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GPS - Tracks, Routes, GPX. What are they and how do I make them?

So you have your new GPS toy and everyone keeps talking about routes, tracks and GPX files. What are they on about?

Well, with your GPS you can use it for a few things, the obvious being telling you where you are and showing you on a map. If you're using it for road navigation you have the typical put your destination in and follow the turn by turn instructions. However, when trail riding those routes are not always obvious and trying to follow an OS type map from memory is a tall order. In the good old days you'd simply get your highlighter out and mark your routes you wanted to follow or remember for future reference directly on your paper map. GPS devices have 3 useful features that replace your old marking technique:
  • Tracks - when you head out, you can tell your GPS to create a track. Basically the system will digitally plot where you have been for the day so when you get home you can review where you have been. Especially useful if you find somewhere new but you weren't quite sure how you got there.
  • Routes - are kind of the reverse of a tracks in that you follow them. You can use a track that you made from a previous ride and turn it into a route. Alternatively, you can create a route from scratch on your mapping software.
  • GPX - this is simply the file format for the above two so that you can share your data with friends or export it to other devices. GPX is a recognised standard amongst mapping software so that you can create on one piece of software or device and copy to another.
So those are the basics. But how do you create these things. I've created a few short examples using View Ranger below. Everything I have used for the examples below is completely free so you can give this a try on your Android or Apple smart phone. But you can apply the same basic principles to the other mapping options like MemoryMap or Garmin.

So if you want to give these a try, download View Ranger and follow the instructions to create an account.

Creating a Track

This is pretty much a turning on exercise. Open View Ranger and select the little stopwatch symbol in the top left hand corner. When you want to stop. Hit the same button and hit stop. Here are some screen shots to illustrate.

After you open the map and select the map you wish to use you will be presented with the screen shown on the left.

To start creating your track hit the stopwatch button shown in the top right hand corner of the screen on the left.

You will now be presented with the screen on the right. This screen can be called up any time when you are using your device and it will give you an update of your track status, time, distance covered.

When you are ready to start your ride, simply hit the record button (the red dot in the middle of the screen).

Your track is now being created.

Later in the day when you finish the ride, simply hit the stopwatch button to take you back to the screen.

Now hit stop (the square button).

That's it. You've created your track.

If you hit the track list link in the bottom left, it will present the screen on the right where you can view your track and previous ones.

If you hit the menu button, on Android it is the three square dots found top right. You can save this track as a GPX file.

If you return back to the screen before and select the upload button, you will be prompted as shown on the right and your track will now be in your online account for viewing.

In the GPX sections we'll touch on where you can find this when you are online. 

Creating a Route

You can do this two ways. On your phone or through the web on your PC. The example below is via the web. 

Once you have an account go to

Login with the details you registered with on your phone.

This is your home page. Lots of things on here but for now we are just looking at creating a basic route. Click the button which you can find to the bottom on the right.

This will take you into a map page. You can can change the map you want to use on the right hand side by selecting the drop down but for this example I have left it on OpenStreetMap. OpenCycleMap is probably better for planning trails and if you have bought any official OS map coverage you can find them in there.

Tip, don't scroll around the map looking for where you want to start your route planning. Type the name of the closest major place in the search box top left.

To start planning your route simply click where you want to start.

Then keep clicking along the route you want to follow.  You can move points by simply clicking and dragging if you make a mistake.

Keep going until your route is complete.

Now select the save button.

You will see a little prompt telling you it has been saved. Now this is a nice feature of View Ranger. If you are only using your phone and the website, all you need to do is synchronise your phone to put this route on your phone. 

Return back to your View Ranger App.

This time click on the three lines that you see in the top left corner of the screen. 

Click on the organizer button.

Hit the synchronise routes option (the circular arrows)

You will be prompted that routes are being synchronised. If their are any tracks you have not uploaded, these will be grabbed too. 

You will receive a prompt informing you of what you have synchronised. 

If you return to your map, you will see the route you created earlier in the web tool.

Now, next time you go out. Open view ranger and it will show you where you are on your map and all you have to do is follow your trail. Get to a turning and simply glance at your GPS screen to remind you where next.

GPX Files

So you have your routes and tracks. But how do you share these or put them on another device. Maybe you use a phone on one bike and a Garmin unit on another.

If you return to your View Ranger home page. You will see the routes you created earlier and any tracks that you synchronised in the middle of your screen now. Simply select the view button from tracks or routes.

You will now see a summary screen of your tracks or routes. To view one, simply click the link.

 You will now see a screen with your route. From here, all you need to do to get your GPX file is hit the button top left and the file will be downloaded. You can now simply attach this to an email and send it to who ever you want, or hook your other GPS up to the computer over USB and copy it to the correct folder for your device.

That's about it for routes, tracks and GPX files. Each application is a bit different and some not as straight forward but they all follow the same basic principles as outlined above.