This is Part I of a series on the characteristics of an Expert Navigator. Read the Introduction. More installments are forthcoming.
Every “Ten Essentials” list I’ve seen has included a map and compass, and modern versions sometimes also include a GPS. If only the first characteristic of an expert navigator — being equipped with proper tools — were that simple and absolute.
In fact, the tools I bring — and to what degree I rely on them — changes, depending primarily on three factors:
- Route conspicuousness
- Topographic relief
Here is an example: for a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail — which features a well-worn footpath, reliable signage, abundant alpine terrain and open woodlands, topographically distinct landforms, and ample sunshine — I am comfortable with just overview maps (e.g. 1:100,000 scale), though I like to have a watch and databook, too. However, for the Sierra High Route, a mostly off-trail route that parallels the JMT, I add detailed maps (e.g. 1:24,000) and a magnetic compass, the latter of which I typically only use in rare moments when the topography is cryptic or the visibility is reduced.
Ultimately, my purpose in carrying navigational tools is to have and gather information that will help me confirm:
- Where I have been
- Where I am, and
- Where I am going.
In this post I will describe my typical kit for a navigationally challenging route, and in Part II of this series I will discuss what you should know about these tools and their uses.
I carry two sets of maps: an overview set and a detailed set.
At home, I use this set to plan the broad outlines of my intended route and my backup/emergency routes, and to better understand the route’s logistical implications in regards to transportation, permits, resupply, etc. In the field, I use this set when I detour off of my intended route and detailed maps, or when I’m curious about distant features.
Maps suitable for overview purposes for trips in the lower 48 are available from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), specifically the 30×60 minute series, which is printed at 1:100,000 scale. However, where available I prefer to use recreation maps from organizations like National Geographic Trails Illustrated, Tom Harrison Maps, and the Appalachian Mountain Club. These maps — which are based on USGS topographic data — are updated more regularly and they contain more information than the USGS maps do, such as official trails and trailheads, designated backcountry campsites and zones, land management boundaries, and visitor services like entrance stations, information centers, and locations of food and lodging.
The gold standard for topographic maps of the lower 48 is the 7.5 minute series from the USGS. Each map (aka “quadrangles” or “quads”) — of which there are about 55,000 — covers about 8.5 miles of latitude (top to bottom) and 5.5-7.5 miles of longitude (left to right) at a scale of 1:24,000, usually with 40-foot contours.
At home, I use my detailed maps to plan my route exactly, since I can obtain more accurate distances and better proof of a route’s feasibility than I can with my overview set. In the field, I use the detailed maps for micro-level navigation, campsite selection, water planning, etc.
The exception: Alaska
The specifications of USGS maps of Alaska are different than those for the lower 48. For my overview set, I use the 1:250,000 series, which has 250-foot contours. For my detailed set, I use the 15 minute series, which is printed at 1:62,500, or nearly one inch to the mile (1:63,360, since there are 63,360 inches in a mile). The compression of topographic data on these maps relative to their lower 48 equivalents is offset by the immensity of Alaska: the scales and contour intervals are proportionally appropriate for terrain features that are magnitudes bigger than those found in the lower 48.
Purchasing and printing
When available, I purchase printed recreation maps from online vendors like Amazon or locally from outdoor retailers like REI. If I need just a small portion of a Trails Illustrated map, I can get this particular data with my AllTrails.com PRO online subscription and print it locally.
Rather than purchase individual 7.5 minute and 30×60 minute printed maps for my entire route, I get better results — for lower cost — by using desktop software or online mapping platforms to create customized maps, and then printing them via FedEx Office on 11×17 sheets. My preferred system is still National Geographic TOPO! State Series, which was discontinued in 2012; the functionality of its online replacement, AllTrails.com, is rapidly catching up, in addition to offering new features. CalTopo.com is also worth checking out.
For more information about map printing, read this post: Creating and printing a custom mapset with TOPO!
During my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I didn’t have or need a compass of any type. Thankfully most routes are not so navigationally mind-numbing.
For routes with at least moderate compass work, I prefer a model with adjustable declination and a global needle, such as the Suunto M-3 Global Pro; the extra weight and bulk of a sighting mirror is rarely worth the additional precision. Once I adjust my compass, I no longer have to think about declination when finding or applying bearings in the field — it’s not complicated, but my bandwidth may be better applied elsewhere or may be limited at the end of a long day. In addition to being functional anywhere in the world, a compass with a global needle does not need to be held perfectly flat to rotate smoothly and to be accurate, allowing me to navigate while moving.
Even on routes that entail less compass work, I sometimes need to find north (in order to orient myself and/or my map) or to take some rough bearings. For these applications, I am comfortable using a basic baseplate compass like the Suunto A-10, the digital compass on my Suunto Core watch, or even a keychain compass.
If you have a watch that tells time, it will work for a backpacking trip. Hopefully, however, it is easy to read (big numbers, positive display, and backlight), resistant to scratching, and not your “dressy” watch.
A stopwatch feature is unnecessary though useful, especially if you don’t care to record times in your head or on your map, or if you are hiking with a group that stops incessantly even between known points.
An altimeter, with which I can confirm my elevation even when I am not at a known point on my map, is most useful in topographically featured areas — think Colorado, not Kansas. While there are lightweight and inexpensive analog altimeters available, I prefer a digital altimeter watch like the Suunto Core, which is a smaller, lighter, and more easily accessible solution. Altimeter watches are available for as little as $75, but I would recommend a model with proven accuracy and with added features like history graphs and a weather indicator.
Call me old school, but I shun handheld GPS units like the Garmin eTrex series. Every operation that can be done on a GPS, I can do with map and compass, a system that has the added perks of being lighter, less expensive, more reliable (less susceptible to breaking or soaking, or running out of batteries), and substantially more eye-friendly than a 2.2-inch low-resolution screen.
Increasingly, however, I am in favor of bringing a GPS-enabled smartphone (e.g. iPhone) with apps like Gaia GPS and US Topo Maps, which offer offline viewing of USGS topographic maps and other layers. In the unlikely scenario where I’m utterly confused about my location or need pinpoint coordinates, I can use this device to “find myself.” More likely, if I have to detour dramatically off my intended route and off of both my detailed and overview map sets, I will still have maps — albeit viewable only on a 4-inch screen and pending remaining battery life — so long as I downloaded adjacent map tiles before the trip.
I rely on myriad resources — including guidebooks (plus online map-based guides like the High Sierra Map), databooks, online trip reports, community forums, government databases, and knowledgeable locals — in planning my trip. To avoid carrying a library of scattered resources in my backpack, I consolidate the information into three formats:
- A databook, which lists distances between key landmarks, the cumulative distance of the route, and perhaps corresponding map and guidebook segments;
- Overlaid notes on my maps, made with a note-making tool, to provide short location-specific information, e.g. “Go east around lake. Impassable cliffs on west shore,” and “Cathedral Peak Pass (Class II): easy walk-up on south side; steep talus for first 250 feet on north side.”
- A custom guidebook, where I have ample space to include more information about my route, town services, trail angels, and more.