How to import gpx into Google Maps to make a GPS track viewer

| February 15, 2015 | 2 Comments


You probably carry a smartphone with you while hiking, but you may not realize that you can use its built-in GPS receiver to easily track where you went, the time you took, your speed, and your elevation changes.

Reviewing the data from your hike using free mapping software can be both fun and educational, and it only takes a few minutes to do it.

If you’re a serious hiker or trail runner you may have spent the money on a purpose-built hiking GPS or a GPS watch and have at some point tried loading track files into the accompanying software. If you haven’t thought about using the free offerings from Google, you’re in for a real treat.

In this article, I’ll show you how to use both Google Maps and Google Earth as a GPS track viewer, whether you’re using a smartphone or separate GPS device. Google Maps provides a two-dimensional map or satellite view  that we mostly use with city streets. Google Earth provides a more photographic three-dimensional view of the whole planet.

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How to take map bearings for land navigation

| February 4, 2015 | 0 Comments

Photo: Mark Beresford

Photo: Mark Beresford

If you’re like many hikers, you’ve found that navigation with a compass is a perishable skill that’s often forgotten just when you need it most — when you think you might be lost. You may have tried to learn how to use a compass before, following the “easy” 1… 2… 3… step system, but somehow it just didn’t stick and the next time you pulled your compass out you couldn’t remember exactly what to do.

If you’re planning to stay on obvious, well-signposted trails, and you have a map, and lots of people are around, you probably don’t need a compass. But, your compass skills should be fluent before you think about going:

  • Off marked trails
  • Where the trails are hard to follow because of low use, snowfall, or long stretches of rock or sand that show no wear from foot traffic
  • Where the trails are poorly signposted
  • Where visibility could be reduced because of cloud or snowstorms

This is true even if you carry a GPS receiver, because a GPS doesn’t replace the need for a separate compass, even if it has a built-in electronic compass.

In this article, you’ll learn how to perform a common and basic navigation task — taking a map bearing. You’ll go beyond rote memorization of the steps and finally understand the principles involved. This means that you’ll be less likely to forget what to do when you’re in a tight spot and really need to get off the mountain before dark.

But first, a story to illustrate how powerful it can be to use a compass with confidence.

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Avoid getting lost in the woods by learning these signs

| December 6, 2014 | 0 Comments

untitled-123Even experienced hikers and backpackers sometimes make mistakes and get lost after wandering off the trail. In this article, I’ll cover the reasons why people lose the trail and then give some good tips for making sure that we stay on it.

Hikers, backpackers, snowshoers, runners, and mountain bikers lose the trail for many reasons. Often, there are underlying causes that add up to create conditions that leave us open to misfortune. When an “error event” follows and we come off the trail, we then find ourselves unable to re-locate the trail and we get lost.

Why do people get lost in the woods?

Here are just some of the underlying causes that can set us up for problems later:

  • We’ve been hiking for many hours, and are tired and walking on autopilot. When in this zone, we pay less attention to where we are and make minimal effort to keep track of our position as we go.
  • The group that we’re with is a little too casual, or too tired, so that when one person stops to tie a shoelace or take a bathroom break, everyone else keeps going. The person left behind then starts off in the wrong direction or fails to take a turn that the others took.
  • The trail is covered with snow making it harder to follow.
  • We are hiking after dark.
  • We are on a rarely traveled or unmaintained trail that’s harder to pick out.

Causes of “error events”

“Error events” are the actual moments when we accidentally lose the trail. These most commonly occur when:

  • Crossing a rocky or sandy area where it’s hard to see the trail and we forge straight ahead when the trail takes a sharp turn
  • Following a false trail made by others who were lost
  • Mistaking a drainage ditch at a switchback for the real trail
  • Detouring around downed trees or around a bad stream crossing
  • Going off trail to find a photo opportunity
  • Deliberately taking a shortcut on a switchback when the trail turns the other way

An inability to relocate

Once we’ve come off the trail and realize it, our ability to re-locate the trail depends on our level-headedness, equipment, skills, and knowledge of navigation techniques. Some reasons why we might not be able to relocate are:

  • Not having a map, perhaps because we were relying on the group leader to do the navigation
  • Having an inadequate map, or just not knowing how to navigate with it
  • Not carrying a GPS receiver, or just not knowing how to use it to position ourself on the map

How to avoid getting lost in the woods

To stay on the trail, it’s important that we study the map ahead of each leg of the journey so we know what features we expect to see and can check them off as we go past. Obvious features are things like trail signposts which are marked on the map. Others include streams, walls, small peaks, and turns in the trail.

