Planning your next journey – It pays to do a little research before you go overlanding

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on the different kinds of maps, atlases, and their different uses.  I hinted as expanding on that topic and talk about using maps during the trip planning process. 
An invaluable resource for overland adventure in the Keystone State.
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I’ve had an idea floating around the back of my mind for a neat overland style tip called “One Lap of PA.” Basically taking my “One Lap of Michaux” idea to the next level.  So, with that in mind, let’s first talk about doing a little online research…

I’ve lived in PA for almost 30 years now.  I first moved to the north east corner of the state back in the mid-80’s.  In the early 90’s my family moved to south central PA.  For a few years I worked at a summer camp near State College and also went to college in Western PA.  There isn’t much in this state I haven’t seen.  I’ve nicked a lot of the major cities off my list at one time or another.  Places like Philly, Pittsburgh, Lancaster, State College, Harrisburg, Gettysburg, and so forth are regular stops for me when I’m out and about.  That said, there are a lot of gaps in between.

Pennsylvania is lucky to be home to one of the best systems of public land management in the country.  While not perfect, it has afforded many opportunities over the years for a balance between conservation (responsible management of natural resources) and preservation (setting the land aside to remain untouched).  The three-tier system of State Parks, State Forests, and State Game Lands allows for delineation between the various usages of public land.  You can hunt in the game lands, but not in the parks.  You can timber the forests, but not the parks.  You can hike recreationally in the parks but not the game lands.  If you stand back and look at the system as a whole, it’s actually quite impressive.  It’s also a little known fact that the PA system of public land management is the model by which Federal Pubic Lands are managed.  The system of National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests, and other natural and historically significant sites is a mirror of the PA system.

So, what does all that have to do with overland trip planning?  Well, resources.  When planning a trip it never hurts to do a little research beforehand.  In fact, I never leave on a trip without doing a little research.  Today I am going to share with you some of the resources I’ve used in planning my “One Lap of PA” trip.
  • Online Maps: Both Google and Bing have great online maps.  While very similar they each have their strengths and weaknesses.  For a long Google Maps was the gold standard but lately, in my opinion, some of the user interface changes have made the site a little hard to use and has lost some functionality. Also, their arial photographs are not as up-to-date as Bing Maps.  I know this because when I look at the arial photograph of my house I can tell by what’s parked in my driveway when it was taken.  At some point soon I’ll do a more detailed “How To” on using online maps to help plan a trip.
  • State Tourism website: Almost every state has a website dedicated to tourism.  Pennsylvania’s is “”  Kind of a no-brainer right?  This is a great way to find out what there is to see and do in a given state.  In particular, the PA site has a section dedicated to Outdoor Recreation in PA.  While the DCNR site covers state sponsored sites like State Parks and State Forests, the VisitPA site covers other places that aren’t state-funded.  There is some overlap, but with a little digital exploring you’ll find other cool places to boat, hike, bike, and camp, as well as other things like outdoor festivals.  It’s well work some time to poke around and explore.
After you’ve done a little digital exploring the next best thing to research are books.  Remember those?  Stacks of paper bound together with glue often with stiff colorful covers?  I have a library of guide books that have helped frame many trips for me.  Some are themed, like “Best Hiking Trails for Dogs”, others are more specific trail guides on things like the Appalachian or Tuscarora.
When planning the “One Lap of PA” trip I literally started off by spreading out a fresh copy of the PA State Parks and Forests map I picked up at the PA Outdoor Show last month.  My old copy has been folded and unfolded so many times it fell apart in my hands.  I also knew my old copy was about ten or twelve years out of date.
Once the map was unfolded I crossed off all the parks I had been to in the last few years.  It’s not that I have anything against those places, it’s just I’m ready to explore.  I want to visit some new places.  That’s what overlanding is about, right?  So the first step was to circle all the various parks I really wanted to visit.  Once I did that it was time to play “connect the dots.”  I went to Bing Maps and plugged in all the various destinations I wanted to go. and BAM! I had a circle starting at my house and doing one lap around PA hitting about a dozen different state parks and other cool places I wanted to visit.
“But Dean,” you say, “this isn’t overlanding!  This sounds like a road trip.”  ~ “True,” I reply.  “Just hold your britches.”
Once the dots are connected, it’s time to plan the routes between them  This is where the overlanding part comes in play.  You don’t overland down the interstate.  So the first step when using something like Google Maps or Bing Maps is to select the “avoid highways” option.  This is a good start because it will reroute you away from major interstates and turnpikes.  It’s not really enough though because usually it just drops you onto state highways which are sometimes just as bad.
Luckily I am familiar enough with PA that I know a lot of backroads and even some unmaintained fire roads that criss-cross their way through the various State Forests and State Parks.  This is where some digging on the DCNR site is time well spent.  Also, just googling “jeep trails” can sometime lead to some long-forgotten trails in the area.
Now is a good time to mention another great resource.  Topographic maps are worth their weight in gold.  You can order them online direct from the government site and in many cases you can download them for digital browsing at home.  There are also a lot of programs like National Geographic Maps which give you access to bundles of topographic maps for individual states, regions, and often super detailed topographic maps of National Parks.  There are also mobile apps for phones and tablets that allow you to import topographic maps for use out on the road.  More on that subject later.
So, with an intentional avoidance of interstate highways, a little research on topographic maps, and some other digging a route between stops can be planned that keeps the overland philosophy in mind.  I will say it’s not easy.  It’s not a perfect system either.  There are a few trips I’ve planned in the past that despite hours of research have been undone by a single closed gate on a fire road.  This brings up an important thing.  STAY ON THE TRAIL and DO NOT TRESPASS.  When it doubt, turn around.  East Coast Overland Adventures promotes the overland lifestyle but also promotes responsible land use.  The principles of Tread Lightly and Leave No Trace are very important to use.  While we believe in open access to public lands we also believe that that usage is a privilege, not a right.
Anyway, back on topic.  All of the prior proper planning in the world can prepare you for a great trip. However, you also need to be prepared to adjust on the fly.  Having access to maps, guide books, and the such while out on your trip is invaluable when it comes to needing to reroute your way around a closed fire road, a change in property ownership, or a washed out bridge.  Having actual physical copies is essential too.  While the digital revolution has given us access to a wealth of information at our finger tips, it’s no good when you’re outside of cell range, have a dead battery, or have a crushed device.  I once had to break out my compass and topographic map on a trip after my handheld GPS took a tumble off a 50′ cliff.  Digital devices are no substitute for practical skills even in the modern era.

Now, for those of you that don’t live in PA, don’t fret.  I only used the examples above because those are the ones for my state and what I’ve used to plan the “One Lap of PA” trip.  Almost every state has online resources for you to use.  Just pick your search engine of choice and do some searching.  This stuff isn’t hard to find once you look.
In the end, this is what you can end up with.  Here is a peak at an early version of my planning progress for the “One Lap of PA” trip I have planned.  You can see some of the destinations I have plugged into Google Maps and some of the manual route selections I have made to get me off the beaten path.

Preliminary loop for the “One Lap of PA” trip.
In the next article on planning and research I’ll show you how you can go about putting together your map set and why something like a Gazetteer is essential and will help you pick up where online mapping leaves off.