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Backpacker Magazine – October 2011

Survival: Don't Always Trust a Topo Map

Look around, not just at your map.

by: Jim Gorman

I pride myself on having excellent map and navigation skills, but I made a big error on a solo hike across Utah’s San Rafael Swell, a jumble of sandstone and limestone folded into hundreds of valleys and canyons. The Swell is impossible to capture entirely on a map, because serious mischief hides between the contour lines. While traversing, I accidentally ended up a mile away from, and hundreds of feet above, my intended location. I should have backtracked the two or three miles to where I went astray. But it was November, daylight was dwindling, and a winter storm was descending. Instead of retracing my steps, I tried a more direct route to a preplotted location on my GPS and encountered a cliff that I didn’t see on the topo. I almost made a much bigger mistake while scrambling around it—solo, and off my intended route. I avoided serious injury, but spent a cold night in a snowstorm. 

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Tracy Ross, BACKPACKER contributing editor

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Not 100% correct
Nov 21, 2011

Silverbuffalo, most maps that are for sale are over 40 years old. I agree that you shouldn't blame the map, but the issue is, the desert is always changing. Cities and parks are always changing. New roads being built. Other things like this happen.

However, I agree that he should have paid more attention to the map, where he was going, every 10 min or so check his postion to make sure he was going the right way. Sounds to me like this person needs to take a few more lessons in Navigation.

On that note I agree that Backpacker should have not put this in at all. Don't trust your topo? No, more like don't trust a GPS. All a GPS tells you is where you are, where you have been and which direction to take. A GPS wont lead you to water, it wont lead you to the nearest road....unless you have instructed it to do so. Then you have to engage the brain.

Nov 18, 2011

I'm incredulous that "Backpacker" would publish such irresponsible advice as "don't always trust a topo map". Anyone who takes the time to learn about topo maps and navigation would already know that depending on the map scale, there can indeed be much hidden between the contour lines. That doesnt mean you shouldn't trust the map. Far more people get into trouble because they think they know better than their map, than because of what their map doesn't reveal. No map can reveal every detail, but experienced outdoorspeople can indeed read between the lines, and avoid the kind of situation Gorman describes. Had he been paying more attention to his map in the first place he could have avoided the error he made, and it should be pointed out that it was he that made the error, not the map. Had he used better judgment to resolve his problem he may not have had to spend a cold night out in the snow. Don't blame the map.


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