Hiking - a basic introduction to navigating using maps
Although you might think that it ought to be the other way around, you will find that most seasoned hikers use maps in order to navigate their way along trails and through wilderness areas while novices believe that maps are unnecessary. The newcomer often thinks that there is no need to go through the hard work of learning to use a map and that he will be okay if he keeps to well worn trails. Alas, that is not the case.
You can get seriously lost even near clearly marked trails and straying just a few yards off the trail into heavy woodland has caught out more than one beginner. Without the benefit of the stars, sun or geographical markers it is all too easy to get turned around and to end up walking even farther from the trail and getting yourself lost in next to no time.
Now in the example given above a map alone would not necessarily help you to get out of the wood in question. However, you will frequently come across another trail which hooks up with your original trail and a good map would help you to find your way with ease back to your starting point.
Okay, so where should you start?
Get hold of an up-to-date map which covers the area which you are planning to hike in and start by studying it carefully at home in a relaxed environment. Of course you will not be able to match the map to features on the ground, but it will certainly help you to learn and understand the symbols used on the map.
Every map has a legend (which differs slightly from one publisher to the next) and you want to familiarize yourself with the symbols. In addition, you will need to understand the scale of the map which will be clearly printed on it somewhere as something like 1 inch = 1 mile.
Remember though that distance is only part of the story and that 1 inch which represents 1 mile on level ground is a quite different thing from 1 inch which represents 1 mile over an area including a steep winding path up the side of a 2,000 foot cliff.
To account for the latter, you will need to think about altitude which is shown on the map as a series of curved lines which, if they were 'stretched out', would form a circle. The spacing between adjacent curved lines around a natural feature like a hill indicates the steepness of the terrain. Often you will find that there are numbers printed along the lines in order to assist you. These lines are known as contour lines and the closer these lines are to each other the steeper the terrain.
Next, you should study the longitude lines and latitude lines. Longitude lines indicating North and South run 'up and down' the map from the top to the bottom while latitude lines which indicate East and West run 'right and left'.
In the daytime you can make use of the sun together with natural features to orient the map so that it is lined up with the ground over which you are hiking. Do not forget that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West so that early in the day facing the sun will have you heading in an Easterly direction. By the same token, late in the afternoon facing the sun as it sets will have you hiking in a Westerly direction.
At night you will need to use the stars to navigate and you will frequently be able to see the sky quite well because the majority of wilderness areas are far away from the glow of city lights. One of the great joys of hiking is the ability to hike out under the canopy of stars and familiarizing yourself with such star formations as the Big Dipper and Orion as well as the North Star.
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