Hiking map

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Hiking maps are different from other kinds of maps (e.g. tourist or street maps). Unless there is a well maintained hiking trail system that includes sign-posts and markup like in Switzerland (all hiking trails are protected by law) one usually needs maps with the following features:

  • A quantitative representation of relief (contour lines)
  • A qualitative representation of relief (you should "see" the terrain). This is fairly tricky and some countries don't seem to have the know-how for doing the right shading.
  • 1:25000 resolution (4 cm / kilometer) or 1:50000 for easier areas
  • All trails included and (optionally) the "best" hiking trails in a different color.
  • All other stuff (like churches, vineyards, big trees, isolated barns, caverns, etc.) included.
  • Precision (in particular in mountain areas) and up-to-date (in many countries trails disappear due to the lack of maintenance and the related fact that the locals no longer use most trails)
  • Several coordinate systems (at least the national one plus the "standard" GPS coordinates)

See Conventional signs (PDF, 1.7 MB) of Swiss topo for an example of what kind of information a map should include. Hiking maps are in principle the same as military maps, but may include extra information, e.g. special markup for nice trails, accommodation and such.

See Wikipedia's topographic map article for more background information.

To do

Some day I'll include GPS-related information. Since I only got an old Garmin eTrek Vista, I am non up-to-date. These Garmin engines have a good built-in compass, altimeter and such but a meager display and a lousy antenna. I probably will just get a GPS-enable cell-phone, e.g. a high-end Nokia.

Digital hiking maps by countries

Digital hiking maps usually can be bought as DVDs, CDs for PCs and mobile devices (and sometimes as downloads). If you are not short on money, it's best to buy. Free online services are just too slow and somewhat painful IMHO.

Anyhow, for some countries at least, there are possibilities to get free printouts for selected areas.

Below I includes some tips for Switzerland and France for now.


All good Swiss maps are based on Swisstopo, the federal geo-information service.

Commercial DVDs, downloads and maps for mobile devices

SwissTopo Maps has several products for sale: Products include CDs, paper maps, maps for mobile devices (Windows Mobile, Symbian S60 (Nokia), iPhone and Sony Ecrison). It takes some time to figure out all the digital options. Here are some examples:

  • DVDs for your PC, so that you can print out a map on photo paper before your hiking trip: There are 8 areas for 1:25000 maps and each costs 178 CHF. 1:50000 maps come on single DVD and cost 478 CHF.
  • If you own a mobile device: E.g. the section western Switzerland in all resolutions between 1:25000 to 1:1 million for a mobile device costs CHF 89 (about 60 Euros). The maps (600-730MB) will sit in the phone memory. Warning: if you use Google maps instead for hiking you can wind up paying a few hundred Euros / hiking trip ....). Buying a memory card + all maps you like can be much cheaper.

Finally, you also need the free Conventional signs» (PDF, 1.7 MB)

Free map generation tools
  • Schweiz mobil has an interactive map that allows to overlay various information (e.g. hiking trails, cycling, mountainbiking) on top of simplified Swiss top maps. Probably the best bet.
  • A page can be generated and printed as "real map" in PDF (e.g. "normal swisstopo quality).
  • You can define the resolution and fine tune (move) the rectangle to be printed)
  • ecoGIS is actually not a map service for tourists, but a tool to visualize environment data for Switzerland. Since it generates standard Swiss Topo map, you can use this service. Only thing you probably need to understand is that "Drucken" (or "Imprimer" in french) means printing. There is no English interface.
  • SwissGeo is an alternative to "Schweiz mobil", but the interface is not as nice (i.e. too small) and the print version is fairly useless for hiking.


The good french maps are created by IGN, the french national geographic institute. In addition, there are sell a well integrated GPS hardware + maps bundle.

Commercial DVDs

Like Swiss Topo, IGN has an online shop with a multi-lingual interface. Examples:

  • Two nice series of hiking/discovery DVDs for most regions with an attractive price of 40 Euros / DVD or the cheaper Géorando Liberté series. Both include not only the normal maps, but also a 3D view.
  • A 450 Euros GPS offer that includes all the 1:25000 maps (or a free download of these).
Géorando digital maps (for download)
  • Géorando offers digital maps for PCs (1.5 Euros per 100km2 maps + a 3D view). This website has a somewhat confusing interface.
  • Before you can do anything you will have to transfer crédits (at least 20 Euros), then buy the Géorando software described below (Windows only? for 20 Euros) or a pack that includes all the maps of 1 or 2 departments (a 1BG zip file you can download)
  • The software is a 1GB zip file that you will have to unpack (there is an English installation option) and install, then you will have to register the software the key you got per email, etc.
  • Then you also may add "extra credits" (Euros) that you then can spend on maps. The map selection interface is optimized for Firefox and IE and Flash 6 and it is fairly awful (much to small map selection screen and sluggish even on my high-end XPS laptop). Once you found your maps and bough them you will get an email with a download link. I truly dislike this kind of complicated software distribution scheme. Before IGN sold DVDs and this online solution, you could by CDs with another crappy software production scheme. I understand that companies want to sell stuff, but couldn't it be simpler ?

At the least the maps are great and the display software works fine.

Free map generation tools

Géoportail is a Google maps-like sponsored portal by the government and that includes "real" maps. There are two interfaces (one for searching and the map interface). I suggest to directly click on view and then type the name of a location.

  • This tool firstly looks like Google maps (i.e. aerial photos), but to the left on the bottom you should select "expert" and then you you can play with opacity of "IGN data", "roads" and photography.
  • Set routes to zero, Carte IGN very high and photographies to whatever you like
  • To print, you will have to make a screen capture I believe. May print will work with the downloadable TerraExplorer (a kind of Google Earth).

Doesn't work well on Linux (i.e. no 3D view), but maps are ok.

There exist other alternatives, e.g. some folks who maintain hiking sites like Balades et Randonnées en Haute-Savoie include usable maps. I don't know who legal this would be :)


When you buy a DVD there should be a minimal software package included.


The French Géorando Liberté described above as download version is also available through a DVD purchase of maps.

The screenshot below shows the main window with an easy hiking track displayed on Geneva's "house moutain", the Salève

Screenshot of the Géorando software
Trail profile

Some features of this software

  • Zoom in any detail, i.e. it uses real vector data
  • print a precisely definable area to one or more sheets
  • Define trails (with waypoints and special points) and manage trails.
  • Display length plus positive/negative elevation heights of a hike and other information.
  • Can export complete trail information to HTML and other formats
  • Visualize the hike (e.g. with a length/heigh profile) and compute the duration
  • Export these data to a GPS (and import)
  • etc...

(More sometimes in the future, I know that there exist also open source tools that can deal with a variety of formats ... )

In education

Use of "real maps" (vs. google maps and street maps) can be a valuable addition to geography teaching since they include a lot of information that other kinds of maps don't have.

Notice: I seem to recall that for some countries google maps can be combined with official or other high quality digital maps (e.g. in the US) and have to explore this some day - Daniel K. Schneider 16:22, 15 August 2009 (UTC).


From Wikipedia - topographical maps
From Wikipedia - description of national services and more
From Wikipedia - general