Resource List For GPS Mapping In Canada

Here's a list of GPS mapping resources. While the tools are mostly generic, and will work for anywhere, the mapping data is concentrated around Canada. Things are changing fast, so this is by no means an authoritative list, but it does have everything I know about. I'll also come back and edit it as I find more. Please, feel free to comment if you know of stuff I've missed.

Update #1: Added a Canadian Commercial tool vendor called Avenza, Stats Canada, and several online mapping sites for Vancouver, Sannich, and the Southern Gulf Islands.

A few notes before starting:
  • You need to know the difference between 'raster' and 'vector' data. Raster datasets are images, like the scan of a map or a satellite photo. Vector datasets are things like tracks or waypoints. For more detailed information about filetypes, you can read this.
  • The Canadian government has organised their topographic maps using a specific naming system. Basically, it's 3 digits for the region(001-560), followed by a letter (a-p), and then a 2 digit number (01-16). Thus, Victoria BC is on the 092b06 tile. Not all tiles exist in all mapsets; cartographers generally don't make topographic maps of open ocean.
  • There used to be a clear distinction between freeware, shareware, and retail applications, but the line is getting a little confusing. For example, most Open-Source applications are free to use but, like this site, have donation boxes. In the tools section, I've noted applications that you can use for free, but most will at least be hoping for donations. Others will be selling a 'Pro' version, hoping that the limitations of the free 'Lite' version will convince you to buy it.
  • Information is protected by copyright and this includes mapping data. If you're making maps for distribution, then understanding copyright is going to be important for you. Please be aware of the restrictions.
The Data
  • Canadian Tile Guide - This is an interactive web page where you can, among other things, find out which Canadian standard map tile you need for any area in Canada. Use it to find the names of Toporama, CanMatrix, CanVec, or Ibycus map tiles.
  • The Natural Resources Canada server - Basically, from this server, you can download mapping data for all of Canada, in several different formats. You can use this data for anything you want, even commercial applications, so long as you cite the Government of Canada as the source. The data includes, but is not limited to:
    • Toporama provides the older-style raster 50K topographic maps as GIF files. These ones don't have as much detail as the CanMatrix maps, but the good thing about them is that they are margin-less, which makes it a lot easier to photo-edit them together for larger maps.
    • CanMatrix provides raster images as geo-referenced TIF files. They are available in either the 50K or 250K series and are basically hi-res scans of the topographic maps you can buy from the Queen's Printer. They even include all the map margin information, which is both useful and annoying at the same time, depending on what you want to do with the maps.
    • CanVec provides vector files that contain the data the Canadian government cartographers use to make those beautiful topographic maps. This is vector data, and not for the faint of heart. If you're good with map data, like Dale Atkin, you could use this data to build custom maps like Ibycus.
  • Ibycus - A near-complete (and maybe fully-complete by now) topographical mapset of Canada that can be used with Garmin's Mapsource or other IMG-based tools. It is offered for free but donations are appreciated.
  • OpenStreetMap(OSM) - A WIKI world map, with a Creative Commons license. The intent of this site is to get people to create maps of their areas that are not dependent, in any way, on copyrighted information. The result is a free and open mapset of the world, in various states of detail. This is a really interesting project that holds great promise. Currently, for Canada, their datasets are less than what is available from the Canadian government, but that will hopefully change with time.
  • Google maintains a huge mapset that includes vector as well as raster data. However, the use of this data is restricted by a lot of rules. Google Earth and Google Maps are the primary tools for accessing this data but there is a mapping API (for programmers) to incorporate this data into their websites. Also, some enterprising people are working towards incorporating Google data into other projects. This, however, may run afoul of Google's legal restrictions.
  • Mapsource Datasets - Mapsource is the retail application Garmin sells to upload maps to Garmin GPS receivers. They sell different mapsets for it, depending on what the purchaser wants. Some are old and not available any more, some are new. My comments on them here may be out of date.
    • Topo Canada is the current hiking map. I personally find, while riding a motorcycle in logging country, that the topographic lines are very distracting. They look too much like roads on my old monochrome GPS receiver. Other than that, it is decent mapset with good resolution.
    • The Canadian Enhanced Basemap is the older mapset for Canada that included many logging roads. I actually found it quite good, though the resolution was a little low.
    • Metroguide Canada is, as the name suggests, the detailed maps and points of interest for many Canadian cities.
    • The Canadian Recreation Guide does not seem to be available any more, which is a good thing because it was pretty well useless.
  • GeoGratis The root source of all Canadian government mapping data.
  • BC Government Public Mapping Sites is a list of, well, everything for BC.
  • The Geography Network has all kinds of data.
  • GeoComm offers free GIS data, in amongst the for-money stuff.
  • The GIS Cafe is more of an online magazine for GIS professionals, but it does offer data downloads.
  • Stats Canada offers a bunch of data, statistical analysis stuff.
  • NASA MrSid Images - MrSid is a satellite image format, Quantum GIS can handle it. Google Earth is probably easier to use if you're looking for satellite imagery.
  • NOAA/National Geophysical Data Center data.
  • POI Factory - points of interest sharing site. Ever wanted to know where every Walmart is in North America?
