By Tyler Socash, Education Programs Coordinator

One of the most critical items that should come with us on any outdoor adventure is a physical map of the area that we are recreating in. Maps can tell us whether to turn left or right at the junction, confirm the name of a nearby pond, or answer the age-old question, “How far is it?!”

Whether your destination is only a mile from the trailhead along a popular trail or a secluded summit deep in the backcountry, taking a map with you helps you verify checkpoints along your journey. While there are many different types of maps to choose from, topographic maps work best for outdoor recreation.

These maps depict our three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional way using contour lines. Each line represents the same amount of change in elevation. For example, the ADK High Peaks Map uses 20-foot contours. This means that each successive line indicates an increase or decrease of 20 feet in elevation depending on the direction you are moving. Taken together, you are able to read the features of a landscape like so:

  1. Tightly packed together – represents a rapid elevation change over a short distance. The landscape there will be incredibly steep.
  2. Spread further apart – the terrain in that region will be more gentle and easier to traverse.
  3. Very far apart – Beware! This often indicates a boggy wetland area.

A collage of map features

In addition to their distribution, the shape of the contour lines tells us something about the landscape as well. For example, around streams you will see that the contour lines form V-shapes in the valleys with the tip of the V pointing upstream. Conversely, ridges coming down from a summit form U-shapes with the base of the U pointing downhill. Other features, like waterfalls, lean-tos, land units, and roads are all depicted on topographic maps. If you’re not sure what a particular symbol on the map represents, simply reference the map’s legend, or key, to decipher what it represents.

Before you hit the trail, I always recommend studying your route at home. I like to trace my finger along my intended route from the starting point to the destination to see what features my path encounters. Knowing these landmarks in advance will increase your confidence and improve your decision making on the day of the outing. While you’re at it, make note of the trail mileage or measure the total distance of your designed adventure by using the scale in the map key. It’s a good idea to use this information to create a detailed itinerary to leave with a loved one back home.

A word about cell phones: while useful for planning at home, a cell phone should not be your sole source of navigation in the backcountry. If your phone dies—which can happen quickly in cold weather—or breaks on a rock, then you will have nothing to refer to if you get lost. So, even if you like to use your phone to navigate while you hike, always have a physical map in your backpack in case something goes wrong. Besides, though devices can fail and our cell phones can run out of batteries quickly, a physical paper map never runs out of style.


Interested in learning more about map reading and backcountry navigation? Take an outdoor skills course with ADK.