Most well-equipped hikers know that carrying a guidebook or map makes a difference in whether their trek is a safe, enjoyable trip or just an exercise in blind luck. Still, I’m always amazed at the number of hikers I meet who don’t have a guidebook or at least a map.
I wonder if they’ll get to where they’re going, or if they know that there are more trails that connect with the one they are hiking. I suspect that many feel that if a trail is well-marked, then they won’t need a map, let alone a guidebook. But, even in a well-marked trail network there are several reasons why they are essential to a rewarding hike.
If you bring a guidebook, you have clear descriptions of landscape features, distances and detailed information about trail difficulty, estimated hiking time and water sources. You’ll never have to guess if you’re near your destination with a guidebook and map. It won’t make it any closer, but you won’t guess.
The shelves of local outdoor shops contain dozens of guides and maps. Some are better than others in how they deliver the information for a safe hike. So, what makes a good guidebook and map? I’ve found that the essential features depend on how the information is presented, as well as in the amount of detail.
There are many more elements than those. So, here are a few tips on what to look for, the next time you’re standing in front of the maps and guides section of your local outdoor shop. I also have a few favorites to share and some tips on map treatment and sources for maps.
Choosing a guide
The first thing to check for when you browse a guidebook is how the book is organized. Some books are organized by region, some alphabetical by the name of the mountain, some are by the name of the trail. Others are totally random. Some have color-coded thumb tabs by region. A well-organized guide makes it easy to find the trails in the area covered.
Most guidebooks contain maps, either separately, that can be removed, or included in the text of the guide. Either way, a guidebook should contain maps that are clearly drawn with trails marked and topographic features detailed and easy to read. Also, look for clear descriptions of road approaches to trailheads. A guidebook of trails doesn’t help if you can’t find the trail to begin with.
The measure of a good guidebook is in the trail descriptions. The best guides contain accurate descriptions; trail mileage measured to the nearest tenth of a mile; difficulty of terrain and estimated average time to complete the hike. The writing should be concise and describe features along the trail, like where the trail is steep and locations of water sources.
One way to check the accuracy of a given guide is by turning to a page that has a hike you have done. If it reads like it’s the trail you remember, then it’s probably accurate for other hikes as well.
Lastly, a guide should be small, compact and light enough to carry in your pack. A lot of books fail in meeting the criteria for packing.
Picking a map
Like guides, not all maps are created equal. The best topographic hiking maps are printed on waterproof, tear resistant paper. A good map should have a scale that allows for clearly drawn contour lines showing landscape features, like steep grades, water sources and campsites.
Some maps have trail descriptions on the back of the map and often can be used in place of a guide. The descriptions are usually brief, but must be accurate. One of my favorites has distances measured between every intersection on the map. To find out the length of a hike, I just add up the mileages, to the tenth of a mile. An-other favorite has trail mileages on the back and estimated time and difficulty.
The size of a map determines how often you will use it. If it will fold up small enough to fit in a pocket, you are more likely to use it on the trail, if you take it.
Map and guide care
Never pack a guidebook or map unless it’s in a plastic sealed bag. That especially applies to maps on paper. Water is paper’s enemy and exposure to it shortens the life of paper maps. Water resistant and waterproof paper lengthens the life of most maps considerably.
Another thing that shortens map life is folding. The first thing I do with a new map is open it up and refold it to some configuration other than the way I bought it. I never fold a map the way it came off the shelf. When I use the map while hiking, I refold it so the location I’m hiking is facing out. That way I don’t have to remove it from the plastic bag to read it.
Paper maps can be waterproofed using a wax-based treatment you apply at home. There also is waterproof map paper available for printing downloaded maps at home from your desktop.
The best guidebook for the majority of the mountains in Maine, from southern Maine, to Katahdin, Aroostook and Downeast is the Maine Mountain Guide, published by the Appalachian Mountain Club, for $19.95. It covers more than 400 hikes, 200 mountains and contains separate Baxter State Park maps and others on paper. The only hikes not covered in this guide are in Acadia. They publish a separate guide for Acadia. It is the most thorough guide to Maine’s mountains.
My favorite maps and guide to the Appalachian Trail in Maine is published by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. It contains seven separate detailed maps on tear and water resistant paper showing road approaches, trail data and mileage on one side, and profile maps and topographic maps of the trail on the other. The detail on the maps is excellent. It’s $24.95.
My choice for best map of Acadia is published by Map Adventures, LLC. It’s on waterproof, tear resistant paper and has mileage between every trail intersection. Every trail is named on the full color map. It’s $4.95.
For Katahdin and Baxter State Park, I like the paper map by that name, published by Jim Witherell, for $5.95. It contains trail mileage and difficulty on the two-color, easy to read topographic map. It also shows every trail in the park and all outlying campsites and road mileage.
I can’t imagine hiking without carrying a map or guide, sometimes both. I’ve probably grown too fond of looking over my maps. I look at a map like a key. It’s a key to discovering what’s out there just waiting to be found by undertaking the simplest of actions; by hiking to it.