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by Diane Spicer
It's important to carry either an electronic or paper copy of topographical maps into the area you're hiking through, even if you're on a well marked trail.
Just in case you've never seen one, let's start at the very beginning, with an explanation of the best topo maps for hikers.
Then we'll get into the minutiae of how to interpret the squiggly lines and symbols.
Topographical maps represent the topography of an area.
That's just a fancy way of saying it lays out the features: hills, valleys, ridges, rivers.
A hiker needs to know when there are elevation gains and losses, when there are water crossings, and when a mile will feel longer than a straight line mile on flat surfaces.
Tip: Hikers call these "topo" maps, because it gets tedious to say the whole long name every time.
Here's a good step by step walk through of how to use a topo map as a hiker.
This link (no longer available; looking for something new to share here!) takes you to a great example of elevation changes at Ship Rock, New Mexico.
You will definitely notice a lot of lines, of every shape: straight, crooked, solid, broken.
Because this is New Mexico topo map, brown lines predominate.
Lack of surface water and sparse human activity (roads, buildings) in this area make colors other than brown something you have to hunt for.
Now take a look at this topo map (again, link no longer available) of an entirely different region in Georgia.
Getting the hang of this?
Here's the punch line.
These maps make efficient use of symbols to tell you about the things you'll find as you explore an area.
There might also be a place or feature name near the symbol, giving you even more information that you can use to cross reference on another map.
The scale of the map is also important, giving you information about how to convert inches or centimeters into "real" dimensions such as miles or kilometers.
The only way to get good at reading a topographical map is to practice.
You can download a free one, then write a description of a section of a trail that you see on the map.
What a great way to build or strengthen your hiking skills!
P.S. It's a fun skill to teach kids, who are intuitively drawn to maps, colors and wiggly lines.
In the United States, The USGS provides free downloads of topo maps.
If you'd rather purchase maps, there are several companies that make topographical maps.
To keep your purchased maps safe and dry, use a sturdy map case like this one.
True story: Hikers need maps.
Maps also make great memories when used as wrapping paper for gifts for your trail buddies. Be sure to select a special place with great memories!
If you carry a GPS unit, there are maps already available for your use.
Happy mapping and safe navigating to your favorite outdoor spots.