GPS: Bringing Data into ArcMap

Collecting point locations with a handheld GPS is pretty easy. However, downloading those data and getting them into ArcMap can be confusing the first time you do it. Here, we’ll cover the steps to get your data into ArcMap starting from a file containing a set of points.

0.) While you are in the field collecting data, make sure you record the coordinate system set for the GPS unit you are using. If you change settings in the course of data collection, you need to note that too. This is very important.

00.) Most GPS units come with free software to help download/upload data. If you need different software, try the freeware program called GPS Babel. We’ll not cover downloading data here.

000.) Figure out how to get point data out of your GPS unit and into a generic file format via Save As or Export. “Generic formats” are often readable by many different software programs, thus they facilitate moving data between different programs (unlike proprietary formats). Generic formats include: .txt, .dbf, .csv, .asc, .dat, among others.

1.) Start with a text file (.txt) in Notepad containing the X,Y coordinates of your collected points. Note that the example coordinates, below, are in Latitude/Longitude, specifically Decimal Degrees. The text file is Comma Delimited. Your data need not be in this exact format, but it must be well organized in a table (.csv, .dbf) or text file (.txt, .asc) format. Look for other conversion tools on the Zonums or EarthPoint sites. If your data is already in Excel format (.xls, .xlsx), skip to Step #5.


2.) Go to the ZONUMS website and find the Online Tools > Cotrans 2 > LatLon to UTM Batch Converter. There are lots of other useful tools on this great site. “Batch converters” are super helpful when you have to convert a set of XY values. EarthPoint is perhaps the best site for GPS tools – not free, but very affordable and very good.


3.) Copy output data from converter window to a new .txt file (use Notepad). Save file.


4.) In Excel, File > Open > navigate to the .txt file. Make sure to change the button from “All Excel Files” to “All Files (*.*)”. Run through the import steps. The file is comma delimited.

5.) Save As .xls (not .xlsx).


6.) Add the .xls file to ArcMap a new, blank map, like you would any other data layer. If you are adding the table to a map containing other layers, you’ll need to set the coordinate system (Step #7). Because Excel files can have multiple worksheets, you’ll need to select the specific worksheet containing the data (drill down; worksheet name will have an “$” at the end).


7.) Right-click on the worksheet > Display XY, then…
– Specify X and Y fields
– Click the Edit button to set the coordinate system (Ex: PCS_UTM_NAD83_Zone11N)
– OK the Object-ID warning (Arc automatically adds an ID field and shapefile functionality)
– Click OK. Points should appear in window

gpsdata_utm$ Events

8.) Right-click on the new points layer (“gpsdata_utm$ Events”) > Data > Export as shapefile. Add the new layer to the map.

9.) Remove the original table and events layer from the TOC.