Archive for the ‘GPS / Geotagging’ Category

Driving Your Car With a Computer?

October 16, 2010

We recently make a safari across the endless Nevada desert, over foggy Donner Pass, through the freeway amazement of Sacramento and on to a very pleasant little California community aptly named Pleasanton. All this was made possible, and much easier, thanks to my GPS navigation system.

The Sacramento Thrill Ride

Picture us approaching Sacramento at 6:00 PM. We had perfectly timed the trip so we could experience the thrill of rush hour traffic while navigating the famous California freeway maze.

Our excitement was heightened by the opportunity of driving blindly into the setting sun. Pulling down the windshield visor blocked all the approaching freeway signs hindering any attempt at normal human navigation. Essentially I was driving blind with cars darting and whizzing by all around us. I felt our van had magically turned into the roller coaster at Disneyland’s Thunder Mountain.

How the Garmin Saved Me

Luckily I didn’t have to make any freeway changes for the first 10 minutes allowing me to acclimatize to whirring and workings of everyday freeway life. Soon I discovered I could use my eyes like I use my dual monitor computer system. My left eye was focused on the brake lights of the car directly in front of us while my right eye scanned the Garmin GPS on the dash. I quickly learned my old brain could still multitask while driving. I could avoid accidents and watch the Garmin so we wouldn’t get lost.

My advanced degree in defensive driving with a minor in celestial navigation was awarded after I had successfully merged from one freeway, immediately moved quickly and safely across five lanes of traffic, while slowing enough to “exit right” to a cloverleaf entrance to another freeway! I was amazed we made it through without one accident or the Garmin tactfully announcing my defeat with “Recalculating – Recalculating.”

I love technology and can’t wait until some genius marries my GPS car navigator (Garmin Nuvi) with my beloved cruise control. Now that would be worth trying to survive another 20 years!

Reasons to Get a Car GPS Navigator

I will limit myself to a few of the many reasons you really need a GPS for your car. It will also eliminate backseat driving recommendations from the passenger side windbag – Oops! I meant “Airbag.”

Family History GPS Tagging. Most GPS systems have a GPS coordinates screen. The purpose is for you to enter coordinates and then let the device direct you to the desired destination.

When I take my GPS into a cemetery, I take a photo of the grave and then take a photo of the coordinate screen. Later I can import the photos into my computer and Heritage Collector software so I can transfer the GPS coordinates to the photo of the grave. Next I use the GPS Maps module in Heritage Collector to create beautiful cemetery maps I can print or turn into a PDF for my relatives and kids. Go to this link (GPS Maps Module) for step-by-step instructions and movies about getting and using GPS coordinates to make maps.

Getting Gas. I have a tendency to gas up at larger towns along the travel route so I can save a few dollars. We all know that getting gas out in the boondocks along the freeway will cost a lot more. My Garmin has two great options. If you are really desperate, running on fumes with the little red gas pump blinking on your instrument panel, click the GPS Fuel option. It will display a list of the closest gas stations, with arrows pointing the direction and the number of miles to the gas station.

We love to save money by getting gas at Costco. So how do you find a Costco when you are driving on the freeway? Simple. Click the “Points of Interest” option and then click “Spell Name.” Type in Costco and press Done. In a few seconds the Garmin will display all the Costco locations within 150 miles. This little trick also works to find Walmart, Safeway or the closest Olive Garden restaurant.

Never Get Lost and Save Time. It’s easy to resume your journey once you navigated to the gas station, store, or restaurant. You can easily return back to the motel where you are staying or enter a new destination and let your Garmin take you there.

Accurate Arrival Time. One of the lesser known features of a Garmin GPS is the Arrival Time indicator. It’s really nice to know how long it will take to get to your destination. “Are we there yet?” I used to despise that question from my kids. Now all you have to say is, “Watch this little place and it will tell you exactly when we will get there.”

Speed Limit Signs. How many times have you glanced down at the speedometer, sucked in a lot of air, followed by a quick glance in your rear view mirror and hoped you won’t see a speed cop with flashing red and blue lights? My Garmin places a little speed limit sign to indicate the speed of the road I’m traveling. It’s great to know and actually saves time since I tend to drive slower to a avoid speed trap in a small town if I don’t know the speed limit.

