Google might be keeping tight-lipped about current usage figures, but since Google Maps passed the 100 million users per month milestone three years ago, we can safely say that online mapping services are hugely popular.
Google Maps isn’t the only digital mapping resource, of course. There are plenty of alternatives, some of which are far better suited for some tasks.
Which type of map will serve you best depends, to no small extent, on why you need a map (obviously). In this feature we’ll be looking at digital maps – both accessed online and running locally on your PC or mobile device.
Whether you need a map for hiking, driving, cycling, or navigating a city on foot, we'll explain which is the best map to use. We’ll also investigate some more specialised types of maps including historical and geological maps.
Best online maps
In addition to examining the maps themselves, we’ll also consider what type of devices are most suitable for viewing them. After all, very often, you’ll be using maps when you’re out and about rather than sitting at a desk.
With mobile devices still failing to provide the battery life we'd like, though, it doesn’t pay to rely totally on a smartphone or even a dedicated GPS, so we’ll show you how to print digital maps to provide a backup.
And for something that little bit different, there's geocaching – which you can think of as a high-tech treasure hunt. Here's how to try out geocaching using your digital maps and handheld devices.
Our coverage of the world of digital mapping doesn’t dismiss Google’s offerings, though. Far from it. Google's free resources provide what most people need and continue to go from strength to strength as they add exciting new features.
Indeed, Google Maps and its stable-mate Google Earth have a lot more features than many users realise. So here are 10 things you might not know about Google Maps and Earth.
What's the best type of map for...
Click the links below for our guides to the best maps for hiking, driving, and navigating around a city.
How to Print a Map
In an era when online free mapping sites are plentiful, mobile mapping apps are powerful and often free, and a significant number of cars are equipped with a satnav, you might think paper maps have had their day.
However, they still have their uses. You wouldn't want to rely entirely on digital maps to guide you on a long hike, for example. We say this for two reasons. First, unless you have a handheld device with a huge amount of mapping data stored locally, there’s always the possibility that you’ll need to download additional data. Yet if you find yourself with no mobile signal – a likely scenario if you're in the middle of nowhere up a mountain – you’ve got problems.
Second, since many mobile devices struggle to eke out enough battery life for a full day’s heavy usage, you could be left high and dry before a walk is complete. Since navigation can be essential for your safety, this is a potentially dangerous state of affairs. It pays, therefore, to carry paper maps with you to provide a failsafe backup.
Perhaps you already have paper maps of the areas in which you’ll be walking but, if not, buying maps just to provide backup is an expensive business, especially if you’ve already shelled out for the digital equivalents. So it’s good to know how to print out your various sources of digital mapping.
Here we’re thinking of Ordnance Survey mapping since the consequences of being stranded on the hills are more serious than being left in a town centre without a map, but some of the same principles apply of course.
Most of the online mapping sites will allow you to print out what you can see on screen but this generally doesn’t apply to sites that offer OS mapping. In Bing maps, for example, if you try to print an OS map you end up with a low-resolution street map which might show nothing useful at all for remote areas.
Ordnance Survey’s own getamap allows you to print both 1:50,000 Landranger series and 1:25,000 Explorer series mapping but you’re either limited to a half-A4 print or you have to pay for this service. In the main, if you want unrestricted ability to print detailed mapping you’ll need a digital mapping package on your PC.
Remember that inkjet inks tend to run when they get wet and even if you print on a colour laser printer, a soaking wet and dog-eared print could be almost illegible. While you can get waterproof paper for your printer this is expensive and a better solution is to get hold of a waterproof map case – these are widely available from outdoor suppliers.
One other thing to consider, if you’re a keen hiker, is buying a portable printer, many of which can run off internal batteries. Then, if you’re away from home for a protracted period, you have the option of printing the day’s maps from your laptop before heading into the hills. Unfortunately, small does not imply cheap and you’ll probably pay more for a portable than an equivalent desktop printer. The HP Officejet 100, for example, costs £180.
Next page: historical maps and geological maps
In the main, maps serve a down-to-earth purpose but to many people they’re fascinating to pore over. And if current day maps are enthralling, you’ll probably find historical maps to be even more fascinating. This will be particularly true if you have an interest in history or perhaps if you’re researching your family history and want to get a feel for what your home town was like in the days of your great grandfather.
While some historical maps have been incorporated into Google Maps, if you want a trip through time, a more appropriate tool is Google Earth which requires you to download a client onto your PC. First of all, while viewing the satellite/aerial imagery, click on the clock icon in the tool bar to display a slider that allows you to wind back the years. For some locations you might find just a couple of dates, both fairly recent, but if you check out central London you’ll find various options going back to black and white imagery from 1945.
If you’re more interested in true maps as opposed to aerial imagery, you’ll be interested to know that some of the David Rumsey collection of historical maps can be viewed as overlays to Google Earth. To view these go to David Rumsey Map Collection and click on “Launch Google Earth Application”. When asked if you want to open or save the file, opt to open it and, so long as you have it installed, Google Earth will start with the David Rumsey maps listed under Places. Select the map you want and select other layers, say of more recent data, to overlay on the old map.
Historical Ordnance Survey maps have a lasting appeal, especially if they’re of an area you know well. These are available from several sources online either as a download or a print. For example you could try Cassini Maps which provides the six different series of OS maps from the 1:2,500, 1855-1896 County Series through the 1:30,000 – 1:50,000, 1912-1926 Popular Edition to current day maps. An A4-sized download will cost you £9.99.
Maps tend to show features that we can see from the surface of the Earth but there’s a quite different type of maps that shows what lies beneath your feet. What we’re referring to here are geological maps and, in particular, those that are produced for Great Britain by the British Geological Survey. Certainly this is a rather specialised type of map but amateur geologists are by no means rare and it’s also true that for many hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, some knowledge of the types of rock they’re walking across makes the experience so much more rewarding. After all, being able to see that you’re approaching a geological fault or a different type of rock can often shed some light on the features you can see in the landscape.
If you want detailed geological maps then you’ll have to pay for them but 1:50,000 data is free for non-commercial use and you can view it online using the Geology of Britain Viewer. There are the usual zoom and pan controls plus you can choose whether to superimpose the geological layer over various base maps or satellite imagery. As with many layered maps you can adjust the transparency of the geological layer and, if you single click on any part of the map, a pop-up will appear to describe the rock type. Downloading the data isn’t possible and if you want a paper copy your only option is to create a hard copy of the screen. Nevertheless, if you like to know your Millstone Grit from your Lower Devonian Sandstone this is a useful resource.