10 Essentials – Navigation

Alone, scared in the failing sunlight, with pine trees so heavy overhead that any moonlight there was going to be tonight would never make it to the ground. Cutting through thick brush, and not a clue which direction the car is, scrambling to find some landmark before the light fails completely.

Why Maps

We have all gone on day hikes and not bothered with a map, most trails are so easy to follow there seems no need to lug around a map and compass.  The other side of the coin is the trips where you do bring navigation in the form of a GPS or map downloaded to a cell phone. The unfortunately reality is that once you lose the trail, having no map is bad, having no compass as well is even worse.  The cell phone you have in your pocket might work, but there are many things which can interfere with GPS reception.  All in all, the low tech solution ends up being the most reliable. That brings up the question of where to even get maps.

Map Providers

The United States Geological Survey, or USGS is the official map maker of the United States, and they make some very good maps.  What is even better is that for trip planning purposes, many of their high quality topographic maps are available to download for free, and can be printed on regular paper.

The downside to the USGS maps is that many of them are old, and they aren’t necessarily focused on being made for hikers, backpackers, or adventurers.  Fortunately, there are two other major players we can turn to who make maps available for purchase on water-resistant, rip resistant paper: Tom Harrison and National Geographic.  I own a few of the National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps (and no, I don’t get paid to promote them), and have found them to be very high quality maps.  The Tom Harrison maps I have heard many good things about, but haven’t found good availability of them for the areas I have been interested in purchasing.


So, here I am saying go out and spend $10-20 on paper maps and the year is what, 2015? Surely GPS must be good enough, right? 99 out of 100 times I would fully agree that GPS not only is good enough, but probably is better than a paper map.  The problem is that 1 out of 100 times where you are lost in the Sierra high country and between the huge winter storm rolling and the peaks towering above you, your GPS can’t get an exact fix. Having a paper map you can pull out and get a good feel for where exactly you need to go can save your life. I’m certainly not against GPS, the GPX tracks of many of the hikes I’ve done in the past are embedded in the trail guides on this site, but it is important to understand the limitations of the technology.

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