IT technology has given many people the means to explore hidden and obscured parts of the world and to do individual tour planning without the help of commercial tour guides. Google Maps are a great tool for getting an insight into topography not covered by official roadmaps, but if you think you can plan a tour only based on what you see in Google maps coupled with the tracks that can be downloaded from the free GPS data portals like Wikiloc, you’re in for some nasty surprises. And should be well prepared for changing your plan often while you’re on the move.
What Google Maps don’t tell you
In Google Maps you can easily see the major dirt roads, and even some minor ones. At least in open grassland. But the moment the roads enter the forest, everything changes. In forested areas the only roads that you can actually see are the extremely wide ones, where trees were cleared on both sides of the road to reveal the sky above your head. The roads where no tree clearing was done are usually totally invisible in Google maps, even if they’re much more solid than just a hardly recognizable trail. In fact, in some areas of especially dense forest, you’d be astonished what an extensive network of roads you will find in places where you previously thought there were no roads at all by examining Google Maps.
Even for planning your movement through open grassland, Google Maps don’t offer you a straighforward and 100% certain planning tool. It is often difficult to judge if the line that you see in Google maps is a road, or an undrivable dry riverbed, full of gigantic rocks. And in Google Maps you often misjudge the incline, so you can easily be surprised that what you thought was an easily driveable meadow is in fact too steep to be driven – or too slippery and crowded with little obstacles that can’t be seen in the sattellite images.
Through Google Maps you also don’t see clearly the position of landslides and other road damages – especially if they’re of a newer date than the sattellite images that you’re looking at. And such obstacles often ruin your entire plan. Another thing that you don’t see in Google Maps are various road closures, including locked barriers – that is something that you can only find out about through personal experience, or acquiring info from a competent source which has previously done the scouting. And there’s even more info that Google Maps don’t give you, such as the ground quality (gravel or mud), or the side angle of the road. And that info can be crucial in determining how dangerous it is to take the road, especially in slippery and extreme weather conditions.
To put the long story short – Google Maps are a great helper for professional scouts. They can expedite and help better organize the process of scouting, but they’re insufficient for planning journeys in previously unscouted terrain.
The problem of free tracks
Uploading own tracks to global GPS portals like Wikiloc has become popular in recent years. But you cannot simply download those tracks and take them for granted in planning your tours. People who offer their tracks for free do not have any kind of obligation towards those who download their tracks, so they often upload incomplete or imprecise tracks, and rarely give any kind of extra info about the tracks that would enable you to find out the difficulty level and dangerous points within the track. In most cases there are even no images to illustrate the tracks, so you actually have no idea what you will experience.
In my extensive scouting career I’ve even seen tracks that were so irresponsibly uploaded that they were, in fact, a combination of trails suitable for cars and single trail walkways! With no indication at all where the car trail stops and walkway begins. And in many cases when you find yourself in such situation it’s often hard to turn around on the spot, and you have to reverse for dangerously long lengths of the road.
Buying track collections from a competent, professional source is a whole different story. The fact that the material is paid for gives an obligation to the seller to provide dependable, 100% correct goods, and to provide all the necessary extra info about the tracks through waypoints and their descriptions. It is a very simple rule that the value determines quality of any goods.
Professional vs. amateur scouting
Yes, you can also use guidance of your friends who have been somewhere before. And it will probably be a good trip. But will it be the best experience that you can have in that area? How often are you planning to travel to the same part of the world to find this out?
I often see amateur videos from self-guided overlanding trips. Some of them include Serbia, an area where I know every hidden corner. And what I can see in those videos is that, when overlanding Serbia, people mostly stay on the well known roads, almost never discovering my favourite spots deep in the wild. That’s quite understandable, because scouting a territory, getting to know all the secret byways, cannot be done in one visit. It takes years, even decades to really know a territory well.
And that is where the difference between using amateur and professional guides becomes obvious. An amateur guide (even a local one) may have explored certain ways and is willing to share his knowledge for free, but he can’t devote much of his time to scouting, and his knowledge is very partial. You can never expect the same quality of service from guys in a local offroad club, who gather on weekends only and never venture further than 50-60 km from their hometown, as you can from a professional guide who explores the wilderness as his fulltime job and has a database of verified GPS tracks immesurably larger than that of the amateurs. And is always aware of the latest developments and newly emerged risks in certain areas.
A professional guide simply takes his job much more seriously, and cares much more about your satisfaction, for one simple reason – he wants you to come back for more 😎
The value of your time
Some people have all the time in the world for exploring new territories themselves, and just want to have a fluid, flexible schedule where they would improvise their overland journey on the go. Those are the people who really don’t benefit from professional guidance at all (in fact, a tour with any kind of timetable would only hinder their enjoyment of the journey). But everyone else can benefit from a guided tour.
Now we come to a key question – how expensive are guided tours and are they really worth their price? There’s no common answer to that, as it’s highly individual, depending on how much you think your free time is worth. If you consider all the time and expenses that was invested into scouting by tour operators, all the decades of experience and geographical knowledge needed to make a perfect tour plan, all the effort to spice up the tours with new content year after year, I think they’re really not expensive. You have limited number of vacations in your lifetime, limited time to spend relaxing and visiting incredible places, and you can and should afford to make the most out of that time. A good guide is not a burden. He is not some guy with a whistle interrupting your enjoyment day after day, but rather a discrete, unobtrusive member of your circle of friends, who carefully follows your mood and wishes and just happens to have some ideas to share that will make every one of your days a great journey of discovery 😎