We Can All Make Good Maps

First published in the NATRC Summer 2014 Hoof Print.

I’ve been making a number of the ride maps in NATRC Region 3 for several years now, and my wife and I are managing our third ride this year. We’ve found good maps with accurate distances and good timing make for happy competitors. I’ve also put on a couple GPS clinics aimed at how NATRC riders can use a GPS on the trail. This has lead to a number of questions about “what GPS I recommend”, and “how can I make a better map for my ride.” I will try to address some these questions here.
I personally use a combination of free, inexpensive, and professional (expensive) mapping software. The professional software helps me make the maps prettier, but it is not required to make a good map. There are an number of good free an inexpensive tools available that anyone can use and get good results.
To have a good map, it really helps to have an accurate trail. With the various GPS tools available today, getting a good track of the trail fairly easy. I like the Garmin etrex Legend/Vista/20/30 models. They are accurate enough, they are durable, and the batteries will last for several days of riding. I always like to carry two GPSs though. Batteries die. GPSs can get a little goofy sometimes. Carrying two has saved me from having to redo rides. Regardless of what GPS you use, make sure you set it to capture the most sample points possible. The difference between the default setting and the finest setting on twisty trails can be 10% to 20%. Using the default settings cause the trail come up short on mileage. If your GPS track reported 20 miles on the default setting, the real trail distance could easily be 22 to 24 miles.

For editing and creating GPS files (*.gpx), I like a program called TopoFusion. It is pretty easy to use and it is not too expensive ($40 basic; $69 pro). It supports a number of background maps: topographic, aerial, satellite, … I use the satellite imagery extensively to fill in gaps where trails are missed, or changes are needed in the trail at the last minute (I can download the imagery onto my laptop and have it all at the ride). With a lot of the satellite imagery out now, even single track trails can be picked out if there’s not too much tree cover. My favorite feature of this program is that it will let you import (or manually create) multiple, overlapping GPS files, average them together and create a network of trail segments. You can then link the segments together in any order that you want, and it will output a new GPS file (*.gpx) or Google Earth file (*.kml, *.kmz) with accurate distances. You can also use this software to make waypoints.

Printing and layout is a bigger problem. TopoFusion’s printing leaves much to be desired. For my work, I use professional mapping software (ESRI ArcMap). It is expensive and not easy to use. It makes great maps though and I use it for our regions maps.

For personal maps, years ago, I used Topo! (sold by National Geographic). It prints very nice maps, but at the time editing trails or importing trails was tricky. I would edit GPS tracks in Garmins MapSource program (BaseCamp is their new free software), load the edited track back onto the GPS, then download it into Topo! I suspect they’ve made it easier by now. The last I saw, this software was selling for $50 per state.

There are some websites that use Google terrain ,USGS topographic, or satellite imagery for base maps that will let you upload GPS (*.gpx) files and Google Earth files (*.kml, *.kmz). An interesting free site I’ve looked at is http://www.gpsvisualizer.com/. It will let you map trails and waypoints. If you import Google Earth files (*.kml or *.kmz) you can specify the trail line color and weight (using Google Earth). This is nice for showing Novice/CP and Open tracks on the same map. If you use a *.gpx waypoint file, you can post labeled points. Below is a basic map created using TopoFusion, Google Earth and gpsvisualizer.com.

willowSpringsMap

The actual map we used for this ride can be downloaded from:
http://www.nearbytrails.com/NATRC/2012/WillowSprings/saturday.9.pdf
Labeling can also be handled afterwards though with various image editors if you get the map into a JPEG or PNG format. I like Hypersnap, but there are many good programs of this type.

