Making your own Backcountry Maps, Waypoints and Route, and using them on your phone

For a while now, I’ve been making maps for my backcountry trips. I’m mainly doing this because, unlike the UK, North America doesn’t necessarily have great maps for every area. Furthermore, I sometimes don’t want to pay for a printed map for a quick trip, or perhaps I’ve not found a single map that shows everything I want, or shows too much. To fix this, I’ve dived into the world of creating your own maps. There are a lot of different tools out there to do this, and honestly no one tool is perfect. Even if it was, there is no one data source either.

What I’ve decided to write is the guide that works pretty well most of the time for:

  1. The Tools
  2. Finding the map source that works
  3. Finding relevant data to overlay on the map
  4. Adding data to the map
  5. Printing a paper map
  6. Generating an output that can be read by most GPS units
  7. Offline Smartphone Apps
  8. Loading your route onto your smartphone

I’ve written this with hiking in mind, but you could use it for pretty much anything… biking, snowshoeing, skiing, camping all spring to mind. I’ve broken it up in to sections you can (kind of) take or leave. For example, if you just want a paper map, just do up to that point, or perhaps you use an iOS device, you can export the data then import it into your app of choice.

Before we start, I also want to be clear that I’m not responsible for the accuracy of the maps or data you choose to use. Be mindful though that any source you pick might not be perfectly up to date, and especially in winter, won’t show current conditions (e.g. recent landslides, avalanche dangers, unmelted snow, road closures etc).

UPDATE 11th September 2015: I wanted to add something here, remember that your smartphone might be your only way to call for help. You should preserve battery life for that possibility. External batteries are available to keep your phone going and much like you take extra food into the backcountry, you should take extra power, more than you need. But fundamentally, this guide is more about making a paper map than it is necessarily about using it on your phone. As I emphasize later, always bring a paper map (which can never run out of battery) with suitable knowledge of how to use it. This is just one part of many hiking precautions, North Shore Rescue can give you direct advice from the first hand experience of a Search and Rescue team on what to do before you leave, please read that.

The Tools

As I said in the introduction, there are loads of tools to achieve the same end. For this article, I’m going to skip the debate for a bit, and just pick a few:

  • For finding sources, importing maps, light editing and printing of your maps: CalTopo
  • For mapping in the backcountry (Android smartphones): Backcountry Navigator

Those two are the main two you will need, but there are a few others worth mentioning:

I might not go into full details on those, but they have guides on how to use them.

Also, I stress again these are not the only tools out there.

Let’s start with CalTopo and search for roughly where you are going.

CalTopo, on the default map layer.

CalTopo, on the default map layer.

Finding a Map Source that Works

I’m lucky, I live in British Columbia, and CalTopo has access to some great maps from DataBC. You might not be so lucky, or might not like what you see, so in the top right corner, you can change your source:

CalTopo Sources

CalTopo Sources

I’m personally a fan of OpenCycleMap (link to the full service), as it tends to have great data, especially for near populated areas, worldwide:

CalTopo set to OpenCycleMap

CalTopo set to OpenCycleMap

But in some areas, not so much:

A little more sparse in this area

A little more sparse in this area

Play around a bit until you find one you like:

This is actually a scan (most of these are). But it does show some extra details (camp sites by the road, ski lifts)

This is actually a scan (most of these are). But it does show some extra details (camp sites by the road, ski lifts)

This one is nice, but I'm going back to the first for now

This one is nice, but I’m going back to the first for now

Don’t get too hung up on this, pick a usable one even if it’s not perfect.

Where to get your relevant data?

You thought I put a lot of disclaimers in about the data sources being more regional than global? Treble those warnings here.

You’re going to have to look for a source of trails, waypoints, routes etc. These can be from plenty of places, find them with Google. Here are just a few that work for me:

For this example, I’m going to use some waypoints from ClubTread, and a route from EveryTrail. This assumes you want 2 data sources (any number is fine). At the bottom of both pages, you will find download links:

ClubTread's download link for waypoints (at the bottom of the page)

ClubTread’s download link for waypoints

EveryTrail's download link (on lower right of the page)

EveryTrail’s download link (on lower right of the page)

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2 GPX files are yours!

GPX files are the most widely accepted file format for various tools (KML is probably second). For this guide, we’ll just stick with GPX files. It’s important to know that they only contain a small set of objects, like tracks, waypoints and a few others. They do NOT contain the image of the map you overlay them on.

Adding Data to the Map

Back to CalTopo, time to import both those GPX files!

