Home > General Information > Maps for Car-Free Hikes, Part 2 – Online Maps

Maps for Car-Free Hikes, Part 2 – Online Maps

This is the second in a two-part series on maps for planning car-free outdoor adventures. The first article discussed print maps good for planning walks that connect trails, parks, and open space with transit. Print maps are usually a starting place for me, a way to get ideas for possible routes. Once I have planned out a potential route, I sometimes just try the hike without doing much other research. However, online maps can be very helpful in answering questions about a route that cannot easily be answered by looking at the print versions.

There are many fancy map-related applications online that could be useful for trip planning, but I tend to find Google Maps to be sufficient for my needs. For most trips, entering the route on Google Maps allows you to quickly figure out the distance of a hike — much easier than trying to measure in on the print map and add up a bunch of numbers. I tend to underestimate the length of a route, so mapping the route online helps me get a better idea of the actual distance and make adjustments if necessary. I have found that drawing lines using Google’s MyMaps feature is more useful than entering starting and end points in Google Maps. Keep in mind, however, that although Google Maps directions does depict some trails you may be better off using the mileage from your print map to get an accurate estimate of distance of some trails on your route — particularly when the route has lots of switchbacks. Also, in some cases it is helpful to draw multiple lines in MyMaps for different sections of the route, rather than one line for the entire route.

Although online maps are useful as a time saver for route planning, the best use I’ve found for them is avoidance of potentially dangerous routes. Anyone who has been on foot or on a bicycle on a route with no shoulder/sidewalk or near a busy freeway interchange will know the value of being familiar with the route ahead of time. For routes near freeways, busy thoroughfares, or rural roads, I like to use the satellite view of Google Maps. I check for sidewalks, for crosswalk locations, and for other features of the roads that might affect my route. Often it is very easy in satellite view to see how to avoid a problem by walking on one side of the street, moving the route a block in one direction, etc. Occasionally, if I can’t get enough information in satellite view, I will use the Google Maps Street View feature. It’s not available for every location, obviously, but in most urban areas I have been able to check on the location of a bus stop or see details of a street where the overhead view was blocked by trees. Street View can also sometimes be useful for finding the exact location of a trailhead, path, or stairway.

Despite careful planning, you may sometimes find discrepancies while out on the route. If you or one of your hiking partners has a smartphone, you could also pull up a map on the phone and use the phone’s GPS features to find an alternative route or check the directions. I am definitely not suggesting you need to purchase an expensive phone, however; much of the time I reference the directions I have typed up/written out ahead of time and occasionally refer to a printed map. In fact, having now described the utility of online maps in general I would like to also discourage you from using online maps and technology too much for your hikes. It can be tempting to use all of the cool online mapping tools out there to see your exact route before ahead of time or to check your location multiple times along the route. But I prefer to leave some mystery and surprise to the journey — otherwise it’s not much of an adventure!

Once I have completed a hike and am satisfied with the route, I enter the detailed route in MyMaps for future reference. MyMaps has options for either keeping your maps private or for making them public, and it is an easy tool to learn and use. If you want to get a better idea of the how the maps look, you can look at the maps that I’ve included for each of the hikes on this blog, or browse the collection of Car-Free Outdoors maps.

Planning out a car-free outdoor adventure does take some time, but it is a lot of fun if you are a map-lover. If you don’t find this enjoyable or don’t have the time for it, there are plenty of routes here on Car-Free Outdoors to follow — and more on the way!

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