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How to Interpret Satellite Imagery for Backcountry Navigation using

Hillmap keeps a map and satellite imagery in sych as you pan an area
Hillmap keeps a map and satellite imagery in synch as you pan an area

Satellite imagery is a powerful source of information for planning backcountry routes but it takes practice to interpret what you’re looking at, and whether it depicts features you can use to make your route easier or whether you should avoid them.

The best way to view satellite imagery is side-by-side with a topographic map of the area you’re interested in. I use a free online navigation planning tool called is ideal for this purpose because it keeps both views of the same area in synch with one another. For example, if I’m viewing a topographic map that has a river and a highway drawn on it (above left), I can easily correlate that with the imagery associated with them (above right.) I can also draw a route on a topographic map and have it mirrored on top of the satellite image.

Satellite imagery can show you vegetation or watercourse information that is not captured in a topographic map
Satellite imagery can show you vegetation or watercourse information that is not captured in a topographic map.

If I drill down further into the satellite view (left above), I can make out three landscape features not shown on the topographic map of this area.

  1. The river does not fill the entire channel drawn on the topographic map and it looks like there are large areas of dry rock or sand along its banks.
  2. There is a lighter green line of vegetation that runs parallel to the highway (red dashed line) depicted on the topographic maps. This is probably a power line or a railway line that’s been cut open through the forest. Chances are good that the vegetation is thinner along it or that there’s some sort trail that runs over it.
  3. Below it is a set of polka-dot like shadows that look like depressions scooped out of the forest cover. These are likely logging cuts that have small trees growing in them and would be difficult to walk through. They can be easily skirted though, but it’s good to know that they’re there.

With practice, you can teach yourself how to recognize a wide range of landscape features by matching what’s shown on topographic maps and what’s not. Features like cliffs, ravines, landslides, trails, paved roads, dirt roads, rivers, streams, open fields, potential property boundaries, buildings, bridges, dams, bogs, and so on. Some of this information can be quite useful, especially if you don’t have up to date topographic maps or road maps for backcountry areas, something that’s quite common in the more rural areas of the backcountry.

Like all maps and mapping data sources, you need to be a little cautious about the completeness and age of the satellite imagery data you use to plan routes in navigation planning tools. For example, the satellite imagery shown in these examples is labelled in Hillmap as being sourced in 2017, which hardly seems likely, given that it’s still winter in this area and much of it’s still covered in snow. When in doubt, use Google to find trip reports or other data sources, including paper maps, if you require more information.

Written 2017.

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  1. Sweet tool. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Google Earth Pro is another excellent tool for route planning. I use CalTopo for mapping, and draw my route lines and waypoints on my CalTopo map. Then I export a KLM file of the CalTopo map and import it into Google Earth Pro. Now I have my proposed route overlaid on actual 3D terrain. The timeline tool in Google Earth allows you to switch out satellite imagery with historical views, so you can choose between summer and winter versions.

    This system allows you to fly over your proposed route and visualize it from every possible angle. Often I return to CalTopo map and adjust my route lines and waypoints based on concerns that were discovered in Google Earth. Once I am satisfied with my route, I print out a set of custom topos from CalTopo to take into the field.

  3. I have just amused myself by looking at well known local trails’ landmarks. So that’s what it looks like from above…rewarding because most local trails involve creeks and rivers. The business about timeline tool in Google Earth could be helpful.

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