Offroad 101 - How to Plan Trips (Less than 3 Days)


Planning stage is the beginning of each trip, whether it is one day of wheeling or multiple days of exploration, “planning” is and always will be the first step. Different lengths of trip dictates different kinds of planning, as there will be different considerations that longer trips need to be covered. For simplicity, we will be limiting the scope of discussion to day trip and weekend (up to 3 days) only for this post.

Trip Planning Tools

The Internet connects us to the vast pool of information online, including all trip planning tools. Personally, every tool I use to plan a trip is via the internet, as such connectivity simplifies every process; however, traditional means of trip planning still have their place and we will discuss that in depth later.

First, let’s talk about digital, or internet based, tools. This is my go-to and more experienced way of planning tools. Digital tools can be categorized into the following 4 areas:

  • Search Engine
  • Satellite View Imaging Services
  • Mapping Tools
  • Weather Forecasting Services

Let’s dive into each of the 4 main areas and see what each consists of.

Search Engine

Search Engines are the most fundamental tool used. Utilizing search engines is how I decide where and when to go. It’s self-explanatory, really. Search engines allows us to find almost everything regarding the places we want to go and the routes we want to take, as well as local rules and regulations.

In addition, I categorize sites such as Expedition Portal, YouTube, and under search engine, simply because these sites offer search functions. These are the sites where I find trip ideas from:

  • Expedition Portal:

The go-to overland informational site and forum for both local and global expeditions. The forum has a wealth of information, as it is an online community where people around the world participate in. The site is owned by Overland International, Inc., which also publishes Overland Journal publications. Their staff articles are perfect introductions to different destinations and kickstart my search for those places. The forum is another source of inspiration as well.

  • YouTube:

YouTube is another source to find places to go. Granted, these days people gatekeep information on how to get to those places and exact coordinates, and that’s for good reason. However, I pick up hints in the video and key locations to piece out how to get there. One example is Grand Canyon South, where you camp inside a reservation by Colorado River. I found that while watching Throttle House’s Enlightenment series and followed their route on Google Map. When using YouTube to find destinations, patience is extremely important.

  • TrailsOffroad:

Trailsoffroad is a site that shares offroad trails with descriptions and trail difficulty ratings. It is like a cheat sheet for offroading. It is also a source of inspiration because it shows all possible trails in map mode. I can easily drag along the map to find interesting trails and interesting places adjacent to the area I am looking at. It also has the feature to directly export GPX files to Gaia GPS, or download the routes for you to upload to the mapping software of your choice.

Basically, Search Engines are the source of inspiration when it comes to planning a trip. They also allow us to find out more about the destination’s rules and regulations.

Satellite View Imaging Services

Satellite View Imaging Services are exactly what they are: they provide satellite images of the trails and destinations.  Satellite view services are the second tool I use when planning trips; these tools allow me to “preview” what kind of terrain and landscape we will be dealing with, as well as plotting possible obstacles on the trails when I create trail maps.

I use Google Map’s built in satellite image view as the go-to tool to help me pre-run the route and find any possible obstacles there is. It is a great tool as it is constantly updated (meaning more accurate) and most importantly, it is free.

Mapping Tool

There are three major mapping tools that people use: Google Map, Gaia GPS, and OnX Offroad. But ultimately, when it comes to offroad trips, Gaia GPS and OnX Offroad are the two most popular mapping tools to use in the industry.

Let me explain:

  • Google Map:
    Google Map is the easiest one to use, as users just need to plot the route in the custom map mode and save it for offline use on their devices. In addition, there is no cost to use custom map to plot custom routes or download for offline use.
    However, Google Map relies on usable roadway that pre-exist in its database to plot routes. That is an issue because some offroad trails do not exist in Google Map database as drivable route, thus makes it difficult, if not impossible, to plot custom route. That alone renders Google Map undesirable for trail map use.
  • Gaia GPS:
    Gaia GPS is one of the most popular offroad navigation application. It is purpose built for outdoor use and each different “layer” contains different information for different activities. Gaia GPS is not only suitable for offroading, but also great for hiking, backpacking, hunting, and other outdoor activities.
    However, the drawback for Gaia is its steep learning curve. For instance, it took me almost a year to master Gaia GPS and be proficient in using it plan my multi-day expeditions. Gaia also has free and paid versions; free versions allow users to download maps and utilize some map layers, while the paid version unlocks more mapping layers.
  • OnX Offroad:
    OnX is another popular offroad navigation tool. It is also purpose built for outdoor use and is packed with information. To be fair, OnX is probably more suitable for Gaia GPS for beginners, as it contains everything users need to know about a trail. It is also constantly updated and include information such as trail condition (whether it is open or close), trail difficulty, and suitable activities.
    OnX is quite user friendly compared to Gaia. However, given that I am used to Gaia GPS and have paid for it until 2025, I don’t see any reason for me to switch to OnX anytime soon.

Gaia GPS remains to be my go-to mapping tool because I’m relatively proficient with it, and I have almost half a decade’s worth of data stored with Gaia GPS. If I was new to the hobby, I’d probably pick OnX for my offroad navigation needs.


Weather Forecast Services

The last tool used for planning trips is weather forecast services. The importance of this is quite self-explanatory: we need to know the weather of the places that we are visiting to decide whether we should proceed as planned or delay the trip.

Weather plays a big part in offroading. We want to pick days when the weather is good to go offroad to minimize trail damages and chances of getting stuck due to natural forces. For instance, when we visited Death Valley National Park, I had to triple check weather forecast to make sure temperature was acceptable and not too hot for us to camp. In addition, I also had to check for chances of rain as desert terrains and rain combined would mean flash flood and even muds that could get us stuck for days.

I use as my go-to weather forecast service because based on my experience, it is the most accurate forecasting service there is. The website (and the phone app) also offers forecasts down to hours at great accuracy.


Trip Planning Process

Now that we’ve covered the tools I use to plan trips, let me go through how I plan trips.

Suppose for our 3-days long weekend we are going to Bishop, CA.

I start by searching for things to see and places to visit in and near Bishop, CA, as well as anything along the way that I may want to see. I then plot these locations into Gaia GPS so I have a better understanding on where these places are in relation to each other.

Then, I use Gaia GPS’s built in routing function to plot a preliminary route from the group’s meeting point through all the point of interest until Bishop. This will give me an idea of approximate distance and drive time needed for the group to get to Bishop. From there, I start to search for campgrounds or campsites suitable for our group on the way to Bishop, preferably somewhere in the middle between meet up spot and our destination.

Once I find the general area of where we want to set up camp (it would be Alabama Hills, CA in this case), I started to plot day 1, day 2, and day 3 routes. I then check with Google Map Satellite View for all the off-pavement routes to make sure everything is good. Then, I create a folder to include all the waypoints and routes. Finally, I check weather forecast to make sure mother nature is on our side, and that we don’t need winter camping gears for nighttime low temperatures.

Once everything is good, I send the folder to anyone who’s joining me for the trip and download the contents of the Gaia folder to the Gaia app on my phone. The plotted route serves as my primary route; it will be the path I follow when I have no cell signal. However, whenever I have cellphone reception, Google Map will still sbe the primary navigational tool due to its ability to take traffic into consideration.


Trip planning is essential to a successful offroad trip. Equipped with offroad maps and a general idea of what to expect, we minimize the chances of us getting stuck off pavement and away from home. By following the steps to plan trips, we set out to be more prepared and we increase our chances of getting home safely.

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