Maps give me a thrill. When I look at a map of a place I’ve been, it’s like unfolding a miniature city, and I almost picture myself walking past the monuments or sitting in a favorite sidewalk cafe. Collecting maps of a place I hope to visit is always my first step in planning a trip. And poring over maps of places I’ll never see, like the Roman Empire or Antarctica, makes imagining what it’s like there so much easier.
Of course, looking at a map online pales in comparison to crawling around a full-size hardcopy on the living room carpet (or having one neatly folded in a Ziploc bag in your backpack when your GPS batteries run out). But the sheer number and variety of maps available, plus interactive features including informational links, games, quizzes, and even animated historical maps that show changes over time, make the Internet an indispensable geographical resource for traveling, schoolwork, or just for fun.
Sites like MapQuest, Yahoo! and Rand McNally are the fastest way to find driving directions mileage and estimated travel time between any two points you specify. None of these sites is perfect, however, and the best strategy is to check out two or three and compare suggested routes. You can also try tweaking the results by breaking your trip into smaller sections, using the road you prefer to take as an intermediate endpoint.
What about after you get out of the car? You can often find maps of a town’s business district and major attractions on its tourism website, not to mention maps of bike routes, walking tours and other recreational activities. I like to cut-and-paste maps into Word and create my own personalized “tourist brochure.” For hikers there are free topographical maps, showing elevation and geographical features, at Topozone. Again, any of these maps may be out-of-date or less detailed than you need, but they’re a good start when you’re just deciding where to go.
Kids, parents and teachers who need maps for schoolwork have a world of options to explore. Almost any kind of map you need can be found or custom generated on National Geographic's map section, while teachers can find lesson plans on Xpeditions, their learning website. Teachers also rave about the CIA Factbook, a database covering some 200 countries. Web Geography for Kids is a portal of other good sites, with a useful summary of each. Some examples: How Far Is It?, a site from Indonesia which gives you coordinates and the distance between any two cities (as the crow flies), and Education Place from Houghton, offering free, detailed outline maps. The U.S. Geological Survey has an education section and fact sheets on topics like using a map and compass. The social studies section of Teach the Children Well and GeoGlobe are two teacher-created places with good kid-oriented geography links. And for a bigger “wow” factor, check out some animated maps, like the 10-minute, narrated movie showing the growth of the United States on Animated Atlas.
Online interactive geography quizzes are a great way to learn your way around the globe. About.com’s geography page has its own quizzes, plus a list of other quiz sites – two good ones are National Geographic’s Geospy and LizardPoint.
Of course, no map can rival a satellite photograph for accuracy and detail. From Google Maps you can zoom in on any street from a conventional road map, a satellite image, or a hybid of the two. But if your kids prefer imaginary realms, explore the selection of maps of Narnia, the setting for "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," or find out how to walk from Bags End, Hobbiton to Mordor with Yahoo!-style directions. You never know what you find once you start your quest. Happy hunting!