Tools and Tips for Forging your own Path: Google Earth Pro

Written by Fidgit

Technological advances have revolutionized how we explore our planet. Whether it is calling up a weather forecast from your Garmin InReach, contrasting GPS against topographical maps, or taking a photo with attached geolocation, the world is accessible to us in all new ways.

2017-02-16 14.17.25

Thank you Chip and everyone at Garmin for helping us get an Inreach SE+ in Santiago!

Hands-down one of the most revolutionary tools for those of us who wander off the beaten path, whether on land or water, is Google Earth Pro. It came out around 2004, when Google bought it from Keyhole Inc., who had been funded by the CIA. For a decade it cost $399 a year, but in 2015 it became free and, well, accessible to dirtbags such as myself.
From the CIA to hiker trash, what a glorious rising.

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Did you think beautiful lines of marvelous routes just magically appeared? Think again. This is the Greater Patagonian Trail. If you are interested in reading a post like this, you may well be interested in adventuring on a route like this

This is a “creative minds” dirty crash course in explaining a bit of the “technical crap and stuff” which goes in to creating your own route. Most of the tools in Google Earth Pro are pretty self evident and in the toolbar across the top of the screen, so I will leave learning how to use that stuff to the YouTubers. General rules are, the bottom right of the screen has elevation and view information, the toolbar across the top has, well, all your tools and right clicking on things offers you all new ways to see and share it.

One other general point: I have never had much luck sharing folders or work from the dropdown menu. I always save the folder to my desktop, then attach that to an email if I want to share something.

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This is Jan, helping us.

These are just a few “best practices” I have stumbled upon and been taught over the years from conversing with and getting schooled by other explorers.
Mostly Jan. Thank you, Jan.

First, there are the different formats in which to save your work:

KML – a file format used to display geographic data in an Earth browser such as Google Earth. KML uses a tag-based structure with nested elements and attributes

KMZ-  a zipped version of a KML. It is smaller but has all the data.Screenshot (7)
GPX- a data format for exchanging GPS data between programs, and for sharing GPS data with other users. Unlike other data files, which can only be understood by the programs that created them, GPX files actually contain a description of what’s inside them, allowing anyone to create a program that can read the data within.
IMG- this file format can be used to display data on a GPS and makes it much smaller. In this format, waypoints will appear as dots along the route line. These will only show text when you hover the mouse over them.

There are a number of format converters out there. A free one I use which is helpful but not so for massive projects is:

For bigger work, I turn for help to others who know and have access to more tools and stronger internet than I. Programs such as GPX2IMG (pay program) puts multiple files into a single image. Bear in mind, it cannot do its work while BaseCamp (the program and tool by which you move routes onto your GPS) is open, so be sure to save work there and close it out.

Some tips for working in Google Earth Pro:

-When planning your route, create a folder for it. Under that folder create a folder for “Routes” and a folder for “waypoints” and separate them accordingly. This will help later in the process when you converting the work to be put on GPS. This will enable importing the waypoints after the IMG file (the routes) so the titles appear on your GPS screen, rather than having to aim and hover.

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-Click “save my places” (File<Save

-When creating trail, don’t worry about having one huge continuous length. Planning a long distance route, I first go in and draw super rough straight lines between towns or roads in 1 pt white. Then return and mark smaller points of interest such as buildings, potential water sources, and watch for dramatic changes in elevation (shown bottom right of the screen) which indicate cliffs.

-Use the elevation profile (Right click a route

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I find this feature mind bogglingly awesome.


-Categorize and color code different types of route. This will help, when you give a glance over, to approximate potential speed, likelihood of encountering others, etc. Consider that the colors you choose will show over the colors on your GPS so, for example, don’t mark a river in blue. One color scheme Jan taught me which seems to work well is:
Road- Black
Visible Trail- Red
Cross Country- Pink

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Color coding. Do it. You can thank me later.

-Routes are fast to display on Google Earth, but on a poorly converted route, where every point is a waypoint, it dramatically slows down the computer (1000+), so, when you’re working, don’t make every twist and turn a waypoint.

-Go through historical view to note changes in landscape (presence of water, human structures, melting glaciers). For example, in the image below, what appeared to be a nice green lush spot, in a different year was . . . not so hopeful. This is the bar at the top left of the map. Remember to click the small “x” on the bar when you are done, otherwise other sections and images can look weird.

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In the Field:

If you have Google Earth Pro on your phone and plan to use this as a backup navigation tool (please folks, NEVER rely solely on your phone for navigating in the backcountry. Seriously. Just don’t do it), scroll over the route while you are connected to the internet so you have clear image, then disconnect. It will (usually) keep clearer images in the cache and you will have access to this while out in the field.

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Also, sometimes the images aren’t great. Taken in different seasons, different resolutions, sometimes there are clouds in the way . . . try not to rely solely on technology.

Most of the time on my phone (Samsung Galaxy S4), Google Earth Pro location doesn’t work, but if I also opened and began the location search in Google Maps beforehand, I can get it to work by
a) going to Google maps, have it search my location (the grey dot turns blue)
b) bringing Google Earth Pro up and click on the location icon and now it will have found me.

Hopefully this is enough to get you started downloading and playing around.
What helpful tips and tools have you happened upon?
What other route making programs might you be interested in hearing more about?

2017-07-29 13.18.30

Work hard, play hard.

2 thoughts on “Tools and Tips for Forging your own Path: Google Earth Pro

  1. cliff rawley says:

    For your safety we are happy to know that you are making full use of these new tech advances. You are both doing a great job of navigation with the help of Garman !
    Cliff and Martha

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