Maps Can Save Your Life, by S.B.

How often have you heard yourself or others along with you on a road trip mutter four letter words when your GPS unit directs you to a road that isn’t there?  Or worse yet, you end up on a trail in the wilderness that your brand new hand held GPS unit does not have on it?  The next question that comes to mind is, where am I and how do I get to where I need to go?  In the best of circumstances there are detour signs and friendly road side workers that can direct you back to a known route.  However, if you are stuck relying on yourself and those around you, knowing some basic land navigation and orienteering skills can be of the utmost importance.  There are several important reasons to take maps along with you even when in familiar territory, and they can be a versatile tool or a life saver in a sticky situation.  Maps can indicate your position in relationship to the territory and offer a source of information for routes to a planned destination, as well as give you an indication of significant features along the way.  Knowing which maps to have, what tools to have with them, and how to employ them could mean the difference between your head stone being in the place of your choosing or being in the hands of Mother Nature and her husband Mr. Murphy.

The most basic terrain maps, such as those found in road maps (Rand McNally is a common one) are generalized and tend to show terrain on a higher scale, meaning the “zoom” is way out.  This means that although you see a larger area, the map will not give much detail about any specific point or location.  While these are great for interstate and highway navigation, they often will leave out valuable information for someone traveling on foot or by less-traveled routes and local roads.  They will also rarely give a grid of latitude and longitude by which to find your location given GPS readouts or by less technical means.  More detail can be found in state or local atlases and gazetteers such as those published by DeLorme, which will have a basic area map split into a grid, and detailed maps for each grid.  These books are inexpensive and offer a far greater detail (larger scale) for any area the atlas covers.  (Note: small scale means that the ratio of the distance on the map to the true distance on the ground is small, e.g. that the denominator is very large.  The commonest example of a small scale map is a world globe which it has a diameter of one foot has a denominator of about 5280×4000 or 22,000,000. ) They will have latitude and longitude markers, rural or seasonal roads, and may have some major hiking trails listed, such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.  However, smaller waterways, gradual elevation changes, and lesser known terrain features will be omitted from the map, possibly frustrating the traveler looking for a water source or place of refuge.  Perhaps the most detailed (excluding the awesomely powerful and all seeing-eye of Google Satellite Maps) will be those from the United States Geological Survey.  These maps can provide  scales of up to 1:24,000 which will show all local terrain features, to include known springs, mines, caves, and several other markers that would often go unnoticed to the average traveler.  They will also indicate changes in elevation with contour lines, showing how a hill or valley is shaped and how steep or gradual the terrain is.  While it is nearly impossible without modern technology to carry any number of these maps, and would probably not be advisable unless one had a need for extra rough toilet paper, having one for the planned travel areas or habitation location is a resource without rival. 

Table of map scales with pros and cons for each type:




Small (1:250,000)

-Shows large area
-Helpful for longer distance estimation
-Shows full extent of large terrain features (mountain ranges, rivers, deserts)
Usually has latitude and longitude grid

-Shows only major land marks
-Little to no specific detail


-Potentially shows entire area of operations/travel
-Has most major terrain features marked
-Will show primary routes (interstates and highways)
– Usually has latitude and longitude grid
longitude grid
-May have northing and easting grids
-Usually has township and range grids

-No specific terrain details beyond well known or major features
-Difficult to use for foot travel
-May not have alternative routes or local roads


-Has most specific area detail
-Will show most terrain features including seasonal ones
-Will show private roads and utility corridors
-Good for both foot and motorized travel
-Will have local declination listed
– Usually has latitude and longitude grid
-May have northerling and easterling grids
-Usually has township and range grids

-Small field of view for each map
-Difficult to carry enough for a large area
-Contains more symbols and unusual markings

Note: Scale depicts map units to actual units; 1:50,000 would be one inch on the map is equal to 50,000 inches on the ground.

Once the desired scale is determined for the map to be used, there are several things to be done before using it.  Foremost, if the map does not contain a legend for what the various symbols mean, it is haphazard at best.  Imagine a map that used happy faces and sad faces to mark flowers and land mines, but did not indicate which was which.  One might have a bouquet or a tourniquet depending on interpretation of the symbols.  Fortunately there are many common symbols on maps, and while not universal, will help familiarize the reader with what the markings mean.  The USGS web page, at, has a large catalogue of common symbols found in most types of maps.  Another consideration before placing the map in use is a means of marking and navigating with it.  It is recommended that the map be laminated or placed in a clear plastic cover that will not shift in relation to the map.  If the map is covered in a medium that allows the map to shift, the markings made on the cover will not hold their relationship to the map and could cause errors in navigation.  Additional points of reference or changes can be added to the map as well as routes marked without permanently marking or altering the original map once it is laminated.  If this were a map you trusted your life to, exposure to the elements would also be a consideration for how it is handled and protected.  Folding will degrade the legibility and may remove grid lines, so rolling would be the preferred method for storage.  Fly fishing rod cases, especially when you plan on fishing as well, are ideal weather resistant places to store a map without risk of damage.  A clear plastic protractor can function to find grid coordinates, work as an improvised compass (the marking kind, not the north finding kind) and determine distance both in a straight line and over a route.  Most of these protractors work with a wide scale of maps, but insure that the proper scale is used when indexing on the map.

Proper employment of the map can also be a problem, with orientation done automatically for us with modern GPS devices.  There are two distinct times when a map is employed, and both require different orientation positions in relation to the reader.  When planning a route or debriefing a situation, it is far easier to read the map with the legend and grid right side up.  Reading and locating grids are easier and faster if you are not doing it up-side down or from the left or right.  However, while using the map to navigate, always orient the map to the ground; i.e. the “compass rose” on the map (the north facing arrow) should face north.  This is not always right side up and depending on the location and map; the rose may be skewed in any direction.  Always find true north and face the map accordingly.  There will be declination marks on any USGS or official map that instructs how many degrees off the “true North” bearing is from the “magnetic North.”  Be sure that when the map is oriented that this adjustment is made.  Declination is given in a positive number when true north is east of magnetic north, and given in a negative number when true north lies to the west.  Most compasses will have a bezel ring that allows the user to set declination while the compass is at rest.  (Note.  Declination changes with time so make it a practice to check the date(s) of the map(s) that you are intending to use and then look up the current declination.  Many other map features such as roads, trails, water courses etc. may also change with time so check you maps carefully to ensure that the critical features have not change between the date of the aerial photography and the present time.) Practice taking out the map and orienting it to your direction of travel and take notice of how your perspective can change.  When your situation changes and the world is stricken with an epidemic of killer bunnies, knowing how to employ the map properly and being able to quickly relate your location to the map and where your planned direction of travel lies on the ground will be especially useful.

You can never be lost, as long as you know where you are.  Where you are is always going to be determined by your relationship to other objects and terrain features around you, whether it is an arroyo in Death Valley or a mountain crest in the Cascades.  With any map of the area you are in, you can find your location using this relationship and a compass.  If, for instance, you find yourself off a known trail in a heavily wooded area, find the closest large terrain features.  This could be a large creek, or a hill top higher than the others surrounding it.  Whatever prominent land marks you have identified, orient the map to true north and shoot an azimuth to the identifiable points.  An azimuth is an imaginary line from you to the known point starting from the center of the compass.  Where the line exits the compass and crosses the degree marker (or mils if your map is in mils, most are not) on the compass is your azimuth.  Once you have two azimuths, and you have located the two land marks on the map, draw lines from the known points along a reverse azimuth until you can see a point of conversion.  The reverse azimuth is a bearing from the known point to you, 180° off from the original azimuth.  For example, if your azimuth to Mt. Rainier is 107°, the reverse azimuth from Mt. Rainier to you is 287°.  Remember to add or subtract the declination when going from magnetic degrees to grid (or true north) degrees.  The point of conversion will be your location, which will be more exact if the two objects are at right angles from each other in relation to you.  A protractor will also be of great use when plotting these lines on the map, and can do reverse azimuths for you, no math needed.  There are other methods for finding your location with just a map and compass, research and try each one to find the fastest and most easily applied one for the circumstances you plan to operate in.  If you ever do find yourself lost in the wilderness, and help is on the way, staying in place will be your best bet.  However, when the vampire gold fish hybrids are gorging themselves on the blood of emergency responders, it will be comforting to know that you are able to locate your position on a map.

