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How To Use Hiking Topographical Maps, Satellite Imagery, and Other Resources to Plan Hiking Routes

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

I was talking with a friend the other day when he asked me, "How can I plan a hiking or river tracing (canyoning) route, and how do I know how hard it's going to be?" It's a question that my other experienced hiking and tracing friends and I get a lot, so we had a talk about what we had figured out over the years and this is what we came up with.

To plan a hiking or river tracing / canyoning route and know how hard it might be, you need to know how to get and use topographical (topo) maps, satellite imagery, and a few other resources. You need to know what stores, websites, and apps provide them and what online communities can help you learn more. Let's take a look at how you can learn to do this quickly and easily.

*Please note that The Map Room participates in the Amazon Associate Program, and other affiliate programs, and may earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.


Map of a hiking route to Taiwan's Zhijiayang and Snow Mountains on Gaia GPS Topo Map


Where can I find hiking routes? Is there an app to plan a hike?

There are plenty of ways to discover new hiking and river tracing (canyoning) routes, but one of the fastest and most effective is to use a GPS tracking app. Gaia GPS (TMR's affiliate) is a solid option that several of us personally trust and use regularly for route discovery and planning, as well as navigation in the field. We also sometimes use Outdoor Active - not our affiliate - for this, and Hiking Biji for planning and research.

GPS tracking apps offer:

  • a great selection of maps

  • satellite imagery

  • route discovery and planning tools

  • real-time tracking and recording features


  • give you personal statistics about speed, elevation gain, and more

  • run directly on your phone and in many

  • are a full collection of maps in your pocket for use on the trail!

  • help you to know when that thing you think is the peak... really isn't

One of the most disheartening feelings is getting to what you thought was the goal, only to find it was a false peak!

You can also check out...

  • discussion forums

  • hiking maps (below)

  • park websites

  • Google image searches for the trail

Can you plan a hike on Google Maps? Sure you can, though you won't have access to the kinds of custom route planning and discovery tools, or the selection of maps, a dedicated outdoor planning and tracking app and its matching website offer.


What type of map would you use for hiking and river tracing / canyoning? What is a topographic (topo) map?

There are a lot of different kinds of maps out there, but many or even most experienced outdoors enthusiasts would agree that topographic - or topo - maps are the best. Topographic maps show elevation as a series of lines. Each line is a set elevation higher than the last. In the examples in this post, each line represents a height gain of ten meters (about thirty feet). This makes it easy to anticipate and prepare for the kind of terrain you will be walking up before you even get to the trailhead.

Jade Mountain (Yushan / 台灣玉山) Taiwan Map

Gaia GPS Topo map (left), Gaia GPS Satellite with Labels (center), composite overlay of both (right)


Where can I get good hiking topo maps?

There are two options for this: Paper maps and digital options.

Paper topo maps are often available for download, purchase, and/or printing online, or for purchase from outdoor gear specialty stores. Specialized hiking maps will have custom features, such as:

  • estimated average time to hike from one landmark to another

  • features and obstacles specific to hiking / outdoor pursuits

  • water resistant for use in the wild.

For digital options, there are plenty of websites with topo maps available for download. Some websites - like this one from Taiwan - even allow you to switch between topo, satellite, and other layers, see line of site from one mountain to others, see hiking trails, and more. You can search around the internet for options more suitable for your specific part of the world. And, be sure to ask in online forums where people in your region talk about the outdoors - the outdoor community tends to be well informed, as well as welcoming, helpful, and enthusiastic towards newcomers!

"The outdoor community tends to be well informed, as well as welcoming, helpful, and enthusiastic towards newcomers!"


Where can I find satellite imagery?

For basic satellite imagery and maps, you can try services such as Google Maps and Open Streetmap. These can be useful, and are often integrated into collections of maps available in apps like Gaia GPS (The Map Room's affilliate), Outdoor Active, Alltrails, and Hiking Biji. Apps like these will also have their own, proprietary or specialized satellite maps.


How do hikers and river tracers / canyoners use topographic maps?

"How do I read a topo map for hiking?" "How can I use a topo map and satellite imagery to understand the route or hiking trail I want to plan?" We get these questions a lot!

Aside from seeing where major features like mountains, rivers, and landslides are, one of the most important things topo maps do is to help you understand the physical lay of the land and how easy or hard it will be to get across. First, check the elevation gain to distance ratio. What does that mean? Well, if you see lots of lines bunched tightly together, it means you’re in for a very steep ascent or descent. Prep your legs and brace your knees! When the lines are spaced far apart, it means you should be going up a much gentler slope.

"One of the most important things topo maps do is to help you understand the physical lay of the land and how easy or hard it will be to get across."

Pintian Mountain (Pintian Shan / 台灣品田山) Taiwan

Gaia GPS Topo map (left), Gaia GPS Satellite with Labels (center), composite overlay of both (right)

Check out these screenshots of the Wuling Sixiu (武陵四秀) hike and Pintian Mountain (品田山) in Northern Taiwan. Pintian Mountain is a really, REALLY steep upward climb - it’s basically vertical, with ropes the whole way! Green sections, where lines are far apart, are relatively easy going and good for taking a break or moving faster. Yellow, with lines closer together, are more demanding. Red, with lines much closer together, are serious uphill and the most intense of all.

