How to Read a Trail Map

Photo: Daniel Jenny, Shutterstock
Photo: Daniel Jenny, Shutterstock

Going on walks and hikes in uncrowded parks is one of the few activities that we can still do without having to worry too much about spreading COVID-19 (assuming that you’re either by yourself, with the people you’ve been quarantining with, or with other people while physical distancing). If you’re new to hiking, you’ll quickly learn that figuring out where you are is a little harder than it looks. Sure, there are maps, but have you ever tried to read one of those? There are so many lines! Here are a few tips for reading trail maps correctly.

Have both paper and digital maps

There are definite advantages to both types of maps. Digital maps are great (when you have service and GPS) for showing you exactly where you are and which direction you are facing. But Angela Faeth, co-owner Map Adventures, a Portland-based mapmaking business suggests always carrying a paper map as well, not only because they offer a wider view of the area, but also as a backup in case your battery dies or you lose service.

Find north

A trail map isn’t really helpful if you don’t know which direction you’re facing. Luckily, maps typically have a compass or arrow pointing north to help orient hikers. And yes, even if your phone has a compass feature on it, it’s a good idea to take an actual compass with you to help you from getting lost.

Pay attention to contour lines

One of the first things you notice about a trail map is that it has lines on lines on lines. These contour lines show changes in elevation and may also be labelled with numbers, indicating the number of feet above sea level of a location. “If the numbers are going up, you’re going to be going uphill,” Hope Rowan, a GIS (geographic information system) specialist for Centre for Community GIS told the Bangor Daily News. “If the contour lines are closer together, that means you’re going up to the next level in a shorter distance, so it’s steeper.”

And don’t forget about scale

As soon as you get a trail map, look for a scale bar, which tells you how a distance on the map corresponds to a distance on the ground. For instance, one inch on the map could equal one mile on the map. “The scale is very important,” Rowan said. “It tells you how zoomed in you are, so to speak. So a large scale map is more close up and a small scale map is farther away.”

Not only that, but a map’s scale can help you determine approximately how long it will take you to hike a particular trail (if this isn’t something already marked on the map).

Look at the legend

This probably came up during your unit on maps in social studies class, but when you get a trail map, make sure to take a look at its legend. This will let you know what each of the colours, symbols and lines mean. (And no, blue doesn’t always mean water.)

Keep looking at the map

Even if you think you know where you’re going, Steve Bushey, co-owner Map Adventures, recommends looking at the trail map often. “One of the ways of staying found is always knowing where you are,” he told the Bangor Daily News. “If you’re hiking along a trail and you decide not to check your map, you may walk past the intersection you should have turned at.”

If you end up getting lost, Bushey says you should retrace your steps until you get to a place that you can identify on the map, like a body of water. Plus, if you keep track of your location on a map, it can help people find you if you need help because you’ll be able to tell them approximately where you are.

Get the newest version of the map that’s available

Even if you have hiked a trail before and have an old map, Faerth says that you should look into whether an updated version has been published. You may think parks and nature don’t change, but trails may have been rerouted, new ones may have been added, and restroom and camping locations may have changed.

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