I’ve always loved maps. When I was a kid I would spend hours drawing them – treasure maps, lost islands, occasionally whole countries. Sometimes they were doodles in the back of school notebooks when the lessons got boring, sometimes they turned into much more elaborate affairs.
I’ve also always liked studying maps. As I got older, I would read maps like books, browsing over places familiar and unfamiliar, looking for interesting places to visit.
As a cyclist, I’ve used maps to plan tours and find my way through foreign countries. Until recently, though, I’ve always tried to get my hands on ‘proper’ paper maps.
The big advantage of folding maps over on-screen versions is it’s so much easier to see a place as a whole when it’s spread out in front of you. There’s also something about the tactile experience of holding a map – just as there’s something about flicking the pages in a ‘real’ book that an e-reader can never offer.
On my first cycling tour through Portugal in early 2005 my wife and I arrived from Spain by tandem. The only map we’d been able to find before arriving was Michelin’s 1:400,000 map of the whole country – this was in the days before the advent of smartphones and online maps (well, I’d certainly never heard of either at that stage).
The best that can be said about the map was it was adequate. It showed all the major roads, the names of towns and villages and provided a reasonable overview. But there were no contours (why can’t there be Ordance Survey maps of every country!) and showed very few minor roads.
In the years since, I’ve learned that there are NO good printed maps of Portugal. The military ones have contours but are hard to read, decades out of date and way too large scale to be practical. Other than that… well, apart from the lack of detail even Michelin are often years (and years) out of date. And they’re the best of the bunch.
On a tour of eastern Europe during September, I took my first smartphone with me. I’d worked out possible routes using ridewithgps.com, downloaded them as .kml files and uploaded them to my phone, on which I’d installed free maps of all the countries I was visiting courtesy of maps.me
My plan was to buy some printed maps along the way. But I didn’t buy a single one. Instead I navigated through six countries, riding around 1,000 miles purely using my phone. And never once got lost…
Even when I took a wrong turn and ended up pushing the tandem and trailer up the side of a field, thanks to the phone’s GPS locator I still knew exactly where I was and was able to get on to the track I wanted at the top of the hill.
And that was off-road! Can you imagine using a Michelin map to follow farm tracks?
Not only that, I could always find the nearest ATM, shop, hotel, restaurant or whatever at any point in the journey. A few places we just turned up but most of the time we were booking accommodation one or two days in advance using AirBnB or booking.com as we went along.
In some ways it almost made it all seem too easy. On the other hand you’ve got a lot more time to enjoy the scenery and the cycling when you’re not worried about working out where the next meal is coming from or where you’re going to sleep that night.
So when we head back to Portugal on 1st January I’m not going to be worried about the lack of decent maps as I’ll have my smartphone.
Over the next month I’m hoping to spend some time working out possible new cycle routes for this website – plus checking out the state of the roads for some of the guided tours I’m going to be running.
The very first tour sets off from Lagos on 31st January – with 10 riders joining me and my wife to explore Portugal’s far south-west. (That one’s full but there’s plenty more coming up, including two more Algarve tours in the first few months of the years and others elsewhere in the country later in the year.)
I’ve explored and cycled all the roads involved for before but for the first Algarve tour I’ve uploaded copies of the routes to my phone to be on the safe side. Thanks to GPS I’ll always know where I am. Thanks to the maps I’ve got on my phone I can also zoom in to the same level as you can on Google or OpenStreetMap and find roads not shown on any printed map.
I resisted getting a smartphone for a very long time. Somewhat reluctantly I confess to being a convert when it comes to mapping.
Just don’t expect me to use the thing to make phone calls if I can possibly avoid it.