How to Extract GPS Coordinates for a Google Maps Location

It’s a lot easier than you might think.

Like most folks who depend on the Internet as a source of information, I use Google Maps a lot. But rather than use it to track down street addresses and get driving directions, I use it to pinpoint places out in the middle of nowhere that I need to visit by helicopter. There are usually no street addresses, and even if there were, they wouldn’t help much while flying. What I need are GPS coordinates.

You might be in a similar situation. You see a place on a map and, for one reason or another, you need to know its exact GPS coordinates. Fortunately, Google Maps can help. Here’s how to get those coordinates.

  1. Use Google Maps (not Google Earth) to display the location you want GPS coordinates for. In my example, I’ll use satellite view to find a dirt airstrip I know along the Verde River north of Phoenix. You could search for an address if you needed the coordinates for a street address.
  2. Google GPS Step 1Hold down the Control key and click right on the spot you want the coordinates for. A menu pops up. (You may be able to simply right click, but I’ve had limited success with that on my Mac using Firefox; Control-click always works.)
  3. On the menu, choose Center Map Here. The view will probably shift a bit.
  4. Google GPS Step 2Above the map area, in the blue bar, click the Link button. A window appears with two text boxes in it. The contents of the top text box, which are selected, includes a link to the map that you might paste into an e-mail message. It also includes the GPS coordinates, which I’ve indicated with a red box around them. Sometimes the GPS coordinates are not so obvious and you’ll need to scroll through the contents of the box to find them.

Note that the coordinates are in digital format. In this example, they’re 34.160043°N 111.727266°W. (West and South are negative numbers.) Some GPSes use this format; you can usually specify the format you want to use in your GPS’s settings.

If you need coordinates in degrees, minutes, seconds format, you’ll need to do some simple math. Let’s take a look at how it works for the first number: 34.160043.

  1. Take the whole number (34) and set it aside. That’s the degrees.
  2. Take the number after the decimal point and multiply it by 60: .160043 x 60 = 9.60258
  3. Take the whole number from that calculation (9) and set it aside. That’s minutes.
  4. Take the number after the decimal point and multiply it by 60: .60258 x 60 = 36.1548
  5. Take the whole number from that calculation (36) and set it aside. That’s seconds. Keep in mind that if you want a more precise number, you can include the decimal places after it. You might also want to round the number up or down depending on what comes after the decimal point. In this example, the number after the decimal point is 1 so I’d round down and use 36.
  6. Put the numbers you set aside together in degrees° minutesseconds” format. In this example, you’d have 34° 9′ 36″.

My helicopter’s GPS uses a degrees° minutes‘ format, so I’d stop calculating after step 2 and wind up with 34° 9.60258′.

The Race is On!

Some fun with geocaching.

My Twitter friend, @PlagiarismToday, and I share a few interests. One of them is geocaching.

Although I’ve been fooling around with geocaching since about five years ago, I just rediscovered it. He, on the other hand, has been seriously going after geocaches every weekend for a while.

One of the things you can do with geocaches is set up, pick up, and transport “trackables.” A trackable is an item with a tracking number on it. You log it with the Geocaching.com Web site and place it in a cache. From that point on, every time someone picks it up or drops it off in another cache, they should log it. This makes it possible for the item to not only move from one cache to another, but for the item’s owner to track where it is.

SYDI had a travel bug (like a dogtag with tracking information) and attached it to a gumby-like figure that I named Smiling Yellow Devil (SYD). I logged it into the Geocaching.com Web site and gave it a “mission”: travel to New Orleans, where @PlagiarismToday lives. With luck, the folks who find SYD will not only keep moving him from cache to cache, but they’ll move him toward New Orleans. It might take years, but eventually, I hope he gets there.

In the meantime, @PlagiarismToday has created another trackable named Flightless Bird that he’s sending my way, toward Wickenburg, AZ. The idea is that we’ll release them around the same time and see which reaches its destination first.

I’ll likely be blogging the progress of each trackable item as it moves along. To watch along with me, subscribe to the comments on this post; that’s where I’ll put the updates as they come in.

And if you’re a geocaching enthusiast along SYD’s route, I hope you’ll help him get closer to his destination.

