On Friday we returned from a hugely enjoyable hiking holiday in Central Portugal. We spent the first week meandering through the tranquil inland region – including the beautiful Serra da Lousã – before joining the coast at Figueira da Foz to work our way south (at a rather less leisurely pace).
Though we were frequently mistaken for pilgrims, we were not following any of Portugal’s established caminhos; in fact, we weren’t following any recognised or waymarked route at all.
Here, my partner Harri (outdoor writer Harri Garrod Roberts) explains how he used the free mapping apps Viewranger and Strava plus Google Streetscene to create a bespoke hiking trail linking a scribbled list of places I wanted to visit.
Over to Harri:
“The problem with hiking in Portugal is that there aren’t that many waymarked tracks. In contrast to Spain where there is a long tradition of walking for pleasure, hiking is a relatively recent leisure activity in Portugal. It was only in the 1990s that the first waymarked routes started to appear, and there are still gaps in the provision of official footpaths across the country.
This was brought home to us a few years ago when Tracy and I attempted to follow a rural walk outlined on an interpretation board in Palmela, near Setubal; the waymarks soon disappeared, leaving us to second-guess our route back to civilisation.
We spent three months in Albufeira last winter. I worked weekdays, so we wanted to make the most of weekends and explore as much of the local area as possible.
Without the usual 1:20,000 OS maps at my disposal (Portugal’s mapping is from the Instituto Geográfico do Exército – the country’s military survey organisation – and is available only in 1:50,000), I began to look into new ways of planning our weekend routes.
I was familiar with the Viewranger App, having previously used it for recording walking routes, and I wondered if I could use it to plan routes before we actually walked them (it is!).
Step in Strava
Having experimented with Viewranger, I then tried plotting our routes using Strava and I found it much more intuitive to use. If I put in the starting point and finishing point of any planned walk, e.g. our villa in Albufeira to nearby Paderne, Strava suggests the shortest route between the two.
My next step is to check out the suitability of the proposed route. If the shortest route involves walking along a main road, it’s easy enough to adjust it. Just move the route away from the main road and Strava will automatically create a different route to follow. I will keep repeating this stage until I am satisfied I have found the best possible walking route for our particular requirements.
Google Streetscene is invaluable when I am checking out Strava’s suggested routes. Rather than rule out a section of road walking immediately, I will check out whether there are pavements or even a cycle path running alongside it.
One of the advantages of Google Streetscene, it that it is updated every few years so you can be pretty certain that the information is accurate.
Once I’m happy with the route on Strava, I turn it into a GPX file which I import into Viewranger. This enables you to use your iPad or iPhone as a GPX device.
Before we go away (and while I still have reliable internet access), I will open each route in Viewranger and scroll along it so that each map is loaded and will be available off-line.
Setting off on a hike
Once we are ready to start walking, I press ‘Follow route’ and instantly have our route there in front of me, marked clearly on the map. You can zoom in and out and the little circle tells you where you are in relation to the route.
Have you encountered any problems?
The maps are open source maps so the actual quality of the tracks and paths is not always apparent from the map. Sometimes a path exists on the ground but is not marked on the map, which can be confusing but just means you have to be flexible and be prepared to adjust your route while you’re walking.
On rare occasions, a track might be marked on the map but turn out to be impassable or blocked off (often because it is private).
While you don’t need internet access to follow the maps, using Viewranger does drain your battery so you need to be able to recharge your device at the end of the day’s walking.
While we are walking, Viewranger will be creating a route which may coincide exactly with the one plotted but more often varies slightly. It’s possible to make that ‘on-the-ground’ route visible on Viewranger so that other hikers can follow in your footsteps.