Today I received some maps in the mail for my upcoming trip.

IMG_0086The maps are from Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) and cover most of one of the routes I am currently considering.  If you are considering a long distance trip in the United States, I highly recommend checking out ACA’s website.  They have a rather extensive system of bike routes across and through the US, and really nice cycle-touring specific maps for these routes as well as GPS tracks.  I’ve used their maps and tracks before and have been more than happy with both.

But, you might ask: “with all of the technology available these days, are maps really necessary?”  For me, the answer would be something like “definitely, but not necessarily.”  Over the past few years I have managed just fine on a few trips just using the Google monster, a phone, and a Garmin Etrex.  The combination of these things have gotten me through parts of three states, and on trips ranging from over-nighters to state parks to multi-week detours.

Using Google’s ‘Maps’ is a great way to work out one or two day’s worth of routes and/or work out detours for which you don’t have available paper or GPS maps.  You simply find the start and endpoints; select the little bike icon; click on “directions” and voila! you have route options laid out which you can then follow on your phone, or download to a GPS unit, and off you go.  If you have access to a printer, you can even print out a cue sheet to follow. I use this method of navigation quite often, especially within cities, and love it. But, as wonderful as it is, the  Google monster (GM) method does have some rather annoying limitations, and has, at times, been the cause of some frustration and pain for me.

One obvious limitation of using GM is needing web-access.  When in or near cities and towns, web-access is generally available through Wi-Fi and cell-service, but these things aren’t always available out in the countryside, so reliance on them can, and will, lead to having to blindly navigate through unfamiliar territory.  On more than one occasion, this has led to my riding on less than ideal roads, and often in the wrong direction.  Of course, these things never seem to happen unless I am tired, hungry, out of water, or when it is dark and/or raining.

One particularly fun memory from last summer was the time Google put me in the middle of a corn field in Kentucky at the end of a two-mile long stretch of gravel down-hill and insisted that I was on a road.  After discovering that I was in a cell-phone dead-zone,  I opted against riding back up the gravel-hill I had just come down and dragged my bike and gear through a mile of freshly plowed dirt, three fields, and two fence rows in the noon-day Sun. I eventually ended up on the state highway which GM had so thoughtfully bypassed with it’s shortcut.  Good times.

This non-road road-route is one of the more extreme examples I have dealt with. A more common issue which I have had, and have heard about from many others, is GM’s seeming inability to discern gravel roads from paved roads.  Here in Indiana, where there are hundreds of gravel roads labeled as county roads, this can be quite an issue.

Often one can use GPS maps or one’s phone to bypass these annoying little hiccups, but foreknowledge of their existence can save one a lot of time and energy.  Not to mention, keeping you from standing at the junction of a paved road and a gravel road screaming obscenities at the corn (not one of my best moments).

Though I will admit, that on one Google-supplied trip I did find a cute little covered bridge mid-way through a 6-mile gravel trudge.  A small silver lining on an otherwise hellish, and totally avoidable, section of that day’s ride.

A bright spot on a rough ride. The planks inside were the smoothest part of the entire road. (Unbeknownst to me, a beautifully smooth, paved road was just a mile and a half west)
So, my lesson from these things:  Always carry back-up paper maps when they are available.  These maps, especially detailed, bike-specific ones like those from ACA, can provide an electricity, and cell-tower free way to reroute, avoid unwanted obstacles, and even find points of interest such as food, water, and yes, even cute little covered bridges if that’s your thing.