GPS and Google Earth

GPS and Google Earth

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering, Scrambling, Canyoneering, Skiing

Georeferenced Photos

I finally figured out (with help) how to georeference photos so that they show up as placemarks along your tracks, it is really cool. Check it out.

Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (with photos)
Mount Russel in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (with photos)
Mount Langley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (with photos)
Bear Creek Spire in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (with photos)


Bear Creek Spire RouteBear Creek Spire Route in Google Earth

First, I want to state that I am an amateur with the use of Google Earth and working with GPS files in general. This article is summarizing what I have learnt over the last couple months while trying to find a better way to manage and share my GPS file. I am hoping to get feedback on this article, which I will incorporate in this article in an attempt to become all encompassing on the topic.

Google Earth KML Files

Mount Whitney RouteMount Whitney Route in Google Earth

Until recently there was not a standard format for sharing and saving GPS waypoint and track files (the best was .gpx files). Also, there was not a standard program used to manage these files. Along came Google Earth with their KML and KMZ files.

KML is a file format used to display geographic data in an Earth browser, such as Google Earth, Google Maps, and Google Maps for mobile. KML uses a tag-based structure with nested elements and attributes and is based on the XML standard.

You can create KML files with the Google Earth user interface, or you can use an XML or simple text editor to enter "raw" KML from scratch. KML files and their related images (if any) can be compressed using the ZIP format into KMZ archives. To share your KML and KMZ files, you can e-mail them, host them locally for sharing within a private internet, or host them publicly on a web server. Just as web browsers display HTML files, Earth browsers such as Google Earth display KML files. Once you've properly configured your server and shared the URL (address) of your KML files, anyone who's installed Google Earth can view the KML files hosted on your public web server.

I am still amazed at everything Google Earth does and all for FREE. I am still expecting Google to take it back and start charging for the use of this excellent program. Now, Google Earth is becoming the standard program to manage and share waypoint and track files and the KML (KMZ) files are becoming the standard file format. Note, unless you subscribe to Google Earth Plus you will not be able to upload your data directly from your GPS to Google Earth. You will need to upload through the program that came with your unit (or other available programs such as EasyGPS) and either convert to KMX using online converter such as or if using the latest version of Garmin Mapsource (6.12.2 upgrade your current version for free at you can view directly in Google Earth and save as KMZ directly in Google Earth. I am sure that soon all mapping software will have the ability to save as KMZ or view in Google Earth as MapSource does.

Google earth saves both waypoint and track files as KMZ. Typically, WPT files are used to save waypoints and TRK files to save tracks (tracklogs). Tracks are continuous paths of joined waypoints. A list of the most common file types is shown below.

File Types:
suffix --file type
.bin --Emtac Trine (CRUX_LOG) binary log file
.crs --Garmin Training Centre "course" file
.csv --Comma-separated text (including Timex Trainer et al.)
.gpx --GPX (GPS eXchange format)
.hst --Garmin Forerunner XML
.igc --IGC log file (from sailplanes)
.kml --Google Earth KML
.loc XML waypoints (not Terrabyte/TopoGrafix!)
.mps --Garmin Mapsource TEXT file (not binary)
.nmea --Raw NMEA sentences
.ns1 --NetStumbler binary log file
.pdb --Cetus GPS, Pathaway, or cotoGPS tracks or waypoints (Palm OS)
.pcx --PCX5 tracklog
.pgl --TomTom text log file (modified NMEA)
.plt --OziExplorer tracks
.rdn --Fichiers de IGN Rando (français)
.sdf --Suunto SDF file
.trk --Tracklog: PCX, CompeGPS, GPS Tuner, or Magellan NMEA
.txt --Tab-delimited text
.wpt --Waypoints: OziExplorer, PCX, CompeGPS, or Magellan NMEA
.xml --GPX or Garmin Forerunner Logbook XML

Using Google Earth

Mount Hawkins TrackMount Hawkins Route in Google Earth

Assuming you did not fork out the $20 for Google Earth Plus, you will need to download your GPS files as usual and save in one of the formats in the table above. Or, if you program allows you, save or view the file directly in Google Earth as KMZ.

