Outdoorsmen must learn topo maps

Published 10:57 am Thursday, November 9, 2000

Outdoors Columnist
The invention of the GPS (Global Positioning System) has already proven to be one of the greatest navigational instruments ever devised. They are used by people who must plot their way, from astronauts in space to outdoorsmen on the "back forty."
As great as the GPS is, it has two drawbacks. They operate on batteries, and are made by man. This means you can end up deep in the boonies with dead batteries, or a unit that has malfunctioned. A time like this is when you need a good orienteering compass, a topographical map, and the basic knowledge to use both.
A topo map is basically a drawing of the details of the land. After becoming familiar with the map, one can identify hills, valleys, swamps, lakes, roads, towers and other landmarks that will help outdoor people find their way into and out of wilderness areas.
Elevations on topo maps are marked by brown contour lines. Depending on the map scale, the distance between the lines will indicate the changes in elevation in 10, 20, 40, and so on, foot changes. In very hilly country the lines will appear close together, and in relatively flat country they will be farther apart. On most maps every fifth line will be darker and indicate the elevation above sea level on that line.
Several good books are available on map and compass use. Larger bookstores will have them in stock or can order them for you.
One of the best ways to get familiar with a topo map and compass is to take them into an area you are thoroughly familiar with. Learn to identify hills (closed circle) and depressions (closed circle with hash marks) in the areas most familiar. Standing in a rain or snowstorm with night approaching is no time to be reading a "how to" manual on using a topo map.
Once you become familiar with using a topo map, you can learn to mark your exact location on a map by using a compass. The best compass to purchase is one designed for orienteering. They will have a flip cover that has a mirror with a vertical black line and a sight similar to a rifle sight on top. This type compass is very accurate and is used extensively by timber cruisers to run preliminary landlines.
With a little practice you can find your location by shooting the angle to a hill and then to another hill or tower. Done correctly, you will be standing where the two lines intersect on the topo map. Remember to remove any metal, such as a slung rifle, that may be close enough to your compass to make it inaccurate.
While navigational aids may not be necessary in territory one knows like the back of their hand, they are worth their weight in gold when one finds themselves in unfamiliar locals, be it the Rockies, or an Alabama "back forty."

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