Elevation. Ok, I’m a geek. I like to know the approximate elevation of my travels. I also miss about half of the little elevation signs as they sneak past if I’m not looking exactly at right spot at the right time. Garmin has a setting to let you know the elevation at any time you are interested.

Goodies. My Garmin let’s me do hands free calling and speaking via my bluetooth cell phone, plays MP3s and displays photos from my SD card.

Lane Change Indicator. Garmin places a little green box in the upper left of the display showing if your next turn will be to the right or left. This is a real help on a freeway or busy road. All the locals know the correct lane to be in far in advance. This makes it impossible for you to get into the right or left turn lane because it may be full for the next block or mile on a freeway exit. It also tells you how many miles you have before you need to turn.

Traffic Indicator. This is a “must have” feature if you live or drive in a congested area. My Garmin can actually route me around rush hour traffic or an accident because it can “see” ahead down my route. It gets local information via a built in FM receiver. I purchased a Garmin with free lifetime traffic alerts. However, you need to check for this free feature.

Garmin Gremlins

In fairness, there are a few little trolls built into every GPS. My Garmin is not perfect and has gotten us lost a few times. Sometimes it’s not Garmin’s fault. The restaurant may have closed or relocated. The city moved or changed their speed limit signs, closed a road, and didn’t update the national map database.

Be careful when setting the shortest route. This is perfect if you are the adventurous type and want to travel the back roads. We had such an unplanned adventure during our last trip to Yosemite National Park. I didn’t know I had changed to the shortest route.

As we traveled we were marveling at the beauty and vastness of the grape vineyards of Northern California. Soon I noted the road signs (Road 24)were a bit strange and not helpful.

At one point I became a bit nervous when “Garmie” (our affectionate name for the Garmin) told us to turn right on Road 23. A big yellow sign greeted us with the message, “This is not a through road.” Oh boy! We weren’t lost but I didn’t have any idea where we were or how close we were to the south gate of Yosemite. Gas gauge check – half a tank so I wasn’t stressed yet.

We were traveling a little winding back country road with exquisite scenery, a few scattered farms, and no cell phone services so were really on our own. Eventually we made contact with the real world and gassed up after checking the “Fuel” option so I could avoid the tourist trap gas stations and get cheaper gas where the locals get it.


Study and plan your travel routes on Google Maps. Get an idea of the local attractions and check some alternate routes. Roads may be closed for a variety of reasons. It would be foolish to depend entirely on your GPS so print out some maps and store them in your travel binder for a good old backup reference guide if you get really lost!

Don’t leave your GPS navigation device on your dashboard unattended. There are many people who’d love to adopt it. Put it out of site BEFORE you stop so others will not know you have a GPS in your car.

Happy GPS Travels,

Finding a Needle in the Haystack

February 19, 2010

Is a Cemetery Really a Big Haystack?

The following definition of finding a needle in a haystack summarizes my recent trip to a cemetery.   

 “If trying to find something is like looking for a needle in a haystack, it means that it is very difficult, if not impossible to find among everything around it.” from   

Last September my cousin passed away. I attended the funeral and graveside service. I returned to the cemetery in November to get a photo of the marker and the exact GPS coordinates. I knew his grave would be easy to find because it was located between the road and a fence in the north corner of the cemetery. There was a large tree not far from the grave to use as reference point. Unfortunately I was not successful finding his grave and assumed the headstone still needed to be placed.   

In January I decided to try again but a foot of snow now covered all the graves. This cemetery requires all markers to be flat and flush with the ground so I’d have to wait until the snow melted.   

Most of the snow was gone in February so I made another trip to the cemetery. I took my oldest son along so I’d have a second pair of eyes to make it easier to find the grave. We stopped near the big tree and walked about fifty feet toward the fence which should have put us right over the grave.   

I didn’t see the grave nearby so I enlarged my search to about a fifteen foot radius. Still no grave. I verified I was in line with the big tree near the road so I should be in the right area. I wondered if they were waiting for the ground to settle before placing the stone.   

Which tree?

I used the wrong tree as a reference point.


I decided not to give up but to widen my search area. A cold wind was blowing as I searched causing the hand holding my big camera to start hurting. I looked back at the tree and decided I was aligned with the wrong tree! I walked about another fifty feet down and started reading more markers. Still no success and my hand was almost numb.   

Finally I had success. I told my son it was frustrating it took so long to find the grave since I was there for the burial only a few months ago.   

