How to Find Your Way in the Backwoods
Serious hikers use topo maps, or more precisely topographical maps. According to Webster, topography refers to an artistic depiction of a land surface or location. This artistic depiction occurs in the form of contour lines which indicate such land features as differing elevations, lakes, rivers, and forested areas as well as cities and towns.
Why do I Need a Topo Map?
A street map will get you from your home to the trail head. A trail map will get you from the trail head to the end of the trail and back again. A topo map will chart your course off trail or when the trail is obscured.
If you take a wrong turn on a wildlife path that seems to be your chosen trail and wander far from your intended trail before you realize it, you may become lost. Your trail map will not be able to show you the way back. However, once you realize that you are lost and pull out your trusty topo map, you can easily identify your visible surrounding hills, valleys, streams, rivers, etc., plot your proximity to those identified geographic features and find your way back to your intended course.
What Do the Different Colors Stand For?
- Black indicates man-made features such as buildings and roads, surveyed elevations, and labels
- Red indicates paved roads, highways, main roads and populated areas
- Orange indicates unpaved roads
- Brown indicates contour lines and elevations
- Blue indicates water features such as lakes, swamps, rivers, and drainage
- Green indicates areas of significant vegetation such as forested areas, orchards and vineyards
Occasionally, you will see other colors which indicate special information. For instance, grey is often used on the back of the map and gives a glossary of terms and abbreviations. Purple is sometimes used to show information updated from the original map detail.
Why the Grid?
Grids on topo maps are used to precisely pinpoint a location on the surface of the Earth or on a map sheet. This is done by the use of parallel, intersecting lines forming a grid pattern on the map sheet.
There are two units of measurement to determine the grid pattern:
- Geographic (longitude/latitude)
- Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM)
Geographic coordinates will correspond with any GPS system that you may be using.
I Have a GPS, Do I Need a Topographical Map?
GPS systems are great resources and fun to use. However, they are electronic gadgets and are subject to failure due to weather conditions, battery failure and breakage.
GPS systems use geographic or longitude and latitude measurements gained from satellites in orbit over the Earth. They coordinate well with topo maps.
It is my highest recommendation that you learn to use topo maps and carry them regularly. Using your GPS system can decrease the learning curve of using maps. You simply plot your location on the map sheet, flip on your GPS and see how precise you were.
How Do I Use a Topographical Map?
As with any new skill, using topo maps takes practice. It is best to start using them on well marked trails. This will provide the opportunity to chart your position frequently and make mistakes without becoming lost. As mentioned above, combining the use of maps and a GPS system shortens the learning curve.
To find your position on the map sheet, look around you for geographic indicators: Is there a steep hill in view? What about a water source? Is there a clearing or area of dense vegetation? Orient your map sheet to correlate with what you see.
For instance: (1) there is a steep hill to my left. Look on the map for contour lines that begin farther apart and become closer and closer together indicating a steep grade. Orient this part of the map sheet so that it is on your left. (2) I see a lake straight ahead of me. Look on the map sheet and find the blue area indicating a body of water. Orient the map sheet until the hill is on your left and the water source is in front of you. Continue to identify geographic features and relate your map sheet accordingly.
You can even identify the direction of flow of a creek based on what you see on your map sheet. Look at a blue line indicating a creek or river. Notice that the brown contour lines come to a “v” at the water source. The point of the “v” points upstream. This can be very useful in orienting your map sheet properly.
Where Do I Get a Map for My Next Hike?
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) provides accurate maps for the entire contiguous United States. The National Topographic System (NTS) provides map sheets for all of Canada. Topographical maps are available for virtually anywhere on Earth that you wish to travel and are easily accessible on the internet.
With a little practice you can quickly become proficient at reading topo maps. Make it a game. On your next hike, order a map and plot your position frequently. Flip on your GPS (if you have one) and see how close you are.
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