Sunday, March 18, 2012

Handheld GPS 101: Tracks

This is the third in a series of posts designed to help introduce beginners to the use of handheld GPS receivers.

GPS-101-tracksTracks are a record of where you’ve been. People often use the term “breadcrumb trail,” a la Hansel and Gretel, to describe tracks. Your GPS receiver creates this record as you go along, allowing you to follow the electronic breadcrumb trail back to your starting point. A sample track is shown at left. A hike of a few miles can have 1,000 or more track points, which make up the track (also known as the tracklog — and if you guessed that’s where this site got its name, you’re right!).

Once you return from your outing, most handheld GPS receivers allow you to download the track to your computer. With mapping software, you can view your track on a topo map or aerial photo.


Your GPS probably has a trackback function, allowing you to navigate back along the track. Various brands may differ in how they handle this, but generally speaking, it takes a few dozen of the most significant trackpoints and creates a route from them.

To be honest, I’ve never found this feature to be very useful. Having the GPS tell me there is another turn in the trail ahead, which I can see right in front of me, just isn’t that helpful.

Here’s an alternative way to use the track to navigate back to your starting point: Let’s say you’re taking an out and back hike. To me, it’s much more useful to view the map screen, showing the track created before the turn around point. Keeping an eye on your progress on the screen, you can verify that you haven’t gotten off the trail or made a wrong turn. I’ll qualify this by saying that the trackback feature may be more useful in certain conditions, such as when visibility is limited – just don’t walk off a cliff!

Homework: Take a look at your GPS receiver and familiarize yourself with the track options and settings. Make sure that track recording is enabled.

Tracks 201

You can load other people’s tracks to your GPS, giving you an accurate trail to follow on your screen. There are many services that allow you to download such files; two with extensive libraries are EveryTrail and Garmin Connect. Another good way to find these tracks is to search online for .gpx (a standardized GPS file format) and the name of the park or trail you are looking for. The Flint Creek track in the image above actually came from the Carolina Mountain Club website. Such tracks are often more accurate than printed trail maps and are a good way to estimate trip length ahead of a hike.

Other posts in this series:

About Rich Owings

Rich is the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer for GPS Tracklog. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus.


  1. gatorguy says:

    A great series and a huge help to those us somewhat new to off-road navigation (that includes me). It takes a lot of time and effort to do articles like this. I, for one, appreciate it. Thanks Rich!

  2. Nice avatar dude!

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. I’m certainly having fun writing it. Let’s me spend more time on the backcountry stuff, which is what I really enjoy.

  3. tmwitkemper says:

    This is a great idea to offer a guide for beginners. I love the posts so far. Keep them coming.

  4. Jose Badilla says:

    Other website in which you can download tracks as gpx files is Wikiloc. Wikiloc shared tracks appear as a layer in Google Earth Gallery. With the latest Garmin Oregon firmware updates, when following a track, you can look at the altitude profile, a green area showing the part you have advanced, and in blue the upcoming part yet to be completed. Also, in the active route function, some extra points are generated from the track, such as high and low points, indicating the end of uphill and downhill portions of the track.

  5. Changing the map orientation to “TRACK UP” instead of “NORTH UP” will allow the user to see the track as though it’s coming out of the GPS right on to the ground. This allows the user to orient themselves better to following the track.

  6. This is true for many people. But some folks who study maps carefully still prefer north up. I generally use north up when hiking or mountain biking, and dislike seeing the map orientation constantly changing. I do however use track up in the car or when geocaching.

    • Ed Robison says:

      I agree about not using track up when following a route. A constantly reorienting map can at the very least be irritating and at worst disorienting and potentially dangerous.
      On my own Garmin Map 60CSx, when doing a point to point basic navigation–or on a route– I generally set the compass page (with the magnetic compass turned off) right next to the map page and toggle back and forth. I find the compass with that big red arrow pointing to the waypoint sorta reassuring.

  7. I’m learning a lot reading through these pages. I’ve read that Garmin GPS units strip timestamps from saved tracks, making them useless for geotagging photos. Are there any manufacturers/models that retain timestamps?

  8. Chris Picard says:

    I love your site, Rich. I was always on it a year ago when I purchased my Oregon 450. Now a bit more in the woods but I’m coming back searching informations after a full mtb season. I have tracks of all my rides, downloaded in BaseCamp. When I go out for a particular area, I must upload the tracks that went there, to help me orient once there. Also I must switch to “Show on map” one by one the tracks. Not funny.
    I would like to create a map with all the tracks, a kind of translucent map with just the tracks in it, and just having to activate it when needed. I know the way to do it is written somewhere, but I don’t find it. Please point me toward it. Also I have a Mac, I’m sure it will stops some ways that require using a PC software. If a PC is the only way tell me anyway, I will work on having access to one.
    Thank you

  9. Hello,
    I would like to record a full detail track while I am traveling for 2 days nonstop, over 600 miles with Montana 650.
    I will carry extra batts to cover whole trip.
    Please advise me what is the best setup for this track.

  10. Doug Cornett says:

    Ok, that really helps a lot. I used my new Dakota 20 on Saturday for a hike but just added waypoints as I went along. I didn’t know I could set it to record tracks and not have to worry about adding them myself. Now, how do I get the red arrow to show up on the compass to bring me back home safely???? I was able to transfer the track to Basecamp when I got home and view it on Google Earth. Pretty sweet!


  11. Bryce Covington says:

    Any way to get the ETA to a waypoint “along the track” as opposed to the ETA “as the crow flies?”
    When following a 9 mile track, with the destination waypoint 5 miles away as the crow flies, the distance will show 5 miles. I’d like it to tell me how much further I have to go on the track. Ideas? Using the Garmin etrex Venture HC and a new Oregon 450.

  12. Carol Paddle says:

    Once I have a track of a paddle I have done, how do I save it on my GPS so I can bring it up again when I want to do that paddle again? Thanks

  13. Have Garmin Oregon 550 use Base Camp software. When the GPS is plugged into the PC the GPS goes to transfer mode which shuts down the GPS tracking function. I’d like to connect GPS to laptop PC and have live tracking show on the pc screen. Anyway to achieve this with my current GPS? Or any other GPS for that matter? Thanks

  14. Biff Granola says:

    I have been climbing into canyons and climbing mountains and you ask what good is a track back when you can just walk on the trail. Are you serious, i do cross county all the time and there are no trails.

    • For you personally then there would be no benefit to it. Ro others who find themselves on unfamiliar trails with multiple forks, or perhaps no immediately obvious trail whatsoever, rtck back could be pretty useful, especially so in failing light.

      So yea it can be a SERIOUS benefit for other trekkers even if you can’t ever imagine using it.
      And by the way you are commenting in a 7 year old thread. 🙂

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