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Backcountry Navigation with Incomplete or Out-of-Date Maps

Maps can be outdated and contain many errors. This USGS map shows a the hastings hiking trail which was closed in the mid-1950's. The town of Hastings no longer exists.
The United States Geological Survey stopped sending field observers to verify and update the location and existence of recreational trails, power lines, rail lines, pipelines, remote roads, campgrounds, and property boundaries by 1990. As a result many backcountry maps have out-of-date and incorrect information. The USGS map shown here shows a hiking trail which closed in the 1980’s and a town which disappeared in 1918. The new National Map which started coming out in 2009 has none of these features, so you have to rely on 50’s-era historic USGS maps, even if they’re out of date.

It’s important to understand the limitations of incomplete or out-of-date maps for backcountry navigation since so many mapping applications, GPS units, and GPS-enabled smartphone apps are built around them. It’s not just old maps that are full of errors and out of date-information, but also crowd-sourced map layers that assemble observations from multiple contributors without good editorial standards or field verification.

Despite these map quality deficiencies, expert wilderness navigators have developed techniques to make good backcountry navigation decisions and avoid getting lost. What strategies do they use to plan routes, identify mapping discrepancies, stay found in the field, and reach their navigational objectives?

The Limitations of Map Accuracy

If you thought that backcountry mapping data would be accurate and complete in this day and age, you’re in for a big surprise. It’s not, in large part because the USGS (United States Geological Survey) stopped sending field observers to verify non-topographic features such as roads, recreational trails, pipelines, powerlines, mountain peak labels or elevations, pubic buildings and structures, railroads, remote roads, campgrounds by 1990 due to budget constraints. The new National Map which started coming out in 2009 has none of these features, so you have to rely on 50’s-era historic USGS maps, even if they’re out of date.

What kind of information is missing, out-of-date, or incorrect on older USGS maps or current backcountry maps produced by third parties?

  • Maps leave out information useful for route finding such as property lines, old roads, ski trails, snowmobile trails, power lines, and are often quite activity-specific for hiking, mountain-biking, skiing, etc. rather than general purpose.
  • Maps capture a snapshot in time and are often considerably out of date due to changes to the physical landscape caused by avalanches or floods, bridge washouts, trail closings, road construction, business closings, etc.
  • Maps don’t reflect local weather patterns, snow coverage, avalanche danger, water levels, drought conditions, fire conditions, forest coverage, or vegetation density which can all throw a serious wrench into your intended route.
  • Map scale may be too abstract (for example the 1:100,000 scale maps provided with many GPS units) to provide enough information to make good route decisions for foot-travel.
My Map Drawer: I use multiple maps whenever I plan off-trail trips and collect new ones that might be relevant for my area.
My map drawer: I use multiple maps whenever I plan off-trail trips and collect new ones that might be relevant for my area since they contain different information.

Expert Navigation Strategies

Expert navigators use three core strategies to cope with incomplete, out-of-date, and incorrect maps during the planning and travel phases of backcountry trips.

  1. Gathering map and route information from multiple sources, including historical sources
  2. Knowing how to stay found by following landforms, often called handrails.
  3. Taking the most energy-efficient route to a destination.

Gathering Maps and Route Information from Multiple Sources

When planning routes, it’s good to collect route information from multiple sources. One strategy is to collect different paper maps, including activity-specific maps for hiking, skiing, or snowmobiling. Knowing that you’re likely to come across a snowmobile trail, can be a good clue about your location if you don’t have or use a GPS. That same trail can provide an easier route than plunging off-trail into dense vegetation or deep snow if it goes in the direction you want to go.

In addition to paper maps, many online planning tools such as Caltopo.com and Hillmap.com include free maps, historical maps, and satellite imagery that you can use to plan routes. They also let you superimpose them on top of one another, called layering (illustrated below), which is useful for combining them into a single composite view.

Local trip reports published online by other hikers, online discussion groups, weather forecasts, regional weather patterns, fire history, river gauges and avalanche forecasts can also provide valuable information for planning routes.

What backcountry streams are near hiking trails? Google Map overlaid with Hiking Trails from OpenStreetMap in Caltopo.com.
An example of two overlaid maps: Google Maps is overlaid with crowd-sourced hiking trail routes from the OpenStreetMap using the Caltopo.com online mapping tool.

Knowing How to Stay Found by following Landforms

One of the marks of an expert navigator is defining and using routes that follow obvious terrain features, often called handrails. This is a good fall-back strategy when roads or existing trails don’t head in the direction you need to walk or you don’t know about them. Handrails include rivers, streams, mountain passes, ridgelines, and other easy to follow landforms that make it possible to know where you are with reasonable certainty.

