How Many Maps?

11:05 a.m. on July 6, 2009 (EDT)
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122 forum posts

My son and I backpacked the Vesuvius Backpack Trail @ Wayne National Forest this past weekend. I brought a map of the trail that I purchased from a third-party, and for the most part, the map and accompanying trail notes were very helpful.

However, one thing I discovered is that the map did not show all the trails (horse trails, other hiking trails) that crossed or were near the backpacking trail. This led to some confusion and a long "excursion" on another trail. I guess if I were good at reading maps, the excursion could have been avoided altogether, but I find it frustrating that backpacking maps don't include the presence of other trails that are either nearby or cross the trail.

When we got home, I checked the WNF web site for their map, and they do show the horse trails and the backpacking trail, but they don't show other nearby hiking trails. I found another map of the same area, and that map showed the other trails, but not the horse trails or the backpacking trails. In other words, there was no comprehensive map of all the trails. I find this problematic.

Has anyone else experienced this on their trips?

11:47 a.m. on July 6, 2009 (EDT)
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Everyone that makes maps does it differently, I have some maps that have mostly foot trails and a few canoe trails and I have some from the same company and same area that are just the opposite. You just need to look around before hand for the map you need. But it is a pain in the butt when the trail your on isn't on the map you have.

12:24 p.m. on July 6, 2009 (EDT)
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You have encountered a standard property of maps - inaccuracy and incompleteness. Basically, you just have to build your map and navigation skills and deal with it (you could have taken my "Finding Your Way" land navigation workshop at the end of last month and gotten instruction and hands-on experience ;) )

This is something that people who have less than a couple dozen hikes and less than 4 or 5 years regular hiking experience discover to their dismay, and sometimes discover the hard way by getting thoroughly lost.

Basic fact - there is no such thing as a complete, thoroughly up to date, fully detailed map. Even satellite and aerial photos go out of date quickly and in snow areas are incomplete seasonally. The most complete and accurate maps in the world, the USGS topographic 7.5' quads, have lots of errors and omissions, and in some cases are sadly out of date.

There are several reasons for this. First and most obvious is that things change - trails are abandoned, new trails are built, game trails become more prominent, "social" trails are built up over time (especially by mountain bikers who decide to go off-trail, but also by hikers taking "shortcuts" and "herb farmers" going to their concealed "farms"). In winter, snow covers trails, and with seasonal vegetation changes, trails are concealed, then revealed.

A second reason is that features are included or omitted according to the purpose of the map, something you discovered. An equestrian map will show permitted or recommended horse trails, a mountain biking map will show trails open to mountain bikes (and in ski resorts that have summer mountain biking programs, will show the ski runs and cat tracks that are open to bikers), hiking trails will show the authorized hiking trails (and often omit maintenance roads, which don't always have signs saying "maintenance road, do not enter"), and nature and historical trails will show only the trail of interest (with the important signs and points to be explained marked).

A third, and very important, reason is that you cannot put every single detail on the map sheet, because trying to do so would clutter the map to illegibility. So the map will be "simplified". Even orienteering maps, which include the more prominent boulders, rocky ground, fallen logs, "root stocks", stumps, and shallow reentrants (a "reentrant" is basically a gully, with some being barely noticeable to the inexperienced), omit a lot of fine detail.

Something that adds to the confusion for the less experienced is that a lot of maps, especially the "free" handout maps, are over-simplified, with the difficulty of interpretation being exacerbated by being variable scale from one part of the map to another.

A basic skill that comes only with experience (sometimes experience in the particular part of the country or even the particular hiking area) is recognizing when that trace is the main hiking trail, a game trail that is heavily used ("game trail" includes livestock trails in some areas where grazing is allowed), a "social" trail, or an abandoned trail (some "abandoned" trails are in better condition than the trail that replaced them). In some areas which have hardy grasses and/or lots of rain, the "main" trail can appear to just be a grassy area (a recent episode of "Expedition Africa" showed the group getting confused in just such an area). There is a marked trail in the Big Sur area that gets overgrown during every winter rainy season with the bushes (mostly manzanita and coyote brush, but a lot of poison oak as well) to the point that the official trail is difficult to recognize if you don't know what to look for, but the game trails that crisscross the area look like the official trail.

The skill you want to develop is mostly recognizing what the trail you want looks like and differentiating it from game trails. Part of this is the configuration of the trail and "staying in touch with the map". This means keeping track of the wiggles in the trail, stream crossings, distance you have traveled (maybe using pace counting), surrounding landmarks, and so on. If the map is not to scale or is some sort of "perspective view" chart (as ski resort maps often are), this gets a bit challenging.

But do keep in mind that maps are always inaccurate, incomplete, and out of date (even with satellite and aerial photography, the USGS requires a couple decades to update its excellent topographic maps). Sometimes using satellite and aerial photos (e.g., Google) helps, but photo-interpretation is a skill that demands a lot of training to do properly, especially in heavily vegetated areas (around here, it is hard to see even paved roads under the heavy redwood canopy that covers the Santa Cruz Mountains in aerial and satellite photos). Work on your skills in navigating without aid of maps, compass, and electronic widgets.

Takes practice, but it is doable, and most of all, it is a lot of fun!

10:51 p.m. on July 6, 2009 (EDT)
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Don't feel bad tbastress, I have done it too!

One of my favorite trails on the Cumberland Plateau Escarpment in Tennessee is the Stevenson Trail. The trail winds through a steep river gorge that is cut in the edge of the plateau and is surrounded by cliffs. It is a watershed pocket wilderness.

Well it seems that the gorge is the easiest route from the plateau to the valley floor and vice versa. The Indians originally cut the trail (my opinion) although I'm sure some white guy takes credit for it. The place is full of pottery, arrowheads, caves, rock niches, and game trails!

