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.


The actual map we used for this ride can be downloaded from:
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.


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.

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