How to Use Google Earth to find new trails

Roads, rails-to-trails, mtb trails, single track, double track, pump tracks, BMX tracks
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How to Use Google Earth to find new trails

Postby wa_desert_rat » Sat Feb 12, 2011 12:33 pm

Google Earth can be a fantastic tool for the mtb rider looking for new trails to explore.

Most urban or suburban riders seem to ride on specially prepared mtb trails with "features" and drops and other specialty items especially designed for mountain bikes. Rural riders often have no access to these sorts of trails but we may have access to jeep tracks and animal trails and even old Native American pathways and Oregon Trail wagon trails.

However finding these trails can be a chore; unless you use Google Earth and Google Maps.

I'll use Google Earth in vertical (looking straight down) to find likely looking areas to ride. In desert areas trails and tracks are pretty easy to discern but in forested areas you often have to look for clearings and meadows and check for trails going over them. They become difficult to see when they reenter overgrown areas because they're hidden by the trees and brush.

Once you locate a likely looking trail you can use Google Earth to map out access roads and, most importantly, see if you can determine whether a trail is on private property. The private property issue is much greater in some parts of country than in other parts. Where I live there is a great deal of public-owned land (BLM, National Forest, etc.) so it makes riding out-of-the-way trails easier. But even if a trail is on private property you can often get permission to ride as long as you promise to be careful to close gates (VERY important) and not damage anything. I often find landowners posting NO TRESPASSING signs are more worried about hunters than they are about bicycle riders and will be more than happy to give you permission to ride on their land. Sometimes the kids will get their bikes and show you where they like to go.

You can use Google Earth to "virtually" ride a trail as long as you can follow it. This is done using the controls at the upper right portion of the screen (they can only be seen when you mouse over them). Move your mouse up to this area and you'll see two controls. One is a circle that you can use to rotate the view. Normally the view is "north up" but you can grab the arrow in the circle and rotate it so any direction is "up". The second, a vertical line, can be used to drop you to ground level and simultaneously shifts to give you an "ahead" view. This view causes the earth to become 3d so you can see hills, gullies, rocks, mountains, etc. If you now use your mouse wheel to move back (or the "up arrow" key) you will get a more panoramic view or a more close up view. The combination of the compass and the vertical shift can give you a virtual tour of your trail so you can tell whether it fits what you want to ride.

The photographs used by Google are composites and some are more detailed than others. I've found that the most detailed photos (and there are more of them every year) have enough resolution so that I can actually tell if a trail is rocky, rutted or hilly. By checking when the photos were taken you can also determine if the trail is too wet to ride (in spring or winter, for instance). Just use the "time" function to back up to another season.

Hopefully this will enhance your riding pleasure. Even if you ride man-made trails you can use this technique to scope out an area you might want to ride including access points, parking facilities and where you can get a cold beer afterwards.

"No one has ever had to evacuate a city because the solar ;panels broke!"
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Location: Moses Lake, WA

Re: How to Use Google Earth to find new trails

Postby ChiliVerde » Fri Jul 22, 2011 7:07 pm

I mentioned this under the GPS thread, but other good sources of information are internet sites like Map my Ride and Garmin Connect. The thing I like about Connect is that you can see the route as well as data like cadence, elevation, etc. It can help you decide if you are really up for a 600 ft climb or a rocket sled downhill. I think it will even plot the routes on Google Earth backgrounds if you want it to do so.

I use Google Earth for work. It gives a good idea of land usage and terrain. You can also use it for road routes and once you have the route plot the elevation profile. It's very helpful for towing a trailer.
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