Whenever 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: 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 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 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!