Some signposts make navigation easier by including the names of the trails.


Others, like the two examples below, just tell you that you’re on a trail or at a trail junction, so you absolutely need a map to know which trail you’re on.



We should also have a good sense of how long it will take to reach each feature and if we don’t happen upon the feature within the expected time, we should stop and take some time to review the map again.

Trails like the one shown below are easy to follow in the summer, but after a snowfall it can be hard to distinguish the trail and if we come off it only a few yards we may have difficulty finding it again.


In situations like this, we need to be especially tuned in to the signs that we are still on the trail.

For trails that are very well maintained, sometimes larger rocks are moved to the edges of the trail to easily show where it goes.


Where trees have fallen across the trail, maintenance crews will cut them and then sometimes lay them along the trail, marking the edge.


Keeping an eye open for sawn trees is an important technique for staying on maintained trails. The trees in the following photo are large and obvious, but sometimes the trees are quite small and hard to notice if we’re not looking for them.


Another sign that we’re still on the trail is a line of rocks that’s been laid across it with the goal of diverting any water running down the trail to one side, thereby reducing trail erosion. The photo shows an obvious example, but sometimes the rocks are smaller and there are other rocks in the surrounding area making them harder to spot.


Blazes cut into tree trunks are reliable signs that we’re still on the trail. They are often created at sharp turns in a trail, and are typically found in areas that get a lot of snow. As they are located well off the ground, their utility is not affected by snow. If we are traveling in snow and are relying heavily on blazes, we are at risk of becoming lost because we don’t know how far it will be to the next one and we only have to deviate from the trail by a few yards to completely miss it. Under these conditions, we need to be well versed in navigating by dead-reckoning and timing or pacing as well as navigating with a GPS receiver.


Other signs that we are on the trail are less reliable. Waymarking cairns are used in many parts of the world in places where a trail is hard to follow because we’re hiking over rocky or sandy areas that don’t have obvious trail, as this example.


The rock cairns below are on a trail in Moorea, French Polynesia, where the jungle is thick and trails can be quickly overgrown.


This huge example is typical of cairns in the UK located in areas where cloud comes down quickly, making it easy to get lost.


The problem with the smaller rock cairns is that sometimes they are made by people who have come off the trail themselves, but they think they are on the trail and are trying to help others by marking it. Rock cairns are useful pieces of information, but they are not to be wholly trusted.

In some areas, another sign that we’re on the trail is horse or mule droppings.


People who ride into the backcountry usually know it fairly well and tend to use standard trails and typically don’t go cross-country. Horses are less likely to come off a trail than a person.

Unfortunately, there are other signs of human activity, especially close to popular trailheads, that suggest we are on the trail!


One of the least reliable indicators that we are on a trail is human footprints.


If we start following someone else’s tracks as the sole indicator that we’re where we are supposed to be, we are taking a risk. I sheepishly admit to having done this once when solo backpacking in the mountains in Oregon in December with thick snow obscuring most signs of any trails. I was navigating by dead-reckoning with map and compass while trying to follow the occasional blazes on trees. I came across some recent footprints in the snow going in the right general direction and followed them. I relaxed my navigation efforts and some time later realized that I was going down when I wasn’t supposed to be. I was on “a” trail but not “my” trail. This mistake added six miles of hilly snow hiking to my trip and the last few miles were covered in the dark. When I eventually get back to my car, it had a flat tire – so it was an adventure!

If you have suggestions for other signs that we are on the trail, send them in and I’ll add them.

For more articles about navigation, see:

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Photo credits: Mark Beresford

The 3P modular survival kit: Part 2 – the pocket kit

| October 23, 2014 | 0 Comments

This article is part two of a five-part series on the 3P modular daypack survival kit, covering what to include in your pocket kit and why.


The contents of the 3P pocket kit were chosen to fit in a 3.5″ x 6″ (7.5 cm x 13 cm) plastic bag, which will slip comfortably into a jeans pocket as well as outdoor pants. The kit is carry-on friendly so there’s no reason to put it in your checked baggage when you’re flying. Airport regulations and airline policies do change, however, so you should check with your particular airline before you fly to make sure that you won’t be carrying anything that’s restricted.

If you decide to modify any of these recommendations, try not to over-stuff your kit. If it’s too big and uncomfortable in your pocket you’ll stop using, which defeats its purpose.