If you can not view or save directly in KMZ format, use an online converters or download GPSBabel, both are Free.

Once you have your KML or KMZ file, simply double click it and it will open up Google Earth (of course, you need to first install Google Earth) and zoom into the track or waypoints (fitting all the data points saved in the KMZ file in the screen). Waypoints will have a placemark and are shown as a triangle or square. Tracks are shown as continuous lines. Both can be edited to change name, description, color, width, opacity or altitude. If there is a website address or other information stored in the file (as with Geocahce loc files) this data and website hyperlink will be shown when you click on the waypoints. You can organize your tracks and waypoint via the left reading pane (Places) into separate folders, expanding folders by hitting the + sign, dragging and dropping into folders, etc. just as if they were in windows explorer. By saving to My Places (Save) you can have all your tracks and waypoints accessible in one program, flying into the specific track or waypoint you want to view. And of course, the Google Earth ability to pan, tilt, rotate and zoom provide a great ability to get a good feel for the terrain before setting a foot outside of your house.

Click on some of these and check it out yourself. Tilt, zoom and rotate to find the best view.


Google Earth WaypointGoogle Earth Waypoint Screenshot

Google Earth is great for managing and sharing waypoints, such as loc files used for geocaching. The example below shows a list of Geocache waypoints. One of my favorite features is to “play a tour” of your selected waypoints. Simply click the waypoints you want to tour and hit the play button (small triangle) or Tool – 'Play Tour' from the menu bar. Google Earth will fly to each waypoint, zoom into it, pause and then fly to the next. This is a great way to explore a set of waypoints virtually before hitting the trail. You can even get direction to or from the waypoint and click on hyperlinks to take you to websites or to view photos. You also have the ability to change the placemark icons indicating the location of the waypoint or even set it above the ground with a tether connecting it to the point.

The data form at GPS Visualizer ( also provides the ability to colorize that waypoints based on elevation as well as many other parameters.


Rattlesnake Peak TrackRattlesnake Peak Route in Google Earth

Rattlesnake Peak with Topo OverlayRattlesnake Peak Route in Google Earth with Topo Overlay

When opening (or viewing) you KMZ file of your track, Google earth will zoom it to fit the screen. From there, I like to rotate, tilt and zoom to get the best visual of the terrain and route. Here is the track of the Rattlesnake Peak hike after my adjustments. It is so simple to get a great representative of your route, and then you can save the image for sharing.

You can even add Topo Map overlays, as also seen here. You can download on open USGS maps yourself, or I find it easiest to get them from gpsvisualier and when you convert a track it will give you an USGS Topo Map overlay file that you can double click to open in Google Earth or use (but you need to enter a lot more data using this form, I find it easier to convert the GPS track and use the overlay file it gives you). When using the topo map overlay, you will want to experiment with opacity to allow some of the original terrain to show through. You can also download the file here for a KML Overlay Network link that works like a plugin with Google Earth to provide various options for different overlays.

There are many other things you can do with waypoints and tracks, and I welcome input on other options available. You can create interactive Google Maps of your tracks and/or waypoints that can be inserted on your own websites (example), you can color code the tracks based on elevation with a legend and much more that I am only starting to figure out. KMZ and KML files offer huge flexibility and more and more development will continue.

Sharing GPS Data

GPSVisualizer also provides the ability to convert GPS files to text, which can be inserted as plain text in websites (trip reports, etc)and allow others to cut and paste into the converter in order to convert to a GPX or KML file for view or downloading to GPS directly. This eliminates the need to download a file. Below is the text for a GPS track to Brents Mountain. Simply cut and past into the text area at and click convert.

