Sunday, February 10, 2008

Gathering & sharing GPS waypoints and routes as you survey a potential clean-up site

Here are the steps we have used in the process of surveying a potential clean-up site, and preparing our information to be shared with others.

We provide this information in the hope that, eventually, others will participate in the process. If you will be gathering waypoints and digital photos from a stretch of river you’d like to restore… we’d be most pleased to post those photos and coordinates here at Just drop us a note. If you're preparing for a river or coastal clean-up, perhaps one of these tips will be of help. Or, if you have an idea that would improve this list, please share your intelligence!

Note that we’ve tried to approach this project in a way that requires no purchase of additional software (other than the disks that came with your handheld GPS device).

The tools we use:
A handheld GPS device (I use a Garmin eTrex Vista HCx).
The software that came with the GPS (I use Map Source).
A personal computer and Internet access.
An account with Google Maps (this is a free web utility).
A download of Google Earth (this is a free download).
A basic digital camera (note: don’t bring your expensive one).

Site selection. Define the area of waterway that you’ll survey. Do a quick visual scan or canoe/ kayak run. Get a “lay of the land.” Then, visit and select “satellite view” to get a better feel for the scope of your project. While you’re there, you might as well open an account, so you'll have access to the “My Maps” tab, which you’ll be using later. Also, take this opportunity to download and install Google Earth (free) at (you'll be using this program later, too). Once you’ve decided that, “This is the spot you’d like to restore,” here’s how you’ll tackle it.

Route and waypoint recording. Start a “route” on the handheld when you begin your hike or canoe/ kayak run. When you arrive at a large object that you’d like to target for removal, simply hold your GPS device right over the item and “create a waypoint.” [Note: It’s not enough to call the waypoint a “tire.” You should label the waypoints as “tire 01, tire 02, tire 03, etc.” That's because later, you’ll want to associate specific waypoints with the corresponding digital photo of the item.] Only get as close to an object or debris field as is SAFE. If collecting data while hiking, watch your footing. If collecting data by canoe or kayak, be particularly mindful of how currents can change near bridges and other obstructions; the eddy can be very strong, which is why the debris has gathered there, in the first place. Caution is your first criteria.

Digital photography. After you have collected the waypoint, and recorded it in an identifiable manner (tire 01, tire 02, etc.), push or paddle back (or step away) a few feet, and take a digital photo of that item. The reason you’re doing this is to provide a potential trash hunter with a vivid idea of what they’re looking for. The waypoint is helpful, to be sure, but the GPS coordinates—combined with a digital photo—will help an extraction volunteer find and remove the item(s) more quickly and conveniently.

Waypoint plotting. Your GPS equipment came with software that lets you transfer waypoints and routes from your handheld into a format that is more manageable. Once you have created a route file containing your waypoints, you should be able to import them into Google Earth, placing them in your “temporary places” folder as a .kmz document. This step will make your waypoint collection nearly ubiquitous, and easy to share with others. I would suggest that you name the file with this convention: River name (i.e., KettleRiver), date (09-16-07), and your initials (ma), each separated by an underscore. So, for my Mississippi run last fall, the name might look like this: Mississippi_9-16-07_ma.kmz. If you take a second run down the same stretch later, the date will help you distinguish which file you’re working with. If you took a run the same date as me, then our initials would make that distinction.

Waypoint sharing. Save the .kmz file from Google Earth to your desktop. Now, you can either email the .kmz file as an attachment to anyone else who has access to Google Earth. Or, you can view the route in, through the “My Maps” function. There, you can “Create a Map,” and import your .kmz file into Google Maps... which is stored on a web page that can again be emailed to anyone. Now, you have a collection of waypoints that is very easily shared… Only Internet access is required.

Merging the photos and waypoints. There are two alternatives to doing this… use which ever works best for you, and for the person who will be recovering the debris items in the inventory list you have created. My preference is to open each digital photo in some type of photo editing software (something like Photoshop Elements), and physically add a label containing the coordinates (latitude and longitude) somewhere on the picture (click on the photo at left to enlarge the example.) You can obtain these coordinates from your GPS handheld, or you can right-click on the waypoints in Google Earth, and select “properties.” The other alternative would be to simply change the name of each digital photo, adding the waypoint title to its name, as well as the corresponding route name. If you’re particularly tekky, you can even add your digital photos of debris sites to the Google Map you have created for the route created.

Obtaining the photos and waypoints from When you see a Google Map anywhere on this blog, you can click on it to enlarge the document, and navigate the map just as you would if it were your own. If you have followed all of the instructions above, you can now even choose to “View this map through Google Earth.” As soon as you open the file in Google Earth, the program will automatically store the route in your “Temporary places.” Before you “close” the program, it will ask you if you want to save that file in your “My Places.” With this step done, depending on the GPS device you use, you’ll be able to drag-and-drop the .kmz folder directly to your handheld. (I know this works, at least, for Garmin and Magellan devices, as I’ve tried it on both.) Thus, the maps has gone from my handheld to yours, or vice-versa.

Ideally, I’d love it if canoe clubs, kayakers and hikers everywhere would take the time to help create this inventory of pollution. As we’ve said all along, a problem well stated is half solved (Einstein.) If you have any questions, please feel free to drop me an email.

Let the solution begin.

© 2008 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.

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