Obviously, you can’t fit much in a pocket, so the focus is on the small, light items that could make a difference if they are all you have. You will be happy you have this little kit if you’re ever caught up in a natural disaster, especially if the weather is cold and wet and you’re stuck outside. If you have it in your pocket while out adventuring, it also helps to spread the risk in the event that you’re separated from your pack. Backpacks have been known to roll down steep gullies or fall into rivers during rest breaks. People get lost while walking out from their tents at night to relieve themselves. Someone I know actually had his backpack stolen by a bear after he put it down and walked a short distance away. Losing all of your gear, especially if you’re out on a solo adventure, is not a good situation, so keep your pocket kit on your person and not in your pack. There are also some convenience items in the kit that you’ll be glad of in non-emergency situations from time to time. Just remember to replace any items that you use up when you get home.

The items in the pocket kit fall into the following categories:

  • Shelter
  • Hydration
  • Signaling
  • Fire starting
  • First aid
  • Navigation
  • Utility tools
  • Optional extras


To provide shelter, the 3P pocket kit contains:

  • Two large garbage bags


Thick garbage bags are too bulky for a pocket kit when folded up, so you’ll want to choose bags that are around 0.5-0.65 mil (12-16 &#181m) thick. Thinner bags are definitely weaker, but they’ll still do the job if you’re careful. A suitable size is 30-39 gallons (114-147 L).

The garbage bags make quick windproof and waterproof shells that will cover your entire body. You can use them while on the move or while sheltering in place. I’ve used my survival kit garbage bags many times and have found that if I continue to hike while wearing one I can go from shivering to warm within minutes. They make a big difference and are an essential part of your kit.

A future article will look at how to use garbage bags as a shelter in more detail.

There are some robust commercially available options for emergency shelters, but these are all too large to fit in a small pocket kit, so cheap garbage bags win hands-down for this application.


In a typical temperate environment, next to shelter, water is the most important consideration for survival. You therefore need a way to collect, store, purify, and carry water as a backup. To help with this, the 3P pocket kit contains:

  • A large (16″ x 18″) turkey roasting bag ( 41 cm x 46 cm)
  • Water purification tablets (6)


The turkey roasting bag is our water bottle backup. It’s very strong and folds up into a small square. You never know when you’ll need a backup. Just this week, when my main water container was blown by a strong gust of wind into an icy mountain lake, I resorted to filtering water into my turkey roasting bag so I’d have a clean supply of water for my remaining hike. I tied the bag opening off with some paracord.



In a dire emergency, this bag can also be used to collect water from plants by evaporation.

If we run out of water on the trail we’re going to have use whatever water is available. For multi-day trips, we’ll be carrying a way to purify large amounts of water, but people often don’t think about this for a day trip. This is why, having a backup method of purification in our 3P pocket kit is a good idea. The kit includes 6 Potable Aqua chlorine dioxide water purification tablets, which is about a two-day supply. These tablets are small, convenient, lightweight, and don’t add a disinfectant flavor to the water, so they have a lot going for them.

Before packing your turkey roasting bag into your kit, make check that it doesn’t have any leaks by filling it with water, and they dry it before folding it up. If you want to, you can use a permanent marker pen to mark volume lines for 1 liter, 2 liters, and 3 liters as you pour water into the bag. This would allow you to be more accurate when adding water purification tablets. Alternatively, you can just estimate it, which is my plan.

Some people argue that water purification isn’t important in an emergency situation because it takes days before diarrhea will start if you’ve been infected by bacteria or viruses and by then you’ll probably already be home. However, having diarrhea at home is no fun either, so why take that risk when the solution is so small and light to pack.


If you do end up having to attract attention because you’re lost or incapacitated, there are a some items that can make a big difference. Two such items in the pocket kit are a:

  • Whistle
  • Signaling mirror


The whistle is the classic tool for attracting attention when there are people close by. Shouting is effective for only a short time because our voices become hoarse and we quickly lose the energy needed to do it. Blowing a whistle is much less taxing so we can keep doing it for longer, and the range is greater than that of the human voice.

It’s easy to be separated from a group when we’re outdoors just by stopping for a bathroom break or to get some food from our backpack. If it’s not a marked trail we could easily start off in the wrong direction through the trees or we could take a wrong turn along a game trail instead of following the correct route. I sheepishly admit that I was once hiking with a group when we lost someone this way, resulting in an all-night search by the county search-and-rescue team. Using a whistle while the others are still within earshot can quickly prevent a bigger problem. Remember that three long blasts is the recognized signal for help.