It also means that you don’t have to constantly check your a GPS or compass to make sure you’re on the right bearing. For example, you can hike beside a river, hike through a valley, or climb a ridgeline shown on your map and know where you are as long as you walk adjacent or on that landform. You can link together these handrails with other landmarks like stream crossings or mountain summits to form easy to follow routes and always know where you are.

Hike along the logging road until you come to a stream, then head up the ridge to the summit of Bald Peak.
Some handrail examples: Hike along the river on what looks like an old forest road until you come to a stream, then head south up the ridge to the summit of Bald Peak. Mapping program: Hillmap.com

Taking the Most Energy Efficient Route

A third navigation strategy use by expert navigators is the notion of energy efficiency, or following the route that uses the least amount of energy to get to your destination. If you watch animals in the wild or come across game trails, you’ll see that they take the easiest route to get from one place to another.

This strategy is especially relevant for GPS unit or GPS-smartphone app users, since as-the-bird-flies routes from one waypoint to another generated by a GPS device are often not the most energy-efficient routes to take.

If your map(s) depicts hiking trails, logging roads, forest service roads, or powerlines, they can be the most expeditious way to get from one point to another. But in their absence, you need to fall back on heuristics about different landforms, whether they’re easy to follow, or whether they should be avoided.

For instance, certain landforms are not easy to hike along or traverse, such as stream gullies which fill up with dense vegetation or crossing steep slopes which are likely to contain fallen trees and rock debris. Hiking around these obstacles rather than picking your way through them is much easier, faster, and safer.

Wrap Up

Becoming a good backcountry navigator takes practice, especially because you’ll usually be using maps that have inaccurate or out-of-date information. Knowing how to obtain and assemble different mapping sources; understanding what information is accurate, what’s missing, and what’s probably out of date; and how to navigate efficiently in the field using natural features; are all the marks of an expert navigator.

It doesn’t matter if you hike, bike, backcountry ski, or hunt or if you use a compass, GPS unit, smartphone app to follow a route, incomplete and out-of-date maps are the norm and here to stay. Learn how to find your way across the landscape despite them and you’ll be self-sufficient.

14 comments

  1. When I started using Caltopo I noticed that I liked the USFS maps a lot better than the USGS where available. I realize that their coverage is limited to FS land, and therefore many places where we hike are not covered. Am I right in guessing that the USFS does update certain man-made features? I also suffer from a type of mild color blindness, and the USFS maps pop more for me. Just easier to read. Particularly this 2016 edition I just found last week on Caltopo. Love it!

    But I do agree with you that multiple sources yield better navigation when going on an extended trip or on a trip where the need to bail out is more likely, as the more information you have allows you to make more informed decisions, and also love the historic maps on Caltopo.

    • Yes, they’ve started to maintain their own GIS database for capturing trail information but if you thought the USGS had budget problems….

      There is a mapping data revolution underway called layering which the USFS maps likely use, where they layer their info on top of a base map. This allow them to get rid of the distracting colors and properties on the old USGS photocopies, but you’re still stuck with an activity specific map.

      More than hiking trails, I wish the USFS, the NPS, and states would update and manage their gated road data but you can see the problem this presents. When you push Data ownership away from a central authority down the budget tree you get very inconsistent data if you get any at all.

  2. You alluded to data quality problems with crowd-sourced data sets like Openmap. Can you elaborate?

    • The OpenMap project includes hiking trail mapping data contributed by people like you and me. I’ve uploaded GPX files myself for inclusion in their data set (although you have to jump through a lot of hoops to massage Gaia tracks into the format they require.) These are used in Mapbuilder layer in Caltopo and for the most part they reflect real hiking trails.

      Now I mainly speak for my experiences using the OpenMap data encoded in the MapBuilder layer in Caltopo for the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire and Maine. I’m not sure my observations are consistent with the experience people have for regions outside this geographic area.

      The problem with the Mapbuilder layer is that it includes “trails” that are no longer maintained and which are now considered bushwhacks and it doesn’t include trails that do exist. An example, the Firewarden’s Trail on Mt Hale is labelled as a trail although its been closed for decades. Overall, the Mapbuilder coverage for the White is very impressive as far as AMC hiking trails go although there are still a lot of trails missing, but a lot of the other data I allude to above is not included in the layer and may simply not exist.

