How to read a trail map
A good trail map is one of the most valuable items you can carry on a hike. It tells you what lies ahead and helps you make wise decisions. It empowers you to explore and opens up new possibilities. But if you’re new to using trail maps, there are some things that are easy to overlook or misinterpret.
To help you get the most information possible out of your trail maps, here are a few insights and tips from Maine map creators.
Maps vary greatly
“You read a map like you read a book,” said Angela Faeth, who co-owns Map Adventures, a Portland-based mapmaking business, with her husband Steve Bushey.
And like books, maps come in many varieties. Some are extremely simple while others are more complex. Some exist in paper form, while others are available through technology such as mobile apps or websites.
Faeth and Bushey have created both printed and digital trail maps for major outdoor destinations throughout Maine, including Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park, and they see the value of both. A digital trail map can help orient you by placing you at a specific location (given you have phone reception or a GPS device) while a printed map often offers a larger, more detailed view of an area.
“A greater view of an area is really helpful in imagining everything ahead of you and around you, showing you all your options,” Bushey said.
Even if you plan to use a digital map on your hike, it’s a good idea to carry a printed trail map as a backup. Phone and GPS device batteries can die. Many places in Maine do not get cell phone reception. In the wilderness, there are many ways technology can fail.
“Digital maps can be handy, but if you lose your phone, you lose your map,” Faeth said.
Most trail maps feature a compass or north arrow that reveals how the map is oriented.
This may be important to pay attention to when you’re deciding which way to turn at a trail intersection. Using a compass, you can find north, then turn your map until its compass lines up with your own. Or, if you know what trail you hiked in on, you can orient your map by turning it until it matches up with that trail.
Failing to orient yourself is one of the most common mistakes people make when using a trail map, Faeth said. It can mean the difference between turning left or right. Also, having a compass with you and knowing how to use it may be helpful if you become lost.
Read contour lines
Overlooking or misreading contour lines is another common mistake that people make when reading trail maps. Contour lines show changes in elevation and are sometimes labeled with numbers, which indicate feet above sea level.
“If the numbers are going up, you’re going to be going uphill. If the contour lines are closer together, that means you’re going up to the next level in a shorter distance, so it’s steeper,” said Hope Rowan, who is a GIS (geographic information system) specialist for Center for Community GIS, a Maine-based company that creates maps for organizations such as land trusts and provides training on how to use various mapping tools. She has also written and created maps for kid-friendly hiking guides, including “Ten Days in the North Woods: A Kids’ Hiking Guide to the Katahdin Region.”
Contour lines, she said, are one of the most important features of a hiking map. With enough experience, map readers can look at contour lines and picture ridges, ravines, steep slopes and flat areas. The lines give a map dimension.
Pay attention to scale
Most trail maps have a scale that tells you how a distance on the map corresponds to a distance on the ground. For example, one inch on the map could equal 1 mile on the ground. This is often expressed by a scale bar, which in this case would be a 1-inch line with the label “1 mile.” Scales can also be in text form; for example: 1 inch = 1 mile.
“The scale is very important,” Rowan said. “It tells you how zoomed in you are, so to speak. So a large scale map is more close up and a small scale map is farther away.”
A scale can help you measure approximately how long a hiking trail is if the exact distance is not written on the map. It can also give you an idea of how generalized a map’s features might be. For example, if the scale is 1 inch = 5 miles, the map is probably too “zoomed out” to show small twists and turns of a trail.
Refer to the legend
A map’s legend or key tells you what all the different icons, colors and types of lines on a map mean. Usually contained inside a box, this feature helps you interpret the map. For example, it may tell you that a red line represents a hiking trail, while a blue line represents a road.
Consult your map often
Another common mistake people make while hiking is not consulting their map frequently enough, Bushey said.
“One of the ways of staying found is always knowing where you are,” Bushey said. “If you’re hiking along a trail and you decide not to check your map, you may walk past the intersection you should have turned at.”
If you realize that you can’t find your location on your trail map and are worried you’re headed in the wrong direction, Bushey suggests backtracking to the last location you can find on the map, such as a trail intersection or body of water.
“That can really save people a lot of agony or at least get them home at a better time,” Bushey said. “I think people get a little bit stubborn sometimes and just refuse to figure out where they are. Usually that doesn’t turn out well.”
Keeping track of where you are on your map can also help search and rescue teams locate you in the case that you become injured and need to call for help because you can better communicate where you are.
Don’t rely entirely on a map
Maps can’t show you everything you’ll encounter on a landscape.
“A map is a representation of the world and not the actual world, which sounds obvious, but sometimes you have to keep it in mind,” Rowan said. “A map could show a trail going south, but you could be facing east at any given moment. That’s because the trail is generalized on the map and won’t show every twist and turn.”
In some cases, maps age out. Faeth suggests that people use the most recently published trail map of a location because trail systems are constantly changing. Sometimes trails are re-routed or decommissioned. New trails are often constructed. Footbridges wash out. Campsites are added.
“You can keep your old maps, though,” Faeth said. “There’s good history there.”
While brushing up on your own map skills, share your experience with others. This is especially easy if you’re out exploring a trail with other people.
“If hiking in a group, spreading a map out invites conversation,” Faeth said. “You’re all looking at it together.”
Also, spread out the responsibility of navigation. If in a group, carry multiple trail maps. That way you can take turns making decisions and, if your group decides to split up, there are enough maps to go around.
“What I find is everyone loves maps,” Rowan said. “People respond to them for whatever reason. I think maybe it has to do with that sense of exploration. It opens up the imagination. Or maybe it’s the information it can provide, or the way it communicates and tells stories.”