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The ultimate guide to digital mapping: hiking, driving, historical maps and more

Where to find the best maps online and on smartphones and tablets

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.

Best online maps for hiking

Best online maps for driving

Best online maps for cycling

Best online maps for finding your way 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.

Print an OS map

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.

Print map Memory Map

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.

Map pouch

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

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