Planning and Navigating Your Hike Using GIS Mapping and Open Data

Many people are familiar with using Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to navigate well-known roads. But, what if you want to go off the beaten path? What if you want to go on that trail hike you have been dreaming of, but you want to have reliable maps to use for those remote areas? How do you plan a hike ahead of time using Geographic Information Systems (GIS)? This article gives you some hints and techniques for planning and negotiating the wilds using GIS and GPS technology.

The Data

In order to successfully plan and negotiate your adventure in the woods using GIS you first need data. This could be digital maps that are georeferenced to a coordinate system or vector data that shows individual features like trails, rivers, or campsites. There are a number of great resources that are free to download and modify as needed.

Data that is beneficial to planning your trip are those that display the actual trail, elevation data, potential camping spots, water resupply points, rivers, and any other data that gives you a better idea of what you may be dealing with. In addition, you may want to download political boundary data or imagery of the area so you can have a better frame of reference. The easiest method is to find topographic maps that have already been georeferenced. Geoferencing means that the digital map has been assigned an actual coordinate system. This means that you can overlay other georeferenced data because it lines up perfectly due to the coordinate system. The topographic maps typically contain much of the information you need so it is not necessary to download individual layers.

There are a number of great sites that provide data for free that is in a format that can be loaded into GIS software. The data is typically in Esri® Shapefile format. Some of the sites that offer open source data are:

In addition, you can do a simple internet search for data related to specific areas that you wish to visit.

Data can also be downloaded for use on your GPS device. These data typically come already prepared and have a “.gpx” extension on the file.  These type of data can depict trails, points of interest, campsites, and anything else that may be of use. They are often created by other hikers and made free to the public. Caution must be taken, however, because there is no validation of the information and is presented as-is. The information may not be high quality and you must also take into account when it was collected. The older the data is, the less accurate it may be.

One great resource for this type of data is the GPS File Depot ( This site even has tutorials for making your own data and maps. There are numerous datasets that cover popular locations all over the country. The data is provided primarily by the community so, as mentioned before, be aware of potential accuracy issues.

The Software

In order to work with and see the data, you need software that can do the job. For GIS viewing and editing on a computer, there are several great open source software suites such as QGIS (, GRASS (, or MapWindow ( While the learning curve for some of these applications can be steep, don’t let that intimidate you. Here are a number of helpful tutorials on YouTube that can walk you through adding your data to the application and viewing it. With this software you can view, edit, and make maps with the data.  You can use measuring tools to calculate distance. Looking at your intended route in this manner allows you to plan properly before hitting the trail. If you are going to print these maps it is recommended that you include a north arrow and a scale bar on the map to assist with understanding the map while you hike.

To load maps and data onto a GPS device you need software that is made specifically for your GPS device. For example, Garmin has an application called “Base Camp” that allows you to view and load data onto your GPS device from your computer. You can even download data off of your GPS device if you have collected data such as the path you walked or points where you camped. This type of software typically comes with the device you purchase or can be downloaded from the company’s website. There are no options in this area, unfortunately. You must use the software created for the specific device.

The Devices

In order to use this wonderful data in the wild, you must have a device to display it. This is the part that isn’t free. Depending on how fancy or accurate the device is, the price could vary significantly. There are a number of GPS receivers made specifically for outdoor activities such as hiking. They have various features above and beyond simply telling you where you are on the map. Some of these features include a two-way radio, cameras, and touchscreen functionality. These extra amenities are not necessary, but they may enhance your experience depending on what type of hike you are attempting to complete. The most popular brand is Garmin (

Each of these devices should allow you to upload your data and create new data that you collect while on your trip. There is documentation associated with each device that explains how to transfer the data between a GPS and your computer. There are also videos online that may be helpful. The process typically involves connecting the device to your computer via a USB cord and installing some software. As mentioned previously, files that have a .gpx extension can be uploaded to the device that show features along your route.

While you are hiking it may be beneficial to collect data. This could involve initiating a “track” that records your movements as you move along the trail. This is a great way to map the trail if it has not been done before. You can also collect “Points” of areas of interest such as freshwater springs or great campsites. This collected information can then transferred to your computer and shared with others on a website such as GPS File Depot.

Regardless of whether you choose to use one of these GPS devices on your trip or you just plan to research the trail on a GIS prior to leaving, there are many resources to help you get started. It is beneficial to get to know the area well so either of these methods are recommended. This will assist with planning, but also make your trip safer by preventing you from getting lost or allowing you to avoid obstacles that may hinder you.

