Your backcountry adventure begins with a map. Whether you are going on a cross-country trip with the family or a backcountry adventure all by yourself, the planning begins with a map. Using a topographic map in combination with some compass skills unlocks endless navigation possibilities. But for trail hiking, a map will do, so let’s start there.
Maps come it all shapes and sizes, and I love them all. Road maps? Yes! I still keep a paper atlas in my vehicle for perusing when others are driving. Wall maps? Yes! I have a few hanging upstairs. I even have a globe. I also have multiple map apps on my phone.
My backpacking equipment begins with my compass and a map. And I know what you are thinking…
You: “But Paul,” you say, “you can use a handheld GPS and not have to worry about navigating. It is called technology. Try it.”
Me: “First of all…”
You: “Wait, I’m not finished. Also, you are old and you need a shower. Okay. Now I’m done.”
To you, I say, first of all, be kind to your elders. Secondly, that smell is not coming from me. Is it? And thirdly, yes, there are really good GPS systems out there. If your GPS is working and you know how to use it, it is hard to get lost. But blindly following a dot on your screen can still get you in a pinch. There is also the potential for dead batteries and a lost satellite signal.
For me, matching a topographic map with your surroundings is fun. Charting a backcountry course and following it is a great challenge, relying on your own skills. My navigation tools start with a map and compass, my preferred method, but I also carry backups. These include a backup map, a phone with a couple hiking apps that track you while in airplane mode, and a GPS watch with topo maps.
Hiking maps range from novelty, to basic trail maps, to topographic maps, to detailed orienteering maps. Choosing the right one for your trip can save you time and it might keep you out of trouble.
If you are hiking in a fairly populated area, where trails are well marked and you might even have a phone signal, then a simple trail map like the free ones available at visitors centers will probably be fine.
If you are heading into the less populated backcountry, even if you are hiking on trails I would recommend a topographic trail map. If you are traveling off trail or bushwacking in the backcountry, you will need a detailed topographic or orienteering map of proper scale.
And if you are hunting for buried treasure, you will need a treasure map like the one shown below.
So you’ve decided a treasure map is nice, but you need a topographic map. When choosing a topographic map, there are a few things to consider: does it cover the area I am going to be hiking ;-), what is the physical size, and what is the scale?
Your map should obviously cover the area you plan to hike but then it should show some of the surrounding area is well, in case you get off track.
National Geographic Trails Illustrated topographic maps, such as the one shown below, are large, colorful and weatherproof. They are printed on both sides and provide a lot of valuable information, such as campsite information and park rules. These maps are great for planning your trip. For navigation in the backcountry, though, they may cover too much area, meaning the scale is too great and there is not much topographic detail, so be careful.
Scale refers to the ratio between two points or features on the map and the actual distance of those same two points in the field. A scale of 1:50,000 means, for example, 1 cm on the map equals approximately 50,000 cm (or 0.5 km) in the field. In simpler terms, how much area does the map show? The smaller the second number in the scale, the more detail your map will have, but the less area it will cover.
Compare the two maps below showing a small section of Voyaguers National Park. The photos show approximately the same area of the park, however the first map is 1:50,000 scale and has much less detail of the topography (the area appears almost flat), while the second map is an approximately 1:24,000 scale map. It shows the many small hills and valleys you will be hiking. This is because the first one has a contour line for every 50 feet of elevation change, while the second one has a contour line for every 10 feet of elevation change, and it paints a better picture of the land.
I once took a “shortcut” (rarely a good idea) and went off trail in Sequoia National Park. It looked pretty straightforward on the 1:50,000 map I was using, but I found my in terrain much steeper than I anticipated. When I reached the ranger station the following day I picked up a 1:24,000 map. The detail it provided would have saved me a lot of grief in this area as well as a few others where I lost the trail on my four day trip. So pay attention to the scale of your map, and one more pro tip here: it is generally more helpful to get your map before your trip, rather than after it.
Scale is usually indicated on the map in the legend area of the map, as shown below. Also in this area is a ruler scale that can be used to estimate the distance on a map in actual miles or kilometers.
When we talk about using a map in combination with a compass, we will discuss declination and how to compensate for it. Declination (or variation) is the difference between true north, which is shown by the north-south lines on your topo map, and magnetic north which drives your compass. But you can ignore declination for now if you are using a map only.
Free, printable maps such as the 1:24,000, such as the one of “Ash River NE, MN” shown previously, can be found at natgeomaps.com. The are colored and show good detail. The are called Quad maps because they break an area into four quadrants and you can print only the quads you need.
Finally, take care or your map. If you print the free quad maps you will need to weatherproof them somehow. An unprotected map will disintegrate quickly in foul weather. But even a weatherproofed map should not be used to keep popcorn in a hot air popper, as seen below.
Now I’m off to Voyageurs National Park for a few days!