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Understanding GPX Files: A Guide for Adventure Riders

Adventure Riding discovers the lesser travelled paths across the country, and the best way to plan, navigate or share those paths is via a GPX file.


This will give you a technical and contextual explanation so that you can understand the foundation of each aspect and how we can use that to plan our adventures.



What is a GPX File?

GPX stands for GPS Exchange, a file formatted to a standard for devices to read or create an overlay on a map for navigation. The file can consist of Waypoints, Routes or Tracks, which are GPS markers where each serves a slightly different purpose.

Each point will include a GPS coordinate at minimum, but it can also contain additional details like name, description, elevation, speed, or direction. The official schema and complete information are available at https://www.topografix.com/gpx.asp.


Types of data

What is the difference between a waypoint, route, and track? All three are GPS location markers but differ in how the device uses them.


A waypoint is a single location, a Route is a series of waypoints to follow to a destination, and a Track is a specific list of points from an already-followed path. Think of it as the Route is where you plan to go, and the Track is where you went.


Waypoint

A waypoint is a single stand-alone GPS location with a latitude and longitude location and typically a name. At the very least, a GPX file containing a list of waypoints can guide someone from point to point in order of their choosing.


A device like a Garmin Xumo or a phone app like OsmAnd will find a way to a waypoint, but the file does not contain the path, only the destination.


Tip: Create your waypoints with a prefix to make it easier to manage locations. For example, I use “D1-05-Fuel Stop”, Day 1, waypoint number 5, and it’s a service station, and then my final stop of the day will always be 99, D2-99-Camp, for example.




Route

A Route is a sequence of waypoints in the order the device will follow to a destination. Depending on the complexity of the route, this might be anywhere from a few to many route waypoints.


The device will then create a navigation path using those route points in a straight line or, more commonly, via roads or tracks from the device’s database.


When planning an adventure ride, we’re typically not going to take the fastest way to a destination. Instead, we want to follow a particular route from A to D via B and C because that’s where the adventure is, and the device will follow the path in the order defined as a Route.

In other words, where waypoints are A, B, C, D, a Route is A=>B=>C=>D.




Tracks

Routes and Tracks have almost identical structures, but how they are used differentiates them.

A track is a periodic recording over a trip, so it is expected to have many more points than a Route. A device will specify the period and record the GPS coordinates, typically in seconds or minutes. For example, over a 6-hour trip, if the device period is set to every 10 seconds, it will record 3,600 GPS tags along with details such as time, speed and direction.


Tracks contain much more detail and are typically used to review a previous trip or pass it on to a fellow traveller.


Using a Route will define navigation points for a device to calculate a path, whereas a Track will be followed. Some devices will still interpret turns and distances based on the shape of the Track, but it has not calculated the path, so this will vary between devices and phone apps.




Virtual Tracks

Another way to create a GPX Track is to build it virtually in software like Garmin Explore or GaiaMaps, which will generate a trace of a mapped road or track, depending on the settings selected. A device can then follow this virtually generated Track. However, that is only as accurate as the map it was created with.


When creating virtual tracks, ensure the exported file is defined as a Track, as the larger file size and more points can cause issues when a device attempts to read it as a Route. For example, a Route in GaiaMaps will create many points similar to a Track, but the exported file will be a Route. Even the straight-line routing mode will create many points in a straight line, making it impossible for a device to follow.


Although this may be expected because of the wording used, apps like OsmAnd will struggle and slow down attempting routing with so many points, so it is advisable to convert the Route into a Track or use software that will export a Route appropriately.


You can convert any GPX Route into a Track or even clean up messy formatted files at https://www.gpsvisualizer.com/


Creating a GPX File

Should you use a Route or a Track?

The answer may be both, depending on how you like to serve up your adventures. Some people prefer to mark out waypoints, and the adventure is working your way out on the day, or letting the device calculate the path, so a Route is a better choice there.


A calculated route will have accurate arrival time and distance estimations, particularly if there are stops. It will also adapt and re-route when you encounter blocked paths or decide to change paths.


Others like more structure to their rides and want to follow a specific path, so following a defined Track is the better option.


My approach is creating two separate GPX files, one with a simple point-to-point Route and the other with a specific Track. The Route is the one I will navigate with, but I will have the Track visible on the map for reference. We follow the planned route when the device's navigation path matches the Track. However, if there is a deviation from that plan, it will be visible, and then we can decide to follow the planned path or take new options.


My Process

I start with GaiaMaps because I like the range of maps to view my intended path, and it’s easy to create the exact path I want with the click-and-drag shaping. I usually start by adding the critical waypoints for the route to get a broad visual of the whole day, including the start, destination and any POI. Then, I build a Route from start to finish and shape it around the roads and tracks I want to include.


I then export the GPX file and send it to my mobile or iPad to import into Garmin Tread. The Tread app will automatically convert the Route in the GPX to a Track, which is what we want, and then I create a Route by tracing the imported Track with only the critical points like stops or turns I like to ensure I don’t miss. The Tread app will have the “Adventure” one to four options, but if that still isn’t following the path you want, you can add “Shaping” points.


The Garmin Explore web app can also be used as a Desktop alternative to the Tread app, although it does not include Shaping points. However, anything created in Explore will sync to Tread anyway.


My Garmin Zumo will then follow the Route and overlay the Track for reference.


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