      I’ll just list a bunch of other trails identified in the Mapbuilder layer which don’t actually exist as maintained hiking trails or that do exist and aren’t mapped. This is not complete – just me eyeballing the trail system from memory since I’ve hiked most of it.

      Firewarden’s Trail – closed, not maintained
      Dickey Notch Trail (north half) – not maintained
      Polecat Trail (part of Wildcat ski area and costs money to hike in winter)
      Mountain Pond East, not a hiking trail
      Unnamed Trail south of Eastman Southern Peak in Evans Notch, not a hiking trail
      19 Mile Brook Spur northeast of Little Wildcat, not a hiking trail
      Most of the Pine Link Trail is missing
      East part of Cherry Mtn Trail Missing
      Owls head (cherry) Trail Missing
      Bunch of trails northest of Loon Mtn which aren’t hiking trails.
      The Black Pond Bushwhack is most certainly not a trail
      The snowmobiles tarils north and south of the A-Z trails are not hiking trails
      The XC trails at Bretton woods are private and cost money to use in winter.
      The dozen or so hiking trails in Randolph are completely missing. Great hiking here too!
      Section of the York Pond Trail is closed to landowner dispute
      Northern section of the Kilkenny Trail is missing
      Most of the Nash stream forest trail system is missing
      Northern Mill Brook Trail missing
      Hastings Trail (first example) is not a hiking traill and maintained.
      All the Deer Hill and Conant Trails in Evans Notch are missing
      All the Albany Mtn Trails are missing
      Wheeler Pond Trail missing
      None of the Austin Brook/Mt Ingalls Area Trails
      Goose Eye Trail missing
      Wright Trail Missing
      Most of the Grafton Loop is missing

      You’d be better off buying the AMC maps even though they’re limited to hiking trails.

  3. By far one of the most frustrating obstacles I’ve found associated with hiking. It seems absurd that with all the technological advancements this isn’t being remedied. I know budget budget budget.

  4. A good map saved our bacon on a trip to the Roaring Plains Wilderness in WV. Our day started out great but then the rain came, which was a 20% chance. There were very limited campsites on this hike; the one that did exist and we had planned on was small and in use, to our surprise and dismay…..

    We had to follow the “trail” with a GPS and a map. The trail was through waist/chest high brush/overgrowth that was so difficult that we had to turn our bodies sideways to get through. In addition, the trail was mud and almost a stream…..

    Tony and Bryce (Hiking Upward guys) each had a map and found a cut-off to a pipeline that we had previously crossed. There was an access road to this pipeline that was graveled and clear. Otherwise the trail out would have been through wet woods and difficult. We arrived back at our vehicles at 10 p.m. and drove home, arriving at 2 a.m.

    Never underestimate the need for an accurate map…..

    Thanks for the article, Philip.

    • Thank you for this link. It will be handy. I have a sign shop with a wide format printer and have been printing maps I download from USGS. I print them on both sides on waterproof paper. This link of yours will help me when I don’t need a whole map or want to customize a bit more. The National Geographic site is MUCH easier to use than the USGS one.

      I use Backcountry Navigator Pro on my S7 Edge and download maps from many sources for my hiking. I also look for .gpx tracks in some areas. Out in the West Texas deserts, I find satellite photography useful for finding obscure trails not marked on the official maps.

  5. I LOVE Caltopo maps, it’s a great resource. In addition to that I like to use http://www.natgeomaps.com/trail-maps/pdf-quads which gives me topo maps in easily printable PDF format for whatever I’m looking for. The standard nationalmap.gov topo map download page is pretty horrible and cumbersome, but the natgeomaps.com page is so easy to just click on the quad you want and save it as a pdf or print it easily.

    I haven’t used a traditional paper map in so long, I just print out what I need when I need it. Combined with my smartphone apps, I have a pretty close to complete picture of where I’m going.

  6. A great and informative post. A very small error: the Hastings Trail was official at least until the late 80’s. It appeared in the White Mountain Guide at that time. As the trail basically went from nowhere to nowhere, it’s debatable if it was maintained, though.

  7. Another resource I use quite a bit is this archive of historical USGS topo maps:
    http://historicalmaps.arcgis.com/usgs/

    These older maps show me where former trails and roads might have been, sometimes providing me with clues when bushwhacking.

    Nice article and discussion all around.

    • I found a good bushwhack route in Arkansas by checking a hundred year old map, which showed a road to our destination. We found it, and it helped, although it was very overgrown, but certainly easier than what we were doing. I don’t think I would have even tried getting to that old homestead that way without the courage I developed from reading this blog.

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