By Dan Kidder Managing Editor
Getting the lay of the land of an area you will be hunting used to mean hours and miles of hiking or trying to navigate on your GPS or with a topo map. Today, those hours can be reduced to minutes, complete with elimination of nasty surprises, by using satellite technology.
It used to be that only the government had access to expensive satellite technology to photograph the earth. Today, thanks to private companies, everyone can quickly access fairly recent swaths of land from space.
The most popular satellite imaging tool is Google Earth. It is free, full of features and easy to use. Because Google frequently updates its images, you can see a historical record of an area over the years by simply moving a slider at the top of the screen.
Turning on all of the layers can really make an image confusing. Adjusting the layers to just show the information you want can make it much more manageable.
Finding an area is as easy as inputting the GPS coordinates or by just clicking on a region and zooming and dragging until you get to the area you want to look at. You can also just enter a city and state in the search box and the map will instantly zoom in on the location.
Once you have isolated your area, you can add overlays for weather, radar, roads and bodies of water. Additional layers can be added for interesting landmarks, photos and even earthquake data. The options are wide open.
Google Earth integrates with various online services like Everytrail, National Geographic, Wikiloc and 360 Cities, so if you have an account with these services, you can easily add information to the images.
Google Earth has a robust tool set that will let you get directions and even mark off a line for distance or expand it to an area for square miles or acres.
If you are looking at hunting or hiking in the backcountry, these images can show you topographic features, as well as likely areas for finding animals. The detail of the more recent maps is so high, that you can zoom in and see small landmarks like cattle guards and cabins.
Another tool that is helpful, is the ability to download the area to your GPS device, so you can take the information and coordinates with you when you don’t have internet access by saving the image as a KML file. This will let you plan a route on fire roads or hiking trails and navigate them on your device later.
The information on Google Earth can also give you increased peace of mind by identifying ranger stations, roads or other places of potential rescue in your hunting area. You can set them as waypoints and then download them to your handheld GPS. If an emergency arises, you can simply pull that rescue point up on your GPS and use the unit to navigate to it.
You can also orient your map in whichever direction best suits your navigation needs. By adjusting the sun icon, you can see what the terrain looks like at different times of the day.
When zoomed out, your perspective is straight down, but as you zoom in, the perspective shifts slightly to give you a downward view from the side, to bring definition and detail to altitude changes. This makes navigation of trails, in relation to the surrounding terrain, possible.
The satellite images can be very detailed when zoomed in, and thousands of user uploaded photos give you the ability to see the area in even greater detail.
Another good way to get an idea of the terrain, is with the thousands of photos on Google Earth. Many of the smart phones now have the ability to geotag a photo, using the phone’s built-in GPS. These photos can be uploaded to Google Earth at the location where it was taken. This gives you the ability to virtually tour the site. Two of my favorites are Iwo Jima and Zion National Park. Having spent a great deal of time hiking Zion, it was pretty interesting to see other parts of the canyon that I may have missed and can add to my list of places to visit.
Google Earth provides activities for every kind of outdoor adventure. As a SCUBA diver, I like that it interacts with WannaDive, an online diver’s community that lets me record dive logs, find great new places to dive and to share experiences. There are bird watching groups, hunting groups, hiking communities, camping, ATV, off-road, horseback riding, paragliding, flying and fishing communities and just about any other kind of outdoor activity that can be tied into Google Earth just waiting to be explored.
As a scouting tool, Google Earth can be a great resource to virtually explore an area before you put boots on the ground. Taking full advantage of all of the many features is just a matter of time spent exploring from the comfort of your chair. Syncing your GPS, will give you great pre-planned routes and the ability to really get to know the area where you will be spending time.
As much fun as it can be to get lost in the outdoors from time to time, a bit of preparation can prevent you from getting very lost and also help you spend time getting to and exploring the areas you really want to know better, rather than wandering aimlessly or struggling to get to a particular location.
Google Earth is a free program and you just download it to your computer or device, but you will need internet access to use it. Just go to earth.google.com and download the version that is best for your device or operating system and start exploring the world.