Nearly everyone today knows about the effectiveness of Google Maps for finding locations anywhere in the world and even perhaps saving them for reference later. There have been countless articles, written even here on Fstoppers, which exhibit its usefulness. However, many fundamental deficiencies arise upon using Google Maps when you take away the one thing it needs to be functional: an internet connection.
Photographers need marking and saving locations for a variety of use cases. And if an internet connection isn't available, Google Maps is essentially useless. There is a way to download a portion of the map for offline use, but this feature isn't intended for large portions of the map, like a whole country. So, if you are a power user and have created multiple lists of hundreds of saved places that span many countries, the offline maps feature becomes woefully inadequate. So, what's the solution?
I have been using a cool little smartphone app called Maps.me since my first trip to Iceland in 2013. I knew I wasn’t going to have a cellular data service for my entire time in the country, so using Google Maps was not an option. I needed something where I could use WiFi to do my initial download and then be able to mark places and keep track of them for later use, all while hiking, driving, or just sitting around waiting. I just randomly happened to find Maps.me in the app store and downloaded it. The more I used it and got more familiar with it, the more I was impressed with its functions and ease of use. Every time I opened it up, there was a new feature I found, and I had a hard time believing that it was a free product, a sentiment I still share today. Downloadable chunks of maps, turn-by-turn navigation, labeling favorite locations, searching for public restrooms, and following trails were just a few of the tools I used at the time and continue to use when I travel today.
But what I wanted to share with you was the ability to combine the power of Maps.me while in the field with Google Maps at home. As a landscape photographer, I do a lot of research on my desktop computer. Part of that research is finding new (to me) and exciting places to potentially go shoot. I use a Google product called My Maps for this. If you are unfamiliar, it's Google Maps, but you can customize your map with layers, colored labels and icons, driving directions, pictures, and even text with hyperlinks.
So, if I were going to plan a photo-scouting trip somewhere, I would start by researching all the locations that looked interesting and make a personalized scouting map. To create a new map, I have to log into my Google account, navigate to Google Maps, and through the menu in the top left corner, select “Your Places,” then the “MAPS” tab, and finally click “CREATE MAP” at the bottom. After a new tab opens up, the Google My Maps interface is displayed, and I can begin adding my points of interest anywhere on the map, along with customizing them to my liking. All I have to do is click on the “add marker” pin from the top toolbar and start placing these markers anywhere I want. I can also click on any marker that already exists on Google Maps and elect to have it added to my map. After this, the possibilities are endless. You can have up to 10 layers, with 2,000 points on each. It's a very powerful tool that is also very customizable.
That's the at-home Google Maps portion. On your phone, the maps you made in My Maps are available to look at by tapping the “Saved” icon at the bottom of the Google Maps app and after swiping to the bottom of that page, by clicking on “Maps.” You can then choose which map to overlay on the mobile interface, but you can only view, not edit (if you are running Android, you can download Google My Maps separately and personalize them just like you would on the desktop interface).
The only downside with this is that once you have no internet or cellular data connection, Google Maps loses its functionality. This is where Maps.me steps in. But before we get there, we need to do one last thing in the Google My Maps interface on the desktop. With any of your My Maps open, we need to click on the topmost set of three vertical dots, select “Export to KML/KMZ,” and click “Download.” This .KMZ file contains all the information from that map you personalized in a small, self-contained data file. The next objective is to get this file on your mobile device.
There are many ways to do this: messages, Airdrop, Dropbox/Google Drive, but the easiest way is to send yourself an email with the .KMZ file attached. Once you open the email on your smartphone, you can then tap on the .KMZ attachment in the email and then tap the share icon in the top right corner. The Maps.me icon should be an option in the results section, if it's not visible, just swipe right and tap “More,” and it should be there. Once you tap the Maps.me icon, it will automatically open (assuming it’s installed on your phone) and create a separate list with all the information included in the .KMZ file.
That's it! You can now view all your points of interest in the Maps.me interface. If you added titles, descriptions, photos, or driving routes, those will show up as well! And now, you are free from the bonds of needing an internet connection.
The best part is that this all works in reverse. If you started off using Maps.me and created lists that contained points of interest, you can export those lists to .KMZ files and upload them to Google My Maps.
In the Maps.me interface, tap the star icon in the bottom toolbar, then tap the three horizontal dots corresponding to the list you want to export. Tap “Export file” and choose your preferred delivery method. Once the file is on your computer, open up any one of your Google My Maps, and click “Add a layer,” then click “Import” under the layer name. Find your .KMZ file and let it upload, then you’re done.
Like I said at the start, Maps.me is a free mobile application with a ton of features. It does not require an account to do any of the things mentioned above, and it also doesn't display ads. If you are thinking about traveling abroad, have a cap on your cellular data plan, or have any reason why Google Maps won’t work for you, I insist that you give Maps.me a try.
Is there another maps application that you think is better? Let me know in the comments below.