Topo to Garmin Question

I am getting a little ahead of myself - i just ordered the garmin venture Hcx. I hate to have to spend the money on the topo maps. I am lucky because i have access to ArcGis and ESRI files. So I am thinking that i can goereference my topos (downloaded from the state GIS for free) and cut out the river and some adjacnet area and turn into a shapefile just as i would for my trimble system at work (i would not dare take that unit on a canoe trip). Since i do not have my garmin yet (bought it on amazon), can i import shapefiles into my garmin using pathfinder? if not i found this program

only problem with this program i would need the administrative access when i hook up the usb port - are there alternative programs? thanks Rick

cannot be imported directly into the Garmin unit. At a minimum, the files need to be converted to a Garmin format, but even then I am not sure about the degree of functionality you will have. I seem to recall seeing information about how to make something like this work , but don’t remember exactly where.


– Last Updated: Jan-31-08 4:34 PM EST –

this link - should be able to convert the shapefile to a garmin file - that is if you are using arcview or arcgis - i was hoping to avoid this step using pathfinder. but i am guessing that pathfinder only works with trimble products.

it will be interesting to see if i can pull it off. unfornatelty the GIS expert last day at work is tomorrow - before my gps unit gets here - so i am going have to figure it myself

free terraserver map files
rfiler said:

" … (downloaded from the state GIS for free) …"

Where do you go to download the files? Do you know if they are different from what’s available on Terraserver?

After looking into a Garmin gps unit similar to the one you ordered, I wound up buying a PDA and going with this program sold on this site:

The big advantage is that it uses topos downloaded free from Terraserver. There are a number of disadvantages, however, such that I’m still looking for other solutions. I hate the Garmin pricing model, with such big markups on the maps that it forces you to ration what maps you use.

I’ll be watching this topic the next few days, but I’m not a regular on here so I’d sure appreciate an email if you find a way to do what you’re doing some time in the future (I might miss a post here).

it can be done

– Last Updated: Feb-06-08 9:11 AM EST –

I went with the Garmin Topo maps for ease of use and have been pretty happy with them. You can find Topo 2008 for under $70 if you shop around.

There is a way to get other maps on your unit. You need a good deal of technical know how and plenty of time. Personally I thought the $70 for Topo 2008 was a good tradeoff timewise.

If you still want to do it, this book devotes an entire chapter to the process: (it's also available on Amazon)

It's worthwhile read for any GPS user, but then again once you've spent $25 on the book you're already 1/3 of the way to the purchase price of Garmin's maps.

not so easy
Garmin map files are more like a shapefile. It has points, lines and polygons. Files of topo maps or satellite images are raster or grid files similar to a photo. To make a garmin map file from a raster you first have convert all the features on the map individually to vector files. One for the brown contours, one for the blue water, one for the black roads and then recombine them into one map file that is compatible with garmin. This is why they charge so much for their maps files. I have seen this done and if I can find it I will post the process, but it is not easy to make work.

The new Earthmate 20 GPS can display rasters, so it seems, but they also have a proprietary raster file-type and conversion of commonly available topo and satellite imagery is questionable at this point. you have to buy the images from Delorme.

here it is

This process does not convert a topo map, but builds one from scratch using digital elevation models, stream/lake data, and road data. There will be none of the other data that is usually on 7.5’ topos. This is the way Garmin and others build their map files.

This evidently uses free software and tells you where to get it. The process is not easy, even for a person with GIS training. I have never tried this. Way to much time involved.

Hack away!
Do a websearch for “Windows lost password” or some such. You will find sites that tell you how to find your administrator password.

The only other software I know of that doesn’t require the administrator access requires a serial connection and I bet that won’t work for the Garmin model you bought.

BTW don’t blame me when you get fired for hacking into your employer’s system.

this extension only allows you to download data from your gps and use it in arcview as a shape file. Ir can also allow you to upload waypoints and track files that you create to your GPS. The rest of the map that you used to create those points and tracks will not upload to your GPS.

more detail for free
briansnat wrote “I went with the Garmin Topo maps for ease of use and have been pretty happy with them. You can find Topo 2008 for under $70 if you shop around.”

What’s the scale on those maps? Isn’t it like 100K to 1? That really isn’t detailed enough for canoeing and hiking, especially on small streams.

Seumas wrote “To make a garmin map file from a raster you first have convert all the features on the map individually to vector files. One for the brown contours, one for the blue water, one for the black roads and then recombine them into one map file that is compatible with garmin. This is why they charge so much for their maps files.”

Well, I have to admit that I’m glad to hear that there might actually be a good reason for their high prices. It really did bother me to think that they were charging that much for what the government gives them for free.

However, that still leaves a question as to whether it’s worth it to me. What’s the advantage of that to a user? Faster processing? I will admit, one of the disadvantages of the software I’m using with the image files is that there is a few seconds delay most of the time in updating current position. It’s no problem travelling at foot or paddle speed, but it’s definitely noticeable (and bothersome) in a car on the highway.

Also, I don’t like the idea of giving up all the other detail on the USGS maps. Most of that stuff is very meaningful to a canoer or hiker, if it crosses your path.

Speaking of which, there’s another source of detail that comes with the topo maps from Terraserver - aerial photography. You can switch back and forth between the topos and aerials on the PDA, just like you do on the website.

And in certain parts of the country, they’re experimenting with a higher resolution aerial that is the equivalent of about 6K to 1, or 4 times as detailed as the most detailed topo maps. I know a sea kayaker in Portland Oregon who paddles the Columbia River and uses that photography almost exclusively, in place of the topos. The detail on those maps is awesome.

