How To Make A Trail Map Using Google Earth

What You Need

The Garmin GPSMAP 60Cx that I used to make my trail map. It's a multipurpose GPS that I also use on my boat and in my car.   The Sony ICD-SX46 digital voice recorder that I used to take notes in the field. It seems to me that the unit is designed for right-hand operation, since the record and stop buttons are directly under your thumb.

What you need:

GPS Receiver

Here are some tips about what type of GPS receiver to use (I use a Garmin GPSMAP 60Cx):

Digital Camera

You use the digital camera for two purposes: to take pictures of points of interest that you plan to feature on your trail map, and to take pictures of the trail environment, including its twists and turns. The idea is to capture the "context" of the trail—that is, its relationship to the surrounding terrain. Later on when you create the map using Google Earth, you can refer to the photographs while viewing the Google imagery to get a better idea of where to draw the trail or placemark.

Any type of digital camera will do. It helps to have a zoom lens that goes from moderate wide-angle to moderate telephoto. The camera should have a big enough memory card to store a couple hundred pictures, since if you walk a long and twisty-turny trail, you might wind up taking lots of pictures.

Note-Taking In The Field

While you're walking around capturing GPS data and photographs, you'll need some way to take notes. For example, when you capture waypoints at trail intersections or points of interest, you need to remember the purpose of each waypoint. Also, if you spot new trails or points of interest that you need to revisit, you need to remember that, too. You can also take notes about special trail conditions, locations of fences and gates, information from signs that you come across, etc.

I used a digital voice recorder to take notes, which I found to be very convenient in the field. I used a Sony ICD-SX46, which is very small and easy to use without looking at the buttons (once you get used to it). The sound quality is good enough that I also use it to record bird calls, gurgling streams, peeping frogs, and other sounds of nature, which are fun to listen to back at the computer. The voice recorder came with a software program that installed on my PC to download the voice files from the recorder to the PC (via a miniature USB connector) as well as to play back the voice files. Each voice file name has a date/time stamp that allows you to correlate the voice notes with the photographs and GPS information, which also have a date/time stamp.

Once I get back to the computer and download the voice files, I play them back and manually transcribe them into a text file. I think it's easier to view a single text file rather than playing back multiple voice comments every time I need to refer to them.

Unfortunately, the voice recorder couldn't be configured for NiMH rechargeable batteries, which is a shame. If you try to use NiMH batteries, the battery readout indicates that the batteries are nearly dead, even if they are freshly charged. This is because NiMH batteries have a lower output voltage than regular alkaline batteries.

Google Earth Plus

If you don't already have this version of Google Earth, go ahead and pay $20 a year to get a license key. It uses the same run-time version of Google Earth, so there's nothing else to download. The Plus version allows you to easily download track logs and waypoints from a GPS right into Google Earth, then the information displays properly on the screen. It's possible to use the free version of Google Earth if you use some other program to download the GPS data and convert it into a kmz file that Google Earth can read (for example, GPS Visualizer).

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