This personal experience reinforces the importance of having GPS coordinates for burial sites. Using trees and other landmarks is not dependable since cemetery topography changes our memory fades of the exact location. It would have been more difficult if my cousin had been buried in another part of the cemetery where there are fewer trees and his grave would been partially covered by snow.  

Take photo of GPS device and the grave

Take photo of GPS device and the grave


Take Photos and Get GPS Coordinates

Use a Garmin Nuvi, car GPS navigator, cell phone or a dedicated GPS device to display and record coordinates at the cemetery. 


How to Save GPS Coordinates For a Grave

  1. Take a photo of the grave marker.
  2. Display the coordinates screen on your GPS device. To get coordinates on a Garmin Nuvi: Touch “Where To?” → press the down arrow on the right side of the screen → select “Coordinates.” The coordinates display will appear showing your location.
  3. Place your GPS directly on the marker or hold your GPS and stand near the grave.
  4. Position the GPS device (place it near your body and turn your back to the sun to eliminate glare).
  5. Take photo of GPS device.
  6. Preview the photo to make certain you can read the GPS coordinates.
  7. Import photos of graves and GPS coordinate photos into your computer.

Saving Photos and GPS Coordinates for Future Reference

I returned home and imported my cemetery photos into Heritage Collector. Next I displayed the photo of the Garmin coordinate screen, typed in coordinates and then used the cut/paste option to put the GPS coordinates into the photo of the grave.   

I was concerned the GPS coordinates and photo of the grave may be lost or become unassociated with the photo of the grave. I used the new Embed Information option to put the photo caption, date, and GPS coordinates into the IPTC portion of each image file. That way the important information will always remain with the photo file for future reference. Now it’s possible for ALL information to stay embedded in the IPTC portion of the image file.   

Printing a Cemetery Map With GPS Coordinates

The last step was to go into the Heritage Collector’s GPS Track module and create screen captures of the cemetery map at different satellite magnifications (elevations) to make it easier for family members to find my cousin’s grave – even if the cemetery is covered by snow and the old trees are gone. 

A GPS Map makes it easier to find the cemetery and grave

A Family Reunion Treasure Hunt – “A Fun For All”

February 5, 2010

Searching For Treasure and Sharing Stories – A Perfect Combination

An adventure guaranteed  to capture the attention and the imagination of ALL ages.

Many years ago (more than I care to count) when I was in high school, we’d take turns hosting a Friday night party. We’d divide up into teams and write some fun clues. Next we would spend an hour hiding the clues around town. We’d spend a couple of hours engaged in the challenge of a timed treasure hunt.

I remember our team getting one very difficult clue that was almost impossible to retrieve. The clue had been secured to the minute hand of a large lighted clock on a billboard facing a very busy highway. Climbing up the ladder to the clock face was easy but embarrassing because everyone traveling on the busy highway could see us standing there waving a broom around in front of the clock.  We hoped we’d be able get the clue down before the cops arrived. 

The problem was the clue was placed on the minute hand at about 8:30 PM. We arrived at 9:00 PM when the hand was straight up. So we had to wait until 9:15 PM and had to acquire the assistance of a broom to “wipe” off the clue from the minute hand.  Our treasure hunts were some of our favorite party activities.

Let’s morph the key elements of  my high school treasure hunt into a family history treasure hunt. Here are a few of the positive things you will accomplish with the tried and proven activity from our past:

  • Divide up into teams – a great way to mix everyone up so they have to get to know each other.
  • Provide a challenging competition to keep things interesting and motivating.
  • Each clue leads to a family history site – farm, home, country store, swimin’ pond, grandpa’s secret fishing hole, or other locations with a historical significance to the family.
  • Continue the challenge by hiding clues at the desired location in an old can or other rustic hiding place.
  • Station one of the older relatives at each clue site to share a “live” rendition of a family history event or story that occurred there.
  • Honor older relatives by allowing them to participate and get to know the younger generation as they share stories and experiences at each clue site.
  • Make family history real and tangible by visiting actual locations.
  • Encrypt each clue so it incorporates an aspect of family history that adds some interest, mystery, intrigue or humor.
  • Use old maps, GPS coordinates and /or car navigation systems to add a challenge that involves the assistance of the technology geeks (teenagers).
  • Provide some nice prizes since everyone should win something with a “reunion” significance.

