A good way to learn about GISsurfer is to first read the overview section you see below. Then for more detailed information you can come back and look at any of the following PDF files. You can also look at the FAQ and "What's new" page. Then when you are looking at a GISsurfer map, look at the upper left corner. You may see a map title along with a "Map tips" link that leads to both general information about GISsurfer and specific information about the map you are looking at. And keep an eye on the interface screens that GISsurfer displays since a number of them have 'Help' buttons that will display context sensitive tips.

For the most recent updates on my work, you can follow MappingSupport on twitter (https://twitter.com/MappingSupport) and/or follow GISsurfer on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/GISsurfer).

PDF Help Files

Since the contents of these PDF files will be updated from time to time, it is recommended that you not save these PDF files on your harddrive. Instead, come here and grab a fresh copy whenever you want to refer to this information.

1. List of parameters you can use in a GISsurfer map link
Includes examples of GISsurfer map links using different parameters.

2. How to use the &data parameter
The &data parameter lets you add information to the map from GIS servers, GPX files and txt files. It also lets you add markers and lines to the map. Want to find free hosting for txt and jpg files? This PDF file shows you how. More features will be added to the data parameter in future updates.

3. Advanced ArcGIS server tips including dynamic layers
This will show you how to restyle a lot of the data that is hosted on ArcGIS servers.

4. Tips for surfing GIS servers

5. How to make georeferenced screenshots

6. USNG and MGRS coordinate grids

7. National park trail maps


GISsurfer has two interfaces. If you are using a mobile device then a touch-friendly interface will be displayed. Otherwise, a mouse-oriented interface will be displayed. Are you using a laptop or desktop with a touch screen? Include the &interface=touch parameter in the GISsurfer map link and the touch-friendly interface will be displayed.

The map always displays a 'Menu' button which gives access to various features. Next to the 'Menu' button is the basemap button which lets you turn on/off different basemaps and overlays. The basemap button always displays the name of the current basemap.

You can control how the map looks when it opens by adding parameters to the map link. If you click a GISsurfer link that has no parameters, then the default map of the USA will open. Like so:

Three of the most important parameters are center, zoom and basemap. Below are two example map links using those parameters. Find the '?' character in the following links. To the left of the '?' is the command to start GISsurfer. To the right of the '?' are parameters that control how the map looks when it opens. Each parameter is in the form name=value. Every parameter name, except the first one, has a '&' character in front.

Yosemite National Park

Seattle waterfront

To learn about other parameters you can include in a GISsurfer map link, see the first PDF file listed near the top of this page. And as you make your own GISsurfer map links, make sure there are no spaces in the map link. Use the underline character instead of a space when you specify the basemap name and any overlays that will be 'on' when the map opens.

Tips for using basemaps

Here is a brief explanation of some of the basemaps that are built-in to GISsurfer.

The 'USA basemap' is the primary basemap produced by the USGS and is periodically updated. Zoom level 16 is the maximum.
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Here are the built-in basemaps that display aerial photos.
The 'USA imagery' basemap is aerial photos. Zoom level 16 is the maximum.

The 'USA NAIP aerial' basemap can be zoomed in past level 16 but response can be slow.

The 'World imagery' basemap can be zoomed to level 18 but the aerials might be older than other basemap aerials.

The 'ESRI aerial clarity' basemap can be zoomed to level 19 but the aerials might be older than other basemap aerials. This a good choice if you are looking for trails where there is no tree cover.

The 'ESRI aerial newer' basemap lets you zoom in a lot but as you do so the quality of the image becomes poor.
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Here are the built-in topographic basemaps.
The 'USA basemap' (see above) includes contour lines.

The 'USA scanned topo' is a seamless basemap of the paper topographic maps that the USGS stopped producing years ago when they switched to all digital maps. For many outdoor recreationists these are the gold standard maps. Zoom level 15 is the maximum.

The 'USA forest service topo' is an all digital basemap produced by the U.S. Forest Service. See the GISsurfer recreation map links for an example using this basemap along with an overlay that shows wooded areas. Zoom level 17 is the maximum.

The 'Canada Toporama' basemap is Canada's primary all-digital topographic map. You can zoom in more than you will likely need to.
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Here are basemaps that mainly show roads.
The 'World street' basemap can be zoomed to level 18.

The 'ESRI navigation' basemap can be zoomed in more than you will likely need to.
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Here are the remaining basemaps.
The 'ESRI national geographic' basemap can be zoomed in a lot.

The 'ESRI open street map' is for those who like the OSM maps. This basemap tends to have the current location for trails that have been relocated.

The 'All white basemap' is useful when data on the map is hard to see. Maybe the data consists of small dots and/or the data has the same color as the basemap. If you change the basemap to "All white basemap" then the only thing on the screen will be data. You can make some interesting maps just by adding various overlays to the this blank basemap.

You can add more basemaps by including the &data parameter in a GISsurfer map link. But at the present time you cannot add basemaps via the GIS surfing sidebar. Instead, the sidebar only lets you add overlays.

