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Intro | Content | Resources | Opinion & Disclaimer | Q & A

The Joy of Not Planning: RESOURCES

by Phil Romig Jr.

The resources available today—especially online—make it much easier to do all of those steps.

  1. Traditional paper (topo maps, trail maps, trail guides) never will go out of style.
    1. You can buy them from outdoor stores such as REI, order them online or download them from web sites. 
    2. Maps based on the USGS 7.5 minute quadrangles provide the most detail about topography, but they can be several tens of years old, so cultural features such as trails, roads, fences, structures, etc. can be missing or in the wrong place.
    3. Up-to-date trail maps and trail guides are more likely to show accurate locations of trails, but they tend to be at lower resolution.
    4. A map that has a UTM grid on it can be very useful when using dead reckoning or estimating distances while on the trail.
  2. For many trekkers, online resources are more-readily available and easier to use.
    1. It doesn’t matter whether an outdoor retail store is nearby.
    2. You can draw routes and label compass directions and distances, mark waypoints with coordinates, and display elevation profiles, right on the screen.
    3. Topographic maps have great detail, but it is difficult for many to “read” the topography.  Shaded relief maps can be a great help in knowing whether something is a ridge or a gully.
    4. In addition to shaded relief maps, satellite photos can help identify hazards, evaluate the difficulty of routes and find potential campsites.  In many areas, satellite images have remarkably high resolution.
    5. Some online trail guides include photographs of, or taken from, key points along the trail.  Some web sites allow the public to post photos and comments about current trail conditions, route changes, etc.   All of these can help you plan for the unexpected.
    6. Some online sources allow you to switch between different views, all at the same scale and referenced to the same locations.  This allows you to compare trail routes, topography, shaded relief maps, satellite photos, trail guides, etc. to develop a better idea of what to expect, including:
      • The actual location of trails
      • Key reference points where you can check you progress on the trail
      • Possible campsites, fishing holes, etc.
      • Decisions about potential hazards or difficult trail sections
  3. There are many online sources, both free and paid.
    1. Use a search engine such as Google to search for key words and phrases such as topographic maps, trail guides, trail maps, satellite photos, hiking guides, GPS, etc.
    2. Check Android or Apple app stores using similar search terms to find sources or software that fit your needs.
    3. The ones that I use regularly are:
      • Google Earth and Google Maps (free) - works on almost any device with adequate screen size and resolution.  Allows you to switch between road maps, terrain (shaded relief), satellite photos and other views.  Can draw routes, see elevation profiles, mark waypoints and see photos others have taken along the trail.
      • alltrails.com (free and paid) - useful information is available free of charge, but a paid subscription ($50/year) allows you to access terrain (shaded relief) maps, satellite photos, road maps, National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps (with more-detailed and up-to-the minute information about trails), topographic maps from the old Topo! software, World Topo, OCM (Open Cycle Maps), and OSM (Wiki Open Street Maps).  They also have an extensive library of trail descriptions and guides.  It also allows you plot routes and waypoints and shows elevation profiles.
      • trails.com (free and paid) - also works in most browsers, and a lot of useable information is available for free, but a paid subscription ($50/year) gives you access to more resources and map downloads.  Main emphasis is on trail guides and topographic maps.  Allows a free 14-day trial subscription.
      • GPS software (free) - Some manufacturers of dedicated GPS units make available trip planning software that is well-integrated with their GPS units.  It usually includes topographic or terrain maps, planning software, upload-download utilities, etc. (I have seven different Garmin programs on my computer) and may have the advantage of not requiring a connection to the internet.  Some provide for the inclusion of satellite photos and geocaching data but not trail guides.  However, free trail guides are available through a variety of internet sites and mobile applications.
  4. Once you have obtained the desired topo map, trail map and trail guide for your trip, and prepared route maps, satellite photos and other useful information for the trail, I strongly recommend making paper copies to carry on the trip.  They can be your only recourse if electronic devices fail or batteries burn out. 
    1. Duplicate paper material on a copy machine or scan it to create images on your computer.
    2. Online material can be converted to printable images on your computer.
    3. Print or scan the images on waterproof and tear-resistant paper available at outdoor stores
    4. National Geographic Adventure Paper which makes waterproof, tear resistant images using a color inkjet printer
    5. Make duplicates of everything (on plain paper to save money) and give it to family or friends so that they will know where you are and when you expect to return.


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