For timing tables (see example below), I have a Microsoft Excel macro spreadsheet where I list the timing points, the distance to the point, and the point type (Lunch, P&R, water, timing point), and it creates a table with all the timing figured out. I can then edit the speed on each section, and it will automatically recalculate all the times. This has saved me lots of time and prevented a lot of errors. Let me know if you would like this file. I will send it to you individually.

willowSpringsTiming

Things I think make a good map:

  • Map basics. A north arrow and a scale are always nice.
  • Large text. Many eyes could be sharper. Mine are getting old.
  • Trails made using GPS tracks. Accurate distances and locations enhance rider confidence.
  • If Open and Novice need different maps, mark both trails on each map. If there are different trails being ridden on different days indicate those too (with a different color or line type). When people make a wrong turn, seeing all the trails can really help.
  • Roads marked on the map (with #’s). This information is often good for the drivers moving volunteers and judges around. If a rider has to pull, roads can be shortcuts to camp or a place to get picked up. Emergency services may also need directions to find you.
  • Timing points no more than 4 to 5 miles apart. This makes staying on pace easier.
  • If possible, I like P&R’s to be marked on the map and to be timing points. This takes the guess work out for the riders.
  • In the timing tables, I have columns for the Waypoint name, total distance, interval distance, total time, interval time, and target mph. For lunch and P&R’s I explicitly define the arrival and
    departure times.
  • Color. It is easier to read. I think I usually spend $60-$80 to print 200 color maps (2-days, 60 riders, volunteers, judges).
  • Lat. / Long. coordinates on the edge are nice for people with GPSs. Be clear if you are using decimal degrees or degrees, minutes, seconds.
  • Topographic map backgrounds (1:24000 USGS detail level maps).
  • Try not to let the map get to busy (something I fight with).

I think a good map removes a lot of uncertainty for ride competitors and ultimately makes the rides more enjoyable.

Tips and Tricks to Make a Better Map

First printed in NATRC Region 3 Stirup in 2010.  This is targeted toward NATRC Trail Masters needing to make maps with accurate distances.

Over the years, we have learned a few tricks operating our Garmin GPSs. We hope they will help you make better maps, whether you are putting on a CTR, creating maps for your personal use, or you are a rider and want to more quickly adjust to map mileages that do not agree with your GPS.

We have used several models of Garmin eTrex mapping GPSs (Legend, Vista Cx, and Vista HCx), but the tricks can be applied, we think, to all GPSs. First, let’s highlight the problem we often see with GPS’d maps.

The Problem

On CTR rides we have attended over the last several years, or with trail maps we have created ourselves after roughing in a trail on a topographic map, the mapped trail distances almost always are shorter, often significantly shorter, than what our GPS reports on the ride.  This occurs because the trail we ride is rarely as straight as the one we draw.  Even if the trail is created using an actual GPS breadcrumb track, this still occurs.  For GPSs, the reason seems to be because they have limited storage to save data, and the factory default settings seem to favor saving a little data about a lot of trails, rather than a lot of data about a few trails.

TipsAndTricks.fig1

Pictured here is a small section of trail we recently rode.  We don’t have the original GPS track, but it appears it was made with a sample interval of about one breadcrumb every 60 seconds (simulated here with the blue line).  We have our GPSs set to drop breadcrumbs about every 10 seconds (red line). The blue line shows a much straighter trail whereas the red line is closer to the actual trail path. We can see how the mileage would be too short if we relied on the blue line for our map.  In fact for this ride, the reported distance was 16.2 miles, but our GPSs reported about 18 miles.

Using an actual GPS breadcrumb track and resampling the data, we can demonstrate the issue graphically (see graphs below). To explain the graphs, let’s pretend we are riders in a CTR and have been given a map in our check-in packets. It says our ride is 15.2 miles (point A). As riders, we are never aware as to the frequency of the breadcrumb setting used to create the maps, but for example sake, let’s assume the map was made with the breadcrumb frequency set at 240 seconds (point A on the x-axis),which is an unacceptably slow sample rate. This means GPS breadcrumbs were dropped on average, about every 955 feet (point C). On the second graph, Point B says that riders can average a slow 3.05 mph to finish the ride on time (5:05 ride time, after removing P&R delays). What frequently happens is we end up riding is a very different ride. Here’s why.

TipsAndTricks.fig2 TipsAndTricks.fig3

Had the same map been made with the breadcrumb set every 10 seconds with an average sample spacing of 50′ (point F), that same ride would map and track closer to the actual mileage. Point D tells us the same track has a mileage of almost 18 miles and if we were to accomplish it in the same amount of time, we need to average 3.6 mph (point E).

