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Off Road Nav Part 1: Paper Maps

Written by  Shane Williams
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When it comes to off roading and spending time in the woods, perhaps the most important pieces of equipmentare your navigational aids. Our FJ’s can go just about anywhere. But, if you don’t know how to get there and back your trip will not be nearly as enjoyable, and also dangerous.

In the next few issues, we’re going to cover several types of navigation options. We’ll start with paper maps, then discuss portable GPS systems and finally, we’ll cover in-dash options. Each of these options has pros and cons that will be cover in detail.

A Necessity
A good set of paper maps for the area you’ll be wheeling in, is an absolute necessity. Even if you use a GPS, the ability to navigate with a paper map will save you hours of frustration, and could save your life. Remember that electronics are not 100% reliable. You can run out of batteries, drop your GPS in a river, or suffer some type of failure eventually. It’s not a question of if, it’s just a matter of when. I tell everyone, “It’s not the 99 times you don’t need it, it’s the 1 time you do” when it comes to safety gear. So the question is, with hundreds of different map products, which is the best?

The one paper map that I ALWAYS bring is the Gazetteer , from DeLorme. I’ve carried a Gazetteer in my rig since I first moved to Colorado over 12 years ago. I never go into the woods without it, ever. If I plan on spending a fair amount of time in another state, I’ll pickup the Gazetteer for that state as well. DeLorme produces a Gazetteer for most states. The major advantages of this map book includes information on campgrounds, lakes, rivers, scenic drives, and various other places of interest. The very detailed maps include National Forest / BLM land, forest roads, hiking trails, campgrounds and campsites, mines, ghost towns, etc.
While a Gazetteer is an excellent resource, these maps have a few limitations. They are updated fairly regularly (every few years), so they usually last at least 5 years with proper care. This means that some important information (especially regarding trail closures) will most likely be missing. As a result, I never recommend that the Gazetteer be your only map. Additionally, with a scale of 1:300,000 (What does Scale mean?), it does not always work well for off roading, and certainly won’t work for hiking. For this reason there are a few other map resources you should consider.

Local Maps
I refer to maps with a scale of 1:100,000 or smaller as ‘local maps’. These maps are generally topographic, and usually cover just a portion of a state, and sometimes just one county or National Forest District. The great thing about maps of this type is that they provide enough detail to really figure out where you are and where you want to go. I guess the western states have an advantage in this regard with so many prominent features, it’s easy to determine location based on the features around you. These maps usually include more detailed trails as well. Roads, dirt roads, 4x4 roads, and hiking trails are usually very easy to distinguish.

There are several sources for maps of this type. One of the most popular, is the National Geographic Trails Illustrated series. These maps are available fo popular areas of the majority of the western states, and several eastern states as well. Unfortunately, the middle of the country is not covered very well by this map series.

Another option for local maps is the US Geological Survey (USGS). Most of the data used to create every other map products comes from the USGS. USGS Topo maps also cover every inch of the US, and all the maps are available for purchase. Additionally, USGS data can be downloaded to create custom maps (see our special “Custom Topo” feature). A quick trip to the online USGS store will allow you to purchase a couple different types of maps. The 1:100,000 (100k) scale maps cover a fairly large area, yet include very good detail for off road driving. The 1:24,000 (24k) maps cover a much smaller area, and include MUCH more detail. There are over 400 24k maps for Colorado alone. Usually 24k maps are ‘overkill’ for off road driving, but I prefer them for hiking and backpacking.

A final option for local maps is online resources. There are dozens of websites that promise to deliver custom printed topo maps of the specific area you like. We’ve tested a few different services, and recommend either http://www.adventurestation.com or http://www.mytopo.com . The full details of our test can be found at fjc-mag.com.

Lastly, I do want to mention 4x4 Guide Books . Many books have been published covering off road trails in several states. Colorado has 5 or 6 different 4x4 guide books. While these are great resources for trail information and are recommended, they should not be your sole resource for navigation. It’s common for these books to include detailed information such as GPS coordinates, landmarks, and points of interest. However, they may not always include accurate maps. 

In the next issue of FJC Magazine, we’ll discuss several GPS options. I’ll be covering basic handheld units, mapping handheld units, and portable units from several manufacturers.

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