2014-06-11 14_07_24-CalTopo - Backcountry Mapping Evolved

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Once the import is complete, our map will show the waypoints above:

Dog Mountain with just the waypoints

Dog Mountain with just the waypoints

Repeat for the other file you downloaded and you’ll get a route too:

Dog Mountain with Waypoints and Route

Dog Mountain with Waypoints and Route

Now is a good time to save your work in CalTopo (creating an account if necessary)

2014-06-11 14_14_04-CalTopo - Backcountry Mapping Evolved

Let’s say you want to add your own objects to the map, you can, in the lower left. For this example, I’ll add a simple marker (lower left of the interface):

You can add a lot of different things to maps in CalTopo as you can see here - but for ease, I'm just going to cover simple markers for now.

You can add a lot of different things to maps in CalTopo as you can see here – but for ease, I’m just going to cover simple markers for now.

Adding a marker

Adding a marker

Printing a Paper Map

Here is where CalTopo really shines I feel. Click Print in the top right corner.

2014-06-11 14_20_49-CalTopo - Dog Mountain

I personally like creating PDFs for this bit, so the guide will show that. The print from browser tool is very good as well and a fine choice, so go right ahead and use it if you prefer.

CalTopo PDF Printing

CalTopo PDF Printing

Hit Generate PDF when you’re ready. You’ll find the result looks better than the preview above:

Screenshot of the resulting PDF

Screenshot of the resulting PDF

Print those and take them with you.

You might want to add some pages or print again for some area maps. It’s easy to make a book-style map for yourself. I recommend taking maps of the area, not just the exact route and nothing else, in case you get lost.

How to make these waterproof you ask? A resealable bag works as good as anything I’ve used.

Need to catch up? Here is a link to the map I was making in the above screenshots.

Generating Output for most GPS Units

Remember GPX files? You’re going to export your own from CalTopo

2014-06-11 14_29_37-CalTopo - Dog Mountain

Export to GPX above (you can also export to Google Earth's KML format if you wish to view your work in Google Earth)

Export to GPX above (you can also export to Google Earth’s KML format if you wish to view your work in Google Earth)

Send the resulting GPX file to your device (check your manual on how to do this).

Using this on your phone

This brings us now to the other tool I really love in wild, Backcountry Navigator. I very much recommend you spend the $10 on the Pro version as it does a LOT for that. You can also quite easily load maps for Offline use (probably not an issue on Dog Mountain, but certainly is when you’re in the backcountry near Pemberton).

Before we start though, let me make it clear that you should always go into the backcountry with a paper map, compass and knowledge of how to use them. Smartphones and non-smartphone GPS devices can and do run out of power, may not be water resistant, be broken in falls or you may have forgotten to set them up before you left. The guide up to this point shows you how, so you have no excuse.

To ensure this part stays up to date, I’m going to link to their getting started guides on how to download maps and use the app:

However, here we are  going to import our map data and download some maps for offline use. Do this before going into the backcountry where you will likely not have phone reception or data service.

A prerequisite step, not shown, is transferring the files to your device. Email them to yourself, plug in via a USB cable, use the beloved AirDroid or Dropbox… there are lots of ways.

As I  was creating this, it turned into a screenshot lead tour, so for this next part, here’s a gallery, in step by step order.

When you’re out in the wilderness, you can find your position (well, as good as your phone can tell you) using the options under this menu:

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Remember: GPS uses considerable power, but will work when you don’t have phone reception (you’d be surprised how many people think you need a phone signal, in fact, you don’t, but you do need data service if you have not stored the map offline).

You’re done

Hopefully now you have a paper map from CalTopo and an Android phone/tablet running BackCountry Navigator with your route and maps available offline.

Remember to waterproof your phone somehow (I just put mine inside a pocket sized MEC dry bag) and bring some extra external batteries with you.

A big thanks to the makers of all the tools and data sources used in this article. Many of them are free, open source or low cost for high value. Consider donating or purchasing. CalTopo’s About Page has details on how the developer likes support, and they have an awesome blog too. Backcountry Navigator is made by CritterMap Software and can be demoed for 30 days and/or purchased on Google Play.


Chilkoot Trail

Eight months ago, I eagerly posted that I was in Whitehorse and about to start the Chilkoot Trail… and of course I get back and get busy so forget to actually write a post about it Still, no time like the present?

If you want to see a map of all of this, here is one courtesy of Parks Canada.

Day 0: Whitehorse

I’m calling this day 0 as it’s not really day 1… we had to get into Whitehorse the day before and stayed at the Beez Kneez hostel (great, well kept, brilliant hostel, has WiFi, friendly owners). We explored for a little bit and found the

Getting to sleep that night we did notice the longer days up that far North.

