These days off-road maps and navigation devices make it easier to find your way around off-road, but what about when the tracks aren’t on the map? National Park maps are usually vague in the tracks they show. Paid paper maps usually only offer the more common destinations and navigation apps & devices offer very little detail in other areas.
How then do you find your way around or explore an area and make sure you don’t get yourself lost? Google Maps! One of the best tools of navigation (in our opinion), to research and navigate off-road destinations.
Satellite images are an excellent way to do a bit or trip prep and research where you’re going or where you want to go. You can find interesting points that you might like to travel to and you can physically see tracks, terrain and landmarks.
We’ve found that Google actually marks an incredible amount of tracks. If you’ve been in a state forest you’ll know there’s usually hundreds of tracks leading in every direction. Google Maps usually marks a lot of these tracks you won’t find on any other maps.
Google Maps on your phone or mobile device can show your position and direction when in reception. So if you find yourself in an unmapped area, you’ll know you position and can head in the direction of a marked track or point of interest.
You’ll need an Internet connection to load the maps. If you’re lost in the middle of a forest with no data reception, Google will be no help to you. However, if you load a map or satellite image of an area while you’re in reception it will stay loaded on your deceive until you close the app. You can choose to download an area of map for offline use, but we have found this to be a bit difficult and unreliable in the way it works.
Not all tracks shown actually exist or are drivable. Sometimes Google will lie to you, it may mark a track that is now completely overgrown or it may show tracks entering private property, so take what you see with a grain of salt.
How to best use Google Maps
Use it for trip planning, while you’re at home on your computer, research the area you’re headed. This will at least give you an idea in your mind of the terrain and any notable landmarks. You can also print or save satellite images to bring with you.
Using the measure distance tool (on a computer) you can mark out a track. It also provides a great distance indicator so you can get a rough idea of distances between sections of track or turns you need to make.
If you’ve got data reception at a campsite, load up the maps before you set out exploring for the day. The maps should stay loaded (at that zoom level) for the day even if you go out of reception.
Use Maps in conjunction with other tools. Here’s an example of how we used it to explore the unknown. We were in the south of a forest, plenty of tracks shown on Google. To the north of the forests there were plenty more tracks shown but there was a big empty space separating these tracks. We wanted to get to the northern section but we didn’t want to detour back out to the road to get there. We set out to see if we could get there through the bush. We did find an unmarked track that lead off in seemingly the right direction, so with just the trusty old compass we made sure we kept heading in the way we wanted. Eventually we climbed high enough and came into phone reception. Upon loading up Maps we were a dot in the middle of nowhere but we could now track ourselves on satellite image and see we where getting closer to the northern tracks. Although the Hema App displayed no tracks we still used it as well to track our progress and allow us to backtrack if necessary.
Part of exploring and off-roading is to get off-grid so you can’t expect to know precisely where you are 100% of the time or to always have a perfectly mapped out route. That’s the adventure! But with the help of Google and other tools you can plan and be confident that you’ll get where you want.