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.