Tips for using overlays

1. Overlay stacking order and attribute data

The best way to learn about overlay stacking order and attribute data is to play with a map. Below is a GISsurfer map link I produced with lots of overlay layers related to rain and floods. After the map opens, click the basemap button (next to the 'Menu' button) then look under the 'Overlay' heading (mobile users scroll down). Overlays that are 'on' are stacked on top of each other and assigned a number starting with 1. Click an overlay to turn it on and again to turn it off. Each time you turn an overlay on it may take a few seconds for the data to appear.

The highest numbered overlay is 'on top' of the stack. The 'top' overlay can be clicked and will display all the attribute data the GIS server has for the thing that you clicked. Sometimes this attribute data includes links that lead to more information. Try making different layers the 'top' overlay and then clicking the map to see what attribute data that layer contains. Note that the order with which you turn overlays 'on' can greatly affect the appearance of the map.

Open rain and flood map:

2. Overlay zoom level to see data on the map

The zoom levels at which overlay data will appear on the map are defined on the GIS server and cannot be changed by software that displays the data. Some data layers will display at all zoom levels while other data layers will only display at certain zoom levels. If you turn on an overlay layer and do not see any data, then try zooming the map in or out. You can also turn on the "All white basemap" which will help if the data is simply hard to see.

Tips for displaying GPX routes

Route data in a GPX file can be displayed using the &data parameter. Here is an example of a basic GISsurfer map link for displaying a GPX route. Note that the map will automatically center and zoom such that all of your GPX route data is on the screen.

Here is the same GPX data displayed on the scanned USGS topographic maps.

Here is an example of using the &data parameter to change the line width and color. https://mappingsupport.com/p2/gissurfer.php?basemap=USA_scanned_topo&data=line=on^color=0000ff^width=4||https://mappingsupport.com/gpx/Bandera.gpx

For more information about the &data parameter, including how to use Google Drive to host your GPX files at no cost, see this PDF file: https://mappingsupport.com/p2/help/GISsurfer-data-parameter.pdf

Tips for using the 'Menu' button

1. Menu ==> Link to this map

Here is how to make your own custom GISsurfer map link:

First, make the map look on your screen the way you want it to look when the map opens. Note that the order in which you turn on overlay layers determines the overall appearance of your map and also determines which layer is 'on top' and therefore clickable.

Second, click Menu ==> Link to this map. The link you see will replicate the map on your screen including the current coordinate format.

The GISsurfer link that is displayed uses the data parameter. If you click "Switch to text file" then syntax for a GISsurfer text file will be displayed. Note that the text file syntax will only list overlay layers that you added to the map via surfing with the sidebar during your current GISsurfer session.

If you click "Switch to GISsurfer link" then you will again see the GISsurfer link with the data parameter. For more information on the data parameter please see the PDF file near the top of this page that lists all the parameters you can include in a GISsurfer map link.

2. Menu ==> My location

A red circle will appear on the screen at your current location and the accuracy value is displayed in one corner of the map. Tap the symbol to see your coordinates using the current coordinate format. The accuracy value will use either feet or meters depending on what the map 'scale' is showing.

As you move when the red geolocation symbol gets close to the edge of your screen then the map will automatically re-center. If you want to manually pan the map then you likely will need to first turn the geolocation feature off.

When you turn the geolocation feature on do not be surprised to see a very large accuracy value. If your device has current GPS almanac data then in a few seconds that accuracy value should improve to under 30 feet. An accuracy value of about 15 feet is common.

If the accuracy value seems to frozen at a big number then try using the menu to turn this feature 'off' and then back 'on'. If you put your phone in your pocket when geolocation is 'on', then when you take it out later the accuracy value might be quite large. This is because your body prevented the GPS antenna in your phone from having a good view of the sky.

If this geolocation feature does not seem to work then your device might need a current copy of the GPS almanac data. Typically this is automatically downloaded from cell towers. The almanac data can also be downloaded from the satellites but due to the slow transmission speed this takes about 20 minutes. Leave the geolocation feature turned on and put your device someplace it has a good view of the sky with the top of the phone pointing up since the antenna to receive signals from the GPS satellites is at the top of the phone.

If you are going to drive an hour or more with geolocation off (maybe to conserve your battery) then try turning geolocation on while you are still have a signal from a cell tower. Let geolocation find you and then you can turn it back off until you get to where your trip will start. Doing this will update the GPS almanac data in your phone.

Caution: This geolocation feature is intended for smartphones and tablets that include a GPS chip. If you use this feature on a desktop or laptop then the red symbol will appear but most likely it will not correctly show your location. Also, some tablets do not include a GPS chip.

3. Menu ==> Search

You can search on addresses, names of places, names of geographical features and coordinates. For example, if you search on Mistymoon Lake, the map will center at a spot in the Cloud Peak Wilderness of Wyoming. Yes, I have been there.

