Cartography and Maps

Before any trip can even start, perhaps the first thing you will need is a map. In the planning phase, it is not only useful, but can be essential for the expedition. To know ifa pass is passable or a river crossable will determine the basic itinerary choices. Obtaining as much information is therefore a prerequisite for a successful journey. In an age of digital imagery, it is still useful to obtain and print traditional maps on which to plan and navigate as this it is often faster than on a screen and helps to get an idea of the scale. In remote regions it will also be important to have a paper copy as electronic mean cannot be trusted entirely. But getting hold of these maps is not always easy, especially in countries where there is little demand  and/or their production is controlled by the government. Even in places that do make and sell decent editions, getting free maps in advance can’t be a bad thing, especially if you haven’t determined the exact region you will be going too.

One step of the calliper, a hundred pulls of the paddle

Luckily there are plenty of scanned maps that can be found online, and over several expeditions (Kyrgyzstan, Iran and China) I have found that some of the easiest to get hold of are the Soviet army maps, made during the second half of the 20st century. They have a pretty comprehensive coverage of east and central Asia, as well as covering eastern Europe and of course of Russia. They come in different scales, so make planning easy as you can draw a general route on a 1000k or 500k spread before looking at individual sections on a more precise scale. They also exist in 200k and 100k, although these last ones become harder to find online. The best way to find the map for any particular region is to look for the exact reference on a search engine. To determine the reference you can check out the guide “Soviet Topographic Map Simbols” which explains how the maps are organised. You can download it here. They follow the International Map of the world numbering system, where each 1000k map is designated with a letter and number. Each one of these is then divided into smaller pieces following certain rules. For example, the 1000K maps are divided into 144 sections of 100k. If you are unable to find the map at the desired scale, say for example 100k, you can move up and try and find a rougher depiction.

Here are several sites than can be used to download the maps:  English. Gives information on where you can find information on the different maps as well as explaining the coordinates system. Has multiple links of interest.  English/Russian. The easiest to use, just zoom in on the region of interest and choose the map you want. Just select and download. Seems to be limited to 100k.  Russian. Somewhat random selection, but has the possibility of downloading maps for GPS devices.  Russian. Quite a decent selection of 50k maps of the ex-soviet union, use the worldmap to seach for the right one.  Russian. Mountain club website, there is a mix of old USSR maps as well and photographs and hand-draw itineraries of their past expeditions.  Russian.  Similar to the above, has past expedition. Not easy to navigate.

For the Russian websites, you can translate the pages using a Chrome browser.

Other than the soviet maps there are also good American editions, such as the 500k “Tactical Pilotage Charts” and the 250k “Joint Operation Tactical Series”. They seem to be harder to find a are in miles/feet, the utility of which will of course depend on your upbringing. A good place to start is the University of Texas Library. English. A large and varied amount of maps of all over the world, including the Tactical series mentioned above as well as plenty of other resources, including polar region.

For individual countries there is a wealth of interactive topographical tools, especially for European countries, but not only. Check out the link for a selection. Dzjow’s adventure log has catalogued many of the free and accessible map resources out there. If the links don’t work try shortening their URL.

As mentioned above, we now live in the digital age where satellite imagery can be an important part of planning an itinerary. From checking out glaciers to newly built roads they can be invaluable source of information.  Also maps can be combined with other information such as temperature, cloud or snow coverage and even UV exposition, all to taken into account.

Online use:

Google Maps and Google Earth. Both these well know applications are often the first step when checking out a possible region of interest. Maps, but especially Earth gives you the possibility of visualising the surface and topography of our planet at the click of a button. The possibility to draw an itinerary and calculate its distance, elevation and slope is a very powerful tool. Combined with geolocalised images and photographs you can check out the real thing, suchh as the state of the roads or anything else that may take your fancy. The number of pictures it is also a good estimator of how popular any particular landmark is!

Note: the googleearth mobile app is quite limited as opposed to the desktop version.

Apple maps affords better resolution in some places of the world, so if you need the extra detail zoom in! You can access an emulator at the website Every day NASA takes pictures of the world using its MODIS satellites. These images are of free access to all and hold a wealth of information. For example you can check daytime and nightime temperatures, as well as getting an idea of cloud or snow coverage. This can be especially interesting in places where it is difficult to get information on snowcover. By comparing over several years, you can get a rough idea of the seasonal fall.

Note: for the best snow results, use the filter “corrected reflectance (3-6-7)” which allows you to distinguish between snow (red) and clouds (white).

Offline use:

Oruxmaps This phone app is definitely something to shout out about. It is free (download it from their website not the playstore). It allows you to load multiple opensource maps, which can be chosen depending on the activity. There are several pre-installed maps to choose from, but  you can also add the path for others. The map layer can be easily downloaded onto the phone’s memory and used offline. The phone can then be used to track routes, follow pre-programmed waypoints or downloaded routes. Saved itineraries can be exported using multiple formats and sent for example to google earth for clear visualisation. A personal favourite layer is the “Opentopomap” which has good detail, is already installed with the app and covers the entire world.

For navigation on roads or paths (especially for cycling but not only) the two options I recommend are and, which both have advantages and inconveniences., perhaps the better known of the two, is great to save points of interest, uses very little memory space for offline maps and has a decent repertory of shops and lodgings. On the other hand, its route planning (perhaps the most important part) is awful, often choosing completely ridiculous and lengthy detours. The visuals are also quite poor., which we discovered half-way (thanks Ivan!) is much clearer, plans decent routes and has contour lines! The altitude profile is also much better. On the downside, the memory files are much bigger and it’s not possible to save points of interest easily. Our recommendation: download both, use for navigation and keep as a backup and save places.

Finally during the preparation phase, two useful sites are MapPlanner, to quickly check distances and profiles and a topographic map to make global itinerary decisions in function of how much climbing you want. In Japan, especiall after bad weather, road closures can be checker here before setting out.

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