GPS maps
If you are using a Garmin, and if you are running a recent version of Windows, you can download a free version of GPSMapEdit that will import ESRI shape files and produce what is known as a “polish format” text file. (Which can also be edited with a text editor for finer control.)

Then you can either download the free version of cGPSMapper which will “compile” the polish format file into an IMG file (for Garmins), or you can upload your polish format file(s) to MapCenter where they will be compiled and made available for download.

Then it’s just a case of creating a preview map and using MapSource (or some other program, such as SendMap) to get the maps loaded on your GPSr.

You can D/L GPSMapEdit from cGPSMapper can be obtained from

GPSMapEditor has an interface to the cgpsmapper compiler, which is handy.

MapCenter is located at:

I have been making topo maps in 1:50,000 size from Canadian data that is freely available from Cdn. government sources. It takes me about 20-30 minutes per “tile”, including the “compile” time, which runs about 4 minutes (on average) on my computer.



site for free topo maps
memphis -

most of the topos i use are for the state of georgia. so i use this website to download my maps

most states have similar sites you just need to search for them.


you may be already familar with this website but it has a bunch of topos ready for your garmin from canada

another great website
i had orginally used it to get my county soil maps but they have added maps under the national agricultural imagery that are great aerials. they will send you an email to download them by county. the are geospatially orientated just like topos. You can also set your topo in arcview to allow a percentage of the image to show so you can have both maps avialable in the same image.

some thoughts
Building you own maps for use in your GPS is definitely getting easier as the above quotes suggest. These homemade maps have some things that a USGS 7.5’quad or Canadian 1:50000 quad have: contours, streams, roads, sometimes place names. Yet they do not have other details like marsh/swamps, buildings, railroads, powerlines, benchmarks and many others. To be sure, made for GPS topos from Mapsource and others also do not have this detail! This is why I still use a paper map in the field.

With budget cuts these days and the government use of GIS, USGS 7.5’quads are not updated as often and do not retain the accuracy they once had.

I could see a future where people created their own more up-to-date for a particular area they have an interest in. There needs to be much more of this free data out there to do that.

I would prefer a GPS that can deal with rasters so I can put satellite imagery and scanned quadrangles on them.

some more thoughts
it seems garmin makes it more dificult for you to download data to there units in order to have another stream of revenue by selling their own maps.

i am lucky because i have been using arcgis for along time so i am familar with the program and using this downloaded sofware would allow me to create my maps but garmin should at least sale software to use with arcgis much like trimble sells GPS Pathfinder. My unit just got here some i am going have to play with this stuff a little more. Thanks for all the help. Rick

100K to 1
Yes Garmin Topo 2008 is 100K to 1. It’s still useful on streams and while hiking. If I need more detail I’ll go to a paper map, but 90 percent of the time all I need is the map on my GPS.

It is useful to have the maps on your unit even at 1:100K .

You shouldn’t be out there without a paper map anyway.

Yes, I am aware of the ibycus project site, and I’ve downloaded his previous and current versions. I’ve also been in email contact with Dale on the Canadian Canoe Routes forums where he’s been active recently. He has written some of his own programs to get shape files converted into polish format files, and can do a single tile in a few seconds since almost everything is automated. It propably takes him longer to download and unzip the source data files than to create a map tile. Still, I like adding some details of my own to my maps, like parking spots, launch sites, stores/restaurants that I like to patronize, etc.

But if you want maps of Canada in the 1:50,000 size, Dale’s Ibycus Project is the way to go.


I do not know about the US data, but I have buildings, railroads, swamps, reefs, highway numbers, exit numbers, and most other data on my “homemade” Canadian topo maps. As does Dale Atkins’ Ibycus Topo Project maps. They are in no way inferior to the topo maps that Garmin sells (although I would need to purchase a licence for the map compiler in order to have routable maps.)


I use MN DNR Garmin and it’s more than just an arcview extension. It does work as an extension, but even if you don’t have/use arcview, you can use it to transfer files to/from your GPS. It works just fine as a standalone program, and I use it that way exclusively (and have been using it that way since 2002).

Also, the way it handles shapefiles is not quite what you’re looking for, I think. It can load them onto your GPS, but they appear either as waypoints or tracks on your GPS. They are not loaded as basemap files. You need other software (mentioned earlier in the post) to do that.

I’ve not gone through all the steps to create maps for my GPS. Frankly, the 1:100k scale works fine as a general reference. When I need more detail, I bring a paper map (usually one I’ve generated myself). But, if you do go that route, you’re not limited to contour lines and streams. You can include whatever data you want or can find, especially if you have GIS software (QGIS is a free open source program available for many operating systems). So I could generate a map with 10’ contours, streams, roads, text labels, water bodies (lakes, ponds), peaks, railroads, and everything else found on USGS maps plus some. Most of that data is still free, but it will take some work finding what you want and assembling it how you like it. Of course, with all that extra map data, you will find the memory in your GPS a bit limiting.

If you want raster maps, just get your hands on a PDA with mapping software and a bluetooth or SDIO GPS receiver. Right now, all of the ‘new’ GPS receivers that offer this capability are pretty buggy or have other limitations. The Delorme PN-20 requires you to purchase proprietary format raster imagery at a pretty high price. The Magellan Triton (uses NG Topo!) maps is exceptionally buggy. If you get your hands on a Windows Mobile PDA and a copy of ArcPad (about $500), your new “GPS” will outperform anything from Garmin, Magellan, or Delorme. And, considering how much some of these new GPSr’s cost, you will have spent about the same amount, too.