How do I make a map from GPS data?
October 20, 2009 12:38 PM   Subscribe

How do I turn my GPS track logs into a nice-looking trail map? Do I need a GIS package?

I'd like to make some high-quality maps of the hiking trails near my house. I have a handheld GPS, and I already have the downloading and conversion to GPX of the track logs worked out. However, that's as far as I've gotten. Starting from this big pile of data, which needs to be cleaned up substantially, how do I get a nice vector map?

I can load the track files into Google Earth right now, but that's not really what I'm looking for. I need some way to edit the tracks, choose how they're represented (some are the actual trails, some represent the boundaries of the park, some are surface roads, etc.), add labels, and generally turn it into something that people can use.

It seems like this is getting into GIS territory, but I admit to knowing next to nothing about GIS packages or really what they do, beyond a vague idea that it has something to do with maps. Do I need a GIS package? If so, which one? I'm willing to spend some money on this (although not the $2500 that ArcGIS apparently costs). Windows, Mac and Linux are all options, although Linux/Mac are preferred.

Some things I've looked at include GRASS, which seems to be raster-based; GeoServer, which seems intriguing but seems like more of a middleware/server component than a desktop editing application; Mapyrus, which seems something like what I'm looking for; and QCAD, which isn't a GIS at all but a CAD program, but maybe that's more what I need?

I've seen surveyors working with GPS units, so I know there must be some way of transforming that data into useful maps — how do I bridge the gap?
posted by Kadin2048 to Technology (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Have you looked into adding it to OpenStreetmap? They have a couple of different tools for massaging the data (both online and offline) and then people can browse the map and use it on their GPS.
posted by cmonkey at 12:46 PM on October 20, 2009

Been a while since I've been in GIS, so take this with a grain of salt. Also, can't really help you with the cheaper options. :)

Mapyrus looks like a good option for you. ArcGIS will do what you want, exactly as you want, but the learning curve is relatively steep for a new user, and if you want to use it over OpenStreetmap or Mapyrus, contract a GIS consultant. Adobe Acrobat Pro Extended has GIS/map tools, including georeferencing and markup, but it's been a while since I used it and can't say it can do everything you want and it is still pretty expensive unless you have a real need for Acrobat.
posted by neewom at 4:22 PM on October 20, 2009

Adding to cmonkey's comment, you can use various tools developed for OpenStreetMap without actually having to add the data itself to OSM if you don't want to (although I'm sure the OSM community would appreciate if you did). Most of the tools can run standalone. You can use JOSM to create your map (or add your data to the existing map). Once you have the data in a .OSM file there are various conversion utilities you can use to convert it to, for example, Garmin GPS maps, KML (for Google Earth/Google Maps), SVG, etc.

If you don't like the OSM approach, have a look around the Free Geography Tools blog and you can probably find something else that will help, but you'll probably need to pay for something decent.
posted by Emanuel at 5:42 PM on October 20, 2009

I've been doing this kind of thing as a hobby & for myself with about 2 years of GPX data. (I like to see where I've been).

On the Windows side, I've used GPSMapEdit which can do a nice job of letting me play with the layout and exporting it back to a format my GPS understands. GPS Visualizer is good for converting between different file formats.

On the Mac side, I've played with Ortelius which is still in the 'growing up' stages of development but looks like it'll be worth purchasing at some point in the not too distant future.
posted by neilbert at 7:24 PM on October 20, 2009

Great suggestions so far, everyone. I was not aware of OSM and spent the day playing around with it. Very interesting; not exactly what I was thinking of, but I didn't really know that anything like it existed, so maybe it'll do the trick. I like the idea of sharing the data that I'm generating, so it does have a lot of appeal. And JOSM does seem to at least bridge the gap between GPX files and a vector map.

Ortelius is painfully close to what I envisioned, but it doesn't seem to work with raw GPS data, only shapefiles that have already been processed and massaged into something coherent with a GIS package. That's, unfortunately, sort of a deal-breaker. Maybe they'll include it in the future.

If anyone has any further suggestions I'm still very much open to them.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:49 PM on October 21, 2009

There are plenty of excellent looking mapping options out there (eg. Maker! and soon, Indiemapper), but I don't know of any way to get GPS coordinates into them without first going through GIS (though I don't have very much experience with GPS). You might want to try QGIS - it works on macs, and it "supports plugins to do things like display tracks from your GPS." There are zillions of plugins.
posted by bellbellbell at 1:09 AM on October 22, 2009

On the Mac side also take a look at Cartographica
posted by lrivers at 1:40 PM on November 21, 2009

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