Using GPS Data with Surfer


Many GPS units can be set to record hike, bike, ski, boat, and car trips to a track. Surfer can be used to display tracks as maps and elevation profiles to help you visualize the data.


Downloading GPS Tracks to an ASCII File

Surfer does not have a way to download data directly from your GPS, but beginning in Surfer v11, it can import GPX files exported by GPS units. Alternatively, there are various free utilities (such as G7toWin) that download information from GPS units and save it to an ASCII data file.


Using Surfer Post Maps or Base Maps to Display Tracks

Since the data are stored as points with total distance information, a post map or a base map from data are both good options to display the track. For a post map, a Color column can be used to display the distance along the path. For a base map from data, base symbology can be used for the same thing. In both cases, a legend can be used to display the distance values represented by specific colors, though the samples in the legend will look like the symbol for a post map and will look like boxes (i.e. more like a color scale) for a base map from data.

Base maps and post maps can both be used in Surfer to plot GPS tracks colored by distance along the track.

Base map (left) and post map (right) of track data shows accumulated distance with color to
display start (red), end (blue), and direction (red > blue).


Overlaying Additional Informative Layers

Overlaying the post layer on a DRG base layer displays additional information about the topography of the region.

Base maps and post maps can be overlain on DRG base maps in Surfer to see topography information.

Track data in post or base map overlaid on DRG topo map.


The DRG maps for many states are available for free or a small fee. The free maps can be difficult to find, but a search engine like Google can be helpful. 

It may also be helpful to visualize the topography in 3D with the GPS track overlain. You can do so with a 3D surface map. DEM elevation data can be downloaded from The National Map, and then a 3D surface map can be created from the DEM, and the DRG base map and the post map can be overlain on the surface map.

Base maps and post maps can both be used in Surfer to plot GPS tracks colored by distance along the track.

Track post data overlaid on a DRG PDF base map and USGS DEM.


Post Maps for Elevation Profiles

The post map can also be used to display profile information by choosing the cumulative distance as the X variable and elevation as the Y variable. Alternatively, you can choose time as the X variable. Since the X and Y distances vary greatly, turn off the Proportional XY Scaling option for the Map to display the profile at a viewable scale. The colors of the post map points are the same colors displayed on the XY post map.

Elevation profiles can be created in Surfer.

This post map displays the elevation profile with the cumulative distance.



Surfer has a number of useful plot types for displaying GPS data, such as post maps and base maps, and numerous other plots types can be added for context, such as 3D surface maps. 


If you have any questions about Surfer or this article, please contact us at


Updated November 5, 2018

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