A plastic signaling mirror is a little bulky and weighs 5/8ths oz (19 g) (and glass ones are significantly heavier), but given how common aircraft searches are for missing outdoors people and the fact that mirrors have been successfully used by hikers to attract the attention of pilots, it’s an essential survival item. The flash from a mirror can be seen for many miles, although it only works on sunny days and when the aircraft is in the same part of the sky as the sun. You can use any mirror for signaling, such as the mirror on some sighting compasses, but the purpose-built signaling mirrors have an aiming mechanism, and they are compact enough for a pocket kit.

Another important signaling tool, which is indirectly available to you with this pocket kit, is a smoky fire.

Fire starting

Fire-starting is an essential outdoor skill that should be practiced regularly at home using materials gathered from the outdoors.

The 3P pocket kit contains five items for starting a fire.

  • A mini lighter (Bic style)
  • A small ferro rod and striker
  • Jute twine (9 feet)
  • A squared-off piece of candle
  • Mini sticks of fatwood


Many materials can be used to start a fire, but these were selected for their light weight, size, and the ability to carry them on a commercial flight.

A fire needs a source of ignition. For many of us who aren’t bushcraft purists, the mini butane lighter is our first choice for this. It’s cheap, light, and works well in most conditions. More powerful, windproof lighters are beautiful things in cold and windy conditions, but they don’t meet the requirements for this kit because they aren’t allowed on aircraft. They are also too large and heavy.

If the mini lighter doesn’t work for some reason, the kit contains a mini ferro rod and scraper that is guaranteed to work, but which is less convenient to use than the lighter. When the ferro rod is scraped quickly with the scraper, it produces hot sparks that can ignite properly prepared, dry tinder. It’s a good idea to always use ferro rods as your ignition tool when lighting fires in non-emergency situations so you thoroughly learn how to use them.

The 3P kit doesn’t contain matches because airlines ban strike-anywhere matches outright, and ban safety matches in checked baggage. You can carry one book of cardboard safety matches in your carry on, but these matches are just not a good option in damp outdoor conditions anyway and the mini lighter is just a superior tool.

The jute twine is a multipurpose item that can be used as tinder as well as general cordage. To use it as tinder, cut and unravel a small length of the cord and fluff out the fibers.

Thin paracord, shown at the bottom of the following photo below the standard 550 paracord, is a better option for cordage but as it’s synthetic it doesn’t make good tinder. Jute twine works well for wrapping two objects together, but the thinner diameter twine breaks easily when pulling it taut. Either use thicker twine in your kit or braid three strands of the thinner twine together. In the photo below, from left to right are (a) three thin strands of twine braided together, (b) one thin strand, (c) one thick strand, and (d) one thick strand with the end fluffed out.


The squared-off piece of candle is an old-school survival kit item, but it’s included here because it’s non-flammable and therefore suitable for airline travel. It’s also a multi-purpose item in that as well as aiding fire starting it provides an extended source of light. I wrap my piece of candle in aluminum foil to prevent it from getting wax on the other items in the kit. You could use a couple of birthday candles instead, but they tend to snap and crumble as the kit bends in a pocket, so a single piece of candle is better.

Mini sticks of fatwood burn for a long time and can help transition a fire from the tinder to the smaller pieces of wood. If you don’t want to learn how to collect fatwood yourself, you can often buy boxes of it at grocery stores alongside boxes of firewood.

Don’t forget that other items in the 3P pocket kit can also be used as tinder, including the cotton gauze pads, antibiotic ointment, wood shavings from the pencil, plastic shavings from the mini lighter, and finely shredded duct tape and paper. You probably also routinely carry other items that you may not realize can be used as tinder.

First aid

There are a lot of items in the first aid category in the 3P kit, but realistically none or them are necessary for survival. They are simply small items that are convenient to have which adds greater value to the kit and makes it more likely that you’ll interact with it, which is a good thing. You may be carrying this kit with you around town (recommended), in which case, you’ll use items such as the sticking plasters, soap, and antibiotic fairly frequently.

The items are:

  • Antibiotic packet
  • Sterile gauze cotton pads, 2” x 2” (5 cm x 5 cm) (2)
  • Adhesive bandages(4)
  • Butterfly bandages (2)
  • Duct tape (6 inches, 15 cm)
  • Insect repellent (DEET) wipe packet
  • Safety pin, medium
  • Liquid concentrated soap in a mini bottle
  • Ibuprofen in wrapped in cling wrap


When you’re out in the field you should have a decent medical kit with you so you won’t be reliant on your pocket kit for adhesive bandages, but, if you’re anything like me, you will be dipping in to it from time to time because it’s all you have on you or you don’t want to stop to rummage through your backpack for your medical kit.