Searching on coordinates supports UTM, MGRS, USNG and most reasonable ways to write latitude longitude. If you get an error when searching on latitude longitude then try your search again but delete all letters and special characters. For example, searching on degrees minutes seconds of 47 36 10 -122 20 21 will take you to a dock on the Seattle waterfront.

4. Menu ==> Screenshot mode

You can use this screenshot feature of GISsurfer to take a series of georeferenced screenshots that exactly adjoin. After a screenshot you can move the screen exactly one screenworth up/down/left/right. All controls are removed from the map before taking screenshots. The intent is to let you take a series of screenshots that can easily be stitched together into a larger image. Although the stitching process is optional, doing so is super easy since the screenshots exactly adjoin.

'Georeference' means you know the latitude longitude for the four edges of the screenshot. As you take screenshots, GISsurfer automatically determines the georeference data.

For complete details please look near the top of this page where there is a list of PDF files. One of them walks you though the process of making georeferenced screenshots.

5. Menu ==> Scale

You can change the scale between feet/miles and meters/kilometers. This setting affects:
    Scale symbol in a corner of the map
    Geolocation accuracy value
    Menu ==> Link to this map

6. Menu ==> UTM - USNG/MGRS - LatLng

This choice lets you change the coordinate format. The current format is used to display the coordinates for the center of the screen in the upper or lower right corner. On non-mobile devices the coordinates for the cursor are also displayed.

The current coordinate format is used by Menu ==> Link to this map. It is also used by Menu ==> My location (tap the symbol to see your coordinates).

If you select UTM, USNG or MGRS then you will see grid lines and labels on the screen. And in case you do not know, USNG is the same as MGRS except USNG is written with spaces so it is easier to read.

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has adopted USNG as the coordinate system it will use for ground operations. To read more about USNG see this PDF file:

7. Menu ==> Recreation maps

GISsurfer map links have been prepared that show trails and various other features for all national forests, national parks and Bureau of Land Management land. Another GISsurfer recreation map link shows NOAA's marine charts which get more detailed as you zoom in.

Each map has a 'Map tips' link in the upper left corner with the map legend and other information to help you get the most benefit from the map.

8. Menu ==> Fire and weather maps

These maps let you turn on/off/restack multiple layers of government GIS data related to wildland fires and weather events including tornados and hurricanes. The attribute data for many layers includes a link that lead to more information.

For major wildland fires and certain weather events I will post more detailed GISsurfer map links in the MappingSupport twitter feed.

9. Menu ==> Open Google maps

A plain Google map will open with the same center and zoom level that GISsurfer is presently using. You can then use 'streetview' or any other Google map feature.

General tips

When you look at a GISsurfer map, remember to check the upper left corner for a "Map tips" link.

If the data parameter in a GISsurfer map link points to a txt file, then you can download that txt file and look at its contents. Sometimes you will see an overlay specification that is noticeably longer than others. That longer syntax is telling the GIS server to restyle the data (i.e. change color, line width, etc) before sending the data to your screen. This is only possible if the ArcGIS server supports "Dynamic Layers".

Tips for adding a title to a map

You can help people understand your map by including a title. You can do this either by using the data parameter. Below is a map with a simple title. Notice that there are underlines instead of spaces. Also, the <em> tag will make the title bold.


The next link is the same map but with a title that is three lines. The tag <br/> is a line break. The third line is a link to a web page I made with a few general tips for using GISsurfer. Anyone may use that link in their map titles. The tips page will open in a new browser tab. This is necessary otherwise your GISsurfer map would close. Notice where you see %20 in the map link. That is computer-speak for a space. Map links should not have any spaces.


Another way to put a title on your map is to include the title information in a text (.txt) file. To do this, include a title= line in your text file. You do not need to worry about spaces since your title is in a text file and not in the GISsurfer map link. Here is an example of a title for a text file.

title=<em>Yosemite National Park<br/>California<br/><a href='https://mappingsupport.com/p2/gissurfer-general-map-tips.html'><span style='background-color:yellow;'>Map Tips</span></a></em>

Any txt files that you make can be hosted for free on Google Drive. For step-by-step details, open the following PDF file and search it for "Google Drive".

Tips for getting coordinates for any spot

You can right click the map and see coordinates in various formats for the spot you clicked. Mobile users can simulate a right click by tapping the > symbol at the left edge of the screen. A symbol will appear with a crosshair. Drag that symbol and then tap it. Tap the < symbol at the left edge of the screen to turn the simulated right click symbol off.

Tips for getting elevation and magnetic declination for any spot

Your device needs to be online. Rightclick the map as described above. The elevation and magnetic declination for the spot you clicked are included in the display. That data comes from federal servers and might take a few seconds to appear. Regarding elevation, the USGS reports that "[t]he elevations provided by the Elevation Point Query Service are Orthometric Height (that approximate Mean Sea Level). They are not Ellipsoidal Heights."