How To Get Free Garmin GPS Maps For Hiking

In This Guide
  • Why These Free Maps Are Better
  • Installing the Maps On Your Computer
  • Instaling the Maps On Your GPS Device

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.

You can also create your own highly-customized maps and download them to your Garmin device.

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.

Here’s a side by side comparison of the Garmin base map with these free topo maps.

The free hiking maps that I’m recommending are great because:

This screenshot gives you an idea of the level of the detail in these free maps. You can also search the maps for points of interest. Here I searched for the Great Smoky Mtn NP.

Video Instructions

If you 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.

The nice thing about this site is that they’ve bundled the maps up into large regions.

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.

First is a 7z extractor. The map downloads are in 7z format, which is a fancy compressed ZIP file. Download and install this program. There are also other free and paid 7z options in the Mac App Store.
Then download the free Garmin MapInstall and MapManager programs. They make installing the maps easy and non-technical.
Once you download the map file, open it with your 7z application. It will unzip the files and put them into a folder.
After unzipping, you’ll have a few files in the folder. Double-click on the large file with the “gmap” extension on the end.
That should launch Garmin MapManager, which will ask you if you want to install the maps. Hit “yes” and it will copy the maps into your Garmin directory. When you’re finished, delete the map download and the unzipped folder.

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.

Pairing Garmin Basecamp with these free maps for Garmin GPS gives you.a powerful planning tool. Here I’m browsing detail around Icehouse Saddle in California.

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.

Connect your Garmin GPS unit to your computer and make sure it’s on. Give it a minute or two to load and register with the computer.
Load the Garmin MapInstall application. It should show your GPS unit in the top box. Hit continue.
MapInstall will show you what maps you have installed already (if any), what’s on your computer, and how much room you have on your device (at the bottom). Click on the maps you want to install while watching the space on your device. My eTrex 20x has 3.7gb of internal memory, no need to add a MicroSD card. Click “send maps.”
Now you wait. It can take a while for the maps to load onto your device. Don’t do this if you’re in a rush.
Now confirm that the maps are loaded. Go into your settings for maps and poke around. The process is different for different units, but you should be able to see something like this.
Boom! Maps! Enjoy the maps on your Garmin GPS. And if there is too much detail or the map rendering seems slow, go to settings and try decreasing the detail level.

Installing on GPS Devices With MTP Mode

Garmin added a connection mode called MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) to transfer files, which makes the Garmin appear as a “media device.” And of course, Apple doesn’t support it. Most Garmin devices allow you to switch the USB mode to “mass-storage” and you should find that in the settings and give it a try. Make sure the device firmware is updated to get the latest settings. Once in “mass-storage” mode, you should be able to follow the steps laid out earlier.

If you’re stuck in MTP mode, I’ve found a solution. It’s not the most graceful one in the world, but it works (confirmed on a Fenix 5x Plus).

That’s it. Go to your map settings and turn the OSM map on and off.

OSM maps on my Fenix 5x Plus

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.

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.

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.

Please help me make these guides better by answering a few short questions. Thank you!

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