Geocaching Revisited

Hunting for hidden treasures.

Back in 2005, I discovered geocaching, an outdoor activity where people use a GPS to find hidden containers of trinkets. I wrote about my thoughts on the topic — and some big plans that never came to fruition — in some detail here. Because part of the game is to pull something out of a cache and replace it with something else, I started gathering items to share. Among these were some “travel bugs,” which are basically serial numbered tags you can affix to an item so it can be tracked. The tracking is mostly done on the Geocaching.com Web site. That’s also were you can find a list of geocaches just about anywhere in the U.S.

And that’s the interesting thing: these things are everywhere. Did you drive more than 10 miles to work today? I bet you passed at least a dozen of them within 3 miles of your car. There’s one a block from my house in Wickenburg and one 4/10 of a mile from my RV here in Quincy. As this map shows, they’re all over the place:

Geocaches Near Me
My RV is just about dead-center in this map. The little box and question mark icons indicate geocaches in the area. The smiley face icon is a geocache I found that I logged.

For some reason, I find the proliferation of these little boxes of hidden “treasure” fascinating. It emphasizes how big the world really is. It also reminds me a bit of a walk my husband, Mike, and I had along the rim of the Grand Canyon once. We got off the beaten path and walked right along the rim, far from where the tourists wander. We happened to stop for a rest on a rock outcropping. And there, tucked under an overhang with a beautiful view of the canyon, was an urn of cremated remains. How long had it been hidden there? We didn’t know. It was like an uncharted geocache. Seems like a good final resting place to me.

Geocaches are hidden. They’re tucked away in painted coffee cans, sealed lengths of black PVC pipe, and plastic Tylenol bottles. In the old days, ammo cans were popular, but I think the value of these has prevented their widespread use — too likely to be stolen if found. (I bought 3 nice-sized ammo cans from a seller in Beatty, NV some years back to create my own geocaches; I still have them.) Caches are hidden in bushes, under rocks, and among the remains of pioneer trash heaps. You’re not likely to stumble upon any of them by accident. You have to look for them. And even with GPS coordinates, they’re not always easy to find.

For some reason, I brought my bag of geocache goodies along with me on my trip to Washington this year. I guess I thought I’d try it again. I didn’t think much of it until the other day when a Twitter friend, @PlagiarismToday, started tweeting about his weekend geocaching activities. It got me thinking about it. I pulled out my bag and took a look inside it. I had a GPS with me, and an Internet connection to get information about local caches, so I had everything I needed to try again.

So I went out yesterday to search for three caches. I found three, but not the original three I’d set out to find.

  • Ryann’s Hide was the first cache I’d hunted for in over 5 years. Although I’m using a newer GPS (a Garmin GPSMap 60c) than I did in 2005, I soon realized that precision was something that needed patience. As I walked, the GPS would guide me, but I quickly overshot the location. Seems that the GPS could not keep up with my movement. I needed to slow down and let the signals catch up. Zooming in on the map gave me ever-increasing detail. Standing still, gave me ever-increasing precision. Once I caught on, I was able to zero in on the location. The cache was alongside a two-track road that led down a hill to a fishing spot. The road was closed to unauthorized vehicles. It started on the edge of an orchard and curved down into a very pleasant wooded area. (I think I need to explore further down that trail.) The container was a painted coffee can with a plastic lid. I pulled out a plastic car and replaced it with a tiny stuffed teddy bear. I entered my Geocaching.com user name in the log book, closed everything back up, and replaced it exactly where I’d found it. Success!
  • Quincy Valley Rest Area II was a bit easier to find — once I got on the correct side of the rest area fence. It was a nicely made cache container consisting of a short length of black PVC pipe with a screw-top on one end. Inside was a baggie with the logbook, some plastic dinosaurs, and a very nice shell. I took the shell and replaced it with an emery board with advertising for a nudist colony on it. (I really don’t remember where I got such a thing, but it is pretty funny — and clean.) I logged my visit and closed it all back up. Success!
  • West Bar Overlook is the one I really wanted to find. It’s located on Babcock Bench, high above one of the orchards I dried several times this summer. The entry on Geocaching.com provided lots of photos and information about the geologic significance of the spot. I’d brought along my camera, planning to get some shots from its perfect vantage point. Unfortunately, the two-track access road that appeared to link the cache area with pavement was inaccessible. Not only was there a locked gate across the road, but there were lots of tall weeds making the start of the trail a bit questionable for someone wearing shorts during snake and tick season. I’ll either try again next spring, before the weeds grow so tall or possibly try to visit via helicopter. I already scouted the power lines in the area. So this was a failure.
  • Rust Everywhere was my consolation prize. I’d already imported its GPS coordinates into my GPS, so I knew approximately where it was. But because I hadn’t planned to look for it, I didn’t have the details — like a basic description of what it looked like. Having a location but no description makes things a bit tougher. Patience and perseverance paid off, though. The cache was a label-less Tylenol bottle hidden well among rocks. I pulled out a kid’s hair clip and replaced it with a computer chip, logged my visit, and put it back. Success!

