The mapping app that's everywhere
If you're like 95% of mountain bike clubs, there's a good chance your digital trail maps suck. Don't take it personally. It's just a fact.
You probably loaded them on Trailforks and that's it. Meanwhile, they don't show up properly on apps like Strava or Garmin Connect, the fitness apps that people actually use every time they go for a ride.
I'm not selling anything by the way. In fact, OpenStreetMap is free. There isn't a premium version or upgrade. Totally free. The only thing it costs you is time. That's why you've never heard of it, because nobody can make money out of selling it.
Why is it so important to mountain bike clubs? Because pretty much every piece of cycling and outdoors software with maps - basically anything but Google - pulls data from OpenStreetMap, or OSM for short.
Try this lot for starters: Strava, Garmin, Wahoo, Porsche, Trailforks, Runkeeper, Shopify, General Motors, Komoot, Facebook, Polaris, Alltrails, Fishbrain, Suunto, Toyota, Snapchat, Uber, BMW, AirBnB, Instagram etc.
Put simply, OpenStreetMap is everywhere. It's the Wikipedia of mapping.
When you load your club's trail maps onto OSM, all of that data trickles down to the above apps - and hundreds more - each time an app developer updates their maps. Changes or additions that you make on OpenStreetMap often update to Strava for example within a few weeks. Car maker's GPS systems might only update once or twice a year.
Trailforks versus OpenStreetMap
So you're probably asking right now, if our club loads our trails on Trailforks, then they will all trickle down into Strava and so on, right?
Wrong. Trailforks is a proprietory landscape. As far as data sharing goes, it's a dead end. You can load stuff onto Trailforks but it does not give trail data to external apps. On the other hand, OSM does.
If you're involved with a mountain bike club, this is the first reason your trail mapping strategy needs to be more comprehensive than just loading your maps on Trailforks. Another reason is that beyond the upper echelons of cool kids and pro riders, many everyday mountain bikers don't even use Trailforks.
A lot more riders use Strava because it's easy, has a good free version, and also a social component. Garmin Connect is another popular fitness app which comes free with your Garmin device.
I'm not meaning to bag out on Trailforks, nor suggesting that you shouldn't load your trail maps there, but it's scope is limited. It should not be your club's first or only priority when it comes to mapping.
Why bother with trail maps at all?
That's a fair question. You might think that if someone wants to use the trails your club has built, that they should find out all the details on your Facebook page, or become a paying club member etc. That's fine if this is the way you want to operate your cycling club or group.
Here are a few reasons though, that you might want to consider making your trail maps easily accessible to the public via their various apps.
Some apps won't function without OpenStreetMap
Some apps won't work properly without OpenStreetMap. Strava, for example. The "Create New Route" function in Strava allows you to set up shareable race circuits or social rides or working bee plans. It's a super handy feature, but is 100% reliant on trail data - particularly where trails join - exactly as it appears in OSM.
"Create New Route" will not allow you to create any routes that don't follow the trails provided by OpenStreetMap data.
Protecting your trails
Once you've gone to the expense and trouble of building mountain bike trails, you'll want to protect them from people outside the mountain biking community.
- When people see your trails on non-MTB apps, they'll realise the area is managed and claimed.
- Walkers and hikers will see on Runkeeper etc that cyclists use the trails and they need to beware.
- Motor bike riders will see your trails on Instagram and Snapchat maps. This will make them think twice before riding their motorbikes on your trails.
- You can add trail parameters to OSM which some apps may pull data from, such as who manages the trail, its width, trail condition, overhead lighting, bike racks, rider capacity, camping areas, public toilets, and many other features.
Promoting your trails
If you're applying for a government grant or bank loan or sponsor donation to build new trails, it looks impressive to have your trails visible on unrelated apps, e.g. your bank manager's GPS in their Lexus. It shows that your trail reserve is an important piece of local community infrastructure.
Also, when your trails appear on a multitude of apps, people see them accidentally. It's like subliminal marketing - People become aware of the trails even if they don't use them. If at some future point they decide to go mountain biking, or if a friend visits from another town who wants to go mountain biking, they'll know where the trails are.
Are they your trails to map?
OK, now let's look at the flipside of all that positivity. Before you go adding anything to OpenStreetMap, ask yourself three questions:
- Who built or manages the trails?
- Do you have permission to map the trails?
- Is there a reason the trails haven't already been mapped?
Basically, in relation to the above, there are three types of mountain bike trail:
- government built for public use;
- privately built for public use;
- privately built with restricted access
As luck would have it, I have all three varieties of trail network in the city where I live, Rockhampton AU. I'll use them as examples to explain the different factors to consider before adding any trails to OSM.
Government-built trails for public use
Nowadays it seems like every city council with a hill on the horizon wants to become the next mountain bike capital of the world.
