Map Reconnaissance- Choosing and Knowing Your Route

12 February 2009

Any fun and successful trek in the bush, whether it be an afternoon walk or a week-long backpack, begins with a thorough study of the map.  It is important to develop an understanding of the terrain you will be walking, for example its elevation changes, possible exit routes in case of emergency, and locations where you might find water.  This knowledge will help you enjoy a safe journey.  The map reconnaissance, or map study, as I present it applies more to a trek in the wilderness than in a national park, where you will follow trail markers and meet other hikers along the way.  Map reconnaissance for a wilderness trek in desert canyons will be my focus in this post.  Since I am currently preparing for a long walk in the Escalante this  summer I will use it as my example in the text.  Please note: the following post assumes the reader understands basic land navigation techniques including a thorough knowledge of map reading.  If you find yourself lost while reading the following please visit the Desert Explorer website and read through the Maps and Navigation pages found there.

Map Study Sequence- Location,  Distance, Entrance and Exit

After I have chosen the general location for a trek, here the Escalante region,  I begin with either USGS 1:100,000 “metric maps” and/or Trails Illustrated maps if they are available for the area.  Note that if you use both the USGS and Trails Illustrated maps that they are different scales.  I use these  smaller scale maps (maps showing a larger area and less detail) to establish a general length for the trek while keeping in mind the time I have available.  I also look for possible entrance and exit locations, where I might be able to drive to the canyon rim for example, and establish a staging area- a “trailhead” of my own. Once I have developed a tentative plan by studying these smaller scale maps I turn to large scale maps with more detail- 1:24,000 topographic maps. This is where the thorough study occurs.  By closely reading the 1:24,000 map I can determine if in fact my trailhead is accesible, if my entrance and exit locations are plausible, and if springs might be located along my route.  Knowledge of terrain features, contour lines, map colors, symbols and scales is necessary at this point.

Distance and Time

When considering hike length and time needed, you must know your limits- your calculations may be different from mine.  I typically allow for between 14 and 20 kilometers, or 8 to 12 miles travel per day.  For me, typical canyon-bottom hiking time is about 3 kilometers per hour at an easy stroll.  So this amounts to between 5 and 7 hours of walking each day.  I often do more than this- sometimes as much as 10 to 12 hours of walking in a day, amounting to as much as 15 miles, or about 24 kilometers.  By knowing my rate of travel, I can create an accurate itinerary through my map reconnaissance.  My times and distances are something I have established for myself over the years.  You will need to establish your own guidelines. And remember that daily distances will vary according to terrain.  The distance covered in a day of canyon-bottom hiking  will vary greatly from a day that includes climbing out of a canyon, trekking across a mesa, and entering another canyon.  That day may be very different in length from a day of road-walking back to your car.

Checkpoints and Daily Goals

How far and how fast I walk depends on many factors which I consider in my map study.  I ask such questions as: where is the next set of ruins I want to visit?  The next water source?  My next camp? The next side canyon I want to explore?  And on the final day, how far is it back to my truck? Answering these questions allows me to establish checkpoints along my route, specific locations that are my goals during, or at the end of each day.  For example, on my coming Escalante trip, I know that day one will be partially taken up by final preparations and travel (hitching a ride) to my “trailhead”- the Highway 12 bridge over the Escalante River.  I should be left with about 6 or 8 hours of good daylight for walking.  I know that Boulder Creek enters the river about 6 miles down.  This is my camp for the night, and if time allows I’ll take a look up the creek a mile or two.  Ten miles further is The Gulch, my goal for day 2. Further down river I will make it a point to camp at the mouths of side canyons that I will do overnight trips in the following day.

