Where to get trek maps

Yesterday I posted a couple of suggestions about getting a good compass to keep you safe and on track in your outdoor activities, and soon I’ll be posting articles about how to use that compass effectively, but first we need to get a good map to go along with that compass.


There are several different kinds of maps that you’ll want to use for different purposes, but basically you can break them down into three types:

  • schematic map – an ultra-simplified, not-to-scale map usually used to represent a path that you pretty much can’t get lost on (like a subway route map where you just need to know which stops are on this route and which stop is next) – basically linear or one-dimensional.  You generally won’t need a compass with a schematic map.  To the right is an example schematic map of the Yakima River that I found.
  • street map –  everybody has seen a street map.  They are accurate, scaled representations in two horizontal dimensions.
  • topo map – This is where they really become useful because topo maps add the third dimension to tell you how much elevation you will encounter and how steep the inclines are.  If you’re going to be doing outdoor adventure activities like hiking or cycling or climbing you really need to learn to work with topo maps.


Which maps to use for what kind of trek?

Most of my trekking involves canoeing or hiking.

For canoeing I want to know things like how to get to put-ins and take-outs (street maps), and how long river segments are between campgrounds (schematic river maps).  If I expect to be doing canoe portages I’d likely want to know which routes are shortest and flattest (topo maps).  

I’d probably take a street map with me in the car and the schematic and topo maps with me in the canoe.

For a hiking or backpacking expedition I would want to know things like how to get to trailheads (street maps), and how to choose the best path to get where I’m going without climbing the whole time or falling off in a ravine that I could have avoided (topo maps).  If it is a really simple trail hiking trek I might take a list of what order to expect the points of interest and distances between them (schematic map).

I haven’t done much cycling in about 30 years, but if I were going to go on a cycle tour I’d certainly want good street maps and topo maps (you can get street maps overlaid with topo lines) with perhaps some notes about points and distances (a schematic map).

Maps for before, during, and after

Before any outdoor activity I like to familiarize myself with the territory, and there’s no better tool (that I know of) for sitting back and doing some armchair trekking than Google Earth or Google Maps.  With either software package you can get satellite imagery, street maps, or topo lines for pretty much anywhere on Earth. You can zoom in or out or tilt the map into 3D and do a flyover.  In some places you can even get street-level photography.

During the trip I will mostly be using street maps and topo maps.

One of the best sources for street maps is Delorme’s Atlas & Gazetteer series.  You can get them for any U.S. state and they have a ton of additional info.

The best site I’ve found for detailed custom topo maps is MyTopo.com. They’ll let you zoom in wherever you like, overlay property lines and roads and public land boundaries, etc… and then they’ll print your map on waterproof paper and mail it to you pretty inexpensively.

After the trip I’ll want to write about the adventure so I’ll need a good set of notes.  One form that the notes could take would be a schematic map – basically just a list of places I went and the distances/times/conditions between each one along with what I saw at each place.  A schematic map would be a big help in writing about the trip afterward.

So, now that you’ve gotten a good compass on the way to your mailbox, go get an Atlas and Gazetteer and maybe some topos for your next outdoor adventure and join me tomorrow when we start learning how to use the maps and compass together!

Other articles in the series

Previously – How to buy a good compass

Next – How to orient a map


Categories: Hiking, Skills, Survival

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