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Chris Gore: Outdoors: Maps

I go outdoors a lot, hiking and backpacking, and I typically go off-trail when I do. This is really easy if you know how to use a good map and compass and how to read terrain. If anything it is a lot more dangerous to do the sort of simple day hike most people do, but that isn't the way they see it. Think about it for a minute.

If I am backpacking, I have food, water, water purification systems (plural), a tent, a sleeping bag, extra clothes and extra socks, a well-equipped first-aid kit, knives, some basic tools, some rain gear, at least one topographic map, good compasses (plural), and LOTS of other stuff, most importantly a brain full of useful knowledge. My bag it typically around 50-60 pounds for a multi-day trip. Lots of bad stuff can go wrong and I'll still be okay.

Now imagine this scenario. Instead, I'm some random guy on a Saturday morning. The weather looks nice, in the 70's, and I'm a bit bored."Hey, girlfriend/wife/old-college-buddy, let's go for a hike." So we do. I wear shorts, a t-shirt, gym shoes, and maybe take a water bottle or two and a few snacks. Around noon the weather turns, and some massive storm that the weatherman didn't see comes in. We are on a 7-mile loop trail, somewhere roughly in the middle. We have no rain gear, it's raining and in the 50's or even 40's now, and we decide to take a 'shortcut'. How many people do you suppose die this way every year, only a few miles from their car on a short day hike? So who is the one living on the edge?

That is a story that happens OFTEN in real life, just pay attention to the news. What's even sadder is that it seems most of the time it is some guy and his little kids, when the dad was just trying to show them some beautiful nature.

How to Read Maps

Long story short, if you hike, even just a day hike, take some rain gear and a map and compass, and you need to know how to use them. The best book by far is Be Expert with Map and Compass By Bjorn Kjellstrom, one of the creators of the modern 'Silva-style' protractor compasses. This version has been recently updated by his daughter (he has passed on) and includes information about how to use a GPS with a map and other updates over the older versions. Orienteering is a sport in some countries, and this would be the textbook for Orienteering 101.


What compass do I recommend?

The one I currently use is the Suunto MC-2, and I would recommend getting the Suunto MC-2G Global Compass. It is basically the same, but with a needle that works globally, whereas mine only works on the Northern Hemisphere, and the price difference isn't much. I've been pretty happy with my MC-2 so far, and I've had the same one for about two years now.

I used to use the Silva Ranger 515 CL, but I have had a bubble appear after less than a year with the last one, rendering it useless, so I can't recommend that one anymore.

Topographic Maps

I get my topographic maps from these days, they let you make custom topographic maps for anywhere. I typically get the folded waterproof versions. Also, I've been sharing maps I've already set up already on this site, feel free to use one of those if you like, it'll save you some time setting up a good map for yourself. I'm planning on adding a lot more areas in the future.

Pen and Paper

Don't forget pen and paper! I don't write on my maps, although I know a lot of people do. I tend to visit the same places many times and use the same maps many times, so I don't want to mark the map up. I use a Fisher Space Pen, which is waterproof, and a Rite In The Rain notebook, which is also waterproof, and I keep notes with those.