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In a recent map & compass class, one of my students asked me what maps I carry into the backcountry when hiking or hunting. In this piece, you’ll get all of the info you need to learn what maps to take hiking on your next adventure.

I always carry a Forest Service map of the area I am passing through. Think of this as a regional map that covers a large area; the scale roughly 1:126,000. Though it doesn’t have tremendous detail, this map provides an overview of the main trails and key land features. This is a super planning tool for an outing. The image below represents a fraction of the Deschutes National Forest.

What Maps to Take Hiking
A Forest Service map of the Three Sisters Wilderness. Source: Outdoor Quest

Another option is a map made by mytopo.com. Mytopo is a custom map maker. My personal map covers much of the area, as a Forest Service map would. I selected the scale, coordinate system (e., UTM grid), regular or waterproof paper and land area. My last order (2012) cost roughly $25.00 and arrived in about a week, folded flat like a AAA road map. The quality of the map was excellent.

The reason I carry a map of this scale comes from a lesson I learned during a major wildfire in Oregon. 30 plus backpackers were in the forest when the fire started and all evacuated to escape the fire. In such a situation, it would be nice to know what escape routes are available.

What Maps to Take Hiking

The mapping standard for hikers is the U.S. Geologic Survey’s 7.5 minute topographic map; commonly known as a topo. The scale is 1: 24000. This is the map that was once found in the map cabinet at REI and other major outfitters; not anymore. A topo is rich with details that include elevation contours, trails, symbols and colors. I no longer carry a true topo. A topo just takes up too much room for my needs.

What Maps to Take Hiking
A topographic map. Source: Outdoor Quest

That said, I still have lots of options.

I use mapping software such as National Geographic’s program Topo. The detail is the same as a USGS map. I have produced hundreds of maps such that the cost per map is negligible.

www.mytopo.com offers an online subscription service called Map Pass. It costs $30 per year for as many maps that you can email or print. It’s versatile and offers different scales, coordinate systems and size.

Last fall, I learned of a free online program found at www.caltopo.com. This is another excellent program. There is no manual for the program yet, but it’s pretty straight forward, and you don’t need to be a geek to figure it out. Spend thirty minutes searching and selecting various options – then, print a few maps. I like this program because I can select UTM grid as my coordinate system, and it also offers shaded relief for that 3D look to the printed product. Print quality is excellent.

What Maps to Take Hiking
Caltopo.com Map of Camp Sherman, OR. Source: Outdoor Quest

Gmap4 (www.mappingsupport.com) is another free online program that has been around for a number of years. It’s a great planning tool, but only has an average print capability.

Lastly, do visit the US Forest Service web site at www.fs.fed.us/maps. There are lots of mapping options for hikers. Some maps are free. There are links to other sources as well.

Whether using an online product or software, printing is something I should mention. I generally use basic computer paper for day hikes in mild temperate weather. If there is any chance of rain, I switch to waterproof paper. I found National Geographic’s Adventure or Latitude 26’s paper on Amazon for $25 a box ($1 a sheet) to be quite versatile. My recommendation is to practice first with a piece of copier paper before printing on waterproof paper. If the ink smudges, the paper probably needs to be flipped to the other side, as only one side can be printed. Let it sit a while before stowing or folding. Some products require the use of a laser printer while most of us have ink jets. That’s okay, just be careful of your selection. I have maps in my day pack that I printed several years ago, thus the paper is fairly rugged.

Store maps in either a waterproof case or a ziplock gallon bag. Map cases are very rugged and will hold several maps. Most often I use a ziplock, one gallon food storage bag. I keep it inside my pack.

Should I use one map frequently, I might make one or two copies of the same map. I am fairly rough on my maps and frequent folding/unfolding weakens the paper to an extent. Having an extra map for a friend is a plus, too.

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