Maps 101: How to Not Get Lost

Garnet Lake National Geographic TopoWhenever I hit the trail, I always bring along my map and compass. Even if I have my GPS with me, I still rely on a traditional printed map and my trusty Suunto MC-2 compass.

This past weekend I joined some friends on a 3 night backpacking adventure to Garnet Lake in California’s Sierra Nevadas.

As usual, I took along my printed USGS map, but this time I also took along a Tom Harrison map of the area, as well as a printout from my new National Geographic Trails Illustrated Explorer mapping software.

What’s the Best Hiking Map – USGS Maps? Tom Harrison Maps? National Geographic Maps?

USGS Maps

USGS Maps USGS Maps: The United States Geological Society (USGS) has been mapping the nation for decades. This government agency sells printed topographic maps to consumers that can be purchased directly from USGS.gov, or outdoor gear shops.

  • PROS: They are accurate, extremely detailed, and are the gold standard for topographic maps. If you print them directly from the USGS website, there is no cost (except your paper and ink!)
  • CONS: Many are several years (and in some cases decades old), USGS does not print them on waterproof paper, so you have to store them in a ziploc bag or map case. There is no relief shading and trail distances are not clearly marked. Plus they are based on USGS quads, rather than popular hiking areas. So I have often had to tape together 2 or even 3 of the maps to cover the region where I was hiking.

Tom Harrison Maps

Tom Harrison Maps Tom Harrison Maps are produced by none other than Tom Harrison, a modern day wilderness cartographer. His maps are only for wilderness regions in California, and cost about the same as the USGS maps ($8-$10 each).

  • PROS: Tom Harrison maps are also very accurate like the USGS maps, they have measured trail distances, are printed on waterproof and rip proof paper, and generally cover more popular regions (so you only need 1 map rather than 2 or 3 overlapping USGS topos.
  • CONS: Tom Harrison maps have to be purchased – you can’t print them yourself. Plus, they are only available for California wilderness areas.

National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps

National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps are produced by the famous National Geographic Society. Similar to Tom Harrison maps, they are printed on waterproof, tearproof paper. Yet they cover many regions of the U.S., not just California. Plus, the new National Geographic Trails Illustrated Explorer software tool is available for many popular hiking areas, including my favorite, the California Sierra Nevadas.

  • PROS: National Geographic maps have measured trail distances, are printed on waterproof and rip proof paper, and generally cover more popular regions (so you only need 1 map rather than 2 or 3 overlapping USGS topos. They have shaded relief so you can more easily see ridges and mountains, and are well labeled. Their software programs are very cool because you can get multiple maps in one software package and you can print exactly what you need. You can analyze elevation profiles, plot routes, synch to your GPS, and for some regions play with a new fly over feature so you have a good sense of the elevation gain and loss you’ll be facing on your route.
  • CONS: Unlike USGS maps, which are available for every part of the U.S., National Geographic maps are only published for popular hiking areas. They are slightly more expensive than USGS and Tom Harrison maps.

Check out my review of the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Explorer Software program!


7 comments

  1. Hiking Lady says:

    Hi Travis,
    Glad you found the comparison helpful. That’s fantastic that National Geographic has almost the entire state of Colorado covered!
    Thank you for your comment. Happy trails!

  2. Travis Sturzl says:

    Thanks for the comparison between maps. Some information you should provide about Tom Harrison maps is that they are only for California. I’m here in colorado and found that USGS and Nat Geo maps are the only ones I can find that work well. Fortunately nearly the entire state of colorado is covered by Nat Geo maps, which can be found at most local hardware stores or ranger stations.

  3. Hiking Lady says:

    Hi Nick,

    Excellent question and comments. The reason most avid outdoor enthusiasts say that a GPS isn’t a replacement for a map and compass is due to reliability factors.

    As you pointed out, a GPS can suffer a software malfunction or a battery issue. Even more importantly, in many areas, such as parts of the Appalachian Trail with high tree cover or the Sierra Nevada Mountains with lots of granite peaks, satellite signals may not be available. Even in dense tree cover, at least your compass will be able to figure out true north!

    In most instances, a GPS is easier to use, faster, and fairly reliable. But in the instance where you are lost…your spare batteries fail, or you can’t get a satellite connection, you’ll be happy to have a map and compass in your backpack.

    Have fun out the trails, and stay found 🙂

  4. Nick says:

    I feel quite confused by how many people seem to be saying that a GPS isn’t a replacement for a map/compass, and many even preferring the map/compass? (ex. the REI’s website, a guy working at the Army Navy Surplus store when I visited the other day, etc) I’m not sure if there’s something I’m missing here or haven’t thought about? I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I feel more lost with a map/compass.

    For example, when I come to a fork in the road within a maze of trails, using my GPS I can see exactly where I had previously planned to make a turn, quite often there are forks in the road which aren’t even on USGS topo maps. I also feel much better inside if I can check if I’m detouring from my route, since I hike on a lot of trails which haven’t been maintained in decades and seem to disappear in many spots. (Before hikes, I’ll often look at Satellite Imagery Maps to find trails not on the topos, that I want to explore, then mark the GPS coordinates on my GPSr)

    I have a protractor compass with a sighting mirror, but find it’s quite useless unless I can actually see landmarks in the background to triangulate where I am on the topo map. It seems like half of the time the trees around me are too high to see any mountain peaks; however, when I look at my Garmin Oregon 450 it says my coordinates are within 15 feet accuracy. In addition, when mountain peaks are visible for triangulation with a compass, it’s not nearly as accurate as my GPS.

    I bring my sighting mirror protractor compass along just in case the very rare chance of software malfunction or running out of spare batteries, but I almost completely rely on my GPS. I’m not sure if I’m missing something here, but I am very curious why many say a GPS isn’t a replacement for map/compass, with many even preferring the compass. Thank you for your time and input!

  5. Hi All,

    Thanks Kendall for the unsolicited plug!

    You can purchase customized waterproof USGS Maps on our web site, http://www.mytopo.com. You get to pick the coverage area and scale – and the entire US is available. We also offer “hybrid” topo/photo maps which are great in areas where the USGS do not offer current maps.

    Of course, at http://www.mytopo.com you can also learn more about our flagship software products, Terrain Navigator and Terrain Navigator Pro – both of which offer USGS quads on DVD.

    Many of us are outdoor recreationists, and we are happy to provide the products and services that we ourselves use when enjoying the great outdoors.

    -Ed Lecuyer
    Product Manager, MyTopo

  6. kendall says:

    You left out the best mapping systems of all, Terrain Navigator and its wannabe, National Georgraphic’s TOPO.
    I won’t go into detail, but they do it all, interface with GPS devices, print custom maps, etc. etc. And they are based on the USGS 7 1/2′ and 15′ maps, so you can print your custom map along with any grids, overlays, routes, waypoints, on whatever paper you desire and at whatever scale you want. The National Geographic maps you buy at REI are pretty, but generally too small scale for anything but an overview of the area you’re interested in. Their scales are goofy, although, to their credit, they put the UTM grid on their maps, unlike the cheezy wastes of paper the USFS puts out on their wilderness maps.
    Bottom line, if you have a computer, buy some decent mapping software.

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