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Best topographic maps of the backcountry for use with your compass and GPS

The production and distribution of useful topographic maps has evolved dramatically in the past eight years. New options have become available.

All topographic maps published in the United States are based on the (only) complete Federal Government aerial photographic land survey (done in the 1960s), which resulted in the 7.5 Minute Quadrangle map series of 57,000 paper maps covering all fifty states. The 7.5 Minute Quad topo maps of Oregon total more than 1,900 sheets. In the recent past, in large wooden cases, map and blueprint stores carried the complete set for their State and perhaps popular maps for nearby States. The United States Geographic Survey carried a complete inventory of all USGS topo maps at centers across the nation. Outdoor stores once carried the more popular maps for hunting, hiking and other adventures.

Individual entrepreneurs such as Al Cardwell, owner of "Geographics" in Oregon, use the free USGS computer data base to produce a series of convenient maps of popular recreation areas such as the "Three Sisters Wilderness" in Oregon. This Geographics map combines corners of three or four Quad maps onto one conveniently folded sheet at almost the same 1:24,000 scale as the Quads. The reverse side of the paper Geographics map has a larger scale map "socialized" to provide information about trail heads and other amenities. These maps should be in everyone's car or pack, but they do not replace the grid lines and detail of the original 1:24,000 USGS Quads on which they are based.

Green Trails Maps, based in Seattle, WA, now produce custom maps based on the USGS Quad computer data base. Green Trails prints good topo maps of popular hiking areas and sells them at outfitters such as REI for about the same prices as individual Quad topo maps. Green Trails installed kiosks in retail outlets that allow the user to join several Quads, chose the UTM grid and print very useful 12 x 17 inch paper maps, but they were not newbie friendly and required a lot of retail time. They have disappeared since the advent of hard times.

Mountain bikers, skiers, hunters and fly-fishers have their own specialized maps published by entrepreneurs. They provide a service because they concentrate on the trails for, say wilderness lakes. Makers can adjust the scale to cover parts of several Quad maps on a single convenient sheet. They contain up to date data which is not found on the Quad maps.

However, these private maps do not provide the detail, accuracy, grid lines and other information needed by today's informed backcountry navigator. None of the private maps that I have seen are GPS friendly! Most users do not know what they are missing because they do not know that the UTM Grid can be used to locate a hand held GPS position within a few meters (4.1 average) by eye alone. Most people do not understand the value of finding exactly where they are on a detailed topo map. You cannot find your way back if you do not know where you are!

"Terrain Navigator" by My TOPO (formerly Map Tech)  and "TOPO" by National Geographic are computerized map programs based on the USGS Quad data. You can print your own custom maps 1:24,000 scale (Quad maps) on letter sized writing paper. These $99.00 "topo map" computer map programs are sold in outdoor stores, almost every where. I much prefer the My Topo Terrain Navigator program and use it all the time to download waypoints and tracks to my GPS and print 8.5 x 11 inch topo "trip ticks" to carry in a baggie in my pocket on every hike and climb. Links

You need to be able to "communicate" the location of points on the map other than by pointing to a spot. The easiest way to do this is by naming coordinates on a grid (say, the intersection of Highway 20 and 27th Street). One such grid is the Latitude and Longitude Grid used by Lewis and Clark, by sailors and by pilots. Another is the Public Land Survey Grid providing metes and bounds to identify ownership of plots of land. The Public Land Survey Grid is not referenced by GPS receivers. Latitude and longitude Coordinates’ are very tricky to find on a map due to converging longitude lines on a flat map. (Special tools are required to plot lat-lon Coordinates; It is not possible to find lat-lon coordinates accurately, by "eye".)

The most useful grid in modern land navigation is the Universal Transverse Mercator Grid (the "UTM" grid). The "UTM" Grid is imprinted (or can be user completed with pencil and yardstick) on all USGS Quad Maps, enabling one to pinpoint and communicate easily, a location accurately to a few yards. The map is divided into one kilometer square boxes, easy to divide into tenths, even by eye.

The GPS receiver will give you your location in UTM Coordinates, of little use if you do not have a map imprinted with the UTM Grid. The 1:24,000 USGS Quads are based on NAD 27 Datum. You must select UTM Coordinates and NAD 27 Datum (and True North) from the options on your own GPS Receiver.

More and more people are finding that buying a simple $99.00 computer program such as My TOPO's Terrain Navigator or National Geographic's TOPO that are very helpful in planning adventures and storing the details of past adventures. Both computer programs contain all of the 1:24,000 USGS Quad maps and other scaled topo maps for each particular State purchased.

In the Fall of 2010, Garmin offered up-loadable 1:24,000 Topo maps, say of the Ten Western States, for about $130.00. These maps are advertised by Garmin as "comparable to" the USGS Quad topo maps but they seem to have less detail and appear to be the 1:100,000 scale maps with extra terrain lines added. Zooming in for the summit of say, South Sister, near Bend, results in the small GPS screen being overwhelmed with brown lines that do not seem to scale thinner. I originally decided to not use the new program, (be careful for what you wish for) but continue to use the 1:100,000 scale maps on my GPS and carry my Quad, Green Trails or Terrain Navigator paper maps.

However, I now use the Garmin 1:24,000 TOPO US 24K West with the Map Source program in my Garmin eTrex Venture HC and I have learned to cope with the fact that the terrain lines are sometimes bulky on the small screen. This Garmin model does not have added chip memory, but the on-board memory is enough to cover the entire Three Sisters Wilderness and more. And it is easy to change coverage to another area in a minute at my computer for different adventures, say in the Eastern Oregon high desert. Read the next paragraph.

Most map-enabled GPS receivers can be loaded only with a small geographic area, say the Oregon Cascades. More expensive GPS models have the option to add an SD data chip (at extra cost) so that more of a state can be loaded, but most users only recreate in areas that can be loaded on the basic map enabled GPS. (Motor home travelers may need more area but there are other options for them including a laptop computer plugged into the cigarette lighter.) Avid Geocachers use palm pilots and other mini portables.

In short, just use a Garmin eTrex H ($99.00) or better yet, a Garmin eTrex Venture HC ($140.00) GPS and have a paper 1:24.000 topo map in your pocket (with a base plate, declination adjusted, $25.00 Suunto M3D Leader compass, of course).

Using the map, compass and GPS together

Vista Butte

This paper map was created and printed at my desk in about ten minutes using My TOPO's $99 Terrain Navigator software covering all of the more than 1,900 USGS topo maps for the State of Oregon. The original 8.5 by 11 map I carried on this adventure had the UTM grid and only the Waypoints for the Vista Butte Trail Head on Cascade Lakes Highway and for the summit of Vista Butte. I saved my additional GPS Waypoints on the way up the snow-shoe trail and saved the Track with my Garmin eTrex, then downloaded the Waypoints and Track to my computer program. (I cleared the GPS memory after the download). I renamed the Waypoints with my computer. The GPS we used enabled us to make a new "cross country" track confidently, back to the car. Note where I made a pit stop on the south side of the Highway (behind a tree, of course).

When I climb up Vista Butte again, I will simply download the grouped "Vista" Waypoints and Vista Track to my cleared GPS and print a new map in about 10 minutes, put the map in a baggie in my pocket with the GPS and head for the freedom of the hills.
Copyright©, 2015 by Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved.




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  About Alpine Mountaineering:
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  The Mountaineers' Rope
  Basic Responsibilities       Cuatro Responsabiliades Basicas de Quienes Salen al Campo
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