T,11/25/2006 0:01,34.08585,-118.7226667,518,Brents Staircase,
T,11/25/2006 0:04,34.0859833,-118.7225667,502,,
T,11/25/2006 0:05,34.0861333,-118.7226,493,,
T,11/25/2006 0:05,34.0862667,-118.7226,484,,
T,11/25/2006 0:06,34.0864333,-118.7225167,466,,
T,11/25/2006 0:07,34.0865667,-118.7224,455,,
T,11/25/2006 0:09,34.08665,-118.7222833,440,,
T,11/25/2006 0:10,34.0868333,-118.7222167,431,,
T,11/25/2006 0:11,34.0870667,-118.72215,429,,
T,11/25/2006 0:11,34.0871833,-118.7223,415,,
T,11/25/2006 0:12,34.0873,-118.7224667,403,,
T,11/25/2006 0:13,34.0874833,-118.7225333,413,,
T,11/25/2006 0:14,34.0876167,-118.7226833,399,,
T,11/25/2006 0:15,34.0878167,-118.72275,382,,
T,11/25/2006 0:16,34.0879833,-118.7228333,378,,
T,11/25/2006 0:17,34.0881333,-118.7228667,376,,
T,11/25/2006 0:18,34.0882667,-118.7229167,376,,
T,11/25/2006 0:19,34.0884,-118.7230333,366,,
T,11/25/2006 0:19,34.0884667,-118.7231667,347,,
T,11/25/2006 0:20,34.0885667,-118.7232833,332,,
T,11/25/2006 0:21,34.0887,-118.72335,319,,
T,11/25/2006 0:22,34.0888667,-118.7234333,294,,
T,11/25/2006 0:23,34.0890667,-118.72345,277,,
T,11/25/2006 0:25,34.0891667,-118.7233833,272,,
T,11/25/2006 0:26,34.0892667,-118.7232833,274,,
T,11/25/2006 0:27,34.08945,-118.7231,271,,
T,11/25/2006 0:28,34.0896167,-118.7229833,262,,
T,11/25/2006 0:29,34.0897167,-118.7228333,232,,
T,11/25/2006 0:30,34.0897667,-118.7226833,209,,
T,11/25/2006 0:31,34.0899333,-118.72255,207,,
T,11/25/2006 0:32,34.0901333,-118.7225,196,,
T,11/25/2006 0:32,34.0903167,-118.7224667,188,,
T,11/25/2006 0:34,34.0904667,-118.7223833,180,,
T,11/25/2006 0:34,34.0906333,-118.7222667,172,,
T,11/25/2006 0:35,34.0907167,-118.72215,177,,
T,11/25/2006 0:36,34.0908833,-118.7220667,176,,
T,11/25/2006 0:36,34.0910167,-118.7219,173,,
T,11/25/2006 0:37,34.0911833,-118.7219833,158,,

Or, the text can be displayed in a form, which allows for a single click to get the data copied into the form at GPSVisualizer (I can not take credit for this HTML, thanks Adam). This is also handy for very long routes with hundreds/thousands of points such at the Rattlesnake Peak hike below.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-15 of 15

rematore - Apr 5, 2007 1:29 am - Voted 10/10


I've been using Google Earth to scout out my trips for a while now. The one beef I have with it is that many of my mountains, since they are remote, have low detail. Other than that, I don't really mind the inprecise posting of its satellite photos. I try to view the path I propose to take from all directions and angles, and I feel that Google Earth really helps with this.

I also used it for Mount Whitney. I was scouting a route up Meysan Lake because that was the only trail I could get a permit on. There were no really good trip reports for the route, so I had to make an aerial viewed route. I was very nice.

Good Article.


chudder - Apr 5, 2007 9:30 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Google

For higher detail, you can create a kml overlay for use with Google Earth that uses the USGS 1m aerial B&W photos. Go to

I found it easiest to start with entering a center point (try Shasta at Lat: 41.40940 Long: -122.1939) and select the map type. I like the 2m topo overlays for my purposes.


