Tools and software to aid GPS navigation on the trail
Google Earth is a free program that provides satellite imagery and a three-dimensional topographical view, to let you view any part of the world or to get a feel for the terrain along a particular trail. Open an Abraham Path GPX or KMZ file in Google Earth, and it will appear as a colored lined on top of the satellite and 3D imagery. You can follow the trail along its contours to view the landscape before you hike. You can also draw lines based on what you can see in the satellite imagery, and export them as KMZ files; these can then be converted to GPX format using www.gpsvisualizer.com, and loaded onto a GPS unit or smartphone (see below).
Google Earth is a great tool for preparing for trips, exploring route possibilities, and planning trails. It requires an internet connection to show high-quality satellite imagery, so is not usually especially useful in the field, even if you bring a laptop. There is a smartphone app version of Google Earth, which can be very helpful for finding satellite imagery while on the trail, but it does not currently have the capability to load KMZ files or tracks.
Handheld GPS units
Handheld GPS units can be a very helpful navigational tool, with some basic preparation and user knowledge. A GPS receiver inside each unit constantly receives information about its exact location from a fleet of satellites; by triangulating signals from multiple satellites, the unit can determine its coordinates. Recreational GPS units can achieve a precision of about +/- 3 meters. To function at their best, GPS units need to have open sky above; when hiking in narrow canyons and other conditions that block reception to the sky, a unit’s precision can drop – but should still be functional for navigation in all but the most extreme cases.
Recreational handheld GPS units (Garmin is by far the most common brand) are a good navigational tool for long trips away from civilization. Their benefits include durability, good reception, and most importantly, long battery life – the Garmin eTrex units advertise a 25-hour life; we have had results at least that good in our extensive field work. We recommend the eTrex line ($100-$270) as a basic, very reliable unit, despite somewhat clunky controls and a small screen; higher-end units like the Oregon series ($330 to $480) offer extra features, a superior display, and a touchscreen interface. For hiking the Abraham Path, you can follow the lines of our GPS tracks for the entire trail, and a large, sophisticated display may not be necessary.
These units usually do not come pre-loaded with base maps for the Middle East; this means that in using the unit, you’ll be able to see lines showing where you’ve walked, and any extra lines you’ve loaded onto the unit to follow for navigation, but no other map data as a reference. Base maps can be bought at a fairly steep price, but there are also free (though less detailed) options – see below, under “Free Base Maps”
Garmin BaseCamp is the free (desktop software) program that you use to move GPS data between your computer and a Garmin GPS unit. BaseCamp has a number of other functions, such as editing tracks, storing and organizing GPS data, and creating files to share with other users. It can also be used to view base maps along with GPS data you’ve downloaded or recorded.
BaseCamp’s most basic function of uploading GPX files from your computer to your GPX unit is very simple:
- Download the GPX file you want to have on your unit from our website to your computer.
- Open Garmin BaseCamp
- Import the GPX file you want into BaseCamp: Select “My Collection”, then go to the “File” menu and select “Import into My Collection.” Pick the GPX file you want from the pop-up window, and click “Import.” The new file will appear in the menu under “My Collection.”
- Plug your GPX unit into your computer (typically with a micro USB cable). In the left-hand menu containing “My Collection” and a library of GPS data, the GPS device should appear as an entry on the list
- Click and drag the GPX file from “My Collection” to the name of the device. A green progress bar should appear under the device’s name, indicating the transfer is complete. If you click on the name of the device, you should see the track in the bottom left-hand menu, indicating it has been moved.
- Close BaseCamp, and safely disconnect the device. To view a GPS track on your device, go to the “Track Manager” section of the main menu and pick the appropriate file from the list.
Smartphones and Apps
Smartphones (iPhones and Android) provide a more convenient GPS option for many users – if you already own one, there may be no need to buy an extra GPS unit, as apps like GaiaGPS can function as GPS receivers with basemaps, even away from cellular service. The downside of smartphones is their very limited battery life – GPS apps drain batteries very quickly, and most smartphones will not get more than a day’s worth of GPS navigation out of a charge. Smartphones are also less rugged than most GPS units, and can be compromised if you are away from cell reception or in rainy conditions.
