Using Google Earth to plan for backpacking and hiking trips

Google Earth can be very useful for hiking and backpacking. You can usually find trail data online, and get a good idea of elevations and distances before even hitting the trail.

It can open kml/kmz files, and other mapping formats (like gpx). I was looking for a Northern Loop path, and eventually found one at GPSfly. It had a few extra side paths and didn’t fully go from Sunrise to Sunrise, so I opened it with WTracks and cleaned it up so the total distance would be more accurate.

After importing the edited gpx into Google Earth, I turned on the Parks/Recreation Areas in the Layers panel to see what would show up, and the results were mixed.

GE - layers ParksRec

A few campsites looked good, a few were missing, and Berkeley Park was obviously in the wrong spot. It did show a few waterfalls and Ranger Stations which was nice.

GE - Berkeley location confusion.jpg

I ended up using the map on the NPS site to cross-check where the campsites were supposed to be, and then manually added the camps to Google Earth.

Elevation Profiles

There are various Wonderland Trail elevation profiles online, but I did not find a Northern Loop one that I liked. So, I made my own. To view the profile in Google Earth, right-click on the path in the map (or side panel), and select Show Elevation Profile.

GE - Elevation Profile.jpg

In addition to showing elevation and distance, you can click + drag on the profile to select a portion of the trail. This allows you to easily measure distances between points on the map.

For example, I selected the trail from Yellowstone Cliffs to Fire Creek. Directly above the elevation profile (in the grey area) it gives you distance, elevation gain/loss, and other data. I used this to measure distances between camps and decide how far we wanted to hike each day.

GE - Elevation Profile usage.jpg


A tour is a virtual fly-through following a path. You can control zoom and speed options of the tour by clicking Tools > Options. Click the Touring tab to change settings.

Back in the main window, select a path and press the Play Tour button (which actually plays and records at the same time). This will start following your path.

GE - Play tour.png

When the tour has completed, click the Disk icon to save the tour, so you can play it later.

GE - Save tour.jpg

Watch Northern Loop fly-through tours on YouTube, or download the kmz to view them in Google Earth.


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