Mapping Routes

Apr 2, 2021 | Planning

I never go into any adventure without some kind of map. To do so is too reckless for my risk profile; I like to be able to leave a map with my emergency contact, and I like to have a map on my phone for using a gps ping to make sure I’m heading in the right direction. I have taken a course on using a map and compass from REI, and I have plans to start learning the art of orienteering. To say that I love maps would be an understatement.

It can be daunting to decide which maps to use though. Books can be a good resource for getting an overview of a route but they should never be your final map option. They can be outdated and vague in their route descriptions. I like to use books to get ideas about where to go, but then I will dig into the local maps when doing my actual planning. Douglas Lorain is a go-to on big route ideas for the Pacific Northwest.

When I first started hiking locally, I purchased a lot of the National Geographic maps. While they make for getting a great overview of an area, I rarely use them now as they lack distances between points. Knowing how far you have to travel between trail intersections is very useful in knowing where you are.

In the Pacific Northwest, my favorite paper maps are the Green Trails maps. Well marked with distances, points of interest, land ownership and permit information, the Green Trails maps are up to date and should be a go to resource for adventure planning in the area. They are available at REI and online. I will often take a paper Green Trails map as a backup to online maps.

I swear by online mapping now. I use Gaia GPS for mapping my routes before I go. They have dozens of map layers that can help you get a feel for where you are going – USGS, Open Hiking, National Geographic – as well as snow depth, wildfire (current and historic), cell coverage, hunting zones and more. You can dig as deep as you want on a route. You can also save it to your phone and download your maps locally so that when you are on a trail and out of cell range, you can still pinpoint where you are and where the trail map is indicated. This has saved my bacon several times when I have not been sure of which way to go. You can map your routes and send them to your emergency contacts or hiking buddies. I highly recommend having Gaia on your phone any time you head out to help you navigate. There are other services like this that function similarly, like Avenza Maps or Caltopo. I just have not used them to be able to say how they work in the field with any authority. I do typically bring a charging cube with me for my phone to make sure that I don’t run out of battery in the field. This is also why I like to take a paper map on longer excursions. 

The newest service I have been playing around with is Komoot. This German based route planning tool looks really promising, as it will help you map the type of route you want (hiking vs mountain biking vs road cycling, etc) between two points. I am still working out how well the maps work here in the U.S., but if I do end up planning an Alps trip, this is the service I will likely use to plan my adventure.

The bottom line is that you should really carry some sort of map when you venture out into the wilderness. Even if you expect the route to be quite obvious, having a map on your phone gives you the peace of mind that if you get turned around, you will be able to figure out where you are and where you need to go to get back on track. Carrying a paper map for backup, especially on long outings, is another good idea for making sure you can figure out where you are. 

Do you have a map system you love that I haven’t mentioned? Let me know in the comments!



About The Author

About The Author

Teri Smith is starting her third act as a photographer, writer and adventure seeker in the Pacific Northwest. Learn more here.