Trip Planning with GPS and Google Earth

Google Earth Burnie

Tom Wolfe, Mountain Guide, ACMG/IFMGA

Last edited: September 27, 2018

This document was used as a handout for several Continuing Professional Development sessions I conducted for the ACMG, 2012-15. A lot has changed over the years with respect to digital mapping technology, most notably the usability of smartphones as navigational tools. However, just as GPS units did not render a paper map and compass obsolete, neither do Smartphones, despite their convenience, render GPS units obsolete. This summer’s Disaster in the Alps, is a perfect case study: 10 skiers, led by a mountain guide, got lost in a whiteout as a result of relying on a Smartphone that failed to perform.

This article doesn’t have a lot of detail, but despite being dated it gives a valuable overview that should help you link the high-tech features of Google Earth and Smartphones with the old(er)-school robust reliability and performance of a Garmin GPS unit. If you have any questions at all please feel free to contact me via my Contact Form.

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If you like this one you light also like my article on how to make your own topo maps! But now let’s get started with Google Earth and GPSes…


You can download the necessary software from my website, but it’s a bit dated — you are advised to hunt down the latest versions.

Traditional vs. digital route planning

Traditional:  Create list of waypoints by hand with approximate MGRS coordinates (6-digit UTMs); Enter these manually into a GPS

  • pros: creates an intimacy with the maps
  • cons: very tedious and time-consuming, subject to user error as well as inadequacies in the map representation; (e.g. Map Datum, UTM conversion and entry)

Digital, e.g. Ozi Explorer: Import NTS mapsheets (proprietary or free via GeoGratis); Click to create tracks; Export tracks to GPS unit

  • pros: quick, visual, GUI, accurate – minimises user error
  • cons: no sense of the actually geography (land cover, micro terrain steepness), organisation is a challenge

Google Earth

What is Google Earth?

Google Earth (GE) is extremely accurate and allows for precise route planning that, like Ozi Explorer, is as easy as point and click but with the benefits of 3D View and many organisational tools. The end result is a route plan that will be much more useful than one created with an NTS map for anything from onsight navigation in complicated terrain (e.g. downhill ski guiding) to full whiteout navigation (traverses across icefields). Crevasses and cliffbands can be avoided; direct navigation to hidden gullies or notches becomes possible; old school “handrailing” becomes completely obsolete. Precise navigation that is remarkably close to best-case, good visibility navigation becomes possible with zero visibility.

Quick introduction to using GE:

Arrow keys: pan

Page Up/Page Down vs and = keys: zoom

SHIFT + arrows = rotate point of view on lever to center of 3D view (to gain a different perspective of geographical point)

CTRL + arrows = tilt/spin stationary point of view (to “look around” from a stationary point)

Sidebar: Search (pretty good way to find places), My Places (where you store your work), Layers (turn on and off geographical information that comes with GE)

How to position/zoom to one of your “My Places”: Double click

File Formats: .kml, .kmz and .gpx – different file formats for GIS information

Trip Planning with Google Earth

Setting up GE – change settings to metric, UTM

  • Tools > Options > 3D View > Show Lat/Long, Units of Measurement

How to use the Path tool to create a new Path

  • Add > Path (CTRL+SHIFT+T or Path Tool from Toolbar)

How to view Path Properties

  • Right-Click on a Path (on the sidebar or on the 3D View) and select “Properties”

How to edit paths (create, move, delete, add points)

Note: OpenGL vs DirectX – OpenGL is the default for modern graphics cards and works the best. DirectX path nodes are invisible, making it hard to edit paths. DirectX might be the only option available for older computers.

  • Open the Path Properties dialogue box (right click > Properties)
  • Hover over a “node” (a node = “waypoint” and is the joint between Path “legs”) to focus on a node. It will change colour (green) and the cursor changes to a “Hand” icon indicating that the focus is on the node.
  • Click the mouse to activate the node for editing.
  • To delete a node: Press the “Delete” button on the keyboard or the right mouse button
  • To move a node: Click-and-drag the mouse to change its position.
  • To undo changes: Press the “Cancel” button on the Properties dialogue box
  • To save changes: Press the “OK” button on the Properties dialogue box

Other Properties settings for Paths

  • Style: Colour, Width, Opacity (useful for organisation)
  • Measurements: Shows total length of path

How to organise Paths (My Places)

  • Drag and Drop
  • Copy and Paste
  • Delete
  • Can’t multiple select 🙁

How to export and share Paths as .kml or .kmz files

  • From GE, right-click on Path (either 3D View or Sidebar list), “Save Place As”, select “.kml” as file format for best compatibility (although Basecamp now supports .kmz files)

How to export and convert paths to .gpx format: Basecamp,

  • Basecamp – Create a new working Folder in the “My Collection” folder; File > Import into “My Collection”; browse for .kml file; import. This imports your .kml Path into Basecamp as a “Track”. Now to save as a .gpx: Click on Track to select it, then File > Export > Export ‘name of Track’; select “.gpx” as your export file format.
  • – another way of converting paths kml <> gpx, an online tool
  1. Using paths (aka tracks) with Garmin GPS

How to import the .gpx files onto your GPS :

  • Basecamp: Click on the track you wish to export; Click on Send to GPS button (top toolbar)
  • Drag and Drop .gpx file straight into your Garmin folder (Garmin/GPX)

Importing GPS data into Google Earth

  • Basecamp: File > Export > Export ‘name of Track’; select “.kml” as your export format. Open this with GE.
  • Drag and Drop the track (saved as a .gpx file on your GPS) from Garmin’s waypoint/track folder (Garmin/GPX) to GE; file will be automatically converted.

Let’s see if it works

Note: This was written for a location in Canmore, AB (Elevation Place) but adapt this for an area near where you live – just outside your house works fine.

  • Open GE and in the “Search” bar (top left) enter “Elevation Place”
  • Unfortunately the imagery isn’t recent enough to show the Elevation Place, but it does show the nearby Provincial Building
  • Create a Path that takes us around the well-defined corners of the parking lot and Provincial building. Make at least a dozen legs, something that will put this thing to the test
  • Give the Path a new name “Provincial Building” and save it in a location in your “My Places” folder so that everything stays nice and tidy.
  • Export it to a folder on your computer and call it “ProvincialBuilding.kml”
  • Open Basecamp. Create a new folder in Basecamp to keep things organised.
  • Import the “ProvincialBuilding.kml” Path file into Basecamp, which converts it to a Track.
  • Finally, export this Track as a .gpx file and call it “ProvincialBuilding.gpx”
  • Send the Track to your GPS unit whichever way you prefer
  • Now disconnect your GPS and get it to take you for a walk along the track you just created. See for yourself how accurate it is. You should be within a few metres of the points you created.

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