I use this tool regularly to delete “wild” track points that occur when the GPS is out of range of the satellites. I do this by filtering out and deleting all data points with a speed of more than, say, 4.5 or 5 mph (that is, a speed faster than we walk).  Then I save the filtered .gpx file, drag it into Google Earth, and check the Elevation Profile (which shows speed in the graph).  If the speed graph is reasonable, then I save the track as a .kml file, ready for publication on the Journal

GPS Babel

The most common recommended tool for converting between various track files (such as from .gpx to .kml).  It also provides some track editing capability.  (Note:  ‘tho GoogleEarth doesn’t offer a File-Open capability for .gpx files, it will open them by dragging the file and dropping it onto GoogleEarth.  You can then save it as a .kml file.

GPS Prune

“An application for viewing, editing, and converting coordinate data from GPS systems.”  Provides ability to view, edit, and even concatenate tracks, and export tracks in numerous formats.

Location of Photos, as Recorded in the Photo File by the Camera/Phone

I’ve known all along that photos from my phone include latitude and longitude values in the metadata.  I became curious – is there a tool out there that will display on a map the location from which the photo was taken? I’ve found one: Jeffrey’s Image Metadata Viewer.  It is an online tool: enter the URL of the photo or choose a file from your local machine, and it will display the metadata, and best of all will point to the spot on a satellite image (or map) the location recorded by the camera or phone where the photo was taken. (With Windows, the metadata can be reviewed by inspecting the properties of the file: in Windows Explorer (“This PC”), right-click on the file, choose Properties, then [Details].)

For this to work, the phone or camera must have a GPS that determines position (latitude and longitude), and that feature must be turned on in the camera or photo app. 

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