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  1. #1
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    opinions sought on iPhone GPS add-on vs new handheld

    Currently I own the original eTrex and iPhone 3GS, both quite inaccurate. Although fine on road rides, what I really care about is woods mapping, MTB, hiking, and geocaching accuracy. To that end, I've got my eyes on some new gear and wanted to know if others have experience or opinions on this stuff:

    1) Emprum UltiMate GPS add-on for the Apple i-devices:
    https://www.emprum.com/ultimategps.php

    Pros: very accurate, integrates with phone and many apps
    Cons: adds size to the device, not the most secure connection, relies on phone battery or plugging an external USB power pack into the end of the dongle which makes it more unwieldy

    There are similar products as well:

    Bad Elf: Bad Elf GPS
    quite similar to Emprum, looks bulkier

    Dual XGPS: Bluetooth GPS Receiver (also GPS Solutions for iPod)
    similar, but uses Bluetooth to separate the receiver from the phone, so the connection is not an issue, but Bluetooth taxes the phone battery.

    2) Magellan ToughCase: $100
    MagellanGPS - ToughCase for iPhone and iPod touch

    Pros: integrates with phone, adds waterproof/protective case, adds extra battery
    Cons: older GPS chipset, bulky case, mixed reviews

    3) new handheld GPS

    Pros: buttons are better with gloves on in the cold, battery life is better, cold performance is better (phones power down if too cold)
    Cons: separate device--still need to bring along phone, only one user interface option (can't choose a better app)

    Thanks in advance!

  2. #2
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    I can only comment on the Magellan Toughcase. I recently purchased it and can say, despite the slightly older chipset, the accuracy is quite good. Way better than the 3G/3GS and a lot better than the 4G accuracy. There was some issues with failure to update locate at low speed (below 10MPH) because it was configured as a vehicle GPS. That is no longer an issue after a firmware update.

    I have yet to take it out on my MTB though, because the only handlebar mount that Magellan makes happens to be totally incompatible with the Toughcase. I have had a long email conversation with Magellan Customer Service and they confirmed there is no compatible cradle for the Toughcase. I'm left with trying to fabricate my own cradle for the Toughcase. I think I can do something with the beltclip adapter.

    The case is a bit bulky, but when you consider it adds protection, waterproofing, Improved GPS and external battery, then its not too bad.

    The big plus is, that Apple actually built in support for the case into the iOS, so the GPS will work with any and all applications. No configuration or tweaking required.

    Despite the lack of a proper handlebar mount, I think i will keep the case. So, if you have any other questions about it, let me know.

  3. #3
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    Great info, thank you! It is surprising that they didn't conceive of a alternative/general purpose mounting solution. Just curious, in your conversations with support did they mention any upcoming updates to this product that would solve this? It seems this case has been out for ~3? years now and is either going to be updated or will just wither on the vine.

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    I think the toughcase is going to wither. it's such a niche item that not a lot are going to be sold, and it's impractical to make a new one for every different phone or phone upgrade (new iphones come out every year or so, so that's a lot of toughcase versions).

    it's a great idea, but the market for it just isn't that big.

    the price has already been cut in half. they were $200 for a good, long time after release, and now they're $100 or less.

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    Thanks Nate, that's what I feared. I'm curious your thoughts on the options I wrote.

    At this point, I'm leaning towards either the ToughCase or the Dual XGPS (and then grabbing something like this external battery: Amazon.com: New Trent iDual-Port Pack IMP50D 5000mAh USB External Battery Pack and Charger for iPad2, iPad, iPhone 4S 4 3Gs 3G (AT&T and Verizon), iPod Touch (1G 2G 3G 4G 5G), Motorola Droid Phones, HTC Android Phones, Blackberry, Samsung Galaxy S, S).

