OB11: Navigating While On The Road

One way to enjoy overlanding is just to find a trail off the main road and see where it goes. Maybe your intent is to map an unexplored area and provide maps for others to use. Maybe just running a trail randomly is not what you want to do and planning is your thing. Either way, navigating while on the road and exploring is beneficial.

Paper Maps

In this day and age with every phone having GPS and maps it’s too easy to discount good old-fashioned paper maps. However, paper maps can still be extremely useful both as a primary navigation method as well as a back-up. Sometimes the paper maps are even more up to date than their digital counterparts.

GPS Units

A Global Position System (GPS) unit is probably the primary method for traveling. Most GPS units are only designed for on-road driving. However, there are a few companies equipping standalone GPS units with trail data for off-road use. The price point for a strictly off-road GPS unit can be pretty high.


Almost all phones and some tablets come equipped with a GPS installed. This makes using your phone or tablet an easy choice for navigating. The ability to download a lot of maps for reference means you can have a whole states worth of trails right at your fingertips. And not just one type of map either, most mapping applications come with three or four different types and have the option to buy more.

There are several good applications that you can load onto a phone or tablet. Each offers their own unique take on mapping. Every mapping application and software has its own thing. The best thing to do is try each one and use what you like best. We’ve provided some examples below.

Google Maps & Google Earth

Google Maps and Google Earth are probably the best options if you do not want to pay for a mapping service. Google Maps allows for some basic editing and creation of maps. Google Earth expands on Maps functionality and offers better maps that show more detail in certain locations. Google Maps and Earth can be used on both iOS and Android.


GAIA is currently the primary mapping tool we use at Michigan Overland. It provides all of the features we need including an online presence to store and edit maps. It offers several free maps and two premium memberships that give you access to more features.

Backcountry Navigator

Backcountry Navigator has had a long history of being the primary mapping tool for people who got outdoors. Primarily designed for backpacking, it can be used as an off-road navigation tool. We use Backcountry Navigator as a backup to GAIA for tracking our route. It has many of the same features as GAIA. However, it does not have an online presence like GAIA or even Google Maps. Everything is done through the app, which may be a drawback for some people.


LeadNav is an iOS-only application that is built for military and hardcore off-road usage. Route building is done completely within the app, or you can upload existing routes to use. LeadNav also offers hardware mounting options. The application functions similar to any regular road GPS in that it can provide audio cues for turns. The application has a purchase price of $20 and three levels of yearly subscriptions. We don’t use LeadNAv as a mapping application, but we’ve had our eye on it for a few years now.

Mapping File Formats

There are a number of different map file formats. The most commonly used ones are KML, KMZ, and GPX. There are differences between all three though. GPX is mostly for dedicated GPS files and is good for moving data. KML and KMZ are basically the same things, with KMZ files being essentially a zipped KML file that your computer will recognize. KML and KMZ are what Google Maps and Google Earth use and recognize. You can also find websites that will convert certain file types to other file types.

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