Day 1: Travel to Skagway, Dyea and setting off

Early start and headed to find some breakfast before setting of on the bus for Skagway, Alaska. The bus driver seemed extremely pleased that I had my I94-W already from an earlier trip. Saved time at the border. We also stopped for an hour at the (somewhat touristy) Carcross, Yukon.

Once in Skagway we got registered at the trail office and were told in no uncertain terms that metal detectors were not allowed! Seems they had a bit of a rash of people going hunting for treasures with them. All signed up, we head off to find some food and something to remember the first time in Alaska! In Skagway itself, we did observe quite a lot of cruise ship passengers… and suitable places to serve those passengers. I’ll be honest, the heavy tourist focus isn’t my thing and not something I really like that much. If I go to a place I don’t want to think that I’m being fleeced for cash at every turn, and as nice as Skagway was, unfortunately that felt true. We toured round for a bit and found a few decent shops none the less, you had to look for them but they could be found… Also, see that place call the Red Onion? It’s a former brothel turned into a theme restaurant.

We caught a bus (all of this organised by Hannah by the way, thanks again) up to the trailhead just near Dyea, Alaska.

So we headed off into the first of what would be several different areas… the first being coastal rain forest… and at least in my mind, the definition of it. Green, wet, leafy trees and (despite being early summer) somewhat humid. For the most part this was easy going, mostly a gentle uphill (but some steeper sections). Note that you won’t get water until about the 6km mark where there is a stream, so don’t do what I did and set off with just 1L that morning! You’ll see quite a few leftovers that the goldrush folks dropped (but not that many) on your way. We had great fun spotting these and shouting “artifact!” when seen. We did about 8km that day before setting up at Canyon City for the night.

By far, the note of this night was a laminated book which contained the journal of Leo Healy, titled To the Klondike, quoting the abstract:

Diary of nineteen-year-old Leo R. Healy, who with his brother George, journeyed to the Yukon Klondike gold fields in 1898. They arrived in Seattle after a train trip from Chicago. There they bought their outfits and voyaged to Skagway, then went over the Chilkoot Pass to Dawson. After a brief stay, seeing the conditions in Dawson, they returned home via the Yukon and St. Michael.

Later I emailed the Alaksa State Library and they were kind enough to send me a copy of the diary, unfortunately, I don’t think the copyright notice gives me permission to post it here, but you can request it from them for personal use. I strongly suggest you all do using the details above, MS0013-07-04 is the document number). Made good reading in the hut to hide out from the rain.

Day 2: Canyon City to Sheep Camp

Started off wet unfortunately but dried up. We saw a few more artifacts along the way. Things began to get more rocky and trees thinned out a bit. However, it was flatter than yesterday. Just as well, because your pack should still be pretty heavy with food at this point… you’ll need your energy for tomorrow for The Pass (see this elevation profile I posted of that). I probably shouldn’t have polished off a whole bag of beef jerky then…

The wettest night of the trip ensued. We just got the tents up in time to avoid it. We hung out in the huts with the new friends we were making (you tend to see the same people each night in camps) and played asshole. Enjoyed eating a bunch of tortilla wraps and Buffalo Chicken filling for them. We met some folks who were shuttling food drops up to a group, they were doing almost our entire route so far in a day, no problem at all! The Rangers (who had a small house nearby) gave a briefing on what to expect and where the border actually was. Sleep time for what was ahead…

Day 3: The Pass

Oh this is the one we were working up in our heads. Got up a little earlier, got walking as soon as the food was done. We headed into more mountainous terrain now, a few streams to cross, snow starting to appear in patches. You have a general uphill for about 2 hours until you start to reach a moraine and scree field. There are a LOT of discarded artifacts in this area.

Oh did I mention a large scree field known as The Scales? This is what seperated the men from the boys back in the Gold Rush days. People would charge $1 (a great deal in that time I might add) to haul your Gold hunting gear up and you would quickly pay it to avoid doing it yourself. Clearly such a fearsome terrain adversary would best anyone meeting it these days…


Quite easy really!

On we went, now the terrain was above the treeline high alpine stuff. Rocky at first. We found where the US border was. So we stop for a photo. Simple enough isn’t it? Just set up the camera, set it on self-timer and run like hell towards your spot right on the side of a ledge with a heavy pack on your back?


I nearly fell off a cliff between Alaska, USA and British Columbia, Canada so I could be in this photo!

Instead when I sat down I lost my balance, Christina fortunately realized this and dived across my legs before I tipped backwards!