    The Dual has some other advantages...in cold weather I can keep the phone in a warm place inside jacket so it doesn't auto-shutdown and keep the GPS receiver out, plus it'd act as a GPS for non-iDevices over Bluetooth as well (the Emprum will do this as well over USB).

    analysis paralysis

  6. #6
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    Magellans final comment on lack of handlebar mount:

    As for plans on releasing a handlebar mount for the toughcase, we can forward the suggestion to our development team.

    Also, nothing confirmed, but I heard rumors that they were developing a version for iPhone 4/4S. The changes needed to make the 4/4S fit the existing design are extremely minor, probably only a couple of plastic part changes. I can actually squeeze my 4 into the case, but the plastic piece that covers the power button presses down on the button.

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    Quote Originally Posted by icycle View Post
    Thanks Nate, that's what I feared. I'm curious your thoughts on the options I wrote.

    At this point, I'm leaning towards either the ToughCase or the Dual XGPS (and then grabbing something like this external battery: Amazon.com: New Trent iDual-Port Pack IMP50D 5000mAh USB External Battery Pack and Charger for iPad2, iPad, iPhone 4S 4 3Gs 3G (AT&T and Verizon), iPod Touch (1G 2G 3G 4G 5G), Motorola Droid Phones, HTC Android Phones, Blackberry, Samsung Galaxy S, S).

    The Dual has some other advantages...in cold weather I can keep the phone in a warm place inside jacket so it doesn't auto-shutdown and keep the GPS receiver out, plus it'd act as a GPS for non-iDevices over Bluetooth as well (the Emprum will do this as well over USB).

    analysis paralysis
    I personally wouldn't bother with any of them for my ipod. they are a techie bit of gear and that's clever, but I just don't like smartphones for this sort of thing. poor GPS reception isn't the only limitation of a standalone smartphone. you need to address the weather protection issue, and you have to address the battery life issue. a lot of protective cases cover the apple 30pin connector that a lot of the addon gps receivers (like the bad elf) will use, which forces you into USB territory or bluetooth territory. the gps addon is going to suck battery, so there's additional limitations placed on you. if bluetooth, it'll need to have its own power supply managed. either way, you'll have to deal with the extra power drain on the phone's battery from using the addon.

    when it's all said and done and you've addressed all of the limitations with a good case, an auxiliary battery charging system for those times you're out more than just daytrip territory, and the high sensitivity GPS addon, you're in the price territory of a dedicated handheld GPS that has better battery life, user-replaceable batteries, a high sensitivity gps receiver (the new etrex models even are compatible with GLONASS satellites in addition to GPS), and doesn't need a protective case to go in the woods.

    I use my ipod for geocaching, but I only use it to write logs when I'm away from home that I can upload at the next wifi hotspot.

  8. #8
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    Britontour, thanks for the tough case review, sounds rad! I'll pick one up.

    My .02c, I've been running GPS kit on an iPhone 4 and the reception is soooo much better than my previous combo (iPhone 3GS with motionX gps). Not sure if it's the app or hardware, but it rarely drops out, even in Backcountry. GPS kit is awesome, great UI, and allows me to import/export google earth KML files. With that, I've been able to overlay scans of hard copy maps in google earth, trace and export as basemaps to GPS kit on my phone.IPad integration is icing on the cake. I'm not very interested in dedicated hardware at this point personally, their integration is just too far behind...

    However battery life does suck on the iPhone, I've used a mophie juice pack, but the hardcase sounds like an even better solution- hope theyll release a 4g version soon!

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    main issue with phones is battery life, a gps is just a gps, whilst a phone is phone/camera/gps etc, ud be lucky to get 6hours gps out a phone. I use my xperia x10 mini as a mtb gps in emergencies

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    I bought the wahoo fitness Wahoo Fitness – Connecting iPhones to Fitness- ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart sensors for running and cycling, such as heart rate monitors, speed and cadence and stride sensors iPhone case. Its really nice. It comes with the different inserts to fit the different models of iPhone but not iPod touch. Its ANT+ and works with 60+ apps on the app store. I saw that battery life was mentioned above. They do make a back up battery that can be added. Its a really nice design and its water resistant. My only complaint is that my earbuds have an angled plug unlike the stock iPhone earbuds. The case adds a lot of extra material around the plug and its tough to the the angled plug in and out. I think it was designed to fit the stock earbuds from the phone.

