In the main, hikers in the UK prefer to use Ordnance Survey maps which are not available on Google Maps or in Google Earth. Read on for the best online maps for hiking.
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However, if you head over to Bing Maps you’ll discover a different situation. By default, you see the same sort of maps of the UK that you see in Google Maps but if you click on the top-left menu (which, initially, will show “Road”) you’ll see that there’s the option of “Ordnance Survey Maps”).
What’s more, once you’ve selected this, as you continue to zoom in, you’ll first see the road map replaced by a 1:50,000 Landranger OS map and then this will be replaced by a 1:25,000 Explorer series OS map. The latter is particularly popular among hikers because it shows field boundaries which often helps in route-finding.
However, all is not quite as useful as it first appears. Although you can look at those lovely OS online maps on your laptop or desktop screen, and this could be useful when planning a walk, you aren’t given the option of viewing OS maps if you view the Bing website on a smartphone or tablet (there's aerial and Bird's Eye instead). In addition, if you’re viewing OS mapping on-screen at home and try to print it out, you end up with a road map instead.
It's hardly surprising that this is the case: Ordnance Survey wants you buy paper maps or those from its own website. It offers more options at the site, most notably OS getamap which provides access to both 1:50,000 Landranger series and 1:25,000 Explorer series mapping. Although you can view these maps as a guest user, you’d be advised to sign up for a free subscription as this gives you access to many of the more advanced features of OS getamap.
Once you’re signed up and logged in you can add markers and routes to a map and save your annotated map online, email it to someone else, or export a route (but not the map) to a hand-held GPS device.
You also have access to walking routes that others have created and there are currently 144,000 such routes. You can print out maps but this is very limited unless you choose to pay for the service in that you’re only allowed to print at half A4 size which is of limited use. To print full A4 pages you have two options; you can either pay £1.99 for each A4 print or you can take out an annual subscription for £19.99 (or £7.99 for a month) which provides unlimited printing.
Despite the availability of free Ordnance Survey mapping, many outdoor enthusiasts will require facilities that are only available for a fee. Generally these products run on a PC for planning a route or printing a map but also allow you to upload mapping to a handheld device which will often be a dedicated GPS receiver, such as those from Garmin or Memory Map, because of their greater battery life compared to smartphones.
Use of maps stored locally in a handheld device is, of course, essential so that you’re not reliant on network coverage. Several companies including Memory Map, Fugawi, Mapyx, Anquet and Tracklogs offer this sort of mapping.
They differ in whether the data is provided on CD/DVD or for download, and whether you are restricted to predefined areas or just those areas that interest you, this latter approach probably costing you more in the long run. As examples of pricing, Memory Map charges £100 for the whole of Great Britain at 1:50,000 or most of the National Parks at 1:25,000 for £100 each.
The alternative to OS maps for hiking in the UK is the Harvey’s series of maps that were designed specifically for use by outdoor enthusiasts. While OS maps can be thought of as general purpose, Harvey maps are more specialised and some hikers swear by them. Harvey’s Superscale (1:25,000) digital mapping is available from third-party suppliers such as Anquet.