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Review - The Best Maps for European and World Road Trips

For us car enthusiasts, grabbing a map and getting stuck into planning your next adventure is one of the great pleasures in life. Used correctly, a map is more than a schematic piece of paper; it provides a means to turn a dream into reality, and it aids you every step of the way as you do so. To those with a love of the open road, there can be little which inspires like the humble line on a map, slicing through the nothingness. The line represents possibility, movement, the excitement of plans yet made. It shows that something may be possible, if only you have the hunger to make it happen.

Yes, a stormy evening indoors next to an open fire, sipping a single malt as your finger traces lines on a map of some far flung destination, joining the points on the map together until they form an inspiring road trip in your mind; there’s nothing better.

Here at Pub2Pub, we’ve been using paper maps to plan adventures for over fifteen years, and in that time road trip navigation has changed beyond recognition. In the early days, such as when we drove from the UK to Mongolia in 2006, a paper map and a Lonely Planet were all we had at our disposal. Between cities, the paper map would guide us, whereas in the city centres we’d rely on the maps in the guide book. The most stressful part of a day on the road often occurred in the outskirts of a big city, as we’d attempt to feel our way to the centre, hoping to spot a street name we recognised from the Lonely Planet map. It was exciting, skilful travel.

And we got lost a lot.

Today, these moments feel like an innocent memory, as the world of navigation has changed beyond measure since those heady days. With Google Earth we can see any point on the surface of the earth in great detail; with sat navs, or cached Google Earth files we can get instant directions to any hotel or petrol station we want. iOverlander guides us to the secret wildcamping spots while our phones update us with traffic conditions ahead. In short, each of us carries in our pockets a device which is more than equal to most navigational challenges a road trip might throw up.

So in 2020, what place is left for the humble paper map?

A very special place, in my opinion, and one which I described in the early paragraphs of this article. Paper maps may now be rather old-school, but they can inspire like nothing else, by providing a blank canvas to be populated by your dreams, as well as a convenient way to visualise long trips at a glance, and when drawn on, an ideal repository for gradually accumulated knowledge of interesting places and epic roads.

I may never again experience the unique frustrations inherent in trying to navigate an unfamiliar metropolis after dark using a large-scale map, but as a planning tool, they’ll remain a valuable piece of my planning arsenal for years to come, as well as providing a handy insurance policy against technology failure while on the road.

So, which paper maps represent the best tools for trip planning?

That’s the million-dollar question, and from my experience of using countless different brands of maps in over 80 different countries, for the vast majority of situations I would argue that Michelin Maps are the best out there.

Why? Well, for a start they strike a good balance between clarity and detail; not always an easy task, especially in complicated, crammed-in regions such as Western Europe. Compared to the higher-contrast appearance of rivals such as AA Mapping and Marco Polo, they’re relaxing to look at and pleasing on the eye (though they’re not the most aesthetic maps I’ve ever used – that award goes to the Icelandic maps of Mal og menning – truly works of cartographic art). Another plus point is that while ostensibly being rather workmanlike tools, places of beauty or tourist interest are outlined in green, giving early leads into worthy stop-offs when planning a trip. And finally, the material is judged just right – the paper is light enough to carry with you, but heavy enough to survive a big trip – they're good value, and the lack of a fancy coating means you can easily mark points of interest, allowing the map to act as a repository for accumulated road trip knowledge over the years:

So, there you have it – that’s why for most drives, I’d suggest a good starting point to be a Michelin map.

Though I’ve used Michelin Maps everywhere from Patagonia to Tanzania, there are a few situations where another brand may outperform them. That brand is Reise, and their tearproof, waterproof maps are a good insurance policy to have with you when you head out into the wilderness on roads less travelled.

I’ve used these maps primarily on my Asian road trips, and have yet to come close to destroying one, which is quite a feat, when day-to-day temperatures in the direct sunlight can be over 60°C, and sweat, dust and grime – and occasionally, petrol and torrential rain – gets everywhere. To illustrate their toughness, here’s a close-up of my Reise Kazakhstan map, which has survived six months on the road in Asia, during two separate trips:

As you can see, it’s suffered in the hands of the elements, but is still in one piece and is perfectly usable. As a back-up to your phone or sat-nav system, such toughness is indispensable. So there you have it, as far as we're concerned it's all about Michelin maps for planning, and Reise as a tool and insurance policy for the more out of the way places. Now, what are you waiting for - go forth and plan that adventure...

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