Travis_ - Apr 5, 2007 1:32 am - Hasn't voted


I find that by adding the USGS Topo Maps to Google Earth image it helps to pinpoint the routes rather then relying on the photos alone.

thanks for your input,


MoapaPk - Apr 5, 2007 1:02 pm - Voted 10/10


Howdy -- here's the problem I discussed elsewhere:
Registration error example

Is there a tool to plot (draw) tracks in Google Earth a priori, then upload them to the GPS? That would be a useful capability, if the misregistration problems are addressed. You mention some uploading capability in GE+, but the track editing capabilities are not clear.


Travis_ - Apr 5, 2007 6:37 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: misregistration

I have seen elsewhere where my track is off by a significant difference in Google Maps (but not Google Earth), but when I opened the track at a later date everything was correctly lined up. I so not have any input with regards to that.

As for a tool to draw tracks before uploading them, the latest version of Garmin's MapSource is great for this. It has great features to join tracks, divide, draw, etc. a huge improvement over earlier versions. Prior to this upgrade I used It works well but the free demo version has limitations. I don't think Google Earth has any track editing features.


gimpilator - Apr 5, 2007 1:31 pm - Voted 10/10

Great Article!

I'm glad to see Google Earth promoted. This article answered a lot of questions I had about adding files to Google Earth. Here is a more basic article on Google Earth that was written for Summit Post, for anyone who is interested.


Travis_ - Apr 5, 2007 6:39 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great Article!

thanks for your input, these two article compliment each other well,


mgeo - Apr 5, 2007 8:18 pm - Hasn't voted

Google Earth is Decent, I hope they get better.


Nice page. There is also a pretty interesting review here:

I like using Google Earth to store my tracklogs and waypoints in as well. I wish it had some more capabilities in the 2D realm in terms of easily displaying topographic maps and aerial photos. Ideally, if you could just view them instead of having to use another program to find them and then upload them as images. Also, I wonder how accurate the GPS data is represented. I don't know the projection or datum that google earth is using, but it seems decent. It is a handy tool to display the routes on and do some pre-planning (of course, it was hard to determine that we would be crawling on our bellies climbing the smooth looking ridge near Brent's Mtn.)


MoapaPk - Apr 5, 2007 8:24 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Google Earth is Decent, I hope they get better.

Supposedly, Google Earth uses WGS84. The common misregistration is about the same amount one might expect if NAD27 and WGS84 were confused -- but the error is not consistent in direction.

It took Terraserver years to correct the misregistration in some areas (the Whitney area is still badly misregistered in topos). I wonder if there is some way to alert the Google Earth people to errors in individual photos?


mgeo - Apr 5, 2007 8:46 pm - Hasn't voted


I could see this being a bit of a pain, considering that most california topo (DRGs) are in Albers Equal Area and NAD27 or NAD83. And the user's manual states: Note - Currently, files using NAD83 projection are not supported by Google Earth.

Seems like I will just have to keep my unit in WGS84.


MoapaPk - Apr 5, 2007 9:41 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Registration

NAD83 and WGS84 should differ by less than a meter. NAD27 and WGS84 may be off by 200 meters.


camartinez - Apr 5, 2007 10:21 pm - Voted 9/10

Good articule

I have other way to do what you wanted to do, it´s easier and it is free too..
Yo download gpstrackmaker and download your garmin maps to it.
Press google earth icon and that´s can have yor route on google earth screen and you can even see your tracklog on realtime if you have connected your gps connected to your laptop and google earth images on your cache memory...have fun....


Travis_ - Apr 5, 2007 10:32 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Good articule

thanks! I am going to try that out,

mauri pelto

mauri pelto - Apr 10, 2007 7:32 pm - Hasn't voted


The GPS visualizer works great. I have done alot of google earth work and always aligned the images painstakingly myself. Now if only some of those images were a little newer, however, they do have great detail.

vht - Apr 13, 2007 4:21 am - Hasn't voted


The website of the newest MapSource should begin with "www8....", otherwise it doesn't work.

Inspirating and really nice article!

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