In all, it was a nice way to spend the afternoon. I was at it for about two hours and it got me out and about. To onlookers, I must have looked pretty silly, walking around while studying a GPS. But I got to find a neat place — that wooded trail — and get some exercise and fresh air. I hope to do more tomorrow.

I also think that it would be a great family or small group activity. A way to combine socialization with exercise. Working together to complete a challenging task.

I do have a geocaching project lined up. I’m going to release one of my travel bugs into the wild with the mission of traveling down to New Orleans, LA. That’s where @PlagiarismToday lives and does his geocaching. He, in turn, is going to send one my way. We’ll see which one completes its mission first.

I’ll likely blog about the progress here.

How to Set Up and Share a SPOT Messenger Page

It’s included in the Track Progress service, so why not?

SPOT Personal TrackerI’ve been using a SPOT Personal Tracker for the past two years. It was recommended to me by a helicopter pilot friend. We both fly in remote areas — the kinds of places that if you go down, rescuers are probably not going to find you before it’s too late.

Think I’m kidding? Check out this Cessna, which was not located for 31 months. I was just one of dozens of local area pilots who looked for this plane whenever I was in the area where it disappeared.

And what pilot can forget the disappearance of Steve Fawcett? Millions of dollars and lots of high-tech search techniques were used to try to find his plane. Over a year passed before a hiker found Fawcett’s ID and the wreckage was eventually found.

I didn’t want to end up like either one of these unfortunate flights. Even if I suffered a fatal crash, I wanted to be found as soon as possible. And if I simply went down and needed help, I wanted help to be able to find me without relying on cell phone signals.

The SPOT Service

So I bought a SPOT Personal Tracker and subscribed to two services:

  • Basic Service enables the SOS (AKA 911), Help, and Check-in/OK features of the unit. That requires a button push to send the message. This service costs $100/year and is required to use the device.
  • Track Progress drops “breadcrumbs” of your location every 10 minutes so others can track you. The track progress feature automatically plots your location signals on a map that’s accessible online. You can create a shared page, give the URL to whoever you want, and let them track you. The benefit of this — as far as I’m concerned as a pilot — is that if I go down suddenly and am incapacitated, people tracking me will not only know where I was within the previous 10 minutes of my mishap, but they’ll likely know which way I was going. Plus, if the unit is intact, it will continue to broadcast my location every 10 minutes. This non-moving signal should help them pinpoint my location — even if I’m dead. This extra service costs $50/year. While I have another pilot friend with a SPOT who doesn’t use it, I think every pilot who uses this device should cough up the extra dough for this service. You can’t always press a button when you need help.

I need to stress here that this is not a device designed for aviation. It’s really designed for “adventure activities” or travel — for hikers and campers and mountain climbers and kayakers. For folks who get out in the wilderness. Of course, pilots who fly in remote areas can benefit from the device and there are plenty of stories of how it may have saved aviator lives. Just keep in mind that it is not an approved FAA tracking device and that flight plans should always be filed and opened for remote area flights. And, if you’re an airplane pilot who flies at altitudes where FSS Flight Following is possible, why not use that service? Unfortunately, Flight Following is not usually available at the altitudes at which I fly my helicopter.

Creating a Shared Page

Of course, having a SPOT Personal Tracker with the Track Progress feature means a Share Page (example shown below) is included with your subscription fee. It makes sense to set up this page and share it’s URL with the folks who need to know where you are. You can also share it with the world at large if you’re like me and don’t care who knows where you are when you’re on the go.

