Updated January 2017
Most currently available Sahara maps are listed and described below. Only a couple are really useful to desert travellers; others maps may be more easily found and will offer a good background or modern overlay, while some other Sahara maps are of limited value to an actual desert traveller as opposed to someone pinning on a wall for a project.
For a vehicle-based Sahara tour, choose one large-scale Sahara map covering the whole area you plan to visit and then add one- or half-million scale maps for all the areas you plan to cover on pistes. In rare instances these can be backed up by a selection of 1:200,000 maps for areas of special interest, or for trekking. As a rule, the country maps described below are less useful for travel in the Sahara, but help give the big picture.
The maps below are reviewed specifically in regard to their utility as navigational aids for independent desert travellers, less so for conventional fly-in tourists most of who will have little need of maps. Each of the 70-odd GPS routes detailed in my Sahara guidebook (left, long out of print) include a recommendation to one of the maps below. Factors I consider useful in a Sahara paper map are:
- Up to date information – certainly in new editions (a common failing)
- Accurate and consistent hierarchy of roads and pistes (a common failing)
- Clear depiction of relief (some achieve this better than others)
- An idea of the surface terrain like dunes (very useful but often overlooked)
- Reliable information on wells (a tall order, but frequently guesses are made)
- Grid lines across the map face to aid positioning with GPS
If you’re into just crossing the Sahara you may find my Sahara Routes Map on the Routes page useful. It shows the major border crossings as well as where they are best not crossed.
Garmin Topo North Africa Light
For years buying Garmin maps for anywhere outside of developed nations wasn’t worthwhile. Even their Morocco map – largely ripped off from Olaf – was said to be an inferior version and cost over £100 for a map you could get for free. Last updated in 2008, Olaf is old now – many pistes have been sealed, but others as still accurate – and their are masses of them.
But now Garmin have collaborated with OSM to produce a huge map covering the Maghreb (right) for a reasonable £20. Up to now I’ve found trip planning with Google Earth and decent paper maps has been adequate. Is a digital map in a handheld GPS worth it? Full review here.
Also, click this German page for a stack of scanned and calibrated maps on dvd for all of Africa if not the whole world at much less than you will pay elsewhere in Germany.
Sahara paper map reviews
Scale 1:4 million, 2012
The 741 (formerly ‘953’ and ‘153’ before that) covers nearly all of the Sahara from the Atlantic to western Egypt (28E), making this the first choice for most of the region. Compared to other offerings, this series is renowned for its detail, readability and reasonable accuracy given the huge task involved. This review concentrates on the Saharan portion of the map
Although it’s not perfect, the Mich 741 is the best planning map for Saharan travels, giving you a good overview of 90% of the Sahara, accurate relative distances, borders, major roads and some pistes, as well as settlements and surface features, even the depth of some wells and quality of water. Degree intervals in this era of GPS are a not-so-useful 4° apart. This is not a map for off-highway navigation, although many novice Saharans have tried!
The previous edition (2003; the first to be called ‘741’) was nothing more than the 953 it replaced but with a new cover and number. This 2007 edition has a few real changes. It may be just the printing, but the contrast and colours are now a little stronger so showing the relief better. But has it got over its age-old flaw: an inaccurate emphasis of some pistes? No. Thin black lines still show long-obsolete camel trails on a par with much more recognised pistes, while other barely used pistes look like well-used tracks. So Saharan novices will continue to misinterpret this map until they know better.
New additions include a string of new or uprated tracks in inland southern Western Sahara (not a place tourists can go easily); the new road to Nouackchott is shown; names have been added to formerly unnamed ergs and mountains in Algeria and tracks are shown to Tamajert as well. Sealed Algerian roads are updated and some (but not all) obsolete ‘interdictions’ have been lifted too (notably from El Oued via Bir Djedid to the Deb Deb road). But for example the well established ‘southern route’ between Tam and Djanet via Tin Tarabine and Tiririne (it’s been there for 30 years or more) is missing while the route to Bordj Moktar is still shown as interdite even if this is the main way now. Libya gets a few token ‘scenic’ green stripes and the ‘Water Project Hotel’ on the way to Waw Namus gets a nice little plug.
These nitpickings apart, the 741 is the first actual improvement since the 953 of 2000. It remains the definitive map of the Sahara and West Africa, offering a quick way of getting to know this huge region.
Scale 1:600,000 2015, €10 Third edition of a hand drawn map from the Bab Sahara auberge in Atar. Probably not good enough to navigate with by itself (no long/lat grid) but presumably uses local knowledge gives a useful and more up to date ‘big picture’ than anything from IGN. The IGN’s old 200k series would fill in the gaps.
Scale 1:250,000 Early 1960s? Click here.
