While regularly overlooked, navigation is just one of the Ten Essentials list because that a reason. Acquisition the vital time to look at a map before heading out on trace can help you assess and plan because that what is ahead, and also it can potentially conserve your life. Understanding the an easy elements the a map deserve to empower you to stay found, and also know what"s about you together you navigate safely from allude A to suggest B when on trail. 


The most frequently used trail maps are topographic maps, frequently referred to as topo maps. These maps show thorough information about a region"s geographical features. Topo maps can point out areas of attention and carry out hikers through insights top top what to expect. 

Studying this maps, allows hikers and also backpackers to spatially orientate us to the surrounding environments, making it possible for them come navigate their way through different types of terrain.

Understanding exactly how to usage topographic attributes such as contour lines, scale and also symbology are an important to navigating if on trail.

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Contour Lines

It is vital to do the distinction between referral maps and navigational topographic maps. Recommendation maps are beneficial for preparation yet not constantly the best resource for navigation.

Contour lines and detailed symbology room what different topographic maps from referral maps. A contour by definition is a line attracted on a map that joins clues of same height over sea level.

These lines allow the map leader to visualize hills, slopes, and also mountains in three-dimension. The closer these lines room together, the steeper the slope. Frequently every fifth line ~ above a topographic map is bolder than the others, this are dubbed Index Lines, they suggest elevation worths to the map reader. To recognize the adjust in elevation between individual lines, take it a look at the legend.Most map legend"s usage a contour interval the 40ft or 80ft, meaning elevation separation between each heat is either 40ft or 80ft.

Scanned topographic map image showing contour lines and bolded index lines. 



A typical map range according to USGS is 1:24,000. The an initial value "1", represents your unit the measurement, which is 1 inch in the U.S. The second value "24,000" shows your ground distance, every 1 inch on a map is tantamount to 24,000 customs in the real world application, which amounts to 2,000 ft. That is important to keep in mind the a map v a smaller scale will display a smaller area however in much more detail. On the various other hand, a map through a bigger scale lets just say 1:69500, will display a bigger area the the same an ar in far less detail.

Scale bar v contour term measurements.



Symbology refers to exactly how all the features and also details within a map room represented and also labeled. Maps use what is dubbed vector data to classify details into points, lines, and also polygons. To put this into perspective, a campsite is regularly symbolized v a point, rivers and also trials are symbolized by lines and parcels of land room symbolized through polygons. These features are identified in the legend by miscellaneous lines, colors, and also symbols.


Map legend displaying features and also details. 

“Using these facility skills of traditional navigation can lug a deep feeling satisfaction. An ext importantly, detect your means in the backcountry through a map, altimeter and compass calls for a situational awareness that only originates from keen observation and also visceral feel for the landscape.” - Steve McClure

Some might think print maps space a thing of the previous when contrasted to contemporary GPS technology, however it"s always recommended to have actually a printed map and also a compass. Friend never recognize when your GPS might run the end of battery or even break. The good thing about print maps is lock don"t make friend reliant top top battery life and also they won"t break, specifically if you are using a Green Trails Map. Best practice is to double up with print and also digital.

Practice renders Perfect

Before heading the end on the trail, use a map to exercise familiarizing yourself through the terrain. Here space three points to exercise doing:

Practice utilizing contour lines - This will assist you recognize the different trail sections and whether you will certainly be scrambling up a hill ridge or jaunting with a dense forest. 
It"s also lucrative to look earlier at a lengthy day of long walking to calculation your full elevation gain. Understanding range better - using your compass leaf or item of string, you deserve to calculate how much away your campsite is from the start of the trailhead.Identify referral points - using the map legend to determine campsites, ranger stations, and lookouts, will permit you come orientate yourself an ext easily while on the trail. It might save friend time and a headache follow me the way.

Hiker methods using a topographic map and also compass. Photograph by Erika Haugen-Goodman

While ~ above Trail...

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Campsites, flow crossings, and also trail junctions space all great places to situate yourself top top the map, as they are typically well marked. During this time the is necessary to questioning yourself questions like:

Where is the nearest ranger station? Is there a flow I have to cross ahead?How far is the next water source?How numerous miles to my following campsite?When is sundown?

Having a simple understanding of exactly how to read a map will allow you come answer these questions and also more, helping you on your method to gift a smarter hiker.

Image that a backpacker cross a stream. Picture by Scott Franz

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Digital & interactive Maps the Washington

Hiker using GaiaGPS app. Picture by Erika Haugen-Goodman