Most people are familiar with how Google Maps works — enter in a destination and get directions.
Even better, enter in an address on Google Street View and it can take you virtually to the area, so you can see what it looks like before you go. Now, that technology is being applied in a different way to people who want to check out hiking trails.
“Whether you want to explore faraway sites or some of your neighborhood’s most beautiful parks, Street View can let you virtually tour these places before you go,” says Mara Harris, Google’s PR manager for Street View.
In 2015, Google reached out to Travel Lane County, the destination marketing organization that promotes travel to Lane County.
Stephen Hoshaw, Travel Lane County’s PR and social media manager, says at that time it was a new program and Google was seeking partners willing to add to their inventory of trails.
Now, the trails that get most asked about, like trails with waterfall views and river views, are virtually mapped out.
Viewers can virtually tour Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area via a dune buggy, fly down the Siuslaw River via jetboat, or ride a bike along the Row River Trail.
“We loved the opportunity to assist in making our trails available digitally for visitors to explore,” Hoshaw says. “Google was very open to helping us make this happen, and they were able to lend us their Trekker pack for roughly three months to get out on the trails and collect data.”
The Street View Trekker pack, a wearable backpack with a camera system that Google introduced in 2012, is the key to how this program works.
When a hiker walks on the trail wearing the pack, or when it is attached to the back of a dune buggy or jetboat, it automatically gathers images as they go along. Then the images are stitched together to create the 360-degree panoramas you see today in Google Maps.
“There are 15 lenses at the top of the mast, each pointed in a different direction that enables us to create a 360-degree panoramic view,” Harris says. “As the operator walks, photos are taken every 2.5 seconds.”
The Trekker weighs approximately 40 pounds and is the size of a large hiking backpack. It’s about four feet high when set on the ground, and when worn, the camera system extends two feet above the operator’s shoulders. The Trekker battery can last six to eight hours on a full charge.
Hoshaw says wearing the pack was “surprisingly comfortable” after it got adjusted for fit. Once the straps are adjusted, the wearer would pick up the handheld controller (smartphone) device and tell the unit to start recording.
For safety, the Travel Lane County team always hiked in at least pairs. The cameras captured images as far as the eye could see.
“Before we hiked with Google’s Trekker pack a majority of the trails in Lane County were not visible on Google Maps,” Hoshaw says. “There are several cases where users will upload an image, 360-degree photo or a little note to a specific location on Google Maps that will pop up, but there was very little in being able to navigate the trails virtually.”
Now that many of the trails are up on Google Maps, anyone who wants to get a look at what a hike looks like can take a virtual tour, very similar to Google’s Street View.
“We are particularly excited as this gives a great vantage to those that are unable to get out on the trails, or for visitors planning which hikes to tackle,” he says.
Harris says the Trekker loan program is part of Google Maps’ efforts to make the world’s diverse heritage and beauty accessible to everyone.
Google may be willing to loan Trekker packs to professional photographers, travelers and organizations (such as tourism boards, nonprofits, government agencies, universities or research groups) or other groups that want to promote areas of cultural, historical or touristic significance as well as those who intend to photograph business interiors.
“So far, the Trekker has traveled to some breathtaking natural wonders and world heritage sites, such as:
“But we can’t do it all on our own,” Harris says. “We’re grateful for the many partners we’ve had over the years who have helped to collect imagery of other locations around the globe to share for everyone to enjoy and explore through Google Maps.”