Touring Tip: Use Google Earth to Help Plan Your Trip

Sep 06, 2013 View Comments by
Fig. 1-Zooming

Fig. 1-Zooming

Touring motorcyclists are always looking for new and exciting routes to travel. From time-to-time, I will feature some of my favorite trip planning tools in this space. One of my main tools for evaluating a potential motorcycle route or touring area is to view it in Google Earth ( This highly sophisticated software possesses a seemingly endless array of fascinating features. Here are some of my top picks for trip planning:

  • Fig. 1—Zooming In and Out: Going quickly from an outer space perspective to hovering several thousand, or even a couple hundred, feet high over a specific location only requires small manipulations of the mouse.
  • Fig. 2—Just Add Weather: Gaining a view of current cloud cover and weather conditions is only a mouse click away. The “Primary Data Base” filters allow users to determine the level of detail they want displayed on their Google Earth maps. For my purposes, I usually select: “Borders and Labels,” “Places,” “Photos,” and “Roads.” “Weather” is one of the additional features available, but this one is most useful if you happen to have brought your laptop along on a trip.
  • Fig. 3—Regional Perspectives: The “Tour Guide” feature allows users to focus on specific geographic areas. In this example “Great Plains” was selected. Now I can navigate down to users and bring up additional photos and narratives, they’re only a click away.
  • Fig. 4—Roads & Terrain: As you zoom in, roads and topography begin appearing in greater levels of detail. The search feature allows you to zoom into selected named locations (like towns) and to locations at specific GPS coordinates.
  • Fig. 5—Photos: Square icons denote where photographs are available on the map. This feature provides users an even clearer appreciation of what’s in a particular area and helps identify points of interest worth seeing.
  • Fig. 6—Superimposed Route: Some mapping software (Garmin Base Camp for example) allows users to see their planned route superimposed in Google Earth. Often I am able to zoom in far enough to distinguish paved from unpaved roads. If my tour will be on a street bike, I probably will then route around gravel and dirt roads. Once a trip is planned, users can take a virtual tour, before ever leaving home, and in the process discover things they want to include in or exclude from their route and itinerary.
  • Fig. 7—Earth Gallery/Featured Maps: This feature allows users to upload certain featured maps. In this example the route of the Lewis & Clark Expedition is shown. As indicated by the green dots on the map, there’s a veritable treasure trove of additional, relevant information available along the entire route.

The above applications only scratch the surface of what’s available from Google Earth. The best way to fully understand its usefulness to you is to go online and explore its capabilities. I have to warn you, though, that it can be quite addictive. The basic Google Earth software is free to users. If you want Google’s state-of-the-art package, Google Earth Pro is available for $399. I personally haven’t needed the “Pro” package’s extra capability, but I can certainly understand its strong attraction to mapaholics like me.

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