Fun With GPS

Today I went for a walk in at Fish Creek Provincial Park with a friend and I brought my GPS receiver (GPSr) along. I almost always run my GPSr when walking, cycling, or canoeing — even in familiar areas. My friend was curious so I shared my thoughts on GPS, the benefits of non-commercial maps and my enthusiasm for geocaching, geotagging, navigation, athletic training, etc.

I wanted to share today’s GPS track and data with my friend. I thought I would make it even more useful by sharing it here, as I think it is a good explanation of why I like using a GPS to record my adventures (no matter how close-to-home or seemingly insignificant).

Fish Creek - Trees Fish Creek - Cattails

Cheap GPS

When I first bought my GPS, I made it a goal not to pay for maps. I had three reasons for this:

  1. commercial maps are expensive (and, from what I have heard, often not very good quality);
  2. I believe that map data from government sources should be freely available to citizens (i.e., it was already paid for with taxes);
  3. Open Source maps, updated and prepared by millions of people, are better than most commercial maps, and more up-to-date than most government data.

Free and Almost Free Maps

I have a Garmin eTrex 30 GPSr and use the following free maps:

I also subscribe to because I think the operator does a worthwhile service packaging up OpenStreetMap based mountain biking maps.

My wife just complete a canoe trip along the Gulf coast in the Florida’s Everglades National Park. Before she left I found a free Florida topographic map that contained depth soundings for the area she was going to be in. Just today I discover OpenSeaMap, an open source initiative to provide free global nautical charts — they have Garmin downloads, but I haven’t tried them out yet. Looks interesting.

Of course, each map source provides different features. There is no ideal map — the best map to use will depend on your activity.

(Not strictly GPS related, but I today I also discovered OpenWeatherMap — an Open Source weather mapping initiative. See the embedded sample at the bottom of this post. Just yesterday I completed the build of a Phidgets-based weather station. I will have to look at OpenWeatherMap in more depth.)

BaseCamp - Global Base Map
Global Base Map
BaseCamp - Ibycus Topo 3.2
Ibycus Topo 3.2
BaseCamp - OpenMTB Map
OpenMTB Map
BaseCamp - OSM Cycle Map
OSM Cycle Map
BaseCamp - OSM Generic
OSM Generic
BaseCamp - Southern Alberta Tail Maps
Southern Alberta Tail Maps

Track Data

As you can see in the above screen shots, once you get home it is easy to review the GPS track (recording of where you went with the GPSr), but what else can you do with such a track? Well, I like to take a look at the speed and elevation plots of the track just to get a sense of of my performance, especially after a bike ride. I don’t use my GPSr as a religious training tool, though a lot of athletes do. I also use the track data to geotag any photos I take on my adventures. I use PhotoLinker to merge my track location data with any un-geotagged photos. In the case of today’s walk, I only shot a few photos with my iPhone, so those were already geotagged by the camera.

Here is the track data from today’s walk:

  • GPX (GPS Exchange format — compatible with most GPS receivers and software)
  • KML (Google Earth file)

(Note: Below, the second spike in the Speed graph up to 8 km/h, is me sliding on my butt down a frozen, mossy, leaf covered hill in the trees then coming to a sudden stop with my feet against a log just before I would have hit a tree. The dangers of walking on icy, north facing trails never ends. The subsequent lull in movement for 15 minutes is my GPSr sitting idle under the aforementioned log while my friend and I continued our walk, unaware that the GPSr had been ripped off my belt. When I realized it was missing we knew exactly where to look for it. Previously, I always carried my GPSr in a pocket or in my pack, and I will do so from now on. The first spike might be an error, because I don’t ever remember running that fast — and I only fell down a hill once.)

Graph Plot - Track Points
Track Points
Graph Plot - Speed
Graph Plot - Elevation


Geocaching is a great way to get familiar with a new GPSr. If you expect your GPSr to save your butt on a glacier in a whiteout, then its use better be like second-nature to you. Geocaching is also a fun hobby in its own right. When I go looking for geocaches I always learn something new about an area — wether it is half-way around the globe or in my own back yard — even if I don’t actually find the cache I am looking for (which happens quite often). Today, I didn’t have geocaches in Fish Creek Park loaded on my GPSr, so I just used the Geocaching iOS app, which is a great place to start if you just want to try out geocaching but don’t own a dedicated GPSr.

Geocaching iOS App

I Heart GPS

I’ve written a bit more about GPS in the past, so feel free to review those ramblings if you are so interested.

I Heart My GPS Button

[osm_map lat=”50.999″ long=”-113.995″ zoom=”6″ width=”600″ height=”450″ type=”OpenWeatherMap”]