There are few things more important on a back country trip than a good map. With a good map and a skilled reader, you truly do not even need a compass.
With a bad map it makes no difference weather or not you have a compass or gps or even that most coveted of all navigation instruments… the sextant. Honestly, I think my dad and I are the only people I know who can use a sextant, but then again it really hasn’t popped up in conversation all that often…
Anyhow, I think I should be a little specific here. A bad map is not the junky trail maps that have no topography – that isn’t terribly useful, but if you stay on trails, you are fine. The important thing about those overly simple maps is that you know where you stand – you don’t expect it to be accurate or even close to accurate.
It will probably tell you where the trail head is and give a reasonable estimate within 1-3 miles of the trail length… A bit awkward if it says half a mile and you walk three, but not all that bad primarily because you expect it… well you didn’t expect to walk three miles, but you know what I mean.
No a bad map is one that looks like it has all the ridges and bumps accounted for. It looks like any ridge or slope or drop will be plotted. The type of map that looks like you can trust it.
But then your hiking in a gorge while off trail and you realize there’s nothing that even looks remotely like where you are at. And on top of that ridge you just hiked up with a pack on – there’s nothing that looks like that little peak on the map.
You see, I’ve been off trail before but never quite like this. At Double-H Scout Ranch we had great maps and unimpeded views. Only parts of the camp had trees, and you could still generally get a good lay of the land.
The key there is great maps.
We did not have a good map. We had a bad map.
It looked reliable, and in fact if we hadn’t lost the trail… Well, it would have been a reliable as one of those half a mile to three miles trail maps.
Luckily we found a creek to get water from, and a nice place to camp. It wasn’t bad. We had plenty of food and it was early in the week, we still had energy and mirth aplenty.
The next day, we took a course that should have lead us back to camp and it lead us back to the trail. It was a humbling experience but it we got back to a campsite. Getting lost ended up being a good thing. Two of the kids got sick, and we were able to get them out of the high altitude easily.
Next time I’m getting a better map… Or sticking to the trails.