Bristow Uses Track to Meet Safety Goals

GeoDecisions Vice President Brian Smith made his way on stage at the Esri® Business Summit in San Diego, California, to discuss how GeoDecisions Track impacts the world on a daily basis. Brian co-presented with Sophy Liu, Bristow Group technology enablement director, sharing how GeoDecisions partners with Bristow to meet their Target Zero safety goals. The GeoDecisions-Bristow business relationship started in 2013. 

Bristow Focus

Bristow is the leading provider of industrial aviation services offering helicopter transportation and search and rescue and aircraft support services, including helicopter maintenance and training, for government and civil organizations worldwide. A 70-year-old company based in Houston, Texas, Bristow has over 300 aircraft globally with major operations in the North Sea, Nigeria, the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, and in the majority of the major offshore oil and gas producing regions of the world.

Bristow’s focus is in the gas and oil industries offering transportation for crews going to off-site drilling platforms. Dealing with a variety of natural elements, remote locations, and unexpected obstacles creates a dangerous atmosphere for their clients. As a result, Bristow’s safety culture includes zero accidents, zero downtime, and zero complaints. It is critical that their command center is equipped with the tools they need to help keep their aircraft safe. GeoDecisions Track does just that.

Powerful Location Intelligence

GeoDecisions Track is a real-time asset intelligence application that uses the power of Esri technology to expose additional analytical capabilities and show trends and patterns of assets and the entire logistical system. The location analytics integrate with ArcGIS Online, enabling clients to extend their Esri identity throughout the application. Additionally, using ArcGIS Online allows organizations to quickly and easily manipulate and distribute maps through GeoDecisions Track. 

GeoDecisions-Bristow Accomplishments

To help Bristow meet their Target Zero safety goals, GeoDecisions Track allows Bristow operators to easily see where each aircraft is located at all times and view the details of each flight and communication with each pilot. Bristow’s control center is manned 24/7, and each aircraft is equipped with five different satellites which help them constantly monitor the flights and stay in continuous communication with the pilots.

Utilizing maps from ArcGIS Online, GeoDecisions Track draws flight plans using GIS fences and alerts the operator if the aircraft deviates from the plan. This is just one of 24 different alerts customized for Bristow’s use. The application also is able to store seven years of data for Bristow, allowing operators to see the history for each flight and plan ahead for possible obstacles.

GeoDecisionsTrack allows Bristow to integrate business data and real time data for analytics and monitoring, helping Bristow's flight operators better understand location and activity of their aircraft.  

Growing GIS Business in North Carolina

GeoDecisions’ business is growing throughout North Carolina, as we expand our footprint and enhance our Gannett Fleming engineering service offerings. Selected as a prequalified vendor to provide statewide GIS services contract, we can perform work for North Carolina state, local government, or quasi-governmental agencies, such as MPOs and universities, in the following areas:

  • Strategic planning
  • GIS data collection
  • GIS data management
  • GIS application development and implementation services
  • GIS consulting.

To support our Southeast initiatives, GeoDecisions Project Manager Caitlyn Meyer transferred to our Raleigh, North Carolina, office from our Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, headquarters in August. Caitlyn is strengthening Gannett Fleming and GeoDecisions GIS, planning, design, and construction operations as well as developing business relationships with North Carolina agencies.  Caitlyn's project portfolio includes our multiple award winning Maintenance-IQ application, which integrates data from more than 20 different systems into an easy-to-use data visualization and analysis web mapping tool. GIS applications such as Maintenance-IQ help streamline the NEPA process, maintain planning applications that support roadway projects, and feature mobile data collection apps to support asset management programs.  

In addition to Caitlyn, GeoDecisions Senior Project Manager, Kevin Yount, has relocated to the Charlotte, North Carolina, area. Kevin is working on the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation’s (PART) implementation of GeoDecisions Track, a web-based, configurable solution used to assist clients with asset tracking, reporting, and analytics.

To better meet its Federal Transit Administration and National Transit Database reporting requirements, PART requires a system that can provide real-time vehicle tracking and data management for its vanpool fleet. The GeoDecisions Track solution will allow PART to quickly create dashboard applications system users, providing them with readily available business data and analytical information.  The ability to configure these reports will prove valuable as standards change and user needs evolve.

“We're very excited to grow throughout North Carolina,” said Caitlyn. “Thanks in part to us relocated Yankees, the state’s population is booming, and is planned to grow 40 percent by 2040.” This growth will increase demands on the state’s infrastructure and the need for programs to keep pace.

