Stamen Watercolor Map Tiles

Adding Basemaps to QGIS With Web Mapping Services

For this final post of 2020, I was looking back through recent projects for something interesting yet brief; I’ve been writing some encyclopedia-length posts lately and wanted to keep this one on the lighter side. In that vein, I’ve decided to share a short list of free web mapping services that I use as basemaps in QGIS (they’ll work in ArcGIS too). This has been on my mind as I’ve recently stumbled upon the OpenTopoMap, which is an alternate stylized version of the OpenStreetMap that looks pretty sharp.

See this earlier post for details, but in short, to connect to these services in QGIS:

QGIS Browser Panel
  1. Select the appropriate web map service type in the browser panel (usually WMS / WMTS or XYZ Tiles), right click, and add new connection.
  2. Give it a meaningful name, paste the appropriate URL into the URL box, click OK.
  3. In the browser panel drill down to see the service, and for WMS / WMTS layers you can drill down further to see specific layers you can add.
  4. Select the layer and drag it into the window, or select, right click, and add the layer to the project.
  5. If the resolution looks off, right click on a blank area of the toolbar and check the Tile Scale Panel. Use this to adjust the zoom for the web map. If the scale bar is greyed out you’ll need to set the map window to the same CRS as the map service: select the layer in the panel, right click, and choose set CRS – set project CRS from layer.
  6. Some web layers may render slowly if you’re zoomed out to the full extent, or even not at all if they contain many features or are super detailed. Conversely, some layers may not render if you’re zoomed too far in, as tiles may not be available at that resolution. Experiment!

If you’re an ArcGIS user see these concise instructions for adding various tile layers. This isn’t something that I’ve ever done, as ArcGIS already has a number of accessible basemaps that you can add.

In the list below, links for the service name take you to either the website version of the service, or to a list of additional layers that you can connect to. The URLs that follow are the actual connections to the service that you’ll use within your GIS package. If you use OSM, OTP, or Stamen in your maps, make sure to cite them (they use Creative Commons Licenses – follow links to their websites for details). The government sources are public domain, but you should still cite them anyway. Happy mapping, and happy holidays!

OpenStreetMap XYZ Tile (global){z}/{x}/{y}.png

OpenTopoMap XYZ Tile (global){z}/{x}/{y}.png

Stamen XYZ Tile (global) see their website for examples; the image topping this post is from watercolor{z}/{x}/{y}.png{z}/{x}/{y}.png{z}/{x}/{y}.jpg

USGS National Map WMTS (global, but fine detail is US only)


Imagery & Topo:

Shaded Relief:


US Census Bureau TIGERweb WMS (US only) see their website for older vintages

Current TIGER features: 

Current physical features:

Map of Windham High Peak hike

From Survey Markers to GPS Coordinates

Here’s a fun post to close out the year. During GIS-based research consultations, I often help people understand the importance of coordinate reference systems (or spatial reference systems if you prefer, aka “map projections”). These systems essentially make GIS “work”; they are standards that allow you to overlay different spatial layers. You transform layers from one system to another in order to get them to align, perform specific operations that require a specific system, or preserve one aspect of the earth’s properties for a certain analysis you’re conducting or a map you’re making.

Wrestling with these systems is a conceptual issue that plays out when dealing with digital data, but I recently stumbled across a physical manifestation purely by accident. During the last week of October my wife and I rented a tiny home up in the Catskill Mountains in NY State, and decided to go for a day hike. The Catskills are home to 35 mountains known collectively as the Catskill High Peaks, which all exceed 3,500 feet in elevation. After consulting a thorough blog on upstate walks and hikes (Walking Man 24 7), we decided to try Windham High Peak, which was the closest mountain to where we were staying. We were rewarded with this nice view upon reaching the summit:

View from Summit of Windham High Peak

While poking around on the peak, we discovered a geodetic survey marker from 1942 affixed to the face of a rock. These markers were used to identify important topographical features, and to serve as control points in manual surveying to measure elevation; this particular marker (first pic below) is a triangulation marker that was used for that purpose. It looks like a flat, round disk, but it’s actually more like the head of a large nail that’s been driven into the rock. A short distance away was a second marker (second pic below) with a little arrow pointing toward the triangulation marker. This is a reference marker, which points to the other marker to help people locate it, as dirt or shrubbery can obscure the markers over time. Traditional survey methods that utilized this marker system were used for creating the first detailed sets of topographic maps and for establishing what the elevations and contours were for most of the United States. There’s a short summary of the history of the marker’s here, and a more detailed one here. NOAA provides several resources for exploring the history of the national geodetic system.

Triangulation Survey Marker

Triangulation Survey Marker

Reference Survey Marker

Reference Survey Marker

When we returned home I searched around to learn more about them, and discovered that NOAA has an app that allows you to explore all the markers throughout the US, and retrieve information about them. Each data sheet provides the longitude and latitude coordinates for the marker in the most recent reference system (NAD 83), plus previous systems that were originally used (NAD 27), a detailed physical description of the location (like the one below), and a list of related markers. It turns out there were two reference markers on the peak that point to the topographic one (we only found the first one). The sheet also references a distant point off of the peak that was used for surveying the height (the azimuth mark). There’s even a recovery form for submitting updated information and photographs for any markers you discover.