  • Russian Military Maps like the Canadian government maps, but in Russian, and of Russia (or places Russia invaded - like Afghanistan). I know, this isn't Canadian data, but it's cool, so I threw it in.
Web Resources. These sites don't offer direct data downloads, but they can be useful for finding places:
The Tools
Like the data, some of these tools are changing fast. Any shortcomings mentioned may already be resolved or the tools may have already been superseded by new ones.
  • GPS Map Edit is a great mapping editor that integrates with cgpsmapper. It supports MP and IMG formats. There is a free lite version. It is vector based.
  • cgpsmapper compiles MP files into IMG files for use in Garmin GPS receivers. The free version has restrictions, but works.
  • sendmap sends IMG maps to Garmin GPS receivers, it comes with cgpsmapper. It also comes with a lot of scary warnings about how it might mess up your GPS.
  • Mapsource, as described in the data section, is the tool that Garmin sells to dump maps to Garmin GPS receivers. It also sends and receives GPS track, route, and waypoint data as well as providing a moving-map display. It is vector based.
  • GPSbabel converts waypoint, track, and routing data between various formats. Actually, it translates between a huge number of formats. It too is free but they would really, really like donations.
  • Quantum GIS is a tool to view and edit mapping data. It allows layering vector over-top of raster data and has plug-ins to, among other things, communicate with Garmin GPS receivers. It is an open-source project.
  • OziExplorer is a tool that lets you do a lot of really useful things: It lets you take scanned maps and geo-reference them. It communicates with your GPS receiver to transfer track, route, or waypoint data. It displays this data on a geo-referenced raster image. And, it allows you to view maps while driving. There is a free lite version, though I found an older lite version I have is less crippled. They also offer a pro version for sale.
  • Mappoint is the Microsoft mapping application that includes a little bit of GIS as well. As you would expect, it's pretty well locked into its own little world. It has a comprehensive dataset, but the import/export tools are limited. Microsoft markets it as a 'Business' tool. It is not free.
  • Viking GPS is an open-source (free) application that does what OziExplorer does and is also linked into Google's Map and Earth data. It is, however, still really early in its development cycle and is quite buggy. I've not had a lot of luck with it, so far, but I'm monitoring it closely. It has the potential to be great.
  • Google Earth is, well, the whole earth. What more can you say? Well, it's the sky too, but that's a different story. Not only can you view satellite images of just about everywhere on earth, you can overlay vector data, both yours and others. You can also draw tracks that you can export, convert, and upload to your GPS receiver. Google Earth is very useful.
  • QLandKarte is a open-source (free) alternative to Garmin's Mapsource. It too looks very interesting. They appear to be offering a Windows version as well. As such, with the Ibycus dataset, it may be possible to completely avoid paying Garmin for Mapsource.
  • Earth 3D is an open-source Linux alternative to Google Earth. It's a lot like Google Earth, except they only use freely available data, so you're not going to be seeing hi-res images any time soon.
  • ArcGIS is the definitive standard GIS tool for the mapping industry. ArcView is the old version, along with ArcInfo, but they have been replaced by a combined ArcGIS. GIS is short for Geographic Information System and involves a whole lot more than just making and viewing map data. For example, if you want to analyse the sewage plant for a city, making sure all the pipes flow downhill and have the capacity to handle the number of people living on each street, well this is the tool you're probably using. You can use it to view your GPS tracks on a raster map, but it's way overkill, and way too expensive, unless you happen to use it for other things. ESRI, the makers of ArcGIS offer a free data viewer called ArcExplorer.
Here are few other tools that I've read about but not really looked at:
  • GPS Visualizer free, easy-to-use online utility that creates maps and profiles from GPS data, or so they say.
  • GPS drive is an application that lets you run a moving map.
  • G7 to Win
  • GPS TrackMaker sounds like an OziExplorer type application, with a lite version offered for free.
  • Visual GPS
  • Map Window GIS
  • TopoGraphic - never used it, but they do have a free version, EasyGPS, available.
  • Avenza Systems Inc., a Canadian company, offers retail packages that allow you to edit mapping data in Illustrator or Photoshop. These are commercial applications that cost real money, but they do have a 2-week demo available for download. They also sell DVDs with mapping data; I have no idea how they compare to the stuff that is freely available above.
Map Formats
  • IMG is the standard format for Garmin's Mapsource maps. These are the files that Mapsource uploads to your GPS.
  • MP is the Polish Map format, as used by cgpsmapper. These are text files that can be compiled into IMG files.
  • OZF2 is a raster format map that OziExplorer uses. Ozi can also use BMP files, but if you use their converter program to make them into OZF2, you will be pleased with the results. This format includes pre-compiled zoom levels that not only speed things up in Ozi, the results look absolutely amazing when converting the Toporama images. I don't know why it works so well, but the crappy-looking Toporama files wind up looking like an artist-airbrushed topographic relief map. Check here to see what I mean.
  • TIF is a "Tagged Image Format" raster file. These files can be tagged with a lot of things, but in the mapping world, they are geo-referenced. The CanMatrix files are geo-referenced TIFs.
  • KML is Keyhole Markup Language, the standard format for importing and exporting vector data from Google Earth.
  • SHP is an ArcGIS data file, typically vector data, but, like I said before, GIS is about more than just mapping.
  • E00 is a GIS vector data export file. These typically get converted to SHP files for use in GIS applications, though even OziExplorer can import them.

