Like so many paddlers residing in northern climates, skiing, snowshoeing and winter camping only goes so far in getting me through the cold-weather months. Map-watching is one of my favorite off-season pastimes—that is sleuthing out potential canoe routes, coastlines and whitewater rivers, and using contour lines, archipelagos and creative intuition to imagine what these places will be like to explore come spring and summer. Needless to say, with its detailed satellite imagery Google Earth has been a game-changer in trip planning and procrastination. 

Whether you're looking to waste some time or prepare for your next adventure, Google Earth Pro (a free download) is a powerful tool. Zooming in provides lots of general details of interest to paddlers, including hazards such as rapids or cliffs, potential campsites, access points and portages. The program allows you to measure distances and compass bearings, as well as assessing slope (handy for river runners in sussing out gradient as well as identifying hiking opportunities). User uploaded photos and video tours are indulgences that enable you to see what it actually looks like. Google Earth place markers and routes can be shared with friends and uploaded to a GPS unit for use in the field.

Like any computer programs, Google and YouTube are great references in figuring out different applications. However, here's a DIY summary of the best Google Earth functions for paddlers of all stripes.

Navigating between Operating Systems: Google Earth Pro is available for PC and Mac platforms, and virtually identical in each. However, a key difference is how you change units like position format (UTM or latitude/longitude) and distance measurements (imperial or metric). These variables can be adjusted on a PC by clicking on Tools and Options; on a Mac, click on the Google Earth Pro tab and select Preferences. 

Layers: Google Earth includes many layers, which may or may not enhance your experience. Place names, roads and borders can be toggled "on" or "off", as well as user-uploaded photographs and more. If you're looking for a cleaner appearance (and fewer distractions) I suggest turning the photo layer off.

Search tool: Let's say you're looking for a specific lake. Zoom in on the general area and type the name of the lake into the search bar, in the upper left corner of the window. Most bodies of water are identified on Google Earth and the program should automatically zoom in on your search target. Similarly, you can also type coordinates (UTM or latitude/longitude position format) into the search bar to achieve similar results. Be sure the program is set to handle the appropriate position format. 

Using the search tool.

Placemarks: These function like waypoints on a GPS. Use them to mark put-ins, takeouts, campsites and other features. Click on the thumbtack icon at the top of the window and use the mouse or trackpad to position it over the feature. You can type in a unique name, change the icon (click on the thumbtack next to the "Name" field), and adjust its size and color. Note that geographical coordinates are also provided, which may be helpful in relating your placemark to a paper map. 

Adding placemarks.

Folders: Placemarks and tracks are saved in folders in the left-hand column of the window. You can organize related placemarks and tracks into a common folder. This is essential if you want to share your route or download it to a GPS.

Stay tuned to for Part 2 of Google Earth For Paddlers, focusing on satellite image interpretation skills and specific applications to plan your next trip.

More expedition skills at

— Expedition Planning 101: Alan Kesselheim tackles technology

— Expedition tested gear: On the water, In camp

— How to navigate an open water crossing