My first hike into the gorge was so great! I was almost speechless until I noticed I wasn't seeing blazes anymore.

I was on a trail...I had not turned....what happened I thought?

Well, I was on a trail, a game trail! The trail I was supposed to be on took a sharp left turn and started a descent to the river below and I had just kept walking straight. A couple years later I almost did it again! Darn deer.

I have often wondered if maybe the game trail is a better way to do the descent or if it goes off somewhere else, maybe someday I'll find out.

The thing is some game trails change every year from what I've seen, so no way to map them. But they are usually quite a bit narrower than people trails. Maybe the deer wonder why we take the hard way?

11:00 p.m. on July 6, 2009 (EDT)
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Yup, happened to me too. Living in the desert, Google Earth really helps, since all out trails aren't hidden by trees. :-)

12:24 a.m. on July 18, 2009 (EDT)
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10 forum posts

Hello trebastress-
Good question for an important topic.

The USGS Quad topo map at 1:24,000 scale is the gold standard in the United States. There are over 1,900 of these maps for the State of Oregon. They cost about $7.00 at special stores or from the USGS. Buy only the map or two you need for your hikes and backpacks this year

Quad topo maps are as accurate as you can get with elevation and features accurate to a few feet. The paper is very high quality, but must be folded "correctly" to fit in a baggie to go in your pocket.

These quad maps have a fine lined small size even size grid imprinted there-on or you must draw in your own grid in #2 pencil using the light blue grid marks along the edges of the maps. This UTM grid enables you to find your exact location within a few meters by eye or a little plastic scale using the coordinants given by any GPS. (You must cjhange your GPS preferences from the default lat/lon to the prefered UTM grid and NAD27 Datum to match the USGS Quad map.)

The Quads were made 20 years ago or more and have not been updated (except for highways, etc.) since they were published. There is no economic return to updating the maps since they are only used (purchased) by folks who know what you now know.

Latitude and Logitude are fine for boaters and pilots but not for human pwered folks. (How far is a "second"? I rest my case.)

Since maps are so inexpensive, you could buy some of the special maps you really want: for horsemen, OHVers, fishers, skiers, PCTers, etc. Few, if any, of these privatly published maps have the UTM grid imprinted (with lines or do it yourself tick marks). A serious fault if you use a GPS.

Today's GPS recievers are very fast, accurate to 4.1 meters and can bring you back to camp in a snow storm of dead of night. The Garmin eTrex H costs $99.00 and the fancy Garmin eTrex Vista HC costs about $175.00 including a cable to your computer. (Always carry extra batterys so you can smile when your friend says "And what if the batteris die??"). Google "best GPS for backcountry and mountaineering"

You also need a declination adjustable base plate compass like the Suunto M3 compass for about $25. With this type of compass you can answer your friend when he says "But the GPS only gives you a straigh line back to camp! What good is that??" You can use this compass on the Quad map to draw a line back to camp and then see how to best get back to camp on trails and ways. Google "best compass for backcountry and mountaineering" to learn more.

That's about $136.00 for state of the art navigation tools! Google the three words "map, compass and GPS" to learn more.

9:52 p.m. on July 20, 2009 (EDT)
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Trad guy:

There are a few things you missed. USGS maps are accurate to 1/50 inch for "surveyed points". This is 40 feet. Elevations are plotted to 1/2 contour interval for "surveyed points" (which is typically 20 feet, but can be 2.5 feet or 100 feet depending on the map). This is from the "Accuracy Standards" publication of the USGS.

As for coordinate systems, all coordinate systems were made by humans (contrary to your assertion, sailors are human, too). A coordinate system is just an address system is, nothing more. You say "humans" have problems with degrees-minutes-seconds. Do humans have problems with hours-minutes-seconds (turns out these are closely linked)? How about miles-yards-feet? The Brits worked with pounds-shilling-pence for centuries.

On the backpacker's scale of map, the lat-lon grid is rectangular everywhere on Earth except at the poles. UTM, on the other hand, has significant discontinuities every 100 (or less) kilometers in the E-W direction (by the way, how many Americans are familiar with the metric system?). Look at the coordinates at the zone boundaries (in Calif, there is a zone boundary right at the part of the Sierra that gets lots of backpacking).

The point here is that every coordinate system is easily learned (even the State Grid Systems and the Range-Township that is marked on every USGS map in the 30, 15, and 7.5 min series). UTM (and MGRS) are neither easier nor harder than lat-lon, at least if you are used to working in a decimal system and have a hard time reading a clock.

Oh, a second is 100 feet in latitude, since a minute is 1 mile (nautical). In longitude, if you use 80 ft for a second, you will be close enough anywhere in the lower 48.

8:19 p.m. on July 21, 2009 (EDT)
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I still use the USGS 7.5 topos, I order them online and map seal them, make my own reference marks etc. I have learned a lot about mapping software here on Trailspace, but for some reason I just like the larger USGS quads.

I use both Lat / Lon and UTM. I didn't find the terminology in either one to be difficult really. Some people do seem to gravitate towards UTM because they already know how far a meter is I think.

Seconds, minutes, meters, kilometers, klicks, and other terms have always made me curious to find out what they mean.

A klick is slang for a kilometer or .62 miles.

11:38 p.m. on July 21, 2009 (EDT)
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204 forum posts

maps? what are those?? I just follow the slosh of mud.....

12:20 a.m. on July 22, 2009 (EDT)
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This why I like i can download and copy/print any map of anywhere in the USA,Hawaii and Alaska in a 1/6000 to1/200,000 scale, plus color Aerial photos, Aerial/topo mix images and can route out my topos with marker flags, route lines, etc. Its still only $19.95 a year, I have been using them for 5 years.

November 27, 2015
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