GPS Devices & Sharing GPS Files

The backroads are a maze. They are perpetually changing, maps are not always correct, networks are a puzzle designed to extract timber, and one track often looks much like another.

 

For this reason, if you go remote into the backwoods, a GPS is a key navigation and safety device.  Not only can you create, load or share potential routes, but you can also save a track of your journey, so (at the very least, as long as you watch your batteries) you'll always be able to retrace your steps if you have to turn back. GPS devices are great for more common routes on better roads (speeds, distances, routes, etc.) , but they are REALLY key for safety if you go remote into the backroads.

This is a long and gnarly page (sorry). It jumps a little all over, but here's the key content:

I'm going to share on this page some of my thoughts and experiences with GPS devices: however, I do NOT have experience with a wide range of products from different companies, nor am I a technical expert, so please treat my info here with a grain of salt, and supplement with your own research. I welcome feedback for this section, and will update things as I do more homework myself. Apologies for all the detail.

The pic below shows the handlebars on my Surly ECR. Front and center you can see my Garmin 64ST GPSMAP device. I bring and use this on every backroads trip I take. You can also see my bear spray readily at hand, which helps with my peace of mind.

Garmin GPSMAP device | bikepacking GPS

I've used the GPSMAP model of Garmin GPS devices for many years now, starting with the '60 series', then the '62 series' (still going strong), and finally my current 64 series model. The GPSMAP series uses buttons for input, vs a touchscreen.

 

Here's a snippett from the OutdoorGearLab review on the 62SC - "This is the most accurate and most reliable GPS unit we've tested." They qualify that this preference is because of its ability to function in more extreme conditions such as serious cold, mountaineering, and use in low visibility. They actually found that the Garmin Oregon series (lighter and with a more useable/viewable touch screen) is preferred for more customary backroads conditions.

 

I have become used to the GPSMAP series, and have a lot of trust in their durability & reliability, and so have not changed. I particularly like the powerful ability to lock onto satellites even under a heavy tree canopy. 

Many cyclists (and no doubt site visitors) have GPS devices from the sport & fitness oriented Edge series from Garmin (which also includes the companion Fenix watches). I also have an older Garmin Edge, that I mostly now use with my road bike. Finally, I have a new Garmin InReach Explorer Mini emergency locator beacon (SOS device), which has text message capability over the GPS Iridium satellite network, so can be used anywhere in the world (as long as you pony up for a subscription). I'm still too new with this Mini to offer any opinions, but I love the small size and the capability to text from anywhere.

Newer generation Garmin GPS devices have bluetooth capability so you can share a track with a buddy you meet out in the bush.

Garmin 64ST | cycle touring GPS device | bikepacking GPS device
 

Garmin makes available a companion freeware software program called Basecamp that I have loaded onto my desktop and laptop (see screen pic below). I use Basecamp at home to explore, create and revise proposed new routes, and set up folders to manage GPS track or waypoint files. For example, I have hundreds of track (ride) files and waypoints (lat/long coordinates, name & description for a point). Most of the maps you will see on this website are partial screen snaps taken while I am using Basecamp. If you use a Garmin GPS, you should download and try Basecamp on your computer.

There's a USB port on Garmin devices to connect to your computer so you can load up new content, or transfer new device content over to your computer.

Another key piece of the puzzle is 'basemaps' which are the underlying maps you load onto GPS devices, so that you can zoom in, and see your location and progress overlaid on top. It is the common lat/long coordinates on your GPS files and computer basemaps that enables these to be used together. To load and show basemaps from other vendors within your Basecamp application, another free Garmin app called MapManager or MapInstall (depending on the device and your computer) is needed. The "T" in my newer 64ST stands for 'Topo', which means it comes with a preloaded Topo map. I do use the Topo map, but have found that, for my area (British Columbia), the Backroads Map Book (BRMB) basemaps are usually more detailed and current (though not always!). I use my 64ST GPS device with the BRMB micro-SD chip, and have downloaded the same map onto my computer for use in Basecamp. One critical caution: always have reserve batteries or a power bank for recharging capability for your GPS.