Maps and satellite imagery will show you features and obstacles such as:

  • water sources

  • shelters

  • campsites

  • ridge walks

  • sudden elevation gain

  • scree slopes

  • rock slides

  • exposed areas

PRO TIP - be sure to:

  • note multiples of water sources in case of dry spells

  • note campsites before and after your intended stops in case you don’t make it to the shelter, or arrive too early (have a tent, tarp, or other shelter with you!)

  • make sure to note alternate exits along the trail in case of emergencies, bad weather, or anything unexpected.

"Pintian Mountain is a really, REALLY steep upward climb - it’s basically vertical, with ropes the whole way!"


How do I know how hard the hiking or river tracing / canyoning route will be?

Think about the following when considering route difficulty:

  • Check the elevation gain/distance ratio (see above)

  • Check maps, forums, park and other websites to see how well maintained or disused the trail is

  • Think about the weather and time of year/season (it’s colder in the mountains; the wetter season means higher water in rivers you may cross or trace…)

  • Absolute elevation: Are you acclimated (used to the elevation or doing regular, heavy-breathing exercise)? Otherwise, lack of oxygen may slow you down. Consider adding 1 hour hiking time / 1000 ft (300m) of gain (adjusted for your personal experience).

  • Know your (group’s) capabilities based on recent outings before hitting the trail

  • Plan for the top reasonably sustainable speed of the slowest hiker

  • Verify trail and weather conditions before leaving and have a backup plan - or two - in widely separated areas in case of bad weather or landslides.

  • How many hours of daylight are available, and what /times are sunrise and sunset


Hiking, river tracing / canyoning, and outdoor sports start before you leave home.

There's a lot you need to do to plan a hiking, river tracing / canyoning, or other outdoor route before you leave home. It can seem overwhelming, but it doesn't have to be! Here are a few starter tips to help you get ready:

  • Don't just throw things together the night before. Plan ahead!

  • Plan towards a goal you want to see/reach.

    • Is it a mountain? A waterfall? Completing a trail section or loop? Set a goal, then set out to accomplish it!

  • Check ahead for:

    • Trail closures

    • Whether you need permits, and how to apply

    • Weather forecast

  • Predetermine where you should be at different points of the day / the end of each day.

    • Whether you're going for a day trip or overnight, don't just plan to show up and figure out the when and where. Set reasonable goals based on your estimated speed in the terrain so that you don't end up coming out too early or late.

    • Using Gaia or a similar app will help you build up a detailed record of your performance in different terrain and conditions over time and make this easier.


Expect the unexpected, be prepared!

Safety, emergency preparedness, and proper gear are each bigger topics than can be covered in this article, but here are just a few must-do's to get you started:

  • Take a paper map and compass, even when you have GPS!

The Map Room highly recommends the SUUNTO MC2 Navigator Mirror Sighting Compass with Built-in Clinometer, Quadrant, for anyone in the northern hemisphere. Try to get the MC2G global version if you intend to visit the southern hemisphere. - (Amazon affiliate link*)

  • Pack clothes and gear appropriate for weather AND cold at elevation

  • Bring rain gear even if no rain is forecast

  • ALWAYS bring a lighter or other way to start a fire. It could literally save your life!

  • Leave a copy of itinerary with friends or family

  • ALWAYS bring a headlamp

The Map Room recommends Fenix headlamps, and personally uses the 1600 lumen Fenix HM70R Headlamp - (Amazon affiliate link*)


So that's it, a quick guide to planning hiking routes with topographical maps, plus a few extra tips. We really hope this article is helpful for you, and would love to hear your thoughts!

Got questions or comments? Can you think of something we missed? Join in the discussion and leave a comment below. At the end of the day, we're just outdoors enthusiasts like you, and we'd love to hear from you!

BONUS: Thanks for reading this far! If you're ready for something more, check out this great post about advanced, Taiwan-specific planning tools from The Map Room's friend, Wilderness Cafe.


The Map Room has an affiliate arrangement with Parkbus Taiwan and will receive a commission if you do. We stand strongly by our affiliates, because at the end of the day, they help get us safely to the end of the day.


Click the link above to get 20% off a year-long, premium Gaia GPS subscription! The Map Room has an affiliate arrangement with Gaia and will receive a commission if you do... but we ONLY recommend products that we have tested, used, and loved in the field ourselves! We stand strongly by our affiliates because, at the end of the day, they help get us safely to the end of the day.


Check out the Map Room Members' Area for more maps, GPX links, and other members only perks!


All information on this page is intended for reference only. Preparing adequate food, water, and gear for your adventure, as well as following local rules and laws are, of course, your own responsibility! Always make sure that you check the weather for outdoor destinations, be careful and sensible for enclosed spaces like tunnels and bunkers, and bring a lighter - you never know when it could save your life! Now... get out there and have an amazing time!


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*Please note that The Map Room participates in the Amazon Associate Program, and other affiliate programs. Some of the links on The Map Room may refer to Amazon or our other affiliates, and as a member of these, The Map Room will receive a commission at no additional cost to you. We ONLY endorse products we ourselves use, have used, or would use personally!


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