How-To: Using Google Earth for Hiking

This is about Google Earth and how it can help hikers. I feel that every hiker should have a copy of Google Earth on their computer. This computer program is great for scouting out areas to hike. Many people have uploaded photos and actual hiking history for many parts of the world to Google Earth. If you have an area in mind to hike, you can view that area using Google Earth and in many cases get an idea of what you will encounter using the photos and GPS Tracks that might be available there. Even if there are no photos or tracks, you can still get an idea of what the area looks like from Google Earth’s aerial views. Hiking with a handheld GPS unit is a great way to hike for security, but now you can actually download from Google Earth to your GPS unit someone else’s hiking history in the form of tracks to use when you get to your hiking destination.

Google Earth is free, but there are some computer restrictions on using it. You must have at least Windows XP (GE does run on a MAC) and also have a broadband connection (DSL, cable, etc). It is a memory hog, so the more memory you have, the better it will run. If you have a broadband connection and have not yet loaded Google Earth on your computer, go to and select the download. Note: if you have trouble with the normal download page, give this one a try -

Your mouse is very important tool in using Google Earth.
Its button functions are:
Mouse Wheel – use this to zoom in and out the aerial view - “up” zooms in, “down” zooms out
Left Mouse Button – hold it down and move the mouse around to “fly” around the map
Right Mouse Button – hold it down to also control zooming and pitching Screen

Things to notice:
-- On the very bottom of the screen is the latitude and longitude (lat/long) of the position of the cursor. You can pass this data on to fellow hikers if you want them to look at the spot you are looking at. Just give them the lat/long as it is displayed. They would type that into the “search” box and then they would “fly” to that location
-- At the bottom left corner of the satellite view is the date the image was taken (i.e. Imagery Date). This is the month and year the aerial photo was taken. This will give you an idea of how old the view is
-- View clarity. Some views are clearer than others as you zoom in. The clarity of the view depends on how the aerial photo was taken. Some are taken with High Definition cameras, others are taken with less sophisticated cameras. You will normally see better photos in high-profile areas. The woods of Maine might be just a blur so the aerial photographers could save money.

I also recommend you do not save a lot of places. Each place you save in the “Places” sidebar is loaded when you load Google Earth. If you want to save places, save them as files that can be loaded later. Right-click on a place and select “delete” to remove it if you don’t want it. To save a place, right-click on it, select “Save place as..”, select a folder to save it in, give it a name and save it. If you want to temporarily hide a place, just remove the checkmark next to it and it will be suppressed. You can put the checkmark back to see it on the map again. There are endless things you can do, just explore with caution; “shooting from the hip” can get you into real trouble.

Once Google Earth is installed on your computer, start the program and make sure the Search/Places/Layers sidebar is displayed on the left side of the screen. If it is not, click “View” in the menu at the top of the screen and then click “Sidebar” to put a checkmark next to it. The sidebar should now be visible. Now you may want to look at the program’s options, making any changes you deem necessary. This is pretty advanced, so you may want to leave it as is until you know more about the workings of Google Earth. You get to options by clicking on “Tools” in the menu line, then “Options”.
Next, set a “starting location”. This will force Google Earth to go to that location each time it starts up. A starting location could be your neighborhood, someplace you like to hike, or the “center” of your world.
The procedure to do this is:
1. Zero in to a starting location by using the mouse wheel to zoom, and by holding the left mouse button down to “drag” the earth. Or you could type an address in the “Fly to” search box and then click on the magnifying glass to zero in to a starting location.
2. Move the cursor to the spot you want to start at
3. Click on “View” in the menu bar to open it
4. Click on “Make this my start location”

Google Earth works with base maps and allows “layers” to overlay the base map. You can turn “layers” on or off, depending on what you like. You will find the available layers in the section titled “Layers” in the “Sidebar” on the left side of your screen. Some layers have additional layers beneath them. To see all the layers beneath a top layer, just click on the “+” next to the layer name.
I suggest you turn on the following layers to help you in your hiking:
Roads – This will have GE display the road names on the map
Under Photos:
-- Panoramio – This will allow you to see dots in areas that can be clicked on to see photos. Usually, as you zoom in, more photo dots will appear.
Under Gallery:
-- Everytrail – This will display a clickable icon on the map where there is a hike defined by the website.
-- Wikiloc – This will display a clickable “hiking” icon on the map where there is a hike defined by the Wikiloc website.
You can experiment with other layers if you want, but for hiking I feel the above layers are the best to use.

Here is how I feel hikers can use Google Earth. Say you want to go on a hike in Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area. You would pan over to that spot using the mouse wheel and the left mouse button. As you zoom in on the area you will see a number of dots, which are photo dots. You could click on the dots to see photos of the different areas. You would also see hiking icons. You could click on these to see what hikes have been done by other people and uploaded to the Wikiloc or Everytrail website. If you like a hike, you could print it out (see the websites for help) or download it to your GPS. Once in your GPS (all units load tracks a different way, check your unit’s instructions for help), you could use the data as a reference when you do the hike. You also could zoom into an area that has no photos or hiking data to see what it looks like and maybe find a way to get to it. That is what I did for many of the hikes I have uploaded. I found what looked like an interesting hiking destination on Google Earth and then tried to figure a way to hike it. I find Google Earth to be a valuable tool in my hiking arsenal. I hope this article helps you, too, realize its value. If you have questions, use the help function in Google Earth or use Google searches to look up things.

No comments: