I use the My Tracks application on my Google Android phone to record GPS coordinates for hiking and mountain biking trails. I use it instead of other similar apps because it allows me to easily upload recorded GPS coordinates to a Google Map and then share that map on this blog. What’s more, I have access to all of the data collected by My Tracks whereas other applications require that you store all of your data on their web site.
Recording GPS Coordinates of Trails
After I have completed an adventure, I upload the corresponding coordinates from my phone to Google Maps; at which time they become viewable on the maps displayed on this blog. The following map shows the Huckleberry Trail; a paved trail that runs from Blacksburg, VA to Christiansburg, VA. It includes a green marker for my starting point and a red marker for my ending point.
As I am moving, My Tracks records GPS coordinates, speed, distance, and elevation changes. The following is an elevation chart generated during my ride on the Huckleberry Trail. As you can see it is mostly a downhill ride going from Blacksburg to Christiansburg.
I have used My Tracks on three phones:
- Samsung Moment on Sprint – It worked well, at times, recording GPS coordinates for the Poverty Creek Trail System; which is close to Blacksburg, VA and an area were I get strong service from Sprint. It was unable to obtain a GPS signal in areas where I did not have a cell phone signal (e.g., our hike in Mountain Lake, VA). However, it would maintain a GPS signal when transitioning from an area with cell phone service into an area without. Thus, for remote trails, I recommend turning on My Tracks before entering an area without cell phone service to increase the chance of being able to record GPS coordinates. A big issue with the Moment was its weak battery life so longer adventures could not be recorded.
- Motorola Droid on the Verizon – It records very accurate GPS coordinates on hiking trails in the dense woods of New York whereas my Samsung Moment always struggled to record accurate coordinates in the dense woods of Virginia.
- HTC EVO Shift (current phone) - It performs similarly to the Motorola Droid and is significantly better than my old Samsung Moment. In addition, it has a much longer battery life and better power management tools so I can now record coordinates for longer adventures.
Tagging Pictures with GPS Coordinates
With the Samsung Moment, I had limited success uploading photos to Google My Maps with the Google My Maps Editor Android application. Recently, Google discontinued that application so now I recommend the following multi-step, multi-device process:
- Open the “My Tracks” application
- Click “Record track”
- When you reach a picture-worthy location, click “Markers”->”Insert waypoint”->type marker name and description
- After inserting a way point and standing in the same location, take a picture with a digital camera (can be your phone’s camera or a separate camera)
- After you finish a trail, click “Stop recording”
- With your track pulled up, click the three dots in the bottom right of the screen and select “Send to Google…”->”Send to…Google My Maps”
- However you see fit, upload your corresponding photo to a Google Picasa Web Album (or other photo sharing site) and copy the shareable URL for the photo.
- From a PC, laptop, or tablet: go to maps.google.com and click “My Maps”->Select a Map->Click “Edit”
- Find your way point marker, click it, click the “Upload Image” icon, and insert the URL of your photo. Also, click on marker’s icon, click “Add icon”, and insert the URL of your photo again so that it will be obvious that that marker is a photo.
- Click “Save” and “Done” on Google My Maps. Now, you are ready to embed your map on your web site and have your GPS coordinates complemented with photos.
Click the picture marker in the center of the following map to see a geotagged picture of a log bridge in the Carvins Cove trail system.
Carrying My Phone
Originally, I squeezed my phone into an iPod athletic armband because I thought it gave my phone the clearest path to GPS satellites. Although this armband hack works, it does not protect my phone from rain or a fall into a puddle. In addition, my armband bounced around too much while mountain biking. More recently, I have had success simply putting my phone in my pocket or hydration pack and have not noticed any degradation in accuracy.
Accuracy of GPS Data
The accuracy and effectiveness of using a phone to record and document trails is somewhat limited so recorded tracks, elevation charts, and picture locations are more like estimates rather than products of an exact science. Specifically, the accuracy of GPS points can be as good as +-20 feet or much worse if trees, buildings, or other obstructions are blocking GPS satellites. The elevation readings are less accurate than the GPS coordinates and can be off by hundreds of feet. However, a set of elevation readings should generate a chart with an accurate representation of incline and decline.
There are adventures documented on this blog that took place before I started using My Tracks in mid-November 2009 and, thus, those posts do not include these nifty new features.