Maps are one of the foremost planning tools, used for routes, defensive positions, and reconnaissance among several other things. While using the map to determine a route, take into consideration first what your objective is.  If the aliens were to invade and start slaying humanity with trans fats and bio-engineered tomatoes, what are you looking for in the route?  It might be slightly different than one you might use to evacuate from a hurricane or tsunami.  Every route will have common features such as your rally point, where a group of individuals can converge into a team, typically centrally located and along the way towards the objective.  While it can be advantageous to have the rally point at a well known or established land mark, mission may dictate that it be well concealed and offer cover.  As long as each member of the group can find the location on their own, the rally point need not be the intersection of I-5 and I-8.  Another commonality will be rest points, where there should be a source of water and shelter.  This could be a cache point, but if you end up on an alternate route, dependence on a pre-staged source may become a serious short fall.  This is another situation where the small scale maps will be of assistance, allowing alternate and primary routes to pass small springs or year round creeks.  Mountainous terrain or terrain that has steep hills and valleys can prove a problem for travelers, more so when confined to roads due to the mode of transportation.  It may be best to avoid these places completely as alternate routes are often not readily available.  Passes, bridges, and other bottle necks are encountered far more often in these types of terrain as well, leaving a traveler with no alternate route.  Occasionally, through well established interstate corridors, maintenance roads and Forest Service or logging roads will follow the course of the public routes.  Forest Service roads and other decommissioned roads will still be marked on current USGS maps in many cases, however while conducting route recon you might spot several that have been purposefully removed.  Placing these items back on your map is one more ace in the hole if the need arise.  Keep in mind that the map used in planning is not perfect, and may omit a detail that your planning might deem essential information.  This is one of many reasons why reconnaissance goes hand in hand with mission planning, long before the execution order is issued.

Reconnaissance is another area where a map is one of the most critical tools.  If the planned route is not properly researched, both on the table and in the real world, it is a plan to fail.  When using a map for route recon, focus on the mission priorities first.  While the map may indicate a choke point or a danger area, these may turn out to be safe and passable areas based on a practiced movement through them.  Other terrain features not described properly on the map may turn into hazards, such as a road cut through a large rock formation, creating an artificial valley that would leave a group vulnerable to ambush.  Ensure that the map used in planning, or an exact copy, is used while making these observations.  Another valuable insight that recon can provide is changes in terrain.  After a flood, earthquake, or other major natural disaster, rivers may change course and what were once passable bridges may now have become obstacles.  If patrolling around or near your position, always denote on the map what differences are observed, even if they seem unimportant.  Proper reconnaissance and detailed map review can change the direction of an operation from doomed to successful based on a few simple observations.  Once the reconnaissance is completed, all members of a group should be briefed in detail for all primary and alternate routes, most importantly, the rally points and check points where a group can converge if members become separated.

Maps can indeed change the outcome of your survival, and are critical tools for preparedness.  With proper selection and implementation, they become an essential part of everything from a camping trip to a well planned and executed route out of danger.  However, the best tools in the world are only as good as the hands that wield them.  This being the case, become familiar with the map you choose and how to read it quickly and assess the terrain in relation to what is printed.  Know how to use a compass and practice finding locations using it and the map, research which way works best for you.  Identify what your objective is and what considerations first before assigning the route, and carefully reconnoiter every step of the movement.  Orienteering meets and competitions will offer a large area to practice and several knowledgeable individuals to draw experience from.  Most of all, prepare for everything, and know that your preparations will only go so far before being able to think on your feet saves the day.  Improvise, adapt, and overcome.