2017 URISA Leadership Academy

Urban and Reginonal Information Systems Association (URISA®) is a nonprofit association of professionals using geographic information systems (GIS) and other information technologies to solve challenges at all levels of government. The URISA Leadership Academy (ULA) is an annual event that was held July 24-24, 2017, in Providence, Rhode Island. ULA is excellent for improving upon your leadership skills, and the conference was invaluable for providing the opportunity to network with professionals that work in the GIS industry. All conference presenters were URISA members who offered a wide range of GIS expertise from both private and public sectors, providing real-world situations and examples to better demonstrate topics that were taught during the course of the week.

The expectations of this year's ULA attendees. 

The academy provided several team building exercises each day, providing students with the opportunity to practice their leadership and communication skills. The first day of training started with a brainstorming exercise to share ULA expectations with fellow students and, most importantly, with the instructors so that they could make adjustments as needed. Receiving feedback after each training session enabled URISA instructors and members to improve the academy experience.

The ULA offered the following topics:

1.    Introduction to leadership and management – Leadership styles and situational leadership, managing yourself as a leader, motivations for GIS leaders, strategic thinking

2.   Building a team - Analyzing and using current human capacity, assessing needed skills, identifying and recruiting team members, building a competent team, utilizing diversity as a team strength

3.    Communication – How to effectively communicate, apply appropriate techniques for building communication strategies at the personal and professional levels

4.    Conflict resolution – Understanding source and levels of conflict, methods for resolving conflicts, applying appropriate methods for managing conflicts at the individual, group or organizational level

Other topics included retention, recognition, hiring considerations, effective capacity building strategies, risk management, strategic planning, situation analysis, and ethics.

During the ULA, it was great to share hurdles that we encounter on a daily basis and exchange ideas to resolve them with fellow GIS professionals. I am already using the skills and knowledge that I have obtained from this academy and plan to use it throughout my career in Project and GIS Management.

The 2017 URISA Leadership Academy attendees. 

GeoDecisions Notify On Campus

Weather alert? Emergency? Food truck in the parking lot? GeoDecisions Notify can help you alert the people in your building of an emergency or situation of interest. The GeoDecisions team has integrated Notify, GeoDecisions’ robust high-speed alert notification for delivering phone, email, or text messages, with the Esri® 3D Campus Viewer. Here’s how we did it!

Esri’s open source CampusViewerTools package includes the 3D Campus Viewer JavaScript web application written using the Esri JavaScript API. The application shows a 3D view of an office campus, and enables users to navigate through the campus, viewing the layout of each building, and more. The 3D Campus Viewer’s sample data set shows the Esri Redlands, CA, campus, and the package also has information to create your own custom building layouts and floors using CAD data.

Since the GeoDecisions Notify web application was created with compatible technologies, including JavaScript, Angular, and Bootstrap, it was easy to fold it in to the 3D Campus Viewer. With the component based approach becoming very popular in the front end world where each screen area in a single page application is a component, we decided that the first step was to create a widget area (component) within the 3D Campus Viewer app. This allowed the GeoDecisions Notify widget serve as a seamless part of the 3D Campus Viewer while keeping it loosely coupled. Advantages of this approach are listed below.

1.       When the 3D Campus Viewer code is updated, it is easier to merge the GeoDecisions Notify widget into the new version of codebase.

2.       When the GeoDecisions Notify widget code is updated, it is easier to pull in to the 3D Campus Viewer code.

3.       The same widget can be reused in other applications such as Esri’s Web AppBuilder or any other application that would need GeoDecisions Notify functionality. Maybe yours!

Users log in to the GeoDecisions Notify widget using their ArcGIS Online account credentials. In the 3D Campus Viewer, users select contacts in rooms on any given floor. They could also search and select rooms or contacts from the search menu. After selection, the contact info is pushed to the GeoDecisions Notify widget, and from that point onwards all user interaction and the campaign placement workflow happens inside the widget. The contact names to be notified are shown within the widget. The user then types in the SMS, email and/or Text-to-Speech voice messages they wish to transmit to the selected contacts. The notifications are sent to the selected contacts in the list after the Deliver Campaign button is pressed.

After users place campaigns from the GeoDecisions Notify widget, we use our Campaign Manager API to send the campaigns. Users can then track and view their campaign stats in our admin portal. The stats have information such as the status of the campaign (still in progress, completed), the list of contacts that were successfully contacted, how many voice calls went to voicemail vs a live answer, and more.

          Are you interested in using GeoDecisions Notify to alert people at your facility? We’d be happy to work with you to show you how! Learn more at or contact us at