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Do You (Still) Need Maps to Hike the Appalachian Trail?

Waterproof Appalachian Trail Maps and Guide Book
Waterproof Appalachian Trail Maps and Guide Book

What a question! Do you still need maps to hike a Triple Crown Trail? But an honest one, since the Appalachian Trail is so well blazed, signed, and heavily traveled that you can often just follow the groove eroded in the ground, the white blazes or other hikers headed your way.

But despite advances in technology such as Guthook’s Cell Phone App of the Appalachian Trail and much better off-trail documentation, like David Miller’s fabulous AT Guide, you DO still need to carry maps, preferably waterproof maps, on the Appalachian Trail to navigate:

  • To find and follow local blue-blazed trails that connect the AT to towns and road crossings
  • Places where the trail is deliberately less blazed, within Wilderness Areas
  • Along existing trail systems that the AT follows. For example, the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
  • To navigate to water sources if you run out between marked springs or shelters
  • To identify possible campsites, based on topographic features
  • To hike side trails and nearby scenic locations that the AT passes but are not on the trail.
  • To figure out what your compass declination should be in the region you are hiking since it varies so much up and down the trail.
ATC map of Central Virginia
ATC map of Central Virginia

Which Maps are Best?

The best maps of the AT are published by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy because they’re waterproof the most up to date and your purchase helps to support the organization that oversees the trail. The ATC’s maps are broken out by state, and in some cases by region within a state, They come packed with a guidebook, which you can leave at home, although it provides much historic information not found in other sources that are more portable.

[quote]Shoe Creek Gap: The area was famous for moon shine. In one 1928 raid, officers found 11 stills, 9100 gallons of mash, 1155 gallons of whiskey, huge copper kettles with a capacity of 1750 gallons, and 258 fermenters. They “poured their contents into Shoe Creek, making it appear like hog slop,” according to a source quoted in an earlier edition of this guidebook.[/quote]

You can also buy the complete set at once, although it is pricey. If you’re a section hiker, I’d recommend buying them as you need them, instead of all at once since, they’ll probably be updated before you get there.

Other Map Sources

There are other places to source Appalachian Maps as well.  K. Scott Parks has published the Appalachian Trail Pocket Map series, which is bound in book form rather than maps, making them less useful for trail use. Delorme Gazetteers are another option, also paper based, with an excellent amount of fine detail, although they’re probably best used to find remote trail heads and parking lots on the AT in more rural locations.

Local maps of specific regions can also be useful to obtain when following the AT is confusing, as in New Hampshire. There, I’d recommend buying the White Mountain Waterproof Trail Map, since most hikers there have no idea where the AT is and but ate intimate with the local 1500 mile trail system which the AT follows. If you’re thru-hiking, you can drop this map into a mail drop before you enter New Hampshire, and then sell it to a SOBO somewhere in Maine.

If you’re tempted to print out your own maps using freely available trail data from a source like Caltopo.com, I’d advise against it. The USGS maps that it uses are quite out of date (on the order of 50 years) and many sections don’t even show the route of the Appalachian Trail, depending on the area. If up-to-date information is a priority, I’d recommend you stick with a commercial waterproof map instead.

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15 comments

  1. In my hiking of the white Mountians I’ve spoken with a fair share of thru hikers. They were asking about camp sites and general questions. In a few cases they would have unreasonable expectations of how far they would get in a given day given the conditions(so much mud) or terrain. A map and local information would have helped fix the plan. End of the day I would say you probably don’t need one but I think a map is worth the weight to all but the staunchest of ultra-light hikers.

  2. On marked and well maintained trails, I stopped carrying maps years ago. Dead weight, in my opinion. On my phone, which I carry in any case, I can download the maps I need that will provide all of the information I need for the hike.

  3. Well having worked with my former employers Volunteer SAR Unit on an off over the years I would suggest that they would not be too happy about you even giving some people the idea to leave the Maps, Compasses and GPS’s Units at home because so many people get lost driving around the Block in their own neighborhood…And I personally would not want to hike with any one who believed in doing that…They are a danger to themselves an others…

    • I just remembered this after reading one of your prior posts…In the National Forest I hike in there are a variety of Colored Trail Markers depending on what activity you are doing Backpacking, Horseback Riding and now Mountain Bike Trails…At the current trail heads for Backpacking there is no Sign telling you what the different Colors mean.. So in theory if your hiking without a Map or Compass you could run into some problems, especially if your inexperienced. One good thing and maybe not is that the Non-Backpacking Trails tend to be circular in lay out you could find yourself going in Circles….

  4. wandering virginia

    Interesting choice of maps for you to feature in your photograph, as the southern portion of the map in the photo contains the single largest A.T. re-route from 2014, so I know you have the latest version. Time is the enemy of all maps, and an old map can be just as bad as no map at all.

  5. I grew up around maps. When I got my first lensatic compass as a child, my father, who’d done quite a bit of surveying in his geophysical work, took me to a park and we “surveyed” it and drew a map. Even if I know an area well and have all the maps on my phone, I also like a paper copy. I can see a much larger area and it also helps me figure out bail out routes if some unexpected situation arises. To me, a topo map is like having a good book. I can scout and visualize a journey through a place with the map and I can relive past adventures with the same. My waterproof map also became part of our shelter from the elements earlier this year when a day hike went awry–something my Galaxy S4 is incapable of.

    • What! You didn’t get the UmbrellaApp?

      • The Galaxy S5 is waterproof. Maybe it has an UmbrellaApp. My Galaxy S3 was definitely not waterproof-3 dunks in 2 weeks completely finished it off, which is why I ended up with an S4 (sans UmbrellaApp).

        I haven’t decided on my next phone. It will be Android so I can use Backcountry Navigator but I want better sunlight readability than the S4 has. On Franconia Ridge, the sun was so bright I couldn’t read the screen at all even when I tried to shade the phone.

      • I guess if I’d gotten an Apple, I could use iBrella. I just Googled it and there is an iBrella, but it wouldn’t have helped… although it would have made the waiting less boring!

  6. Great topic Phillip. I have recently entertained the idea of leaving the maps behind on the AT in Maine where I live. But reading the topo maps is great reading for me especially at the end of a long day. I can study the maps for hours and never grow tired of it. And as experienced as I may think I am I have still found myself confused at times – Often where the trail crosses a road. I am excited about getting the Guthook app for the AT but I would never trust a battery powered device as sole navigation tool. I believe the statistic is that men in their 30s and 40s on solo trips are most likely to become lost. Just a few years back a man from Ohio got lost for days on the AT on Mt Katahdin. Seems hard to imagine getting lost on that section of trail.

  7. Andrew Skurka commented that the AT is so well marked, that if he got lost on it, he would have to rethink his line of work. From what I hiked of it, I would have to agree. I also have to agree with your assessment of the White Mountains part of the AT since it follows existing trails that predate the AT and have their own names. People constantly get lost trying to follow the AT through the White Mountains. Even with maps, I get confuzzled.

    • I have some with me now (on the AT) and I’ve found them handy for finding road crossings that are wrong in the AT guide or simply not listed. While you can probably hike most of the AT without a map, I enjoy carrying them and find them useful.

  8. Having a map on any thru hike is a necessity. You never know if you will encounter a area where the trail is covered. It is also good to track distance.

  9. I recently upgraded to the newest ATC maps for my local Connecticut A.T. I guess they will prove better, but I miss the dense and prominent contour lines of the old series. They really showed the “shape” of the land.

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