Google Earth screen grabs - The best route beta tool?


Most climbers know that Google Earth (aka GE) is a phenomenal tool for scoping out your route before hand and getting a feel for the terrain. But, with a few other simple computer tricks, you can take GE to a whole new level of usefulness.

(Before we proceed with this, I’m assuming that you are a clever climber and have GE installed on your computer already, right? If not, please go take care of that right now, and then come back to this tip.)

A principal concept of navigation is this: having a map or photo is great, but having a map or photo with your route drawn on it is much better.

Here’s the condensed version, with a longer explanation below.

  1. Add a KML file to GE

  2. Make a screen grab

  3. Annotate your route in photo editing software

  4. Print your map and save the edited photo to your phone



Step 1 - Add a KML file

A KML file (or Keyhole Markup Language, for you computer nerds), is a file of geographic data that plays well with GE. How do you get a KML file of your route? Glad you asked. Most decent mapping software has an option to export a GPX as a KML. 

(Update - Since I first wrote this post, I’ve learned that you can open .GPX files in Google Earth. KML files still seem to work a little better, but id all you have is a GPX it’ll still work.)

My favorite mapping software is Caltopo. With this great software, you can import a GPX file or simply draw lines and waypoints yourself, and then click “Export as KML” from the top menu and save it to your hard drive. Alternatively, you can download a single zipped folder of KML files for most of the popular mountain peaks in the Pacific NW right from this website. 

Note that if your GPX file has both lines and waypoints, the resulting KML export will have both of these features also. This is great for showing both the climbing route and point features such as water sources, good campsites, important trail junctions, etc.

GE Pro tip - If you name your waypoints in Caltopo, such as (“climber trail junction”, or “campsite”), these waypoint names will appear in Google Earth in your KML file. Very helpful.

Below - the “Export” menu at

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 5.47.45 PM.png

Once you have the KML file on your hard drive, double click it t should launch GE and draw your KML file. (Or, you can launch GE, and just drag and drop the file onto the GE screen.) Zoom in close, and waste another 10 minutes of your life in GE land researching your route. (Ever notice how it’s always a bright sunny bluebird day in GE land? Apparently it never rains there.)

Tip: a mouse with a middle scrolling wheel is a great help when using Google Earth. 


Step 2 - Do a screen grab in GE

So, you’ve zoomed and rotated GE around until you find a few good spots that show the key points of your climbing route. 

Now it’s time to do a few screen grabs. GE makes this easy.

  • Zoom and pan to just the spot you want to capture.

  • Go to File > Save > Save Image.

  • Click the “Save Image” button at the top of your and it will save a JPEG image file to your hard drive. Don’t be shy, fly around and take three or four different shots. You don’t have to keep them all.

hood Leuthold GE.jpg

Step 3 - Annotate photos (optional)

Most of the time having a simple redline in the photo from the KML file is going to be enough, but if you want to get fancy you can add additional route info onto the photo. 

Open your JPEG in some simple image editing software. You don’t have to be a Photoshop wizard to do this. I happen to like some software called PhotoscapeX, but there are many options.

Add in arrows showing hazards, maybe mark where the rappels are, add elevation to key decision points, show the descent route if it’s different than the way you went up . . .  You get the idea. 

hood Leuthold GE annotated.jpg

Step 4  - Print, share with your team, and save to your phone

Finally, print out your JPEG photos and bring them with you on your climb for reference. A color laser printer is more weatherproof than an inkjet, Be sure and put them in something to protect them from the weather, a 1 gallon Ziploc heavy duty freezer bag is perfect.  

Email the photos to the rest of the people on your climbing team, so they have the benefit of your efforts. 

Finally, get those photos back on your phone so you can reference them on the route if you need to, Email them to yourself, save to photo roll, or whatever crafty thing you like to do on your phone to save photos. Now you have a free and weightless back up to your printed photos.

Now, this procedure may sound a little complicated and time-consuming when you’re doing it for the first time or two. But trust me, when you get this down it takes literally a few minutes. 

Google Earth is a great way to go to visualize the terrain before you leave town, and also have a great navigation tool en route in addition to your map, compass, and navigation brain.