Data. It’s my favorite.

As an engineer, I’m a data geek, especially when it comes to the outdoors. I’d rather spend a solid few hours on Caltopo doodling around than at a party or watching a movie. No lie.

For me, one of my favorite parts of expeditions is the preparation process, the lead-up and planning and all of the work that goes into creating my dream adventure. I enjoy the visualization, the homework behind understanding the route, its features and challenges, and developing a plan for how to navigate through the remote backcountry.

So you can imagine my excitement when I first found Google Earth, the 3D version of Caltopo. If you can’t, here’s a hint: MINDBLOWN!!

A true workhorse!

|| The Power of Google Earth ||

Google Earth is more than just a flight simulator and pretty desktop app: it’s a powerful preparation tool for long-distance backpacking trips. You can use Google Earth to visualize, in three dimensions, the routes you will be hiking in the backcountry.

Google Earth runs on .KML files, which can be generated from many of your common mapping softwares such as Caltopo, AllTrails, Gaia, etc. Simply export your route, waypoints, etc. as a .KML file and import then to Google Earth. Then let the magic happen. . .

Notice the option to export as a .KML file

Once you download the file as a .KML, you have two options for viewing and exporting to Google Earth:

(1) Google Earth Pro – Desktop App

(2) Google Earth Chrome – Web Browser

|| Google Earth Pro – Desktop App ||

Personally, my preference is to use the desktop app version of Google Earth. Before a few years ago this was the only option, so it is what I learned on, which may be why I have that particular bias.

To start, make sure that you have downloaded the Google Earth Pro Desktop App. You can do this at this link:

UPDATE: For some people the above link does not work. If so, go to this link below and scroll down for the desktop version.

When you download the .KML file from Caltopo, Gaia, AllTrails, etc., it will appear at the bottom of your browser as an icon. Simply click on the icon to launch Google Earth Pro and your file will load in the desktop app.

Notice the icon in the bottom left hand of the browser.

Once Google Earth Pro loads, you will be taken to a bird’s eye view of your route in the Google Earth platform.

Soaring high above my imported route. Ready to dive in.

From here, it’s time to dive in. I like to use an external mouse when interfacing with the Google Earth desktop, as I find it hard to zoom in and out and pivot using a trackpad. Remember, this is three dimensions now.

Using External Mouse

Using the external mouse, zoom in and out by scrolling. You can pivot by pressing down on the scroll wheel and moving your mouse side to side. This may seem hard to understand just from reading, but trust me it will make sense if you have a mouse in your hand.

Once you zoom down closer to ground level, you will begin to see the three-dimensionality of Google Earth. This is where it really gets fun!

Looking down the Grand Canyon. Notice the orange and blue routes imported from Caltopo.

Using the Trackpad

Using the trackpad is much more annoyingly difficult, but I will do my best to explain. You can zoom in and out with your two fingers on the trackpad, but this will only function in two dimensions: zooming in from bird’s eye, and zooming out to bird’s eye. It will not allow you to pivot to adjust the angle at which you are viewing (again, this will make more intuitive sense when you are actually trying).

To adjust your angle of viewing, you need to use the toggle pad at the top right hand corner of the screen that has the small eye in the middle. Click on the up arrow to make your viewing angle more parallel to the ground.

|| Google Earth Chrome – Web Browser ||

A few years back, Google launched Google Earth through a chrome extension, rather than just a desktop app. As I admitted before, I more often use the desktop app, but I will do my best to explain how to use the web version.

The first step is the same:  download your file as a .KML file. This time, however, do NOT click on the icon that appears at the bottom of your screen, as that will take you back to your Google Earth desktop app (or if you have not downloaded Google Earth as a desktop app, your computer will try and export the .KML file to a .txt file).

Launch the Google Earth chrome browser by going to

Click on “Launch Google Earth in Chrome.”

Go ahead and start it up!

Once you have launched it in your browser, you will see three horizontal lines in the top left hand corner. Go ahead and click on that. You will need to enable .KML import in settings. Go ahead and do that as well. There should be a direct link when in that same sidebar menu.

Notice the option to import KML

From here, click on the dropdown option that says “import KML file.” You can either upload from your computer or from your Google Drive account. Once you upload your .KML, it will take you to a similar bird’s eye view of your route. From here, it’s the same navigation as in the Google Earth desktop app.

|| Final Word ||

I like to use Google Earth to visualize my routes. I am very much a visual learner, and while I love digging deep into Caltopo and gathering terrain statistics, aspect ratios, and elevation per mile, sometimes it helps just to see what the map is trying to tell me.