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

| February 15, 2015

HalfDomeGoogleEarth300

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.

Why do you need a GPS track viewer?

You don’t need to record tracks and use a GPS track viewer to enjoy hiking, but it can be fun to review your favorite hikes on your computer. It only took about three minutes to bring my hike from this morning into both Google Maps and Google Earth, so it’s quick.

The results can also be stunning. Here’s a photo that I took while climbing Half Dome in Yosemite, California, followed by a 3D image from Google Earth projected from about the same spot.

photo of half dome for gps track viewer comparison

HalfDomeShoulderEarth625.jpg

Google Earth gives a pretty good rendition!

There are some other great reasons to record and review tracks.

  • You can learn more about the area that you were hiking in, which will give you ideas for new routes when you next visit.
  • By studying the 3D landscape of Google Earth and comparing it to the map you were using as well as your memories from the hike, you can improve your ability to visualize a topographic map in three dimensions.
  • You can also do a little bit of social gift giving by sharing your tracks with the friends with you on the hike. It will keep the buzz from your adventure alive afterwards, and before you know it you’ll be planning your next one – yeah!

Before you can import gpx into Google Maps you need a gpx file

To be able to use Google Maps or Google Earth as a GPS track viewer you first have to have a way to record a GPS track. A track is simply a file in which information about your location is recorded several times a minute during your hike. It notes the time, your position in latitude and longitude, and your elevation. It can also store information about any waypoints that you mark along the way.

The built-in software on a hiker’s GPS unit or runner’s GPS watch records data as soon as you start the track logging feature. The track files use a particular data format called GPS eXchange (.gpx). You can open these files in a text editor, such as Windows Notepad, and read the information it contains for yourself.

If you’re planning to use a smartphone to record your tracks, you’ll need to download one of the many available GPS apps. This is a subject that I’ll come back to in future articles.

Some smartphone apps can now also embed information about photos that you take and add icons to mark specific features along the way. These produce a collection of files bundled together as .kmz or .kml formats. The only difference is that the .kmz format is zipped up using an application similar to WinZip.

Digital maps actually read .kmz or .kml formats, so if you want to use a .gpx file with Google Maps or Google Earth, you’ll first have to go through the extra step of converting it into a .kmz or .kml format.

How to import gpx into Google Maps

Step 1 – Move your track file to your computer

The easiest way to move your track file from your smartphone is to email it to yourself. Most apps allow you to do this. If you have a hiking GPS receiver or a running GPS watch, you’ll need to synch it with your computer using the supplied cable and then move the file using the instructions that came with your device.

Your track file should now be on your computer.

Step 2 – Convert the .gpx file to a .kmz file format

If your GPS track file is a .gpx file you have to convert it to a .kmz file. The easiest way to do this is to use the free service on the gps visualizer website. There are many options on the page, but all you need to do is click the Choose File button and select your file.

gpsvisualizer.jpg

You may want to get fancy later and do things such as change the color and opacity of the track, but the default settings work.

Step 3 – Open your .kmz file in Google Maps to create your GPS track viewer

To open your converted track file in Google Maps:

  1. Open Google Maps in your browser.
  2. In the panel at the top-left of the screen, click My maps.
  3. google maps gps file viewer 1

  4. Click the Create button.
  5. GoogleMapsCreateButton

  6. In the panel, click Import.
  7. google maps panel for gps track viewer 2

  8. Drag your .kmz file into the provided space.
  9. google maps panel for gps track viewer 3

  10. After a brief pause, your file will open in Google Maps.
  11. This track shows the track of my climb of Half Dome recorded on my iPhone with an app called GPSHiker.

    google maps as gps track viewer for half dome

In Google Maps you can review the text of any waypoints that you set, measure distances, draw lines, and add markers. You can also add a whole new layer to the map and add additional information to it.

More usefully, you can view the map in different styles by clicking the Base map drop-down in the upper-left panel.

google maps panel for gps track viewer 4

Here’s the track from my hike this morning with the Whitewater style applied.

Example google map GPS track viewer whitewash

And here’s the same track with the Satellite style applied.

Example google map GPS track viewer satellite

Using Google Earth as a GPS track viewer

Although Google Maps is an amazing resource it’s limited to a two-dimensional perspective. Things won’t start to get really exciting until you open your track file in Google Earth.

Step 1 – Install Google Earth

If you don’t already have the free Google Earth installed on your computer, you can install it here.

Step 2 – Import your track file into Google Earth

  1. Open Google Earth.
  2. Drag your .kmz file onto the window.

You can turn features, such as waypoint and photo markers, on and off using the check boxes in the left-hand pane.

Using the tools in the top right corner, you can move around, change the altitude of your view, rotate, move left and right.

    google earth GPS track viewer controls

It does take a while to get used to the controls. You can also learn to use keyboard shortcuts and the mouse to move around. Being able to rotate the view and change elevation gives the feeling of flying around in a helicopter imagining all of the little hiker-ants below marching along the trail.

Here are two views from my Half-dome trip.

google earth GPS track viewer example 1

In this one it may look as though I jumped off the dome.

Google earth example GPS track viewer 2

But I was just standing around enjoying the incredible view!

photo of author on half dome

For more terrific articles about navigation, see:

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Category: Skills

Comments (2)

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  1. Scott says:

    Thank you for the instructions.

  2. Ehren says:

    Thanks for sharing these awesome instructions. Would you happen to know of a straightforward way to embed custom Google maps on to a webpage?