Have you ever heard the expression, “maps lie?” It’s due to the fact that all maps, including topographic hiking maps, leave out information deemed irrelevant for their intended use. This is even true of the maps published by the US Geological Survey (USGS) which are considered the gold standard for maps in the United States.
Topographic maps are designed to provide a three-dimensional view of the world using contours lines to reflect changes in elevation. If the contour interval is very small, they capture a lot of detail. But if the contour interval is large, like 100′ or more, a lot of detail is lost. This isn’t a big deal if you’re hiking on a well-defined trail which avoids annoying obstacles like small cliffs and gullies, but if you’re traveling cross country, a large contour interval obscures small dips and bulges in the landscape that require a lot more energy to bypass or hike over.
When it comes to hiking trail maps, many map makers don’t include other types of trails on their maps even though they intersect each other or are located nearby (see below). But if you’re bushwhacking, geocaching, hunting, fishing, surveying, or any number of other activities, this missing information is important to know about because it can make it easier to move around in the backcountry.
- logging roads
- fire roads
- forest service roads
- snowmobile trails
- ATV trails
- rail trails
- mountain biking trails
- ski trails
Other Missing Information
There are other types of information that are often missing or out of date on hiking trail maps and USGS topographical maps, that’s also very useful if you stray away from well-established trails.
- Private property boundaries, which are important if you need prior permission to enter someone else’s property to camp, hunt, or fish there.
- New trails, trail reroutes, and trail closures.
- Bridges, especially footbridges that have been washed away by spring floods.
- Major landform changes such as changed river watercourse flows, flash flood damage, and avalanche slides.
- Large scale man-made changes like timber cuts or new roads.
Planning, planning, planning
The best way to overcome the missing information found on maps is to collect a lot of different maps when planning a route, including online or digital maps in apps.
- Caltopo.com is an online planning tool that I use frequently to plan hikes and backpacking trips. It is free to use online and provides many different views (maps) of the same area, including historic USGS maps which are very useful for finding old trails and roads.
- The Gaia Phone App also contains a lot of different maps, but is very focused on trail hiking as opposed to off-trail hiking.
- The OnX Hunt App is the antidote to Gaia’s hiking trail focus and is designed more for off-trail hunting, scouting, and bushwhacking. It contains many more trail types including logging roads, snowmobile, and ATV trails. It also lists private property boundaries and owner names so you can get permission to cross private property.
- Don’t forget to check the free maps distributed by the USFS, NPS, and BLM when looking for information about unpaved roads.
- Local shops frequently carry maps of local ATV or snowmobile trails that are worth buying when you see them.
- Also, be sure to seek out local sources such as online forums, Facebook groups, newsgroups, and trip reports to obtain up to date information.
More Frequently Asked Questions
- Backpacking Clothing – What Should You Pack For the Trail?
- Do You Need Rain Pants for Hiking and Backpacking?
- What are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Trekking Pole Tents?
- Do You Need a Backpack Rain Cover?
- Why Do I Get Wet Inside my Rain Jacket?