How To Get Free Garmin GPS Maps For Hiking
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The good news is that if you own a Garmin GPS device, there’s a way to get free Garmin GPS maps. And in most cases, the free maps are much better than the expensive Garmin maps. I’m a big fan of Garmin GPS devices, but I always found it disappointing that they charged extra for maps. Garmin doesn’t publicize it, but most of their GPS units are setup to take any maps in the correct format. Here’s how to get and install these free hiking maps in an easy, step-by-step process.
In retrospect, I think the price for Garmin maps is too high. There are some as good, or better, alternatives available at no cost online. This product is overpriced for what it is. I would recommend other software. – Garmin Map Review on Amazon
Why These Free Maps?
So let me start by saying there are a lot of ways to get free Garmin GPS maps, and a lot of different methods to install them. You could create whole websites devoted to the subject, and people have (see below). This article focuses on installing my favorite free Garmin GPS maps for hiking in the USA, using OpenStreetMaps. If these don’t work for you, try exploring the other map services that I have listed below.
OpenStreetMaps are the Wikipedia of maps. The public contributes to, confirms, and edits the data on the map. This curation goes for hiking trails too. The maps are regularly updated, and over the last few years have seemed the most accurate in my experience. You can even become a contributor if you like.
The free hiking maps that I’m recommending are great because:
- They are good topographic maps with elevation contours.
- They have a large number of hiking trails on them.
- They are “routable,” which means that you can use free tools like Garmin Basecamp to automatically create routes and tracks that you can follow (without having to plot each point of the trail yourself).
- The colors and detail work well for me. That is, they look good on the device.
- USA regions are packaged together.
If you have a newer GPS device like a Garmin Fenix 5x Plus or are on Windows, there are some special instructions below.
Which Garmin GPS devices do the maps work with?
First off, the Garmin unit you have might have maps already. You probably know this, but if you’re shopping for a GPS, go to the Garmin website page for the unit. If it maps come with the unit, it will say it has “preloaded topo maps.”
If you already have a unit and want to find out if these free maps work, go to the unit’s page on the Garmin website, and then check out the “specs” section. There is a line for “ability to add maps,” if you have a check there, you’re good to go.
Downloading the Free Garmin GPS Maps
The first thing you’re going to want to do is visit the GMapTool website, specifically the USA OSM Topo Routable page.
Then pick the region you want, and download the appropriate map package (link way at the bottom of the page). The files are pretty big. The download might take a while.
Installing the Free Maps on Your Computer
The instructions are different for Mac and PC. The map website has a link for installation instructions, click on that. My instructions cover the installation on a Mac, but I have some general that fill in the gaps for installing on Windows below .
For the Mac, you’ll need three (free) programs to install the maps. You can download and install these programs while you wait for your maps to download.
That’s it. The maps are on your computer. If you’re not already using the free Garmin Basecamp tool, I highly recommend getting it. It will allow you to browse maps, create tracks, and is invaluable in planning hikes.
Installing the Free Maps on Your Garmin GPS
Once your map is downloaded and installed, you’re all set to install them on your GPS unit.
Installing on Newer Garmin Devices From Mac
So Garmin changed the way that the GPS devices communicate with computers. If you have Windows, you should be all good (see below). If you have Mac, there’s a wrinkle.
Garmin switched to the MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) to transfer files, which makes the Garmin appear as a “media device.” And of course, Apple doesn’t support it. But I’ve found a solution. It’s not the most graceful one in the world, but it works (confirmed on a Fenix 5x Plus).
- Get your maps from here: http://garmin.openstreetmap.nl
- The site will send you an email with a download link.
- Download the ZIP file that is described as “Compressed file that contains a single image that can be placed directly onto the SD-card of the GPS.”
- Unzip the file. You should have a file with a “.img” extension.
- Now we need to connect the Garmin to the computer. Download the free Android File Transfer program from Google. Install it on your machine as per the instructions.
- If you have Garmin Express running, make sure it’s not running and you have disabled any “automatically launch when device is connected” settings.
- Plug in your Garmin to the computer and launch the Android File Transfer program. You should see a screen like this:
- Simply drag the “.img” file that you downloaded into the Garmin folder. You might want to rename the “.img” file to make sure it doesn’t whack any maps already on there.
That’s it. Go to your map settings and turn the OSM map on and off.
If you work at Garmin, please update MapInstall to support MTP! They’re too big-time to listen to my feedback, so if you know anyone at Garmin, please bug them.
Tips for Windows Installation
The directions on GMapTool site aren’t very descriptive for Windows. Here are some tips from fellow hiker Dave T. on how to install the free maps on Windows.
- Run the “bat” file as described on the GMapTool site.
- Open Garmin Basecamp to ensure that the maps have been installed.
- Use the free Garmin MapInstall program to send the maps to your device.
- Or use the maps at garmin.openstreetmap.nl, Download your map first. This will create a single “img” file for each map you download. Then copy that map file to your Garmin (the drive if you have a micro SD card, not the device) in the “Garmin” folder (which you must create first if it doesn’t already exist).
If These Free Garmin GPS Maps Don’t Work For You
There are other free maps for your Garmin GPS, and again, they might have different instructions for installation. Check the website where the maps are offered for directions on how to install them.
- GPSFileDepot is a great resource that’s frequently updated. I recommend trying this site before any others.
- OpenStreetMap.nl is good if you want to grab.a smaller, more specific map.
- OpenSeaMap offers nautical charts.
If you’re having trouble finding the GMAP folder, this tip has helped some folks (thanks to Liz S!).
Some Final Thoughts
I recommend planning your hike and creating a GPX file beforehand. Most Garmin GPS units are too small for anything more than impromptu navigation planning. I have a tutorial on how to plan a hiking route for your Garmin GPS here.
And I could use your help. I don’t download these maps every day, so if these directions don’t seem up to date, please contact me and let me know. I’ll update the directions here accordingly.
Lastly, a note if you’re having tech issues. Unfortunately, I can’t help everyone who emails me. I recommend posting your question online in the Garmin Reddit, the Garmin Forums, or in a Garmin group on Facebook. That’s probably you’re quickest path to success.