African Atlases (short version: don’t bother)
You may find yourself attracted to the savings of an African atlas, especially if ordering online, sight unseen. A couple that I looked at once included the National Geographic Africa Adventure Atlas. It’s an impressive title, but on a continental scale, as expected it is flawed and inconsistent for actual travel use, and when depicting the Sahara sections seems to go all out to save ink (a cunning way of avoiding errors or the need for accuracy). Inevitably, was heavily focused to the southern and eastern ‘safari’ regions where the mapping is more detailed. And it only costs £818.21 on amazon.
Map Studio’s Road Atlas of Africa (left)is the same as above – 208 pages published in 2013 but with long out of date infrastructure info on the Sahara. Handy for teachers, not for travellers.
Institute Geographique Nationale (IGN)
Scales 1 million; 1:500,000; 1:200,000
Early 1960s to mid-1970s.
The one million IGNs are to general purpose desert navigation what the 741 is to planning. They are great maps but only cover the former French African colonies which only includes the western reaches of Libya (up to 12E). Readability from 1964 up to the last sheets in 1975 is very good. A few 1961 sheets covering ever-overlooked Mauritania are a little basic by comparison. The advent of GPS has brought up a few errors with the one millions – mountains misplaced by a few kilometres – but overall the detail and accuracy is excellent as subsequent satellite imagery has proved. Changes in roads are best cross referenced on a 741 or a modern country map (see below) and don’t expect all the marked wells to have been maintained over the last few decades while new ones will have appeared. Particularly in the more populous Sahel, the position of tracks and other man-made features may have altered over the last few decades. Excepting parts of Libya and all of Egypt, these excellent maps are ideal for the basic level of exploration and travel that Sahara Overland used to represent. For Morocco there are far better maps – for Mauritania too.
Coverage of 500k IGNs seems to have been patchy and these days they are very hard to find and not really worth the bother. For some odd reason detail is cut off at country boundaries, even adjacent former French ones, which makes them a little less worth searching out though of course the extra detail makes perhaps the best scale of all for piste driving. Half millions are not available at the Espace IGN Cartothèque in Paris but they are available on bootleg CDs (Algeria only, as far as I know.)
Just about all the original 200,000s have been sold or returned to the relevant countries. Theoretically still available from the relevant ministries in Algeria, Niger and Mali, their ‘strategic’ scale makes obtaining them a hit-and-miss affair. Nevertheless, when you can find them, the colour originals are real works of map art, especially in mixed dune and rocky terrain. They are the finest maps of the Sahara ever made, obliterating the more recent Soviet equivalents at the same scale which were only based on aerial or satellite photography. IGN’s were checked on the ground too, and it shows. Black-and-white copies of the full set were available from the IGN Cartothèque in Paris at around 7 euro each – you’re much beter off with colour scans widely sold on CD by the major Saharan outfitters in Europe (and bootleg). Some avoiding the copyright issue by not crediting the maps as IGNs.
The biggest drawback with the 200,000s is that there are no- or limited grid lines on the face of the map and each degree is only marked in 10-minute increments along the borders. If you look closely there are actually faint crosses also at ten minute intervals on the map face, so it’s possible to mark your own grid – but draw from cross to cross and not straight across, even though, given their UTM projection, lines are almost straight.
For a serious mission you can print off the digital scans into an A4 map booklet – right – but you’ll need to mess about a bit to correct the print size so as to reflect the original 200k scale.
Price 1 million was £7.95 in the UK; 10 euros in Paris. 1:500,000 and 1:200,000 sheets in Paris from 8-13 euros (see below) or on bootleg CD (Niger, Algeria and Mauritania only) or all free to download here.
IGN country maps – too old now
IGN also produced a modern series of country maps in the Sahara including Chad, Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania (1993!), Niger and Tunisia with scales ranging from one- to 2.5 million. Easily available in Europe, they’re probably far inferior to more recent RK-H maps. ‘Chad’ has no grid lines for example. I spotted the hard-to-find 500k Air Massif (pictured right) at Agadez airport years ago for 12 euros – an especially handy map for camelling or trekking in the region, were you be able to get to it.
Reise Know-How series
For the 1:1m scale Morocco map see here. About £9 or €9.
