Sunday, March 18, 2012

Researchers Investigate Scenic Route Options for GPS


Beauty Routes

New route options, such as most beautiful, quiet or happy paths may be coming to online mapping programs.

When you search for a route using your GPS device or an application like Google Maps, you have several options for what kind of a path you want—walking, cycling, fastest, shortest—but what if you could plot the most beautiful route as well? Yahoo Researchers have conducted a study proposing methods for selecting the most scenic route to get from point A to B instead of just the fastest.

“We find that, on average, the recommended paths are only 12% longer,” the study states. In  walking time, that would equal to about 7 minutes extra time in order to take the more scenic route.

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Ten reasons TopoFusion rocks


TopoFusion is my go-to program for planning and tracking backcountry adventures. It’s typically the program I turn to first and there is rarely a day that goes by without me using it. Here are ten reasons that TopoFusion rocks:

1. The ability to toggle between USGS topo maps, aerial photos and hybrid imagery

All you have to do is tap “a” on the keyboard to toggle between these views. The TerraServer aerial imagery includes B/W U.S. coverage to 1 meter/pixel and color urban coverage to 0.25 meters/pixel. TopoFusion also accesses Canadian topos, TIGER street maps and worldwide LandSat imagery. The color urban imagery below is of salt ponds at the south end of the San Francisco Bay (16 meters/pixel).


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National Geographic TOPO! moves to Web – adds aerial photos and trails database


National Geographic TOPO!, a long-standing favorite mapping application, has announced that they will soon be debuting a new Internet-based application. New features will include aerial photos and hybrid imagery that blends aerial photos with contour lines (screen shot above).

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An obsession with maps

Years ago, long before I got my first GPS, I came across a map of U.S. counties, and I started using it to record my travels.  Over the years, that map became tattered and torn — "loved to death" as it were. Paper versions are still available, but it really needed to be replaced by the digital variety. So I was thrilled when Free Geography Tools recently wrote about Color Your Map, which allows you to color countries of the world, U.S. states, or counties within a state, and view them in Google Earth. So I assembled 50 files; you can see the results of 48 of them below.


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Transfer Google Maps data to your GPS, best known as a source for nautical data, has announced a new service and website —, which allows you to transfer Google Maps data and KML files directly to Garmin receivers, or download them as GPX files. The site utilizes the new Garmin Communicator plugin.

I just gave it a try and it worked very well. Output can be downloaded as waypoints, tracks and routes. The team there has put together a great video (shown below, after the jump) that does an excellent job of showing you how. It’s really pretty simple.

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What mountains are those on the horizon (and how can I get waypoints of them)?

Though I live by the sea, I’m a mountain lover at heart. There’s nothing more exhilarating for me than peak-bagging, and once I’m there, there’s nothing as fun as looking off to the horizon, and figuring out what peaks I’m seeing. Well that just got easier, thanks to a new Google Maps mashup titled Hey, what’s that?

Plugging in your favorite peak is easy. Simply go to the New Panorama tab and navigate via the map interface to the peak of your choice. A planned future addition is to have peak names show up on the map interface to help you navigate once you get close. For now, you can use the map, satellite imagery and the Contours button. Once you get close, there is a button that allows you to fine tune your location, automatically choosing the nearest high point. After that, all you really have to do is name your map, which you can make public. That’s what I did with Cahto Peak, California.

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Live traffic – for free!

Google announced today that they are adding live traffic to Google Maps. Now you can’t use this on your PND, but it is available on some GPS cell phones via Google Mobile.

This has me wondering about Google’s economic model (give stuff away, make a killing on ads) and the coming cell phone GPS vs. PND wars. Using your cell phone as a GPS is nothing like the experience of a dedicated, decent sized touch-screen device and, while cell phones may take some market share (those folks with only rare or occasional navigation needs), I’ve thought that there is still plenty of room for growth in the PND market.


But Garmin and others better take a close look at this. I wonder how long it will be before a GPS manufacturer comes out with a dual model — pay for traffic services, or get them for free in exchange for seeing location based ads.

