There’s more than one way to skin a cat. As gross and odd as that disturbing tidbit of country jargon that my Dad always uses sounds, the point is well-received: There’s many ways of going about the same task, especially in data visualization. After trying and failing countless times to visualize my cross-country bike tour, I finally figured out how to get the job done. Below are the steps that I use to make custom maps of my bike rides using Google’s My Maps.
1.0 Track Your Bike Ride
I use Strava’s mobile app (www.strava.com/athletes/colinobikes) to track nearly all of my rides. Not only does it provide me with interesting stats about my route and performance, such as elevation profile and speed, but it records my path turn-by-turn. By tracking your rides with Strava (or some other tracking application of your choice), you ensure that you’ll have access to the raw data needed to create a custom map.
2.0 Download Your GPX Files
This can be done on Strava's website (not their mobile app) by going to your activity feed, clicking on an individual ride, then clicking on the button with a wrench symbol on the left of your screen. This brings up the “Actions” bar. Select the “Export GPX” action and save the resulting file to your computer. You now have the GPX file for that ride. Repeat this process for each ride you wish to map.
A GPX file is the actual location data that the tracking application recorded. If you are curious to know what a GPX file really is, then right click on your downloaded file and open it with some text reading application (Wordpad or Notepad would suffice). You’ll see that it’s just a bunch of latitude and longitude coordinates in XML format with timestamps. Yup, it’s just that simple. The man behind the curtain wasn’t so scary after all!
3.0 Combine Your GPX Files
If you are planning on visualizing more than 10 rides, you will have to follow this step because Google’s My Maps application limits the number of GPX files you can upload to 10. If you have less than 10 rides, you may choose to go to the next step, or you can still follow this step if you wish to combine your various rides into one that will be mapped as a single line on your map rather than multiple.
3.1 Find The Right Program
GOTOES/Strava/this nice guy Brian developed some online tools to help people like you and I who want to combine GPX files. Go to the site (http://gotoes.org/gotoes/strava/) and click on the “Combine FIT, GPX or TCX Files” button.
First you will be asked to choose and upload your files. Select the files, being sure to feed the application your GPX files contiguously. Then click the blue "upload" button. You will then be prompted by a red "Click Here" button. Clicking the button will take you to a new page from which you'll be able to combine and download your files.
3.2 Combine And Download
The next screen presents various prompts. Only select the “GPX” file format button, then click the big blue button to combine the files. The program will spit out a combined GPX file. Save the resulting file to your computer, and give it a descriptive name (e.g. “1_DC_to_Pitt” combines my six rides along the C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage to get from DC to Pittsburgh). Repeat this step as many times as you need to get all your rides into no more than 10 combined GPX files.
4.0 Trim Your GPX Files
Google’s My Maps limits the size of GPX files you upload to 5MB (5,000KB). If you didn’t combine your files (e.g. you skipped step 3), then check to be sure each individual ride GPX file is below the size limit. If you did combine your files (e.g. you completed step 3), then confirm that each combined ride GPX file is below the limit. Most individual rides will probably be below the limit, but I suspect that the combined rides will not. For all individual or combined GPX files you wish to map that are not below the upload limit, follow the instructions below or Google My Maps won't be having it!
4.1 Find The Right Program
You will need a program that will trim some of the bulk out of your files. The one I found online and have used for all of my maps is called GPS Babel (https://www.gpsbabel.org/index.html). Download the software onto your computer (I know, I hate downloading random software too, but just bite the bullet on this one). Once installed, open the program.
First complete the “Input” section. Select the “File” button and specify “GPX XML” as the format. Then click on the “File Name(s)” button and navigate to one of the large GPX files you wish to trim. After selecting the appropriate file, click on the “Filters” button. In the left bar, select “Routes & Tracks” and select the “Simplify” box. You then need to specify the number of points you want to limit the output GPX file to. As a (arbitrary but effective) rule of thumb, I look at the size of the input file in KB, divide by 10, and let the result be the number of points. For example, “1_DC_to_Pitt” came out to 12,343 KB, so I selected 1,234 points.
Next complete the “Output” section. Select the “File” button and specify “GPX XML” as the format, just like before. Then click on the “File Name” button, navigate to the directory where you would like the output GPX file to be stored and then give it a descriptive name. Once you are done this step, both “File Name” prompts should be populated. If they are, then go ahead and press the “OK” button at the bottom.
The program will take a few seconds (maybe minutes) to modify your file. All it is doing is decreasing the file size by uniformly taking out some of the track points (remember, those little timestamped lat & lon indicators?). The resulting file will be stored in the directory you specified.
Repeat this process until each of the individual and/or combined GPX files that you wish to upload is below the 5MB limit. Upon completion your GPX files will be prepped and ready to upload to Google's My Maps.
Note: If you feel any of the output GPX files were trimmed too small, then repeat the process and filter out less points (maybe try dividing by 4 instead of 10). If you don’t know or don’t care, then don’t worry about it :)
5.0 Map Your GPX Files
Alas, the moment of truth! Now you will feed your beautifully combined and trimmed GPX files to Google’s My Maps application.
Start by going to google.com/mymaps. If you don’t already have a free Google account, you will need to sign up for one. Once you have it, sign in.
Click the red “Create A New Map” button at the top left of your screen. Give your map a name and description by clicking on “Untitled Map” in the top left of your screen. You will be met by a prompt that will request a name and description, fill it out!
Next you will notice that Google has already included one “Untitled Layer” beneath the title and description. Each layer will correspond to a single GPX file upload. Remember, you can only have 10 of these, and the size of each GPX file imported must be less than 5MB.
Start by importing your first layer, preferably the chronological first in your journey. Click on the “Import” option beneath the checked “Untitled Layer” and drag or select one of your prepared GPX files. You should notice that the route was drawn onto the map with a green start and a red end-point. The checked “Untitled Layer” will now take the same name as the uploaded GPX file. I recommend changing to something more descriptive, which is easily done by selected the three vertical dots next to the layer name and selecting “Rename this layer”, then modifying the default name.
If you scroll over any of the layer elements on the left-hand side, you’ll notice that you can customize them to your liking. Play around with these options to create a map you find pleasing.
If you have more GPX files you wish to turn into layers, select the “Add layer” button and repeat the process of importing your GPX file and then customizing the layer.
Once your map is chock full of geospatial data, click the preview icon to get a sense of what your masterpiece looks like. Does something look funny? If so, tinker with the options in My Maps. Almost everything you see in My Maps can be modified, it’s just a question of figuring out how to access the layer’s properties. Click around, not just in the left bar but on the map itself to try and activate the layer’s features.
The final step once you’re happy with the preview is to specify who will be able to see the map. Click on the “Share” option left of the map to set permissions.
6.0 Celebrate Your Newfound Passion For Cartography!
Send the map to your boyfriend, to your girlfriend, show it to your students, bore your colleagues with it, do whatever you want! It's yours!
Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment or like below if you found this tutorial helpful. If you have suggested improvements to this process or know of other useful programs or applications, please leave a comment! Also, if you make a bike map, share it in the comment section!