Posted by: davepidgeon | July 2, 2009

Steve don’t need no stinkin’ map

Trail signs are great for souvenir photos, not as substitutes for topo maps.

Trail signs are great for souvenir photos, not as substitutes for topo maps.

I beg forgiveness if this blog post comes across as condescending. But hear me out because it might keep you safe.

Budget Travel in an otherwise decent issue (check out the article on Château de Vauvenargues in France starting at page 17; excellent stuff there), offers this funny little travel tip by Steve Bailey of New Jersey complete with an illustration:

I’m an avid hiker but don’t always have the time to pick up a map of every trail. So before I set off, I take a digital photo of the map that’s posted at the trailhead. Zooming in for more detail has saved me from getting lost on several occasions.

Okay okay okay. Let’s give Steve some due credit. At the very least, he doesn’t just go walking into the woods without thinking about preparation. This is good. A great deal of accidents in the wilderness can happen as a result of being unprepared.

Now, here comes the hammer.

Tell me what you think of a self-described “avid hiker” who doesn’t take the time to acquire a trail map. Every person I consider an “avid” hiker – I humbly submit that I know a few of those who completed the Triple Crown or are A.T. thru hikers, weekend warriors and peak baggers – not only owns a library’s worth of trail maps but will peruse those maps at their leisure like a great Mark Twain novel … BEFORE they go hiking.

I have a name for hikers who don’t take the time to buy a map they can hold in their hands (or download into their GPS) will eventually earn: Lost.

Steve tells us, though, he’s alright and not to worry. He just takes a digital photo of the trail map and uses that to guide him instead.

Let me count all the ways why you shouldn’t follow Steve’s example:

  1. Those signs don’t often show topography, so how do you know the steepness of the hike you’re heading into. You risk going farther downhill than you’re physically capable of climbing out of  or getting stuck on the way up a mountain – and that can lead to dehydration, exhaustion and injuries. That’s why you study trail maps of the places you’re going to prior to hiking so you know exactly the physical demands of the upcoming hike. Scouts don’t say “Be Prepared” for nothing.
  2. The signs don’t show water sources accurately. Oh sure, in their blue scribbles they illustrate streams and lakes, but what happens when you don’t know how far away those waterways are located from your present location, and you desperately need a drink of water? See No. 1 to know what I mean. Also, those signs don’t often show where springs can be found, which also can be used to refill your water bottle (use filtering devices or iodine pills to kill the bacteria) in the event of an emergency.
  3. Those signs don’t accurately measure distance. You really have no idea of just how far you are from the trailhead if you base all your information off the sign. Sure, the sign might tell you a loop hike to an idyllic waterfall is 8.4 miles, but in an emergency, can you accurately tell search teams via cellphone how far you are from that waterfall? That means it will take longer for the search team to find you should you become injured or lost. Another reason why you carry a topo map and compass – accurate distance readings.
  4. Those signs don’t often show side trails. Many of the woods we hike through have main trails, but there are secondary trails you might need should you have to bail. For example: Let’s say you’re on a 5-mile loop, but you don’t know how far you’ve come and you’ve been stung by a bee. You’re allergic and you need to get back to your car. You look at that digital photo of the trailsign you took before hiking, but the photo doesn’t show you an old forest road is a mere 100 yards in front of you off the main trail, and you can take that back to your car.
  5. What if your camera’s batteries run out. I think that one is self-explanatory.

So my reaction to Steve and my advice to Compass Pointers … buy a map. It’s worth it.

I’m sure the New Jersey Search & Rescue Team would appreciate it if Steve would take that precaution.


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