This is the first post for a new series titled “Navigation Basics”. When learning how to navigate in the wild it is best to start with the basics. Today we will talk about the map.
Maps come in a variety of forms but the two major categories of maps are planimetric and topographic maps. Let us start with Planimetric maps as they are the simplest form of maps and are most often found in guidebooks or park brochures.
Planimetric Maps are flat (2-D) views of the area with points of interest, roads, rivers and trails. These maps are great for simple nature trails or well-established trails, but they do not show changes in elevation which can make a difficult trail look easy, resulting in a not so fun trip.
Best used for: Nature trails and general planning, but not for most wilderness travel
Topographic (Topo) Maps on the other hand are more complex and can be useful once you learn how to properly use them.
The first thing you will notice is that topo maps are more colorful (or shades of black and white) and have contour lines (squiggly lines) overlaying the map. To the trained eye, topo maps offer a 3-D view of the terrain which can prove vital when planning a trip. Topo maps are useful because they give you the physical relief (that is the highs and lows) of the mapped area; they are essential for backcountry navigation. Because topo maps show natural features (peaks, streams, ridge lines, valleys, snowfields, etc) and man-made features (roads, towns, fire towers, etc.) you can easily orient yourself, using these features, to figure out where you are.
Always pack a topographic map for day trips to week-long expeditions even if you are hiking on well-established trails because you never know what might happen out on the trail. If you are only going out for a few days or have a way to recharge your mobile device check out the Tripleblaze Topo app for your Apple or Android smartphone or tablet.
Best used for: Any outdoor activity
Stay tuned for our next Navigation Basics posts as we go over the parts of a topographic map. For more information take a look at post on contour lines.