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    I would get a separate handheld.
    1. You won't run out of battery.
    2. It's clipped onto your handbars, so not a huge weight problem.
    3. Better reception.

  12. #12
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    Magellan Toughcase

    After reading about it here, I purchased one online. These are currently being blown out pretty cheap- mine was $79 shipped.

    Although the toughcase was designed for the iphone 3, my iPhone 4 fits perfectly fine. The only issue is that the volume down button on the case doesn't line up with the volume down button on the phone. Otherwise, all other case buttons line up with the phone, and the touch screen works. Phone calls work fine too.

    I walked around with the tough case for a bit today, and the GPS reception is definitely much improved. I'd say probably 50% of the time, it seemed to be dead-on, and the other 50% it was 15-20' off, but my GPS app (GPS Kit) was definitely updating much more frequently & accurately. I started out with %35 in my phone battery, and after an hour my phone was at 100%.

    Most of the reviews call out 3 cons on the touhgcase;
    1. Price (originally $200)
    2. o-rings pop out
    3. size


    At $79, IMO this is a great value. I don't particularly care about the size, water-tightness or lack of handlebar mount, as this will be safe in my pack. I just want better GPS coverage and extended battery life, and the toughcase delivers here.

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    Thanks FM, that sounds pretty good. I recently got just the extra battery I linked to above (the New Trent 5000mAh pack) just to have for my iPhone and anything else. Still haven't picked the GPS unit.

    I was pretty much all set to get the ToughCase since it is the simplest combo that has everything needed, but I saw a review online where the ToughCase generated track was pretty bad...so I worried.

    How can you tell how accurate it is? Going by the app reported accuracy?

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    Oh, and where did you get that price w/free shipping?

  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by icycle View Post
    Oh, and where did you get that price w/free shipping?
    Got mine of eBay, from seller Magellan*2011.


    As far as tracking accuracy, I just went for a walk on city streets where I could compare my actual position against what was shown in my GPS app (GPS Kit) using satellite imagery. Sometimes it was spot on, while other times the app would show me in the middle of the street while I was on the sidewalk. I'm pretty familiar with the stock iphone GPS performance, and the toughcase definitely was an improvement. Obviously things may be different in the backcountry, but I think the toughcase definitely outperforms the stock iPhone 4 gps.

    One thing I have noticed- seems like the case has to be turned on, for the battery to charge- then you get 4 full LED's representing a full charge. with the case turned off, but plugged in to the charger, I didn't see any change in the battery level after having it plugged in for 2-3hrs.

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    Per the pointer in the last post, I picked up and have been experimenting with a ToughCase from the ebay seller.

    So far, I have to say I've been underwhelmed by the improvement: the sensitivity is much improved and the extra battery life is very nice, but the update frequency leaves much to be desired (i.e. no change from the built-in GPS) and I'm trying to find out whose fault it is:
    * iOS Core Location service
    * the apps I'm using (MotionX-GPS and Cyclemeter are my top picks, but also trying some others)
    * ToughCase/GPS itself

    I read in this thread the mention of a firmware update (I believe for the ToughCase?) to fix low speed frequency issues. I am not finding any ToughCase downloads on Magellan's site, any more info on this would be appreciated.

    Here's some conversation I had with MotionX support:
    Me:
    I'm looking to map, with precision, a network of trails I maintain. I own your app now and am very happy with it, but I've been unimpressed by the performance/accuracy of recording windy trails. I know there are problems with the iPhone 3GS's poor GPS/antenna and secondly with the data from the Core Location service in iOS.

