by Diane Spicer
Hiking trail maps: this topic opens up an entire universe of options for a hiker.
If you're not using maps for your trail time, you're missing out on a lot of fun.
Plus, it's a Hiking Best Practice to know where you are, where you're headed, and what the terrain is like.
Investing a bit of time BEFORE you hit the trail will yield amazing dividends ON the trail - and just might become your new hobby.
As a hiker, you can look at maps simply for the type of information they give you, and choose accordingly.
Examples of maps you might need as you travel to a trail head and tackle a hike:
As a hiker, you need to decide whether to carry old school physical paper maps, or to use digital maps downloaded from the internet to your cell phone or GPS device.
Using both on a straightforward day hike might be overkill.
But if you're in unfamiliar territory or on a backpacking trip where the chance of losing the trail is not zero, it's a smart idea to have backup.
Redundancy for hiking navigation is a smart idea, and shows that you're a prepared outdoors person.
There are 3 ways to use maps at home:
And I'm guessing you know how you'll be using maps on the trail ;)
Maps are created to share a story with you.
Be sure you speak the mapmaker's language so you can squeeze every last drop of information out of a map.
The scale of a map will change according to who made it and how it's used, so be sure you're dialed into the numbers.
Scale is the relationship between map distance (two dimensional) and actual distance(three dimensions) on the ground.
Maps have symbolic representations to convey meaning to you before you lay eyes on the land.
Symbols will tell you whether a feature is human built, like roads, buildings, dams, airstrips versus a natural feature: water, hills, plains, valleys, mountains.
For more information on map symbols, go here.
To see topographic map symbols and a key to their meaning, use this free USGS download.
Hikers rely upon "topo" maps for navigation across the features of the land as the trail wanders up and over hills, valleys, ridges, passes, and water crossings.
You’ll notice the contour lines right away. They connect points of equal elevation (every point along that line is at the same elevation).
There are free United States topographical hiking maps, available for instant download and printing thanks to the taxpayers. These provide detailed information on contours and land features.
If you'd rather have someone else do the work to create customized, waterproof topo (a handy shorthand for the long word of topographical) maps, try these folks.
They also have a nice selection of map software, and I'll bet they can recommend something that's a good match for your hiking navigation.
One more nice feature on their website: free online map viewing.
Warning: You can spend a lot of time playing around, creating hiking maps for your next adventure on this site!
Flat maps, folded maps, downloadable maps...
these little topographical gems deserve a spot in your backpack.
They are indispensable in so many ways:
Here's an example of the wealth of info which is available to you.
Make sure you have a waterproof map case to protect your investment.
Inexpensive U.S. Forest Service maps shows numbered roads, trails, trail heads, and campgrounds.
You'll be amazed at how quickly your map collection grows as your appetite for outdoor time increases! You might have to build a special map repository in your gear locker!
The U.S. Department of the Interior (love that name!! I wonder who's in charge of the exterior??) is overseeing (and I quote):
They also have loads of maps that you can use to plan some great backcountry travels.
You'll have to poke around a bit to get to the state, and the area within that state, that you're interested in.
But again, prepare to get lost in a wealth of free and low cost information!
Pick a state.
Put that state's name in front of the words "Department of Natural Resources."
Use your favorite search engine to locate some great info, including maps, about hiking opportunities.
Here's an example: Michigan's Department of Natural Resources.
The home page gives me a wealth of choices, but I go straight to the good stuff by typing "hiking maps" in the search box.
Lo and behold, I find a sweet little map and info on the Iron Belle Trail, which can take your feet from Detroit up into the Upper Peninsula. All the way across the U.P., in fact!
There are lots of other choices on the Michigan DNR site, too, like state parks and mushroom hunting maps.
All sorts of options for a great day outdoors, yours for the clicking.
How many national parks are there in the United States?
Ha! Trick question!
If you count everything with a "national" in front of it, there are around 390.
If you just focus on National Parks, the number drops to 60.
And here's a great site for locating all kinds of maps for these parks. Just pick the state you're interested in, and drill down.
So much information!! So many trails and so little time...sigh.
Why not use the highest level of technology available to plan your next hiking adventure?
Explore Flash Earth now!
Since you're geeking around, you might as well try out this site: National Geospacial Program from the U.S. Geological Survey.
It gives you the ability to customize a map, adding or subtracting features such as:
and lots of other things a hiker might like to find (or avoid).
If you carry your cell phone with you when you hike, why not load it up with an app that lets you navigate, record your location and progress, and share hikes with other hikers?
Apps to try:
If you decide to use your cell phone with an app as a navigation tool on your hike, maximize your battery life.
Start with a fully charged unit, and then:
If you stick to well marked trails and never consider carrying hiking trail maps, you're missing out on a lot of fun.
You might have hiked within a few hundred yards of a great little lake, or a waterfall you could have had all to yourself for the afternoon.
Maybe there's an abandoned mine site you could explore, or the ruins of a homestead.
And wouldn't it be cool to know ahead of time where you could climb a hill to get a better view?
Now that you know how many miles you're going to cover, why not verify it with a pedometer?
I review a simple, lightweight device here that does double duty as a fitness tracker: calories, food, sleep, motivation.
Or look through your options available at REI Co-op: Fitbit, Garmin, Suunto and more.
The reason I recommend using a separate, reliable device?
It makes the symbols on a piece of paper (i.e. a hiking map) come alive in a new dimension.
The best hiking maps are easy to use, portable, weather resistant, and fold up quickly!
Don't leave home without one.
Start your hunt for the best hiking trail maps right now, using my tips.
Just think of the places you'll go (to channel a bit of Dr. Seuss, who would have made an excellent hiker).
And a map annex in your dwelling is a really cool notch in your hiking tool belt.
Trust me...you're gonna love being a map aficionado.
Hiking Trail Maps
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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