GaiaGPS is a good app for GPS navigation using a smartphone. It costs $20, but is easy to use, and a smartphone touchscreen makes for a smoother interface than many dedicated GPS units.
There are several ways to get a GPS track loaded in GaiaGPS:
- Email yourself a GPX file; if using your phone’s default email app, there should be an option to open the attachment in GaiaGPS.
- Download a GPX file in your smartphone’s browser; when prompted to open the file, GaiaGPS will be one of the options. (from http://www.abrahampath.org/downloads/gps)
- Move the file from your computer.
- With an iPhone, plug in your phone; iTunes should open automatically. In iTunes, select the “iPhone” icon, then go to Settings, click Apps, and select GaiaGPS. Drag and drop the appropriate GPX files into the list. When you disconnect your phone and open the GaiaGPS app, it should prompt you that new files have been added. Open the “Tracks” section of the main menu (top left icon) to pick a track to view, then select “View Map.”
Garmin BaseCamp Mobile, a free app, can also be used to follow tracks you’ve loaded. The easiest way to open a track in this app is to send it to yourself via email, as described in the steps for GaiaGPS.
Navigating with GPS
Navigating with GPS is simple – once a track or route is loaded on your GPS device or smartphone, it will appear as a line (overlaid on your base map, if you have one) which you can follow. Your device will constantly update your location and show a separate line indicating where you have walked so far; you can tell if you’re on the right route by simply looking at the display and seeing whether your location indicator is still in line with the track you’re following. If you’re hiking for several days in a row, you’ll need to select new tracks from your menu of loaded tracks whenever you come to the end of one.
Remember that while GPS units are very useful for keeping you on track, their usefulness is limited by how much preparation you’ve done – if you don’t have a base map, or GPX files for locations off the trail, you’ll find the unit is of little use. The small screens on some units are also not particularly easy to use in inspecting maps of areas to determine your location. For this reason, and because electronics can fail or run out of battery, we always recommend bringing a paper map along, even when using a GPS – a standard outdoor safety procedure in any part of the world.
Free base maps for handheld GPS units
How to Upload Free OSM Base Map To Garmin Device
- Consult OSM Wiki on downloading OSM maps for use on Garmin GPS devices: http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/OSM_Map_On_Garmin/Download. Pay particular attention to the table at the bottom of the page that lists providers of OSM maps for download. For the purposes of hikers and cyclists (particularly mountain bike riders) in Israel and Palestine, the following two providers are most valuable:
Lambertus: http://garmin.openstreetmap.nl/ (Bike Path Labels, English)
Openmtbmap: http://openmtbmap.org/ (Hebrew and/or Arabic depending on region, Topographic lines varying by zoom level)
- Using Lambertus:
- At http://garmin.openstreetmap.nl/ select map type (We’d suggest Routable Bicycle)
- Select map sections. You can do this either by selecting “Israel” under the Asia tab, or by checking the “Enable manual tile selection” box and selecting individual tiles for download.
- Select “Download map now!”
- You will be taken to a new page with multiple download options. Select the best option for your operating system (Windows, Linux or Mac)
- When the download is complete, run the executable file you have downloaded. This will automatically install the new base map in Garmin Basecamp.
- Open Garmin Basecamp
- Open the “Maps” tab and select the new base map (OpenfietsmapLite)
- Using Openmtbmap:
- At http://openmtbmap.org under the “Map Download” tab select the download link best for your operating system (Windows/Linux or Mac)
- At the map download page scroll down until you see the “Israel-and-Palestine” link under the Asia heading. Select this link.
- After the download is complete, run the executable file you have downloaded. This will automatically install the new base map in Garmin Basecamp.
- Open Garmin Basecamp
- Open the “Maps” tab and select the new base map (openmtbmap_israel-and-palestine)
- Loading base maps from Garmin Basecamp onto GPS device
- Connect device to computer using USB cable.
- When the computer recognizes the device (and you see it in Garmin Basecamp) open the “Maps” tab in Garmin Basecamp. Select the base map you’d like to install and click the “Install Maps” option.
- Follow any additional prompts.
- Selecting base map on Garmin GPS device
- Open map
- Push Menu button
- Select Setup Map
- Select “Select Map”
- Enable map of your choice