The Guides (I'll be adding more here later)
  • GPS-GIS Toolkit is a PDF file on making and manipulating mapping data. It is written by Pierre Sauvé, of National Resources Canada.

General Links

Pocket GPS World
Ground Speak
Slash GEO


Garmin Topo Canada IMG Name Cross-Reference

In my efforts to build custom Garmin maps for my GPS, I had to cross-reference the Canadian standard 50K topographic sheet names with Garmin's IMG filenames. This proved rather difficult as Garmin doesn't seem to follow any logic in their naming convention. Maybe there's an easier way, but I just brute-forced it and deduced the names for Vancouver Island by trial and error.

I figured I'd upload the cross-reference table, just in case someone else wanted the same information.

The table is HERE



How to make GPS maps

I was going to write up a little bit on how to use the various free mapping tools to create custom maps, both uploaded to a GPS unit and downloaded to Google Earth. But, in my research I came across this PDF: GPS-GIS toolkit for the general public. It was written by Pierre Sauvé, of National Resources Canada and is the most fantastic, wonderful, condensed summary of what's currently out there that I've ever seen. I hate to say it, but I love my government.

For a while, I wasn't sure which way the Canadian government was going to go with all its GIS data. Stuff was available for free one day, then being sold the next, then back to free. I don't know what was going on in the background, but it looks like the Free side has won the day. It looks like a complete rout actually, with people like Mr Sauvé producing a guide on how to do just about anything you want with any Canadian government data. It's truly beautiful to see.

Not only does his document provide links to many free tools, including:

He gives a brief overview of how to use them to do stuff like:
  • Plan a trip using Google Earth
  • View your GPS data in Google Earth
  • Georeference your photos
  • Get your geospatial data into Google Earth
  • Google Earth overlays via WMS
  • The NMEA data format
  • Free geospatial data from NRCan
  • From shapefile to Google Earth and GPS
  • Map Gallery
And, my personal quest at the moment:
  • Customize your Garmin receiver maps with your own routes and points, not as routes and waypoints, but as overlay maps.

I will mention a couple of other resources that are not on his list: Quantum GIS, an Open Source mapping program that allows you to see all that wonderful free GIS data that NRCan is putting out, and Ibycus, by Dale Atkin, who has taken all that free topo data and made a near-complete Garmin mapset of Canada, more current that Garmin's Mapsource Topo Canada, and is giving it away as a free (by donation) download.

With a little help from our wonderful, productive Canadian government and an active collection of people providing amazing tools and data synthesis, the path to digital mapping resources is becoming clear for us average users.

I just wanted to say "Thank You" as publicly as I could.