    To address the hardware issues, I just recently bought a Magellan ToughCase for my iPhone 3GS. This case adds an advanced GPS chipset and antenna, among other things. This message is really about how do I optimize the app for this purpose.

    I think I've tried everything to get a high (1/sec) update frequency track recorded:
    * disable wifi and 3G on the phone
    * geocaching mode on/off
    * GPS error filtering on/off
    * accelerometric assist on/off
    * auto, walking, driving, cycling modes tried
    * phone restarted after the iOS 5.1 upgrade I applied early this week

    I think there must be a way to do this, otherwise I'm going to give up and return the ToughCase and get a Garmin GPS unit. I have also tried using the Core Location Info (CLInfo) app and see that it's able to update position once per second, so there must be a way.

    Can you help me select all the right settings for MotionX GPS and help me get to the bottom of this if that still doesn't help?
    Them:
    MotionX-GPS records every unique location point provided to us by the iPhone or by an external GPS for the smoothest possible track. At high speeds we are recording location data as often as every 700 milliseconds, but the time between samples is higher when traveling at slower speeds since the iPhone isn't providing unique location points as often. In short, we record each and every unique location coordinate provided to us. That said I would be happy to work with you to ensure your Settings will give you the most accurate app. First and most importantly please make sure your tough case has the best possible view of the sky. If you are walking with the device I would recommend placing the device in an armband. If you are biking please look for a bike mount that will fit the tough case.

    As for your Settings, please select the Track Recorder activity mode the best describes your activity. Now turn Accelerometic Assist ON, Geocaching ON, and Accuracy Filter On. These Settings should provide you with the most accurate GPS reading.
    Me:
    Thanks for your reply. I have a few followup questions:

    -you mention MotionX-GPS records every unique point. What precision (how many decimal points) are looked at to determine uniqueness?

    -if geocaching mode increases the sampling rate, then with geocaching mode off what points are discarded? I guess I'm trying to understand how geocaching mode works in comparison to normal mode.

    I ask all of this because I've also installed the "Core Location Info (CLInfo)" app on my phone and as I walk around my yard using the ToughCase GPS I see CLInfo updating unique points every second. However, while running MotionX-GPS at the same time recording a track using the settings provided below, I don't see these unique points recorded. Instead I see a jagged line with points updated every ~10s or so. It's this behavior that led me to contact you, and the reason I'm still hopeful there's some way the app can be configured (or the SW changed at your end) to give a very granular track at the possible expense of battery life.

    As an aside, does this app have the capability to talk directly to GPS devices supporting the NMEA protocol (such as the Emprum UltiMate GPS or the Dual XGPS150) or does it only use the Core Location service?
    I also pinged Harry, the author of Harry's LapTimer app, used for extremely high (up to 10Hz!) update frequency iPhone GPS data acquisition for auto racing:
    Harry's GPS Suite Forum • View topic - high frequency GPS acquisition: LapTimer beyond the track

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    Quote Originally Posted by icycle View Post
    I read in this thread the mention of a firmware update (I believe for the ToughCase?) to fix low speed frequency issues. I am not finding any ToughCase downloads on Magellan's site, any more info on this would be appreciated.
    The firmware update is not a user update. If you bought the Toughcase recently, it should have the latest firmware revision. I don't have mine to hand, so i cannot confirm the version number. I found the explanation here. There was a review on amazon that said the update was dated March 2011.

    If you need to get the Toughcase firmware updated, it has to be returned to Magellan. I seriously doubt that you have one that is old enough to warrant an update.

    The biggest problem I am having right now is finding a way to mount it onto my bike. There is no bike mount available. I have tried using it in my hydrapack, but it either gets bumped, stopping the tracking, or it doesn't get a good enough signal at the bottom of my pack and the log is inaccurate.