As riders, we generally discover our problem when we don’t reach our first time point when expected.  We might for example be expecting to arrive at 4.0 miles, but don’t arrive until 4.7 miles.  Assuming we didn’t pick up the pace and we maintained 3.1 mph, would be about 14 minutes behind our target time.

We end up with the same ride taking on a new look. If we assume the 0.7 mile error was just a map error (rare with a GPS’d map) or a GPS glitch, we have a couple hours to make up the time.  If this is a sampling error though, the entire ride is likely to be short by a similar percentage. This changes the 15.2 mile ride with an average speed of 3.05 mph, to a 17.9 mile ride with an average speed of 3.5 mph. This means we have to boogie much faster than 3.5 mph to catch up and then we have to average 3.5 the rest of the ride.

We have seen a number of rides end up being 2-4 miles off which sets a much faster pace than anyone anticipated. This is with GPS’d maps with no obvious errors (e.g. a section not counted).  An advertised slow-timed ride turns out to feel like a race and it is not because the riders did not plan their times in the intervals correctly.

The Solution

We have found two issues that can cause the GPS breadcrumb tracks to be short, and the fixes are easy:

  1. Set your breadcrumb frequency to be as frequent as practical. We set one GPS to leave breadcrumbs every 10 seconds. The other is set to evaluate time and distance between breadcrumbs and it decides when to leave a bread crumb (Auto & Most Often). On Garmin’s, this is set on the “Track Log Setup” screen.   For us, on a 40 mile weekend ride, these methods drop 4,000 – 6,000 breadcrumbs.  As the GPSs start overwriting data (configurable) after 10,000 points, we can’t really set the frequency much shorter, or we risk losing data.  This also means it is important to turn your GPS on and off shortly before and after the ride.
  1. On Garmin GPSs there is a trick to saving the breadcrumbs. While you can save your current breadcrumbs to a named file on your GPS, for purposes of plotting a trail, we do not recommend this!  If you do, the GPS will take the active log (up to 10,000 points), and reduce it to 500 points!  While the algorithm is fairly smart, a 5% – 10%, or larger, reduction in trail length should be expected.  It is best to save the active trail log directly to your GPS mapping software on your computer.  This should preserve every data point.

We have a few additional hints and suggestions for those making maps using a GPS, and for riders using a GPS to track their progress:

  1. Maps with frequent, timed waypoints give riders time to adjust their speeds before they get too far behind.
  2. Use fresh batteries.  The GPSs seem to do more odd things on weak batteries.
  3. Carry extra batteries.
  4. Carry more than one GPS if you will be making the map.
  5. GPSs can misbehave.  It’s not always the map.
    1. Large maximum speeds (e.g. 80 mph) suggest the GPS lost its signal, had a weak signal, or experience electrical interference.  This probably means extra distance has been logged.
    2. Large differences between GPSs on the trail indicate one had issues.  We’ve occasionally had 2-3 mile discrepancies occur over short distances.
  6. Clear your existing track log before you start the ride, but make sure you have saved it to your computer first.
  7. Shortly after you start the ride, make sure your GPS is dropping breadcrumbs.  For whatever reason, sometimes they don’t, and when you get home, you have no log of your ride.
  8. If you are a rider and there are obvious straight sections on the map not aligned with a road or pipeline, you should consider it likely the reported distances are on the short side.

Conclusions

An accurate ride map enables all riders to accurately plan and have a good time on the ride. For those ride managers who have started using GPSs to make their maps, kudos.  They are a significant improvement over hand drawn maps, but there can still be distance issues.  Even with a GPS though, distances are still only an estimate.  Short of using a surveyor’s wheel, uncertainty will always remain.

We hope this information helps you create or use GPS’d maps more efficiently. If you need assistance with your settings on any GPS model, contact us and we will try to get you answers. Anyone wishing to see our data file, just send us an e-mail. We can be reached at wingles@uncert.com

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