Imagine for a moment what an accomplishment it must have been for Lewis and Clark to map the US as they worked their way west to the Pacific Ocean – remember, no free mapping software existed then! Armed with the simplest tools, years of training, and an endless sense of purpose and adventure, these two men and their support teams turned paper and ink into maps that would influence travelers for hundreds of years.
When you think about how much effort and training had to go into cartography then, how difficult it must have been to explore the terrain and record every little detail in a notebook with ink, it’s almost inconceivable that people nowadays have access to far more detailed maps, all recorded by machines in the blink of an eye, available to anyone with a computer and internet access.
While there is still something to be said about those maps of old – and maybe it’s just the romantic in me that loves to understand the adventure of it all – today’s mapping software puts each and every one of them to shame in almost every way.
Cartography, much like everything else during this state of constant technological revolution we’re in, has changed and morphed into something new entirely. Now instead of mapping just to establish our country’s boundaries, or to make sure that our fence is actually on our property and not the neighbors, mapping software has allowed us to take mapping to a whole new level. There is mapping software that shows us nothing but topography, allows us to track our runs and cycling routes, even lets us start looking at Earth as a giant blue marble and lets us zoom all the way down to a street level view. The choices are endless, but here is a quick review of some of the most popular mapping software available.
MapQuest is probably the beast that started it all, at least changing the way we give out directions. What started as a tech project begun by a man who was sick of giving out and receiving poor directions grew into the backbone of many of the free mapping software available today. All you had to know was your starting point and your ending one, and MapQuest would punch all of that information into it’s maps and deliver you from doorstep to doorstep. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget the first time I used MapQuest – and I know I’ll never forget the first time I taught my Grandmother to use it.
Google Maps took the groundwork that MapQuest built and surpassed it in every way. Now instead of just getting directions for driving you could change your mode of transportation to walking, running, biking, busing and you’d get accurate travel times for each. Then they added Google Street View, and everything changed.
Google wanted to make giving directions as easy as humanly possible, and one of the best ways to do that it is to add landmarks. People recognize landmarks; it’s been an essential way to help travelers find their way for thousands of years. So Google went out and had people attach cameras to their vehicles and just drive around recording the footage. They then had a team of software engineers map the information from Google Maps to the match the footage, and Street View was born. Now you can literally see physically where you’re going, and you can even “drive” around the city to find directions to location whose name you may have forgotten.
A pretty slick piece of tech.
I know, enough with the Google stuff already, but they make some of the best free mapping stuff out there. Google Earth is a downloadable application that you run from your desktop, built in conjunction with NASA, and boy is it a heavy duty but user friendly mapping software.
Basically when you boot the program up you see Earth as a giant blue marble, as though you’re seeing it from the window of a spaceship. From there you can do anything you want, explore any part of the globe through the wonders of satellite images. Want to see what the pyramids look like but you’re stuck in Kentucky? Fire up Google Earth and you can be looking at them in a few seconds.
But you’re not just limited to looking at satellite images – you can do the same things as in Google Maps and then some. There are tons of user submitted pictures and information for millions of locations around the globe, and you can contribute your own stuff as well. There are even 3D models of some of the world’s largest cities, and even some Easter Eggs (hidden surprises) to hunt and find placed all over the globe by friendly modders.
If you’re looking for mapping software, the three I described above are really only scratching the surface – there are thousands on open source projects out there that can suit any need. I wanted to keep the article short, so I wasn’t able to talk about niche programs like ones tailored to hikers and travelers, geocaches and hunters, and even the ones built just for fitness tracking and marathoners. But suffice to say that old way of cartography is a dead and gone (mostly the better), and if you need a solution there is probably some free mapping software available for you!