I can’t think of a better way to help everyone become better acquainted with their past family heritage and living relatives.

Please make sure the captain of each team is an adult and/or  responsible driver.

Refer to my free newsletters for more information about using a global Positioning System (GPS).

You can do this! There’s no need to stress if you are not technology savvy. Enlist the help of the younger generation. Their involvement and support will assure the success of this fun activity for all ages.

Do a Google search of the word “Geocache” for more information about high technology treasure hunts.  

Heritage Collector Pro software can assist you with the printing of maps and help with GPS coordinates.

 Let’s all have some fun and go on a treasure hunt at the next family reunion!

Is Your GPS Tracking You?

December 29, 2009

The Value of a Trip Log 

I was recently studying and getting acquainted with many of the awesome capabilities of the new Garmin GPS I received for Christmas. In my reading I discovered a previously unknown feature of the newer Garmin GPS units. I was alarmed to learn my new GPS was already keeping a “second by second” log of everywhere I travel. At first I didn’t like the idea and felt it was a bit too intrusive into my personal life. Next I wondered if my new GPS had logged a few of my embarrassing side trips such as getting lost trying to find one of the metro train stations to retrieve a relative for the holidays.

My GPS didn’t let me down. I soon discovered the GPS “Trip Log” and displayed it on Google Earth. There was my travel route detailing the exact circle we had taken when we got lost trying to find the station. More embarrassment awaited. I zoomed down on the route in Google Earth which clearly outlined, in great detail, the complicated and elongated route I took trying to find my way out of the train station parking lot! My wife now has indisputable proof to justify and merit her backseat driving recommendations!

Start Making Travel Journeys

The embarrassment gradually disappeared and rational thought soon returned. I started to get a little excited about this new GPS “snooping” capability. I intend to start creating photo collections called “Journeys.” My purpose is to log and document interesting discoveries we happen onto when traveling. Later we can share these locations with our children so they can discover and visit these same undocumented treasures. I want to enrich my family history journeys with information, narrative, photos, GPS coordinates, and maps.

I hope my journey collections will entice my children and grandchildren to take mini travel safaris to specific geographic locations of their ancestors. Such journeys will present tangible evidence and historical narrative in a geographic context. I’m including one of the many journeys of my grandfather to demonstrate how traveling to a location helps us experience and become a part of his history.

My grandpa T. E. Olsen homesteaded a “dry farm” in the arid and dusty hills east of Idaho Falls, Idaho. Grandpa was a grand fisherman and took every opportunity to “wet his fishin’ line” whenever a stream was near. In the summer grandpa would escape the heat with a short two mile hike to fish down in Willow Creek. Grandpa was convinced you could avoid heart disease by going to stream to soak your feet in its medicinal waters. I’m assuming grandpa was also holding a fishing pole as he soaked his feet to achieve the greatest medical benefit.

A few years ago my 80 year old cousin, my wife and oldest son retraced grandpa’s journey from the dry farm to Willow Creek. What a treat! You have to go there to experience the cooling temperature and take in the smell of willow trees outlining the pristine little stream. The creek still has crystal clear water and probably looks the same as it did 100 years ago when grandpa fished there. Someday I hope to travel back there again with my two sons and grandchildren to fish and recreate the magic of this secret ancestral place. Yes, I have recorded the GPS coordinates to make such a journey both easy and possible. (GPS of Willow Creek photo: 43 27.1890 N 111 48.0930 W).

Making a GPS Map

Back to reality. You will be able to create a map of your journeys to be included with photos and printed information in a journey collection. Here’s how to access the trip log your Garmin is already faithfully keeping and to display the journey(log) in Google Earth.

  1. Plug the USB cable into your Garmin and computer.
  2. Go to “My Computer.” You should see an icon for your Garmin GPS.
  3. Double click on the Garmin icon. You will see several folders.
  4. Open the GPS folder.
  5. Start Google Earth and zoom down.
  6. Drag the “Currrent.gpx” file onto Google Earth.
  7. A GPS Data Import box will appear. Click OK.
  8. A blue line will appear on Google Earth that represents where you have traveled.
  9. Zoom down to see more detail unless you have recently been lost in a parking lot.

Teenagers – Take care! Your dad’s Garmin is watching everywhere you go in his car!

My next blog will show you how to geotag photos using the coordinates automatically saved by your Garmin using a freeware program you can downland.