    If anyone knows of a solution to mount it onto my handlebars, I would love to hear about it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by BritOnTour View Post
    The firmware update is not a user update. If you bought the Toughcase recently, it should have the latest firmware revision. I don't have mine to hand, so i cannot confirm the version number.
    I had contacted Magellan support earlier today with the details I noted above, I just followed up and gave them all the product codes/numbers from the sticker to see what FW I have. Thanks for the info!

  19. #19
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    regardless of the toughcase, I have found gps kit seems to get much better reception, better accuracy, and updates more frequently compared to motion-x gps. I'm not seeing drops in reception anymore, and I keep the phone in my pack or camera bag at all times.

    Of course it might not be the app, could be some other IOS update or something else that's lead to the improvement. However I suspect it's the app...

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    Ah, I didn't realize that "gps kit" was the name of an app, I thought it was just a general reference. I now see it among the hundreds(!) of navigation apps in the app store.

    You're right about it being the app for the most part. I got a great response from MotionX support which I'll paste part of here for people's info:
    1. You mention MotionX-GPS records every unique point. What precision (how many decimal points) are looked at to determine uniqueness?
    I apologize for any confusion, but the information provided to you regarding MotionX-GPS' datapoint logging frequency was only part true.

    While the iPhone provides MotionX-GPS with location datapoints every 700 ms, the iPhone's GPS chipset is inherently noisy and the datapoints are filtered for improved accuracy. Depending on your Track Recorder mode, datapoints will be logged at varying frequencies. For example, walking and running modes will log datapoints every 5 meters or 2 seconds (whichever is the latter), while most modes will log datapoints every 10 meters or 2 seconds (whichever is the latter).

    When recording a track, we recommend setting the track recorder to the mode that best matches your activity (Menu >> Setup >> Track Recorder).

    If geocaching mode increases the sampling rate, then with geocaching mode off what points are discarded? I guess I'm trying to understand how geocaching mode works in comparison to normal mode.
    Geocaching Mode doesn't increase the iPhone's GPS sampling frequency, but changes how the "realtime" track is drawn on the map. The realtime track line is blue, not red, and it's drawn on the map when you use MotionX-GPS without starting the track recorder. If Geocaching Mode is not enabled realtime track lines will plot new track points every 10 meters or 2 seconds (whichever is the latter), and when Geocaching Mode is enabled your realtime track will plot new track points every 5 meters or 2 seconds (whichever is the latter).

    It's important to note that Geocaching Mode will only affect track lines that are drawn when you are not recording a track with the Track Recorder.

    As an aside, does this app have the capability to talk directly to GPS devices supporting the NMEA protocol (such as the Emprum UltiMate GPS or the Dual XGPS150) or does it only use the Core Location service.
    No, MotionX-GPS doesn't communicate directly with GPS chipsets. The iPhone's location services handles all communication with external (or internal) GPS chipsets and relays the provided information to MotionX-GPS. Consequently, MotionX-GPS isn't able to distinguish if location information is being provided by your iPhone's chipset or a 3rd party (high accuracy) GPS chipset, and isn't able to dynamically adjust the datapoint filtering behavior based on "known" GPS reliability.
    The other part of this is that apps that use NMEA instead of iOS Core Location (of which I only know of one: http://gps-laptimer.de/) can go beyond the 700ms (~1.4Hz) iOS limitation and get much more granular tracks, assuming a compatible GPS chipset with good signal.

    I just did a mtb ride today with the ToughCase in my camelbak, running 3 apps at the same time: MotionX-GPS, Cyclemeter, and Mapmytracks. The latter won with the most granular track and closest to the bike computer for accuracy. I'll check out GPS Kit and maybe some others next.

    Thanks

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    Very good line of communication with an app developer that sheds some light on how smartphone gps works

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    More info.

    I started up a conversation with Gaia GPS:
    use case: high precision trail mapping - Gaia GPS | Google Groups
    Lots of good info there. NateHawk, you'll see that Bill Burge over there has the same sentiment about smartphones as you.

