Foley: Navigation could save your life |

Foley: Navigation could save your life

National Geographic provides free and easily printable topographic maps for anywhere in the US.
Courtesy Photo |

A couple weeks ago we had a search mission for a 65-year-old who was looking at spending his second night out without shelter, food or water. He had planned an aggressive 10 mile loop hike starting at the Lake Evelyn trailhead which summited Bills and Byers Peaks, but had gotten off route after summiting Bills Peak. When he finally called 911 the next day he was dehydrated, hallucinating and disoriented. For more than 24 hours he had been “bushwhacking” in the Byers Peak Wilderness.

He had a guidebook map, but no compass. Part of the route was off trail, along a ridge. He really had no idea where he had been, or how far he had traveled, before he found his way to the summit of Byers Peak, hiked north down the old Byers Peak Trail and then was unable to find the trail that would bring him back to his vehicle. One of his comments was that he had hoped for better signage along the trail.

Trail signs can be confusing, contradictory and just plain wrong. Often times, the trail names on the signs do not match with the trail names on your map. I have also seen where the trail on the map is not where the trail is on the ground. Or the trail sign could be damaged or missing. Any of these issues could lead to navigational angst if you are counting on trail signs to light your way.

There are a multitude of what I call “marketing maps” available, usually free or downloadable, that end up being used as navigational aids because they are free, available and glossy. Examples include the Headwaters Trails maps available at every local visitor center, the Grand Lake snowmobile trail map and various chamber of commerce maps. They look great, but other than getting you to the trailhead they are worthless, even dangerous, for land navigation.

A readily available topographic mapset that works reasonably well for backcountry navigation are the National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps. These maps have detailed topographic information, current trail mapping and are waterproof.

Similar in that land navigation functionality is negligible are the standard USFS National Forest maps. They serve their purpose to designate trailheads, campgrounds, forest service roads and property ownership.

The longtime standard navigational maps are the United States Geological Survey (USGS) 7.5 minute topographic quadrangles which cover about 60 square miles at a scale of 1:24000. That means that one inch on the map equals 24,000 inches on the ground. That’s 2000 feet or about .4 miles. These large maps feature topographic contour lines and other symbols which translate topography like mountains and valleys as well as natural and manmade features onto a flat medium. An experienced map reader can easily identify features on the ground and navigate with a topographic map. The quad maps also incorporate latitude/longitude as well as UTM grids for location identification.

Downside: many USGS maps in our area have not been updated since the ‘50s. The USGS has stopped printing these maps, but there are many derivatives available for use.

At the USFS website you can view, zoom or download forest service topographic maps which are topographic maps overlaid with USFS data like trails and ownership boundaries in .pdf format. One could assume that these have the best correlation with USFS signs and trails on the ground. These maps are currently not available for all areas and are difficult to print to scale. If you print the whole map on standard paper the small scale makes them hard to use. Try downloading the .pdf to your mobile device for a handy, zoomable map reference.

A readily available topographic mapset that works reasonably well for backcountry navigation are the National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps. These maps have detailed topographic information, current trail mapping and are waterproof. Trails Illustrated maps are featured in several local guidebooks which add even more local trail detail. The scale on these maps is smaller than the standard “quad” map with a correspondingly larger contour interval. In other words, there is not as much topographic detail.

National Geographic has built an easy to use web interface that allows anyone to quickly find any 7.5 minute topo in the continental U.S.A. for downloading and printing. This is a free service. It produces a five page .pdf for any quad that readily prints on standard paper or can be downloaded at a scale of 1:32000. Since these maps a created directly from the USGS data current trail information is lacking.

There is really no excuse for not having a detailed large scale map when traveling in the backcountry. With a bit of practice you can become proficient with your map and compass. I suggest that you put your paper maps in a ziplock with a pencil, a cheap compass and a bic lighter. If you don’t need the maps you can use the paper to start a fire and stay warm.

Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 36 years. He can be reached by email at The GCSAR website can be found at or on Facebook/GCSAR.

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