There are also many cellphone apps for maps and navigation. I have tried and periodically use some of them. Many of these apps will still work for your location even when you are outside cell coverage, as they can still link to the GPS satellite network (or GLONASS - the Russian equivalent now in use worldwide for most GPS devices). That said, although I invariabl;y bring my cell phone along with me, I have found that I still prefer to use my Garmin GPSMAP for navigation, for several reasons: 

  • Getting GPS locations off satellites can drain a cell phone battery, and I am prone to using my cell phone for all sorts of things, so run further risk of draining my battery. I don't use my GPS for anything other than GPS, and the battery lasts far longer.

  • My 64ST seems better able to lock onto the satellite network in poor conditions.

 

Several more comments about using cellphone app basemaps: 

  • get an app that allows you to download a regional map to your phone, so you are not always re-rendering the map as you move along (drains the battery!), and so you will still have the map to use with the satellite network, even when outside cell-phone coverage.

  • there are some decent backroads maps, but there are also some limited backroads maps - not surprisingly, some cell phone basemaps focus on communities and public road networks, rather than remote logging areas

The map below, of the wider Courtenay (my home) area, is a partial screen snap taken from my desktop while I am working with Basecamp. I've left things really busy to give an idea of the amount of content you can choose to view, or not view. You can see a number of route tracks of various colours.  If you like you can really zoom in to small areas, and all the detail makes a lot more sense. Along the left is a set of folders I sometimes work with.

 
 

Many riders today use Google Maps and/or Google Earth, particularly if they use their cell phone as their GPS.

 

I am no expert here (!), but have played around a little in the past. Google Maps stores route files in KML format, and Google Earth uses KMZ file format (which also allows, for example, the embedding of photos). There are ways to make these formats compatible and share files between Google Maps and Google Earth, although some context or capability may be missing. 

There are various websites with info on how to convert and import GPX files into Google Maps, although it seems that this may now only work with a new companion Google product, "Google My Maps" (or just "My Maps"). 

 

A number of websites tout a freeware GPS file format conversion product called GPS Visualizer (there are other conversion apps out there). I have successfully used this on a trial run in the past to load a Google Maps KML route onto my Garmin GPS device (but only the one trial!). I've had other GPS users suggest GPSBabel for conversions of GPS file types to work with different devices (but have not tried this).

It seems that Google Earth, however, can directly import/load GPX tracks, so that would include any tracks I shared. This is great. However, Google Earth (I think) cannot export files as GPX tracks. I assume that it is, however, possible to export as a KML file, and then use a conversion app to convert it to a GPX. 

 

Sharing GPX tracks

This section talks first about different types of saved ride files, and then explains how I share GPX files with viewers who request them for remote rides. I also share for paved rides in common areas, as it can be helpful to have a route reference with details like distance, etc. But for remote rides in the backroads, I consider GPS ride files to be a key safety/navigation tool.

Here's a useful term you'll often hear used: A waypoint is a single geographic point of interest, saved as a lat/long (latitude / longitude) coordinate with a name and description that enables precise placement on a map. If you are using an Edge series GPS device, they call waypoints "locations".

In a number of spots throughout the website, I encourage readers to contact me to get a GPX track if they plan to tackle a remote backroads ride. These tracks are not directly downloadable off the site because: I don't want to subscribe/buy yet another app for the website; and, I had someone get into a little trouble in early days as he was not prepared to go alone off into the bush, and I now like to get a sense folks are at least taking the backroads seriously. 

 

The GPS field is broad, with many products, and unfortunately, many formats are used to save tracks or routes or courses. As discussed above, I use one of Garmin's backwoods GPS devices. My GPSMAP device saves rides into what is called a "track", which is basically a series of waypoints (lat/long points) that are saved every XX minutes and joined together as you ride or hike or drive along (you can adjust how often such points are saved: the more frequently you add points, the quicker you'll drain your battery - on my bike, on longer rides, I set things for saving 'less often').  When viewed on top of a map, a track shows you where you're going, or where you have been. Tracks are saved in *.GPX file format. If I share a GPX track with you, and you load it on your device, it will show you my exact ride track, and it can guide you as you make your way. 

