GPS Enabled Trail Maps




Introduction: GPS Enabled Trail Maps

How to use a handheld GPS unit to create some really nice maps of mountain bike or hiking trails.

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Step 1: Tools You Will Need

Buy or borrow a handheld GPS unit with a data transfer cable. The key features to look for are the ability to add waypoints and to add notations to those waypoints. You will also need software to transfer your tracks and waypoints to your computer. I highly recommend Topofusion, and the following steps are specific to it, although they should be similar in other programs. To layout your maps you will need a layput program, I use Adobe Indesign CS2, you might be able to use a word processor as an alternative.

Step 2: Topofusion Software

Available from Allows you to download GPS tracks and waypoints. Overlays tracks onto topo maps and satellite images pulled from the web. Gives you mileage, elevation profiles, speed, slope, time, and all kinds of good geeky stuff. Even allows you to create trail networks and run multi-use trail simulations.

Step 3: InDesign

Good layout software. Available from Adobe, part of CS2 as well. Very useful for creating a master layout and then easily adding images and text. There are other alternatives out there, use whatever you like.

Step 4: Go for a Ride, or a HIke!

First I like to clear the memory on my GPS so I don't have to do any editing later. Start your GPS at the trailhead and mark it with a waypoint, add a comment "trailhead" to the waypoint. Now go for a ride and mark each intersection or important feature with a waypoint and a comment. I use abbreviations like "TL" for turn left at the tee. Make sure you don't lose the signal or you can get jumps in the track. When you are done turn the unit off ASAP.

Step 5: Download Track Into Computer

Use Topofusion, shown here, or your chosen program to download the track of your trail. You can set a number of things like track color and the like to what you prefer.

Step 6: Download Waypoints to Your Computer

Using the same software, download your waypoints. They should come up at the bottom as a separate file and show up as squares. I usually turn the preference to "symbol" so that the waypoint names do not obscure the map.

Step 7: Export Waypoints to Spreadsheet Format

Topofusion very kindly added this feature for me. Select the waypoint file from the bottom of the screen and rightclick "save as" and select ".svg". Now you can open it in a program like Excel.

Step 8: Add Notes to Spreadsheet File As You Like

I like to add notes like "onto the rocky singletrack" to my spreadsheet. I use these to fill in the descriptions on my final map. I usually just do these from memory. You could also take a notepad and make these notes as you ride and note which number waypoint they go to.

Step 9: Export Map View

Position the track and map how you want them to appear on your final map. Choose either topographical or satellite views and scale. Remember that you will be cropping these to fit your map layout so you want to leave some bleed. Select "export view" from the file menu and save the map. You might want to play around with layouts and even save some versions with waypoint names or comments showing, it can make putting your map together easier.

Step 10: Crop Map Image

Open your exported map image and crop it to fit on your map layout.

Step 11: Create Your Master Map Layout

I choose to create a two sided format that makes a map that fits perfectly in a cycling jersey pocket, with enough sticking out to easily grab it. My template has the trail name and location on both sides, directions to the trailhead on the front along with the topo map. On the back there are arrows, mileage, GPS coordinates, waypoint descriptions, and an overall trail description. Both sides have the logo for our local trail group. The more you layout on your master, the easier it will be to make more maps later.

Step 12: Add Your Map Image and Number the Waypoints

Insert the map image you have edited, and make sure not to distort it. Add numbers to indicate the waypoints. You might also want to note features on the map. Many of my maps fit better with North to the side, I just add a compass mark to these.

Step 13: Make Arrow Symbols

I made a catalog of arrow symbols in Illustrator to use as an added visual aid.

Step 14: Add Arrow Symbols

Add arrow symbols to your descriptions of the waypoints, I use my spreadsheet for reference.

Step 15: Add Descriptions

Add descriptions to your waypoints, these are very useful to people who will be using your map without GPS. Try to be descriptive. For example: "Turn Left at the Y, after you go down the steep singletrack with loose rocks".

Step 16: Add GPS Coordinates, Mileage, Trail Overview, and Directions to Trailhead

Add the GPS coordinates from your spreadsheet, either cut and paste or manually enter them. Add in the mileage to each waypoint from the beginning. You can use the elevation profile tool in Topofusion to get pretty close. This is useful for people using your map who have cycle-computers. Finally add written directions to the trailhead and an overview of the trail. I like to describe the terrain, the total mileage, the elevation gain, and maybe a little history.

Step 17: Finished! Now Get Them Out to Other People.

Your map is done! Now figure out how you want to distribute them. In the spirit of openness I make PDF copies of mine freely available to people who join our trail group, who's membership is free.
If you email me I might even send you a copy of my page layout master. Happy trails!

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    6 Discussions


    11 years ago on Step 12

    I love the map. I'm working on my eagle scout project mapping our local trails and was wondering if you could send me your master layout and anything that might be helpful. Please e-mail me at Thanks!


    11 years ago on Step 5

    I do something similar but I use OziExplorer CE running on my automotive GPS. I use scanned in maps and calibrate them using coordinates obtained from either Google Earth or USGS quad maps. If you can get a couple of good calibration points at locations near the opposite corners of the map, this is generally good enough. You can do the calibration in a Desktop PC version of Ozi but I have a spreadsheet application that writes the map calibration data in the proper format. OziExplorer is highly configurable so you can create your own screen configurations that contain maps with tracking and nearby waypoints, electronic compasses, distances to next waypoints, etc, etc. As such it is great for hiking or geocaching. Ozi runs on various platforms so if your'e intrested in trying it, you have to check their website to see if your device is supported.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Spent many years in the woods and other unimproved areas of the world. I always take my lensatic compass, a topographical map of where I'm going to be, and a small mini mag light, to find my way around. Best of all they don't run on batteries, (except for the Mini Mag Light), and work under all weather conditions. As a kid I was taught to navigate by old school woodsmen under actual conditions. Nothing against GPS I think they're wonderful tools, and have tried them out a few times. When things go from bad to worst and your miles away from civilization. It's nice to know you can find your way out using tried and true old school navigation techniques.

    Nathan Cloud
    Nathan Cloud

    13 years ago

    Nice work! I am a big fan of topofusion myself, the software does not get much better if you are a mountain biker. Did some biking at Jim Thorpe a few years back, great place!

    And now for a little self promotion since I run a mountain biking website with a focus on GPS mapping - if you are ever looking to share GPS data, check out


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    And if you do like to share GPS traces of trails and the like, please upload the trace(s) to Open Street Map as well.