About thirty kilometres inland from here is the town of Mount Morgan. Back in 2019, in line with the aforementioned thinking, Rockhampton Regional Council decided to build a small trail network; about 20 kilometres of greens and blues in an effort to boost tourism.
The Mount Morgan Mountain Bike Trails were officially opened, social media photos of grinning politicians taken and shared, and then the trails largely left to their own devices. Occasionally, someone shows up with a whipper snipper and trims them. In fairness thought, someone at council did load the trail maps on Trailforks, however in the years since, no one has bothered to load them onto OpenStreetMap.
Loading those trail maps on OSM is my next project. It's embarrassing that they don't show up on Strava. I'm not going to ask permission. My taxes helped build the trails and I'm not going to wait for some overpaid committee to drag the chain for another three years until I get permission.
Privately built trails for public use
By far the most common type of MTB trail network is the privately-built public-use model. They are usually run by a person or group or mountain bike club or business that operate the trails on a non-profit or commercial basis. The key similarity between all those sub-types is that the trails are publicly accessible.
My local example is First Turkey Mountain Bike Reserve. While the land is owned by council and National Parks, it is leased by Rockhampton Mountain Bike Club (Rocky MTB), who build and maintain the trails.
In this scenario, it is really important that you get consent before mapping. If you didn't personally build the trail, or are not the person designated by the club or business to maintain the nerdy backend stuff, you should ask permission to map it.
Why? Well first, it's just courtesy. Someone has gone to the trouble and expense of building a trail. It's not for you to say what they should do with it. Second, they might not want all their trails to be public knowledge, which segues nicely into the last type of trail.
Privately built trails with restricted access
There is a third trail network in Rockhampton that the club uses from time to time, and it's owned by the Scouts. They're happy for Rocky MTB club members to use the trails at certain times, but they don't want them publicly listed, in part because of legal liability, and also because they have a responsibility to the kids in the scouting association. So, we don't load those maps to OSM or Trailforks.
All around the world, scouting associations commonly have trail networks, and some, like our local scouts allow mountain bikers, 4x4 clubs, and other community groups limited access. If you have this type of trails in your area, respect the wishes of the groups or people who own the land.
Let's load some trails on OSM!
OK, that's the basics out of the road. Let's get mapping. The rest of this page is tutorial. You can either watch the videos or read the transcripts below.
OpenStreetMap tutorial 2: Setup
In this second part, I will help you get ready for retrieving GPS data from your rides and introduce you to the OpenStreetMap interface. If you prefer to learn visually, you can also follow the tutorial on YouTube.
Hit the trails!
- Do you have access to a computer - No, not your phone. You will need a PC or laptop for the actual mapping process later. There probably are phones apps out there for editing OSM but that just sounds painful so I can't tell you.
- Are the trail maps on Trailforks? This can be a good starting point to get an idea of where to ride in order to gather GPS data. If not, is there signage at the bike park? Take a photo of the map and any trail names on the map. Someone somewhere will at least have basic info to give you a starting point.
- Do you have a bike computer? If so, do you use Strava? If yes, cool, you've got this step covered. If you don't have a bike computer to record your ride, your phone is fine. Download the Strava app and set up a free account.
- Go for a ride and record it on your bike computer or phone. When your done, sync the ride to Strava.
Hit the computer!
- On your PC or laptop, log into Strava and open the ride. On the left-hand menu, under Overview, you will see three dots. Click, and choose 'Export GPX'. Save the file. You can also export gpx files from Garmin Connect if you prefer. Don't be tempted to take copies of gpx files from Trailforks. It's illegal to use them PLUS you need premium membership PLUS a lot of key data is stripped out of the files anyway. Only use original gpx files you created yourself, or from a friend who you totally trust.
- On your PC or laptop, go to othe the openstreetmap.org website. Sign up. That's it. Dead simple, no frills, and they don't send any spam.
- In the top menu, click on GPS Traces. On the next page, click the 'Upload a Trace' button and upload the gpx file you just saved from Strava. Give it a sensible description that will make sense if you look at it in a few years time. OpenStreetMap hangs on to a copy of your GPS traces. I upload my files as 'Identifiable' as this stores the most detailed data from the ride and also allows other people to use it.
- The system can take up to 10 minutes to process your upload depending on the length of your ride, and subsequent size of the file. You can click the refresh button in your browser to check or just wait for the confirmation email they send you.
- Once the upload is confirmed, it will appear in the 'My Traces' tab of the GPS Traces page.
- Make a coffee. Strap in, move onto the next tutorial, "Adding a trail".
Tutorial 3: Adding a trail on OpenStreetMap
You're nearly an expert. In this third episode, we'll start uploading trails from our GPS data and then we'll add extra trail data for popular apps to draw upon.
Tutorial 4: Editing a trail on OpenStreetMap
In this fourth part, we'll review some trails that were uploaded in the past but now have clearer data. Editing trails should be done at least once a year or whenever there is an update to the Bing satellite map for your trail network.
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Have a brilliant day,