Free traffic and satellite photos is a pretty good deal. And while I haven’t found out what traffic service provider Google is using, their coverage appears to be good too. I routinely drive through Santa Rosa, CA, and live traffic reports have yet to show up on my nuvi 660, but here it is on Google Maps.

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GPS data search tool

Google recently announced their custom search engine tool. I didn’t really see how I would use it at first; then I thought about creating a search engine designed to go after GPS data. After all, I find myself searching for it often for trip planning. So give it a try, perhaps with the name of a popular trail or a geographical area: 


Search for waypoints, tracks, POI’s, maps and aerial imagery

I’ve included over 30 sources so far, including National Geographic TOPO!’s MapXchange, the TOPO USA file exchange, MotionBased, several points of interest (POIs) sites, a great U.S. DRG resource, sites with free Garmin maps, aerial photos, and more. I’ve tried to keep out sites that charge for data, or sites that will return massive numbers of duplicate or irrelevant results. Oh, and if you find yourself dealing with data types that your software won’t handle, check out a GPS file converter.

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Free topos and aerial photos: USAPhotoMaps


Everybody loves stuff they can get for free, right? Especially if it is way cool and quite useful. Well, USAPhotoMaps fits the bill. Created by Doug Cox, USAPhotoMaps is TerraServer-based, just like TopoFusion. And just like TopoFusion, you can look at aerial photos or topo maps of just about any location in the U.S. For some urban areas, you can even view color aerial photos down to 0.25 meters/pixel (see below left)!

One of the ways I’ve used USAPhotoMaps is to locate newer 4WD roads that don’t appear on topo maps, which are usually much Usaphotomaps_color_urban_aerialolder than USGS aerial photos. In the image on the right below, I’ve drawn a track along a logging road. To the left below, you can see how I’ve been able to update a topo map with the hand-drawn track.

One of the other great things about USAPhotoMaps, is that Doug Cox just keeps updating it, adding new features and keeping it current.

USAPhotoMaps does lack some features, but all in all, it’s a great program, and you sure can’t beat the price. I believe it is Usa_photo_3particularly useful for people new to the world of GPS, who may not be ready to lay out money for mapping software and aren’t quite sure what all they can do with it. If you’ve never transferred your track to your computer, to view it on an aerial photo, you’ve got a treat coming. And now you don’t have any excuse not to!

There is a full chapter on USAPhotoMaps in my book, GPS Mapping – Make Your Own Maps.

Other posts in this series:

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Downloading tracks to your GPS for navigation


I returned a couple of days ago from a week long mountain biking vacation at Lake Tahoe and Downieville, California. I had wanted to ride many of these trails for years and since I had not ridden them before, prior to going I downloaded tracks that others had posted online. Most of them came from MotionBased, although I did get a file of the Tahoe Rim Trail from National Geographic TOPO!‘s mapXchange. Tracks from the latter are much easier to use now (even for non-TOPO owners), thanks to the newly minted ability of GPSBabel to convert .tpo track files from TOPO!

So I layered the downloaded tracks and waypoints on maps I then printed with TOPO!, constructed routes, transferred maps and tracks to my GPS, etc. But once on the trail, I was reminded what a useful tool these pre-loaded tracks are for navigation, especially when you are moving fast on a bike. The image at the left is one such track. Notice that I set the track color to blue.

The screen image to the right gives you an idea what this looks like in the field, as my actual track (in red) overlays the pre-loaded track as I progress along the trail. (These are reconstructed images, so the current position cursor is missing; I did not take my laptop on the ride to do screen captures!) With this sort of setup, it’s easy to see at a glance if you’ve taken a wrong turn.

Now I do have a few caveats:

  • This is no substitute for conventional navigation.
  • The downloaded tracks are representations of someone else’s experience, and may include a wildly inaccurate track, wrong turns, etc.
  • Check to be sure that the downloaded track matches up to written trail descriptions and maps of the route that you are planning to take.

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