In 2011 RKH released a 1:200,000 map of the Hoggar around Tamanrasset in southern Algeria. Plastic and double-sided like all the rest, it covers a once commonly visited region for fly-in tours; namely the Atakor massif (Assekrem), and the so-called ‘Tassili-Hoggar’ region southeast of Tam – a fabulous area of outcrops, dunes and prehistoric engravings along the Tin Tarabine oued, the Youf Ehakit nearby, and the famed Taghera and El Ghessour outcrops just to the southwest. The extent runs from 5°E to 6° 50’E and 21°N to 24°N, the southern tip of the Tefedest, with grid lines every 10 degrees – very nice. The image left shows a rough depiction. What few dune areas there are, are not depicted (as they are, vaguely, on the 1 million IGNs) and on close comparison with the ancient IGN 200,000s, it transpires RKH have merely copied many of the incompletely depicted routes shown on the 200s which were last updated in the 1960s, rather than researching and adding some of the regular tourist trails which have developed in the Taghera since that time, and are doubtless accurately recorded on countless GPS track logs. So the map is based on 50-year-old IGNs, rather than adding anything new; no great surprise there and not that important as most visitors will be led here anyway. And for 8 quid it’s a bit of a souvenir treat, anyway. Sadly, the collapse of fly-in tourism to this specific area at around the time the map was probably commissioned, means they may not sell as many as they hoped. For those like me, it makes a great souvenir on which to plot and relate to various points visited over the years, and as the ‘Tassili Hoggar’ has recently been given the all-clear and re-opened, some may yet get to use the map. The scale (1cm = 2km) is obviously a bit OTT for independent driving (were it possible), but it would work well while being led trekking around the region. You need a guide anyway to get to all the best spots. We used this map to plot our route up to Assekrem in Jan 2012 along unmarked trails.
The colouration and detail is too subtle by far (another ink-saving ploy?). Some well-established pistes are missing, the Tefedest range seems to have a new pass halfway up, but the worse thing in the overpowering anaemia of this map – all the same pale washed-out tan tone with no discernible definition for the dominant ergs and a way too-large contour interval of 250m for the 1.7m scale – a map that clearly did not eat enough fruit and veg during its production. You do get a handy 1° grid (but no sub-calibration, like a TPC or IGN 1m). With the wealth of Algeria know-how in Germany, this map is a missed opportunity. Review copy of this map supplied by The Map Shop. Price £7.75
International Travel Map Series
Scale ~ 1:2 million
The last time I checked (ages ago) ITM of Canada have produced several country sheets including Algeria (1:2m), Mauritania (1:2m), Niger (1:2m), Mali (1:1.7m), and Libya (1:800k), in tear- and waterproof plastic with 3° grid intervals, as well as a Michelin-like 1:3.4m Sahara map (left, see below). Most are out of print now, but scanning their maps back then, they did not come across as a serious attempt to cover the Sahara for the traveller. Places names seem to have been transcribed down a bad phone line from Tripoli and included some ludicrous errors that couldn’t be solely laid of the poor state of international telecoms. The Mauritania map still showed piste from Dakhla to Nouakchott. In Niger we learn of a dinosaur cemetery round the back of Bilma (news to me; could they mean Gadoufaoua SE of Agadez?). None of the rich engravings sites along the east edge of the Aïr are identified. And you have to say, what is depicted of Algeria around Tam and the Hoggar (and around Djanet on the Libya map) is all mixed up, piste wise. It bears more relation to overzealous cartography than any existing map. The Libya map has poor depiction of relief, pistes are very faintly marked (in case they’re wrong?) and in the Ubari lake region we read of ‘numerous waterholes’ but not one of the lakes.
On many ITM Sahara maps a dead give away is the use of ‘limit of reliable relief information’ phrase, proving they’ve been scanning American TPCs (see below) but don’t comprehend that TPCs are actually pilots’ charts; relief height data is less critical to earthbound mortals than wells or pistes. With glaring errors and inventions rather than the more common inconsistencies and inaccuracies, it would be hard to have confidence in travelling with these maps in the Sahara, and many of the potentially useful town plans are skimpy in the extreme. ITM have also produced a Sahara map; a rival to Michelin’s 741? It would be nice to have a good alternative and the 1:2.2m scale is promising, but a quick scan shows up more errors and omissions as well as an inferior design. For the moment stick with a 741.
Gizi’s Algeria sheet
(1.2.5m, 2006) has a 1° grid and is not bad at all.
Usefully it has place names in Arabic but the paper is rather old-fashioned thick and glossy (like the Malt) which you feel won’t last, and I found the colouration of the relief a bit over the top (the terrain, dunes, reg, was not well depicted). Gizi also do a Libya map at 1:1.75. Gizi also do maps for Mauritania (2009; 1:1.25m) and Mali (1:1.2m, 2010).
