Maps on apps, analog route planning

[Words by Steve Thomas]

Since the advent of GPS and mobile navigation apps, most cyclists have pretty much lost that “special” love for paper maps, and many have never even planned a route on one.

There’s no doubt that there’s still a core of old-school devotees to the once powerful and essential rose-coated OS Landranger maps. Those who will perhaps spend several more evenings or three drooling over the magical contour lines, then following the dotted red lines and rejoining them, all to make sense of a route they had envisioned.

Not so long ago, planning an epic off-road route on these fold-out yet classically appealing imaginative boosters was an integral part of the great off-road riding experience. Map reading and route planning using a map was (and still is) a very skilled art, and navigating by a map is even more so.

The ability to read and translate these lines into practical visions was an integral part of the experience of developing and surviving outdoor skills and was something invaluable and potentially life-saving when conditions deteriorated on the trail. .

The power of paper

Okay, yes, GPS devices are great, but only up to a point. As soon as the battery runs out or you lose mobile device coverage, you’re well and truly in Cow Pat Creek without a pump.

With a good old paper map and a bit of knowledge on how to get the most out of planning your route, you literally get the big picture, and not just that little box-sized screen of a matches.

Maps don’t have those shady limitations, and the only AI involved is the “all-inclusive” input of the human planner and navigator – you.

By unfolding a map and sitting down for a while, you can see and judge what is far beyond the limited screen of any device, and you can also see on paper exactly what is there. other side of that mountain and then evaluate the different options you can take to get there or around it, which is really a pain to try and achieve on any GPS or mobile device, especially on a rare day sunny.

When things go pear-shaped, GPS devices can indeed be very useful, although arguably having the ability and wider viewing options of a map and knowing how to read it will offer you much better, wider and more reliable real-time options to resolve the situation.

The best maps for planning off-road routes

The Ordnance Survey (OS) produces some of the best maps in the world, and these cover the whole of the British Isles in great detail and are the gold standard for route planning.

They are produced in two different scale versions for outdoor use; 1:50000 and 1:25000. This means that 1cm on the 1:50000 map represents an actual distance of 50,000cm or more usefully 500m and 250m respectively on the 1:25000 map. If you forgot or were never shown how to read a card, there are beginner and advanced guides to the operating system. website

The pink-covered Landranger Series 1:50,000 maps have been the go-to for those planning longer journeys for decades now, and they offer more than enough detail for most of us.

For more detailed routing and planning, the orange-pocketed 1:25,000 Explorer Series maps look great and offer twice the scale of the Landranger Series. These are great for narrow routes in specific areas – especially on your home patch, but can be overkill for general longer route planning.

The OS maps are also available as a weatherproof ‘active map’ and with a ‘mobile download’ option for use in conjunction with Ordnance Survey’s own app.

Maps on app variants.jpeg

At first glance, maps may seem like an expensive option, but the experience of using one and learning to read and navigate it is invaluable – they really are an investment in yourself.

If you have created a route that you want to ride and try that covers two maps or occasionally the corners of 3 maps, Ordnance Survey offers a custom map option where they will create a map that will center your route on your own map. How about that for service!

Cartographic apps

There are several very good map apps out there, and while this story is about paper maps (or rather laminated paper maps – Active Maps for protection), there’s no reason you can’t use both in tandem , or even just carry one as a fail-safe backup to the other.

Google Maps, and Komoot are all useful, although for UK-based riders using the mobile OS app in conjunction with their paper maps is a great way to go as a basic route planner.

Route planning with paper maps

Knowing your rights (of way) is a very important aspect of route planning for mountain bikers has always been knowing your rights of way – where you can and cannot legally ride.

Maps over apps right of way.jpg

Riding on illegal trails and paths often leads to conflict and bad feelings towards all of us, which is understandable.

The great things with a paper map are that the different slopes of the trail are well marked, and it’s easy to avoid those dotted lines that define a trail (most of the time not allowed) and plan routes using the dotted lines a bridleway (legal to ride) and other legal paths (things are much more open to riding in Scotland).

Cards on applications

Contour lines

This may seem obvious to those used to reading maps, but don’t forget to check the contour lines. These orange/brown curved lines show you the gradient and elevation on a map, and the closer they are, the steeper the slope. When you see a gentle trail climbing through them, you have to take into account that the maps are also flat, so the trail will be longer than a similar distance marked on a flat section.

When the lines are closer together, try to look for routes that gently cross them rather than going straight up (which is okay for going down).


If you’re looking at a trail through a remote area that isn’t often likely to be walked too often, be aware that it may very well be in a state of total disrepair and could be nondescript in the terrain.

In that case, always look for an escape option and plan plenty of extra time – because pushing a bike for hours through bogs and knee-deep hillocks is really no fun.

Cards on applications

If you are planning such a route, also look for potential fuel and water refueling options, which may mean deviating from the route to a public restroom or a village.


The Water Margin – when you see this epic route crossing a valley with a meandering stream, be sure to check which side of the blue line you need to be on, look for bridges and clear crossing points as there is no is not as easy to go back up the hill.

Look for a telltale excess of blue lines running down these contour lines and tiny blue flecks; this usually means it is a swampy area. If you are unfamiliar with the area and there is no visible habitation this could be a hell of a job and not worth trying if it has been wet the previous week or two. No one likes to cycle through a bog.


If you get lost, whether due to a lost trail or weather conditions, you need to think and act quickly. Don’t get stuck in the dark or in bad weather longer than necessary. Try to get to a higher place and take a look at some shape of landmark that you can attach to a map, then assess where you are and whether to turn back or continue.

A landmark can be a small building, a stream, a swimming pool, or a clump of older trees (pines and newer trees aren’t the best for this because they grow so fast and are harvested faster than trees). cards are not printed).

Make sure you are looking in the right direction, if you are unsure of the direction of north you cannot see the sun and you are not good with your built in compass you will need a real one , digital or traditional, to help you point the map in the right direction.

So what’s stopping you?

So get yourself a map and learn (relearn) to read it and take a look at all the information on it and see what else you could have done, all those hidden gems you missed in this corner or on this track.

And the next time you plan to go somewhere with friends, ask them to go around, bring the coffee or drinks, pull out a map and have a fun evening figuring out where to go with your friends.

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