Let’s talk maps… The paper kind.

When I was in the Boy Scouts growing up I had a natural affinity for orienteering.  This continued into my college years when I continually pissed off the ROTC Cadre during the Land-Nav portion of our FTX (Field Training Exercise).  I was able to find the points on my list, with the help of my Battle Buddy, and report back in record time.  At first they tried to accuse us of cheating.  I then explained I used to teach Orienteering Merit Badge and could read a topographic map as easy as I could read a restaurant menu.  This of course netted me the “privilege” of teaching some of the less experienced members of my unit how to use a compass.

Maps, Maps, Maps!

In this article I will breakdown and explain some of the advantages and disadvantages to different map types.  Sadly there is no one perfect map for all situations.  “But wait, what about GPS?” You say.  Well, GPS does have it’s place, and there are a lot of advantages to GPS.  My main issue with GPS is that you need power and good signal reception.  It’s too easy in this day-and-age to become dependent upon technology.  Having the skills to use paper maps to a) find your current location and b) navigate yourself to safety are essential when you’re in the remote back country.

I’ve decided to use a grading scale based on a few criteria.   Those criteria will be:

  • Area of coverage – How large of an area does the map cover (local, state, region)
  • Detail – How much information is on the map (major roads, back roads, recreation information)
  • Accuracy – Is the map current, are things where they’re supposed to be
  • Usability – How easy is the map to use for overlanding
  • Visual Appeal – Is the map easy to look at and follow
  • Functionality – Does the map do the job it’s intended to do
  • Quality – What’s the print and paper like
  • Cost – How expensive/cheap is the map and is it a good value

State DoT Map: 

The very first map I am going to talk about is probably the one most people are familiar with: The Department of Transportation Map published by each and every state.  These maps are often very detailed showing all major highways and byways throughout a state.  They also have enlargements of major cities given even more detail of surface streets.  Many times the DoT maps also list public lands such as State Parks, State Forests, State Game Lands, historic sites, and sometimes even major tourist sites.  Not all DoT maps are created equal though.  On my “No Highways Tour” trip I visited 13 total states.  Of all of them Vermont has the best map in my opinion because it clearly listed every unimproved/unmaintained road in the state.  This was possible mainly due to the size of the state.  In contrast, New York which is a much larger state was not nearly as detailed with their DoT map.  Pennsylvania, my home state, does a pretty good job of listing some unmaintained roads, but in some cases they leave vast networks of roads off the larger DoT map when they know a more detailed State Park or State Forest map exists (more on those later).  The only real downside to state maps is they are generally large and can be a bit cumbersome to use.

PA DoT Map along with a foldable organizer that holds nearby states.
This is a great place to start your overlanding map collection.

Grades for the state DoT maps:

  • Area of coverage: A+ (The trade off to detail is covering an entire state)
  • Detail: B+ (This can vary from state to state, but generally they lack finer detail at the local level)
  • Accuracy: A- (usually published every year, but not always updated every year)
  • Usability: C- (Generally not good for off-pavement travel)
  • Visual Appeal: B+ (A lot of care goes into making these maps look good and be easy to read)
  • Functionality: A- (DoT maps are great for finding a way from one side of a state to another, but in terms of local route planning they leave a little to be desired)
  • Quality: C- (Anything free is usually on cheap paper.  DoT maps will tear when repeatedly folded.  Oh, and try not to get them wet; paper will tear and ink will run)
  • Cost: A++ (DoT maps are free, can’t beat that).
  • Overall Review: Every overlander should carry a DoT map for every state they travel through.  When folded they are small and don’t take up a lot of room.  When unfolded they give you a “big picture” view of the state you are in.  However, a DoT map shouldn’t be the only map you carry.

AAA State Road Maps:

In the same vein as a State DoT map, AAA maps give a great overview of a given state.  Sadly they lack detail when it comes to backroads and surface streets.  In lue of a DoT map a AAA map can serve a function of providing a general overview of a given state as well as an outline of the major highways (interstates, state highways, etc) and scenic byways throughout the state.  However, aside from the paid tourist advertisements, there really isn’t a whole lot of useful information for the overlander on a AAA map.