Soviet World Series
Scales 1 million
From the early 1970s to mid-1980s The Soviet Union produced a range of topographic maps covering the world at the above scales, making them the only ones to cover Libya, where they match IGN’s earlier efforts to the west but at a lower quality. Difficulties include the Cyrillic (Russian) text and what appears to be less than full-colour printing. Their worst feature is representing dunes as a series of still more orange contours rather than with colour and shade as with IGNs. Some sources sell black-and-white copies which makes them even harder to read. Nevertheless, they’re the best there is for Libya, with the half million originals noticeably easier to read than the one millions – and now all downloadable for free from the link above, right up to the large-scale 200,000s. ‘Geo referenced’ versions are also available but I’m not sure what this means – calibrated? They are saved as a .map file which I could not open. With reduced copyright restrictions, enterprising individuals and organisations like Quo Vadis (later, Touratech QV) scanned the entire Russian series and sell them on CD. All of Africa at 1:500,000 would cost over £1500 in paper but can be bought direct from Touratech for around 100 euros which would include the two dozen sheets which cover the Libyan Sahara – still a saving of 30 percent. This may sound a bargain but would still require printing off several sheets of paper and joining them together to make one complete sheet. When buying these maps on paper, always go for the semi-colour originals if you can and expect to spend an evening familiarising yourself with place names and the Russian alphabet and writing the translations onto the maps, where necessary (see p.331 of the book). The TTQV CD maps feature overprinted names of major towns in Roman alphabet and incorporate GPS plotting software for PCs – another story. Price: free on the internet if you dig around enough.
US Defence Mapping Agency Scale
Operational Navigation Charts (ONC) 1:1 million
Tactical Pilotage Charts (TPC) 1:500,000
Produced in the 1960s and 70s, revised in the late 1980s While they are of a seemingly useful scale, widely sold as ‘Sahara maps’ and open out to the size of a bed sheet, ONCs and TPCs are pilots’ maps and much over-rated for terrestrial use. Differentiation of relief and surface is poor and, in the Sahara at least, no attempt is made to distinguish between a mule track or a six lane motorway with regular rest areas. Settlements, where they appear, are rated chiefly by their airport and radio facilities. Terrain differentiation is not so clearly depicted and well information is particularly hit-and-miss: some wells I’ve used are missing while others which are marked may no longer exist.
Despite all that, one sheet I grew fond of over the years is the TPC H-3D, and the ONC H3 in west Libya was surprisingly accurate on tracks. They’re all best used as back-ups to other maps, ideally IGNs. ONCs and TPCs maps also show the UTM grid overprinted in blue, as well as lines of magnetic variation which are also irrelevant with a GPS’s built-in true-north pointing compass. Being flyers’ maps, they’re pretty hot on maximum elevations in given grid squares – little use on the ground. However, as with the Russian maps, an evening’s close scrutiny sorting out which track might be yours will be profitable. In some instances the ONC or TPC will give an absolutely accurate orientation of a track (Route L1 being a case in point), but most of the time they’re confusing and need to be made sense of with another definitive map. Good things about ONCs and TPCs is that each grid line across the map has an incremental scale of one minute making accurate position-marking easy. The size can be awkward, but the half-million TPCs, make useful ‘master maps’ to mark up and plot your own routes over a large area. They’re certainly not much use for actual desert navigation compared to the Russian and French alternatives. I’m told in the UK TPC/ONC maps are all being phased out and let go by the printer so availability from £7.50 in the UK will be increasingly bad or prints of scans will get expensive. See what you can download here (not all listed).
Scale 1:2 million
These maps combine out-of-date information with an insufficiently large-scale to be useful for desert navigation while being a bit of a red herring as they’re hard to find. At 1:2 million they cover the same area as an ONC but at half the size and without the aeronautical claptrap. They’re not really much use on the piste, with detail in ‘non-British’ regions much patchier than Sheet 9, ‘Dakhla Oasis’ (the Libyan Desert). Here the intimate British knowledge of the region dating back to the Bagnold era is evident with heart-warming detail totally absent further west: ‘Soft ground’, ‘Dunes difficult to cross’, ‘Soft clays, Wellingtons advisable’. It even describes the Darb el Arbain caravan route coming up for Sudan (the ‘Forty Days Road’) as ‘Camel route 1 mile wide marked with camel bones’. Now you know. In the same series I’ve come across one million MoD maps from the fifties (pretty rare) which, as far as readability goes, show what a good job IGN did at the same scale without needing eyes like an owl. For Sahara map collectors only. Hard to find in the UK and rare in Europe.
Survey of Egypt
Mid-1930s to mid-1970s
These maps were originally drawn for the Survey of Egypt in the 1930s by Clayton, with a few details added by Bagnold and Almasy, and are still in print. The relevant sheets for the Western and Libyan Deserts are ‘Siwa’, ‘Farafra’, ‘Dakhla’ ,’Uweinat‘ (biggish file), ‘Qena’ and ‘Aswan’. The now unavailable Uweinat sheet dates from 1942 is very good, with neat contour colours and quite accurate. The Dakhla sheet has inferior printing and the newer editions get progressively worse. In this region you’re better off with Russian maps (see above) and maybe a TPC H4-C for back-up and marking. If it hasn’t been ransacked, try and get them from the Egyptian Survey Authority 1, Abdel Salam Aref Square, Orman, Giza (All original good quality Uweinats long sold out).