Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me A Map

We live in a wonderful time where virtually the entire earth has satellite coverage and GPS devices can tell you where you are, where you're going, and how long it will take to get there. When they work properly, they're the height of navigational technology.

When they don't work properly, they can very easily get you killed.

The easiest way to prevent GPS tragedies is to use an ancient navigation technology: maps. They require no batteries, are durable, and are fairly cheap to obtain. They come in a variety of styles to suit your needs, and are useful from the very planning stages of your trips (in other words, before you even leave home). Pair them with a GPS and a bit of common sense, and you can find your way there and back again without unforeseen incidents.

There are a wide range of map styles and scales available, and the ones you choose will depend on your intended use. For road trips, I reach for a road map or an atlas. When I leave the pavement for the backcountry, I pack topographical maps.

Road maps focus on the highways and byways. Individual maps detail a single area, usually a state, while an Atlas is a collection of maps. In the USA, atlases commonly show all 50 states at a decent resolution, and may provide main street details of major cities. Very large cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago can warrant full-size road maps of their own.

When I get off the blacktop, my map choice shifts to topographical maps. These maps focus on the contours of the land and any natural features and landmarks in a given area. The better ones also show if parcels of land are privately or publicly owned, or have restricted access. My favorite topo maps are from the US Geological Survey. They're accurate, priced well, and are scaled to a very useful size.

Whether they're road maps or topo maps, all maps need two things to be of any use. The first is an orientation indicator, which lets you point your map and compass in the same direction, so you have an idea where you're headed.

The second needed item is a scale, which gives you a consistent reference for distance on your map. Because a 1 inch:1 inch map would be useless, they are scaled down -- shrunken to a more usable size while keeping everything in the same relative places on the map. This article gives a great explanation of how scales work and what scales are useful for specific applications.

Your homework for the week is to get familiar with maps. Next week, we'll look at compasses, and how they make maps truly useful.


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