 

Other popular Garmin GPS backwoods series, such as eTrex and Oregon, also save their files as GPX tracks, and these are readily shared. The Garmin GPX files also include time (when each point is saved), speed, distance & elevation for each waypoint within a track. GPS devices from different companies often use GPX format as well. I believe that GPX files are the most shareable file format amongst different GPS makers. Even if added context info is not consistent across different makers, the core series of lat/long points saved over time that make up a track can be loaded onto dozens of different devices and applications. 

I noted above that Garmin also makes the whole EDGE family of sport & fitness oriented GPS devices (and compatible Fenix watches) that include a host of added context, including such things as popup directions, cadence, pace, heart rate, workouts, etc. To manage this added content, these devices save files in a TCX format, and call them 'courses' vs 'tracks'.

For those who like things more technical, GPX track files are saved in an XML language format within a strict schema. Early Edge devices (*.205 & *.305 series) saved courses in *.crs (course) format. With the more recent Forerunner310XT, Edge500 & Edge800 devices, Garmin introduced the ".fit" format, which is a binary format (no longer XML). 

I emailed Garmin (they have a pretty impressive customer support philosophy) to ask about compatibility between devices using GPX tracks & those using TCX routes. I've copied several sentances below:

... Either type of file can be shared with another device, and there is no conversion needed ...

... [when connected to your computer]  ... The Edge800 can import from its NewFiles directory .gpx, .tcx, .crs and .fit files. Then it converts them internally into .fit format

A GPX track imported into an Edge will initially appear as a course, but without all the added context that can be saved in the course format for the sport/fitness devices. 

Garmin shared this link to a Garmin discussion forum if you want to read further:

 https://forums.garmin.com/forum/into-sports/cycling/edge-800-aa/21178-difference-between-course-and-route?postcount=3

So, I can share GPX track files that I have saved on my Garmin GPSMAP 64ST GPS device. These should be possible to load onto any Garmin GPS devices, although if you load them onto EDGE devices, you will only see the track, and not all the context you may be used to seeing. If you are loading the GPX files onto another outdoors series GPS device (eTrex, GPSMAP, Oregon, etc.), things should be even more straight forward. To enable sharing & loading, one can use bluetooth (device to device), or connect to a computer with Basecamp (see more on how to do this after the pic below)

 

How to share & receive a GPX track

If we were together in the same room with our Garmin GPS devices, and I had loaded the track you are interested in onto my device, we could use Bluetooth to share the GPX file. More often, I link my GPS to my computer via the USB port, and use Basecamp (Garmin freeware I have uploaded) to choose a small number of tracks for loading onto my GPS device at any given time, so things don't get too cluttered and slowed down.

I am unsure whether it is possible for me to share GPX tracks with someone who is using a different GPS device maker - that is, not a Garmin. It may be necessary to use Basecamp on your computer as part of this sharing process. That said, I would not be surprised if other GPS makers have similar computer applications that would recognize a common GPX file format for import.

Every time I get back from a ride, I load any new tracks and waypoints onto my computer using Basecamp. Once I connect my 64ST via the USB port, I can share my device's new tracks & waypoints. I can also download new tracks and waypoints onto my device from my computer, by clicking on either the input or output arrow from the top left of the Basecamp application screen (see screen pic below). 

I have been successfully sharing GPX tracks files with site visitors as email attachments. I use google mail, so the attached files are usually saved on the cloud and you need to click on download to bring them into the download folder on your computer. 

Once you downoad a GPX file I have sent you onto your computer, you can then import this file into Basecamp (see red oval in pic below, & instructions). And from Basecamp, following again the instructions above, you can export/load GPX tracks onto your device.

As my Edge (which generally works with TCX files) is compatible with Basecamp, I can also load GPX tracks from my 64ST device onto the Edge. These tracks will not have all the added context of a standard Edge TCX course, but the core of the track - the route based on the lat / long points over time, will be usable on the Edge.

That's it for now (whew).  Feedback and guidance would be welcome to help me tighten this page up, and ensure I understand everything correctly.

Caution - Safety First:

This website does not encourage anyone to undertake activities in the backwoods without considering fully issues of safety, access and readiness. There are no guarantees with any information provided in this website.  Please read  the FAQs, research further as appropriate, and use your judgement at all times