Shared Page
Some recent activity; I did 20-minute helicopter rides the other day.

Setting up a SPOT shared page is easy. Assuming you’ve already set up your account on the SPOT Web site and have activated your device, just follow these steps:

  1. Sign into you account at FindMeSpot.com.
  2. Share TabClick the Share tab near the top of the page.
  3. Under SPOT Shared Pages, click the Create Shared Page link.
  4. Create Page SettingsSet the options in the Create Shared Page window that appears. Be sure to enter a Shared Page Name and select your SPOT device. Under Security, you can specify whether the page is Public or requires a Password to access. Personally, I recommend keeping it Public. You can always limit who you give the URL to. It would be terrible if someone needed to access the information and couldn’t remember the password.
  5. Select one of the options at the bottom of the page to determine how you’ll notify the people you want to share the page with about the page’s URL:
    • If you select Send the shared page myself option (recommended), a message appears, telling you that anyone with the link can view your shared page. Click Create Now to complete the process.
    • If you select Have SPOT send the shared page, a form appears for you to enter up to 50 e-mail addresses and create a custom e-mail message. Be sure to keep the Send a copy to you check box turned on so you get the URL, too. Click Send Now to complete the process.
  6. URL CreatedAt the bottom of the page, a very long URL should appear. Triple-click it to select it and chose Edit > Copy (or press Command-C (Mac) or Control-C (Win)) to copy it to the clipboard. We’ll use it in a moment to test the link and create a short URL.

Shared PagesIf, for some reason, you didn’t get the URL or you need to access it again in the future, click the Shared tab (shown above) and then click the Manage Shared Pages link under SPOT Shared pages. You can click the name of the shared page to display it. You can then copy the link for that page from the Web browser’s address bar.

Creating a Short URL

http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=0aISLWHRq9KlETLqzcfFGQuD8VboS6R8O is not exactly the kind of URL that’s easy to share with friends. Fortunately, URL shortening services enable you to create a custom URL for any page. Although this step isn’t required, it’s certainly recommended.

Although I originally created my short URL with the TinyURL service, you can use any service you like. Bit.ly makes even shorter URLs, but it requires an account to create a customized one. So in this example, I’ll use TinyURL again.

  1. Point your browser to TinyURL.com.
  2. TinyURLPaste the URL for your shared page in the top text box.
  3. Enter a short word or phrase that’s easy to remember in the bottom text box. In this example, I’ve entered the N-number for my helicopter. My original URL used FindMaria.
  4. New TinyURLClick Make TinyURL!
    A message like the one shown here appears, confirming that the new URL was created. You can now give this much shorter URL to family and friends.

Share Your SPOT Page!

Are you already using a SPOT device? If you’ve got a page set up, share it here. Use the Comments link or form for this post. No need to enter any HTML tags; just enter the complete URL. Once your comment has been approved, your shared page will appear. I’d also love to hear comments about the device — good or bad.

E25 to BFI by Helicopter on Google Earth

My four-day trip, plotted.

I’m a geek. Everyone should know that. This just proves it again.

I use a gps logger to track my GPS coordinates when I’m out and about taking photos, mostly so I can geotag my photos. But on long flights, I often turn the GPS logger on and let it collect my coordinates as I fly. The logger I use has a huge memory and was actually able to accumulate GPS coordinates for my entire helicopter flight from Wickenburg, AZ to Seattle, WA.

Helicopter Flight on Google EarthThe image shown here shows the four days of my flight. Day 1 was Wickenburg to Page, AZ. Day 2 was a photo flight on Lake Powell followed by a flight from Page, AZ to Bryce Canyon, UT. Day 3 was Bryce Canyon, UT to Salt Lake City, UT and then on to Yakima, WA. Day 4 was a bit of scud running to get to the other side of the Cascade Mountains, from Yakima to Seattle, WA.

If you’d like to look at the track points in detail on your copy of Google Earth, you can download them. They show altitude, too, so you can get an idea of how high or low we were for various stages of the flight. You can probably even do some kind of flyby if you have the right software.

Pretty cool, no?