The AAA map of the Carolinas with my highlighted path of the “No Highways Tour”

Grades for the AAA maps:
  • Area of coverage: A+ (The trade off to detail is covering an entire state)
  • Detail: C- (Lack of backroad and surface streets)
  • Accuracy: B+ (AAA maps are up to date, but only for major highways)
  • Usability: D+ (Not good for off-pavement travel or outdoor recreation beyond RV’ing)
  • Visual Appeal: B+ (They don’t look bad, just lack a lot of information)
  • Functionality: A- (Like DoT maps, AAA maps are great for navigation at the state level)
  • Quality: B- (A little better than DoT maps, but still not durable for the long term.  Luckily they are free if you’re a member so if one gets destroyed it’s easy to replace).
  • Cost: A+ (If you’re a AAA member, they are free.  If not they are $15).
  • Overall Review: If you’re a AAA member it’s not a bad idea to pick up a few before your next trip in case you have trouble finding DoT maps right away.  However, once you find a DoT map you might as well toss the AAA map in the recylce bin or pawn it off on a friend who might need it for their next road trip.

Road Atlas and Gazetteers:

There are many shapes, sizes, and brands of road atlases out there.  Some are very good, others not so much.  I’m a fan of the DeLorme Gazetteers because of their accuracy and level of detail.  They actually market them for outdoor recreation.  One of the nice things about them is that beyond just roads they also list trails for hiking and 4×4/Jeep trails.  They also have map icons for scenic outlooks, establish campsites (both public and private) as well as other unique points of interests such as covered bridges, damns, and shooting ranges.  For the overland adventure lifestyle it doesn’t get any better than a gazetteer.  That said, they do have a drawback.  While great for detail a the local level they can be downright frustrating to use for route planning.  It becomes a sadistic “chose your own adventure” book of flipping from one page to another due to the layout of the books pages being on a grid work pattern.  They usually start in the upper left of the state and go left-to-right then drop down a row.  This means if you’re planning a route north/south or on a diagonal it’s not as simple as flipping from one page to the next.  This is when having a State DoT map comes in handy.

Good -> Better -> Best
A good national road atlas can replace DoT or AAA maps.
A statewide atlas will be more detailed when it comes to surface streets.
But… The DeLorme ones are best for their detail and focus on outdoor recreation

Grades for the Road Atlases and Gazetteers:

  • Area of coverage: A++ (Being statewide they are great)
  • Detail: A++ (As detailed as they come)
  • Accuracy: A- (While generally accurate, the level of detail is hard to maintain and if you invest in a gazetteer you’ll probably hang on to it making them someone outdated as time goes on)
  • Usability: B- (While great for local information, they can be someone frustrating for route planning and navigation.  Also somewhat bulky)
  • Visual Appeal: A+ (Lots of data and presented in a nice package)
  • Functionality: A- (For their intended use they are great)
  • Quality: B- The bindings are usually good with stiff covers but pages are still basic paper prone to tears and water damage.
  • Cost: B- (At nearly $20-$30 a pop they can get expensive if you plan on traveling through multiple states).
  • Overall Review: Coupled with a DoT map a gazetteer is an essential “must have” for the overlander.  One gives you a state-wide picture, the other gives you an up-close look at the local level.  The focus on outdoor recreation of the DeLorme Gazetteer makes them super useful beyond general DoT, AAA, or generic road atlas.

Local Recreation Maps:

A step beyond the gazetteer in terms of detail are site-specific recreation maps.  Commonly referred to as “trail maps” almost every state and national forest, park, and historic site has a map.  If you plan on spending any time at such a location they are essential for information about the site as well as details that are far beyond the expected information continued even in something like a gazetteer.  They are also a lot easier to carry when exploring a park than a large DoT map or bulky gazetteer.

National (left) and State (right) forest maps are great examples of local recreation maps.
Most public land maps are free to download online and print.
State printed maps are usually free and available and local ranger stations.
National printed maps are available for a fee but usually come on water resistant paper.

Although they come with a price, the size, level of detail, and quality make an official copy of
a National Forest map a worthwhile investment. if you plan on visiting again.

Grades for the Local Recreation Maps:

  • Area of coverage: (As they name implies they are local and site-specific)
  • Detail: A+ (A lot of detail about a small area)
  • Accuracy: A+ (New maps are published every year with updated trails, campsites, and site-specific activities).
  • Usability: A+ (They are designed to be small and portable, thus making them very easy to use)
  • Visual Appeal: A+ (If you get an official copy, they are great.  Sometimes in the peak of a season you can get suck with a paper photocopy which often aren’t as appealing)
  • Functionality: A+ (For their intended use they are great)
  • Quality: A+ National; C- State (National maps are usually on water resistant paper and hold up to much more abuse.  State Forest or Park maps are usually printed just like DoT maps).
  • Cost: A+ (Maps are usually free or are part of the site access fee.)
  • Overall Review: If you plan on spending any time on public land you’d be an idiot not to track down a site-specific map.  The detail, accuracy, and functionality make them essential when visiting something like a state or national park.

