Not just a map, but maps. As in more than one.
When my brother and I started doing backpacking trips, I took along a National Geographic topographic map. The National Geographic maps gave us a general idea of where trail intersections should be, which is all we really needed to know. We weren’t doing any off-trail excursions. And luckily we never ran into any instances where we needed any sort of other map.
This past summer I took a navigation course through REI, and learned about the custom USGS quad maps on mytopo.com. With mytopo.com, you can create a map that merges several USGS quad maps into a single map, possibly eliminating the need to carry multiple USGS quad maps. I tried one of these maps out for the first time on our hike this past summer in the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. It was so nice to have the detail of the USGS quad map. I rarely looked at the National Geographic map that we had during that trip. I was definitely glad I had learned about these maps, and they were something I was going to use going forward.
Fast forward a couple months to September. I took my first solo backpacking trip out to the Uinta Mountains in Utah. Just like the trip in Wyoming, I had a custom USGS quad map from mytopo.com and a National geographic map. Once again, I loved having the detail of the USGS quad map, and for most of the trip, that was the only map I really needed. But if you read my trip report post, you know that I ran into some issues on the way back to my car. Some strong winds had kicked up a wildfire and was blowing the smoke across the trail. I knew the fire was relatively close to the trail, and the smoke and ash was thick enough that I didn’t feel comfortable hiking out on my first attempt.
This is where having both the USGS quad map and the National Geographic map was important. With the possibility that I may not be able to hike out the way I had come in due to the wildfire, I knew that I needed to look for other potential ways out. However, due to the zoomed in nature of the USGS map (relative to the National Geographic map), it didn’t show any other trailheads. I could find other trails on this map that went other directions, but I would have no idea if they led to other trailheads. This is when the National Geographic map came in handy. It wasn’t as detailed, but since it showed a larger area, I was able to see other trailheads and map out a secondary way out if it was needed. It definitely wasn’t ideal and I wasn’t looking forward to it, but it at least gave me relief that I had another option.
Thankfully I didn’t have to use that secondary option, but it made me realize the importance of having (at least) two maps: one with detail of the area I’m planning on hiking, and another that shows a broader area just in case something goes wrong and I have to find another route.
And while we are on this topic, I would highly recommend taking a navigation course if you are going to be doing any sort of hiking/backpacking. My brother and I took several trips without either one of us having taken a navigation course. You may be able to get by without those skills, but you never know when you’ll run into a situation when you’ll need those skills, and they could save your life.