On we trotted to the ranger station and outhouses. The Rangers (one Canadian, one American) were great, really friendly and informative… in addition to hiking at the speed of mountain goats! (Seriously, they almost ran up the Scales)

Hiking alongside the gigantic, blue Crater Lake you could see the ice/snowbergs (is snowberg an actual term?) well on their way to breaking up. This section is also memorable as it’s where the downhill really started coming in.

A few river crossings later we arrived at Happy Camp. Mosquitoes were bad here so it’s time to break out the nets we bought in Whitehorse.

That Dark Chocolate Cheese Cake was hiked up in secret, along with some candles, for Hannah’s birthday (well, a little early, it was the day after we got back).

Day 4: Happy Camp to Bare Loon Lake

This was a more downhill day, we felt we deserved that. You started off in Alpine areas and glacial bowls with lakes everywhere, until you reach Deep Lake campground.

After this it’s a walk along the edge of a gorge, following the river, moving noticeably faster now. This area takes you down into the treeline again and the soil becomes a richer red colour, more desert-like. Eventually you make it to Lindeman City and the small museum there.

This is where we kept thinking we would get to Bare Loon Lake in no time at all… but we were not aware of the smaller lakes in the area so kept thinking it was closer than it was. We found ourselves on undulating terrain here too. Eventually though we reached it. This was easily my favourite camp because:

  1. It was sunny and warm weather
  2. After 4 days without a shower, we could have swim in the (freezing bloody cold) lake
  3. It was more like summer than the last few days

Day 5: Bare Loon Lake to the finish line at Bennett

Started off the day by taking plenty of photos are Bare Loon then did the final, very sandy section of the trip. Plenty of artifacts now and our packs noticeably more empty and lighter.

We got to Bennett just in time to see the train we would take tomorrow depart. We’d planned for this to be an easy day of chilling out and swimming… although we did notice a lot of glass around the place. I was down to my last 2 freeze dried meals, so a disciplined diet was needed (that means I looked at them both as if they must be eaten immediately). We then continued our crib playing (taught by Hannah).

During the crib games, the heavens opened on us and we decided it was easier to just move the tents onto the deck, as we were the only ones around (we thought about sleeping inside but didn’t).

Day 6: Trip back to Whitehorse

Final day, final bagged meal… I had to have Chicken Teryaki for breakfast. A game or two of crib then lunch was served at the train station that we had prebooked. The hikers get their own room away from the tourists (as we all smell by that point)!

Train trip back to Carcross was quite scenic, I’ll just post the photos as it really was a scenic train trip…

A few hours in Carcross again then we headed back to Whitehorse… look I’ll be honest, I wanted the following:


I added extra bacon!

I added extra bacon!

However, I shot myself in the foot there… the rich food kept me awake all night and I wound up only sleeping a couple of hours…

Day 7: Flew Home

Back home!

In Whitehorse, Chilkoot starts tomorrow!

I’m writing this on the plane to Whitehorse. After a year of planning, many changes, it eventually became just the three of Hannah, Christina and myself leaving for the the trip.

As I write this, we are flying over Deeks Lake, The Chief, Squamish, Tantalus, Garibaldi Lake, Black Tusk… Christina is taking a bunch of photos. The view out of the plane is amazing! Better still because we’ve actually hiked all those places. We also know that those areas are clear and will be a good place to go when we get back to normal.

Anyway, back to Chilkoot talk, the forecast is 40% chance of rain for the next 3 days (until Sunday), then sun for the rest… I’ll be honest, I’m concerned about that rain… We have rain jackets with us but it will be a rather miserable experience if we are getting wet for three days. But, the less arduous days are sunny, so that should lift our spirits.

Equipment wise, we were somewhat disorganized after our last trip. Hannah can’t find her tent, so has borrowed one. It seems she had my cook set and bowl, thankfully I have those back! All of us are debating how much food we actually need. We’ve found there is a Coast Mountain Sports in Whitehorse and we are going!

I wish we could have brought Jesse!

Another hour to Whitehorse then we get some sleep for the night, then bus to the trailhead tomorrow.

—– Some time passes —–

So we got to Whitehorse and checked into the Beez Kneez Hostel. Nice place, very friendly owners. Went out to Whitehorse and had a great afternoon lunch at the Alpine Bakery. This place has a small town feel to it, but you see all the things from the bigger cities. We headed to the excellent Coast Mountain Sports in Whitehorse and loaded up on bits we had forgotten or needed, including bug nets. While there, we were told to get up at 3am to start The Pass, as falling rocks will be a concern…

Back at the hostel, final packing done, now off for a proper dinner before dehydrated bagged meals for 5 days.