For the past thirty plus years or so we’ve used satellites to measure elevation and topography.  I used my new GPS unit on this hike; I still chose a simple, bare-bones model (a Garmin eTrex 10), but it was still an upgrade as it uses a USB connection instead of a clunky serial port. The default CRS is WGS 84, but you can change it to NAD 83 or another geographic system that’s appropriate for your area. By turning on the tracking feature you can record your entire route as a line file. Along the way you can save specific points as way points, which records the time and elevation.

Moving the data from the GPS unit to my laptop was a simple matter of plugging it into the USB port and using my operating system’s file navigator to drag and drop the files. One file contained the tracks and the other the way points, stored in a Garmin format called a gpx file (a text-based XML format). While QGIS has a number of tools for working with GPS data, I didn’t need to use any of them. QGIS 3.4 allows you to add gpx files as vector files. Once they’re plotted you can save them as shapefiles or geopackages, and in the course of doing so reproject them to a projected coordinate system that uses meters or feet. I used the field calculator to add a new elevation column to the way points to calculate elevation in feet (as the GPS recorded units in meters), and to modify the track file to delete a line; apparently I turned the unit on back at our house and the first line connected that point to the first point of our hike. By entering an editing mode and using the digitizing tool, I was able to split the features, delete the segments that weren’t part of the hike, and merge the remaining segments back together.

Original plot with line mistake

Original way points and track plotted in QGIS, with erroneous line

Using methods I described in an earlier post, I added a USGS topo map as a WMTS layer for background and modified the symbology of the points to display elevation labels, and voila! We can see all eight miles of our hike as we ascended from a base of 1,791 to a height of 3,542 feet (covering 1,751 feet from min to max). We got some solid exercise, were rewarded with some great views, and experienced a mix of old and new cartography. Happy New Year – I hope you have some fun adventures in the year to come!

Map of Windham High Peak hike

Stylized way points with elevation labels and track displayed on top of USGS topo map in QGIS

Sedona Hike

XYZ Tiles and WMS Layers in QGIS 3

I did a lot of hiking around Sedona, Arizona a few weeks ago, and wanted to map my GPS way points and tracks in QGIS over some WMS (web mapping service) base map layers. I recently switched to QGIS 3 since I need to use that in my book (by the time it comes out 2.18 will be old news), and had to spend time starting from scratch since the plugin I always used was no longer available (ahhh the pitfalls of relying on 3rd party plugins – see my last post on SQLite). I thought I’d share what I learned here.

I was using the OpenLayers plugin in QGIS 2.x as an easy resource to add base maps to my projects. You could pull in layers from OSM, Google, Bing, and others. It turns out that plugin is no longer available for QGIS 3.x. So I searched around and found some suggestions for a different plugin called QuickMapServices which was a great replacement. But alas, that worked in QGIS 3.0 but is not compatible (as of now) for QGIS 3.2.

So I’m back to adding WMS layers manually. There is a new feature in QGIS for adding XYZ Tiles; this is a little better than WMS because the base map can be rendered a bit quicker. I found a tip in the Stack Exchange that you can add an OSM tiles layer with this url:{z}/{x}/{y}.png 

Select XYZ Tiles in the Browser, right click, New connection, give it a name, add the URL. You can modify the X Y Z coordinates where the map centers and zooms by default. Once you’ve created the connection, you can simply drag the OSM layer into the map window to render it.

Adding the OSM XYZ Tiles in QGIS

One problem that always creeps up: when you add other layers and adjust the zoom, sometimes the rendering of the base map looks poor, i.e. the features and labels look blurry or blocky. When you’re pulling data from a web map layer, as you zoom in it swaps out the tiles for more detailed ones appropriate for that scale. But when you’re zooming in QGIS things can get out of synch, as your map window zoom may not be enough to trigger the switch in the map tiles, or those map tiles are just not meant to be rendered at that scale. If you right click on a blank area of the toolbar, you can activate the Tile Scale panel and can use the slider to adjust the window zoom in synch with the tiles, so you can operate at the scales that are appropriate for the tiles. The way points and track for our hike alongside Schnebly Hill Road are shown below, and the labels for the points represent our elevation in feet.

OSM Tile Layer with Tile Scale Panel

If the slider is grayed out, select the OSM layer in the Layers menu, right click, and select Set CRS  – Set Project CRS From Layer. Web mapping services typically use EPSG 3857 Pseudo Mercator as the coordinate reference system / map projection by default. If your other vectors layers aren’t in that system, you can have the base map draw to their system or vice versa by selecting the layer, right clicking, and choosing Set CRS. But for the tile scale to work properly EPSG 3857 must be the project CRS.

Lastly, I’ve always liked the USGS WMS layers, which are never included in the plugins that I’ve seen. The USGS provides layers for: imagery, imagery with topographic features, shaded relief, and the USGS topographic map layer:

USGS Link for WMS Layer for Topographic Maps

You can click on one of the services, and at the top (in small print) are urls for their services in WMS and WMTS. The last one is a web mapping tile service, which is a bit faster than WMS. Click on the WMTS link, and copy the url from the address in the browser. Then in QGIS select WMS / WMTS layers, right click, add a new connection, give it a name and paste the url. This is url for the topographic map:

Once again, you can drag the layer into the map window to render it, and you can use the Tile Scale panel to adjust the zoom. Here’s our hike with the topo map as the base:

USGS Topographic Map in QGIS