    I've also sent the same request off to GPS Kit support to see how they respond. Interesting that the company that makes this app also offers two professional quality GIS apps: GIS Kit ($100) and GIS Kit Pro ($300) for the iPhone/iPad: http://www.garafa.com

    I found this, the mother of all iPhone GPS app reviews:
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/15393086/BPL/iPhoneGPSapps.htm
    linked from the author's site:
    How to use the iPhone 4 as a GPS mapping device for backpacking

    A little more info from Harry in Germany:
    Harry's GPS Suite Forum • View topic - high frequency GPS acquisition: LapTimer beyond the track

    Finally, Magellan got back to me, with some canned answers completely unrelated to my questions. I'll try giving them a call directly instead of email. I hate non-support support.

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    Quote Originally Posted by icycle View Post
    Finally, Magellan got back to me, with some canned answers completely unrelated to my questions. I'll try giving them a call directly instead of email. I hate non-support support.
    Not surprising, but rather disappointing. I've been hoping they'd do better and provide some viable competition in the market.

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    Quote Originally Posted by NateHawk View Post
    Not surprising, but rather disappointing. I've been hoping they'd do better and provide some viable competition in the market.
    Got to talk to Magellan phone support yesterday. It was a very frustrating experience. First, support systems were slow so I was put on hold for 5 mins for that. Then, the rep argued with me that there is no firmware in the ToughCase and what I actually meant was the version of the Magellan Roadmate iphone app. I pleaded that I was not using nor did I plan to use that app and I did, in fact, want to discuss ToughCase firmware. Alas, I was wrong ("sir, firmware and software are the same and what you need is Roadmate") so I just gave up. I was honest in the followup email support survey, FWIW.

    In other news, last night I bought both Gaia GPS and GPS Kit apps. Have yet to try them in the field...

    Also, the latest message over here from Bill: use case: high precision trail mapping - Gaia GPS | Google Groups actually has a good point--I could rent or plead to borrow a commercial GPS device to get the mapping data needed. However, I think the accuracy I'll be getting with my setup will be enough.

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    Quote Originally Posted by icycle View Post
    Got to talk to Magellan phone support yesterday. It was a very frustrating experience. First, support systems were slow so I was put on hold for 5 mins for that. Then, the rep argued with me that there is no firmware in the ToughCase and what I actually meant was the version of the Magellan Roadmate iphone app. I pleaded that I was not using nor did I plan to use that app and I did, in fact, want to discuss ToughCase firmware. Alas, I was wrong ("sir, firmware and software are the same and what you need is Roadmate") so I just gave up. I was honest in the followup email support survey, FWIW.

    In other news, last night I bought both Gaia GPS and GPS Kit apps. Have yet to try them in the field...

    Also, the latest message over here from Bill: use case: high precision trail mapping - Gaia GPS | Google Groups actually has a good point--I could rent or plead to borrow a commercial GPS device to get the mapping data needed. However, I think the accuracy I'll be getting with my setup will be enough.
    Regardless, I think you should consider your own sort of "averaging" function. Even with a higher sensitivity receiver, if you want to do true trail mapping, I would make some suggestions.

    First, do your mapping at walking pace with the best sampling rate you can get. No matter how the app handles things, you should get consistently better location information. I have noticed that track accuracy drops the faster you go (especially when in challenging situations with lots of multipath).

    Second, walk the trails you wish to map multiple times. When you overlay the tracks, you will see the variation in track position. It hopefully won't vary a lot. In the situations where I've done this, straight sections of trail don't tend to have too much variation, but curves can be messy.

    Also, mark waypoints at intersections and use any waypoint averaging feature that might be available. this will help you align the trail network.

    Overlay all this data into a GIS and hand-draw your final "official" track. If you can overlay it onto some high-res satellite imagery that lets you SEE the location of the trail in places, that can help get the alignments right.

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