Experienced hikers swear by a map and compass for finding their way around, and for getting out of tight spots, and learning to read a map is one of the essential skills for any novice hiker.
Although you might think that it should be the other way around, you’ll find that most experienced hikers rely on maps to navigate their way along trails and through wilderness areas and novices who feel that they can simply ‘wing it’. The novice often assumes that there’s no need to go through the hard work necessary to learn to use a map and that sticking to well-worn trails will be fine. Unfortunately, that’s a mistaken view.
You really can get seriously lost, even near clearly marked trails and even stepping a few yards off the trail into heavy woodland has confused more than one beginner. Without the benefit of the sun, stars or geographical markers it’s very easy to get turned around and to end up walking even farther from the trail and getting yourself lost in no time at all.
Now in the example above a map won’t necessarily help you out of that particular wood by itself. However, you’ll normally run across another trail which, unknown to you, hooks up with the one you were on and a good map will help you to easily find your way back to your starting point.
So, where do you start?
Get hold of an up-to-date map which covers the area you intend to hike in and start by studying it at home in a relaxed environment. You won’t of course be able to match the map to the features you see, but it will help you to learn and understand the symbols used on the map.
All maps will have a legend (which will differ slightly from one publisher to the next) and you should familiarize yourself with the symbols. You also need to understand the scale of the map which will be clearly printed on it as something like 1 inch = 1 mile.
Remember though that distance is only part of the story and that 1 inch representing 1 mile on level ground is a very different thing from 1 inch representing 1 mile over an area that includes a steep winding path up the side of a 2,000 foot cliff.
To factor in the latter, you need to consider altitude which is marked on the map by a series of curved lines that, if ‘stretched out’ would make a circle. The distance between two curved lines around some natural feature like a large hill indicates the altitude. Often there will also be numbers printed along the lines to help you. These are sometimes called contour lines. The closer the lines are together, the steeper the terrain.
Next, study the longitude and latitude lines. Longitude lines run ‘up and down’, or north and south, while latitude lines run ‘right and left’, or east and west. Those directions are put in quotes because they’re all just conventions.
In the daytime you can use the sun and natural features to orient the map so that it is aligned with the ground over which you’re hiking. The sun rises in the East and sets in the West so, early in the day, find the sun and you are facing roughly East. Similarly, late in the day, face the setting sun and you are facing more or less West. This is not an exact bearing, but it’s a good starting point.
At night, you can use the stars and you can often see the sky reasonably well as most wilderness areas are a long way from the glow of city lights. On of the great joys of hiking is to be able to walk out under the stars and familiarizing yourself with such formations as Orion and the Big Dipper, as well as the North Star of course, is not only very satisfying in itself, but also a great aid to navigation.
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