Specialty Recreation Maps:

Whether published someone as prolific as National Geographic or an up-and-comer like Purple Lizard Maps the growing trend of highly detailed super specialized recreation maps hitting the market is taking maps to a whole new level.  Many of the these maps are actually combinations of information found on other map types.  They are a composite of local roads, DoT maps, USGS topographic maps, and local recreation maps.  A DoT map usually lacks the elevation likes of a topographic map.  A topographic map usually lacks the visual appeal of a park map.  A road atlas as a lot of info on surface streets, but little to do with trails.  Speciality maps combine all of this data in one visually appealing easy to read map — and usually do so on high quality water resistant paper.  Of course there is a drawback for all of this, cost.

A good example of a specialty recreation map.
Very detailed, lots of great information, high quality print and paper.

Speciality recreation map of the Adirondack Mountains in New York.
Had to pick one up because the AAA map I had of NY lacked the detailed network of back roads in the forest.
While better it still lacked the unpaved roads I was hoping to explore.

A great shot of the level of detail and artistry in the Purple Lizard series of maps.
At $15 a pop they are a great addition to your overland adventure map arsenal.

Grades for the Specialty Recreation Maps:

  • Area of coverage: (Better than local recreation maps, but not as broad as larger maps)
  • Detail: A++ (If its out there it will be on this map)
  • Accuracy: A+ (A lot of effort is put into making this maps super accurate and as up-to-date as possible)
  • Usability: A+ (They are designed to be small and portable, thus making them very easy to use)
  • Visual Appeal: A++ (I doubt there is a map out there better looking than these maps)
  • Functionality: A++ (They’re water resistant, doesn’t get any more function for the outdoor overland adventurer than that)
  • Cost: C- (At nearly $10-$20 a pop the overall cost for a map collection can add up quick, but they are a worthwhile investment for frequently visited area)
  • Overall Review: While local recreation maps serve almost the same function when paired with a DoT maps and a Gazetteer there is something to be said about having all of it in one place.  That said, if you have a favorite park or forest and plan on making multiple trips there, I’d say a Specialty Recreation Map is worth the investment.  If you’re just passing through on a longer trip, then you might want to save the money and settle for the local recreation map.

Most outdoor stores have a whole section dedicated to mapping and navigation.
There are area specific and trail specific maps.
Most are setup for backpackers, boaters, hunters, or fishers…
but the overland adventurer can still find lots of great info in them.

Custom DIY Maps:

The digital revolution has brought a lot of information to the fingertips of the average consumer.  Coupled with high resolution printers, cool mapping paper, and the such it’s not impossible to make your own maps.  In 2005 I worked as a Trail Guide for the corporate “Camp Jeep” event.  One of the tasks I stepped up to do was make trail maps for a few of the trails I had data for.  These maps were created through recording my path on the trail and then editing it in the GPS software.  I then selected the custom print size and then printed copies for myself and the other guides.  I also started something similar for the local off road park before my laptop decided to die.  The main advantage to the DIY route is you can customize the map to the location, scale, and level of detail you want.  The ‘grade’ for such things is obviously dependent upon your skill level and time invested.  I’m fairly confident I can make some “A-” level maps if I wanted to.  A novice with little to no experience might be able to squeeze out some “C” level maps if they just need something “good enough” to find their way to a hunting cabin or down a dirt road on some private property.

A custom DIY trail map I made for Camp Jeep 2005.
DIY maps have their limitations, but they also have their uses.

In conclusion there is no “one-size-fits-all” map out there.  In my opinion it’s best to cover the bases with maps from all three levels.  DoT maps are great for a state-wide overview, they are free, and fold up nice and small.  Gazetteers are super detailed but somewhat bulky and can add up quick if you plan on going through multiple states on a longer trip.  Local Recreation Maps are essential for any time spent in a park or forest.  The trifecta of all three maps working together will ensure you’re never lost… even if you don’t know exactly where you’re at for a moment or two.
Beyond the maps themselves having the skills to navigate effectively and efficiently is something that comes with practice.  A compass will help orient a map along the magnetic north/south line but having the ability to read the local topography and pick out landmarks will help.  As I’ve mentioned before, the Boy Scout Merit Badge books do a great job of explaining things like this.  If you have any interest in learning the skill of orienteering then pick yourself up a book, a compass, a map, and go get lost!  Once you’ve found yourself you’ll be surprised how much taking the skill on your next overland adventure will make navigating a lot easier an reduce your dependance on GPS.  That said, in a future post I will talk about GPS navigation and how to supplement it with paper maps and where/when/why GPS has its place but also has its limits.