On the trail, it’s worth taking the time to care for small cuts and splinters with some topical antibiotic and a sticking bandage as they can quickly become infected and painful. Small open slices can be closed up with the butterfly bandages. For larger cuts, you can make your own large sticking plasters using a cut-up square of sterile gauze pad and a piece of duct tape. For a large gash you can apply the duct tape straight to your skin to close up the wound until you can get proper medical help.

The gauze pads, duct tape, antibiotic, and paper are multi-use items as they can also be used as tinder for fire-lighting. For this reason, make sure that you get gauze pads made out of cotton, as some of them are now made out of rayon/polyester blends, which don’t burn as well.

After sterilizing with a flame, the safety-pin can be used for removing splinters and insect stings, as well as popping liquid-filled blisters to relieve the pain.

Biting insects can carry diseases, so you should definitely consider carrying insect repellent in your kit. DEET preparations include a strong solvent that will damage plastic, so while a mini bottle of concentrated DEET will provide more applications, if it leaks it will wreak havoc with your kit. For this reason, the DEET in this kit is provided as a pre-packaged wipe.

If you’re around other people, washing your hands can help prevent the spread of diseases, and this item is very handy to have on you when you visit bathrooms that have run out of soap. A mini bottle of concentrated liquid soap will give you many applications, as a couple of drops are sufficient. Soapy water can also be used to clean wounds. I recommend Dr Bronner’s peppermint soap because the peppermint gives a clean, fresh smell that’s so good when you’re on the trail. If you’re concerned about carrying scented soap in bear country you can stick to the unscented version to avoid having to switch it.

The ibuprofen could be essential for you if you’re prone to painful, inflamed joints or iliotibial band problems that render you immobile when you overuse them. I’ve handed out a lot of ibuprofen to suffering hikers over the years when they didn’t think to bring their own.


The only navigation-related item in the pocket kit is a:

  • Button compass


If you’re not carrying a compass, because you’re on a day trip to a city for example, and all you have is your pocket kit, or your compass breaks on a biking trip, the button compass in this kit is a good backup. However, the procedures for using a button compass are different from those of a baseplate compass, so make sure you know how to use it.

Utility items

The utility tools in the pocket kit are a:

  • Small pair of scissors
  • Micro light
  • Wooden pencil stub
  • Waterproof paper


Small folding knives and razor blades cannot be carried on commercial flights, so the only cutting tool that the kit includes is a small pair of scissors. There are many options for scissors with plastic parts, with some shown in this article. I’ve settled on a pair of stainless steel “baby” scissors. You can order them online or find them at quality beauty supply stores.

They have blunt, curved tips, are only 3 inches (6.5 cm) long and weigh 1/4 oz (9 g). When tucked into one of the garbage bags, they are unlikely to stab you when in the kit is in your pocket.

A micro light is included to allow you to perform needed tasks in the dark, such as lighting a fire and building a shelter. You can use the mini lighter and candle as a light source, but the button light is a more practical option because it’s provides instant light, is windproof, and projects the light forward in a wide beam. If you can find a micro light with different intensity settings, it will save power if you only need a small amount of light.

A wooden pencil and waterproof paper could be used to leave messages for rescuers at trail junctions if you decide to move from your location. The wood in the pencil could also be used as tinder. As there’s no knife in the pocket kit, you’ll need to sharpen the pencil by filing it on a rock if you don’t have a knife with you elsewhere.


  • Prescription medication
  • Photocopied identification and other documentation

If you take prescription medication, including a small backup amount in your pocket kit is a good idea, but if you’re planning to travel abroad, make sure you have documentation to show that the medication was prescribed to you.

If you want to carry identification, you could include a photocopy your driver’s license. You could also include a photocopy of your bank card and medical insurance information in case you lose your wallet.

It’s amazing how many different useful items you can put into a small bag with a total weight of only 5.75 oz (161 grams).

One more thing…

However, it’s not quite finished yet. This bag isn’t durable enough to be able to withstand day-to-day life inside a pocket. To learn how to make a bag that’s perfect for carrying your pocket kit, read How to make duct tape zipper bags for your gear.

If you want to get our advice on whether to take a survival knife hiking, read .The truth about survival knives – should you carry one?

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Photo credits: Mark Beresford