Itinerary, Contingencies and Safety

I usually stick to my itinerary, but if there is any question about how long I might be at one location, or when I might arrive at another, I note it and calculate alternative distances based on these options.  I put everything down on paper, including mapsheet names, and if I am on a longer trip copying a smaller scale strip map from the 1:100,000 maps , marking pertinent points on it, and leaving it behind with a responsible individual.  I include phone numbers of local agencies, such as the BLM office, in case I do not return within my alloted time.  In terms of time allotment, I usually allow myself a couple of extra days on a trek of any length, and note that on my itinerary.  It will read something like this: “I should be back at my truck on Friday, but give me till Sunday to call you. If I don’t call on Sunday give me till Monday afternoon before you begin to check on me.”  Leaving an itinerary and contingencies  may not seem important to some, but lives and limbs could have been saved on more than one occasion if people had done so.

For more information on basic navigation techniques, visit the Desert Explorer website and read through the Maps and Navigation pages.

Planning and Preparation, Homemade Gear Designs, Guidebooks

7 February 2009

Planning and preparation- this summarises my winter quite well.  I spend a lot of my free time planning my summer trips, planning the locations, dates, distances, and meals for my explorations.  This winter is certainly no different.  I am currently trying to decide on a date for the Escalante trip, as well as conducting a thorough map reconnaissance of the trek.  I have a limited number of two-week windows to choose from.  And I need to choose a time when the water levels have gone down.  At this point I will likely go in July, after the spring runoff is well past and before the late summer rains come. This will make for a nice hot walk in the desert, not the preferred time for many people, but just the way I like it. The current river flow information for the Escalante River can be found at the USGS website.

Homemade Gear

I have been working on my homemade gear designs- I have been designing and re-designing my mosquito shelter, trying to perfect it to be ready for the summer.  The model I created for last summer served its purpose, especially in terms of weight, at about 4 ounces, but the design needed further attention.  The setup was flawed and the net drooped and was not secure in the wind.  My ultimate goal is to create a shelter that is lightweight- 10 to 12 ounces, small in size- about the size of my silcoth poncho, that provides good protection from mosquitoes, is easy to set up, and provides a “footprint” or groundcloth all in one.  My latest design incorporates a silcloth floor measuring about 6 1/2 feet long and tapering from the top at 3 1/2 feet wide to 3 feet wide at the bottom.  This allows me to leave my piece of Tyvek that I use as a groundcloth behind. The mosquito netting does not run the full length of the silcloth floor; the shelter is not a full tent.  The lower end of the netting extends to just below my knees and includes a small diameter shock cord with a cord lock that wraps around my sleeping bag.  The primary drawback to this design is in ventilation.  If the bugs are bad I am forced to keep my feet and lower legs inside my bag for protection, not optimal if the temperature drops to only 80 degrees at night. I will see how this one does as soon as I have the chance. If the design proves itself, I will scan a sketch of it with dimensions and post it on the Desert Explorer website.

Desert Explorer sunshade in use on the San Juan River.

Desert Explorer sunshade in use on the San Juan River.

I added a description to the Desert Explorer website of the sunshade for our Aire inflatable kayaks I created last summer.  This design worked very well. The only problem we encountered was when the wind came up.  The shade is not strong enough for use in the wind.  But it was the perfect shade for a flat, calm river such as the San Juan or the Green.  The shade was also useful on land for shade, and very simple to set up. Read more about it at the Desert Explorer Homemade Gear page.

Guidebooks and How I Use Them

I have been reviewing information about the Escalante River and its side canyons online, from my files, and in the guidebooks I have for the area.  As always, Kelsey’s Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau is indispensable.  All of Kelsey’s guides are written in his unique style- the font size is small allowing each page to be packed with information, each hike description is limited to one page and laid out in the same format, and he includes a hand-drawn map and geologic column opposite the description page.  His manner is straight to the point, clear, concise, and thorough.  There is no searching, no wading through pages of text to find the name of a mapsheet or to see if water might be available in a certain canyon.  I always start my research for any trek by consulting one of his guides.  He has guides covering The Paria River, Lake Powell, the San Rafael Swell, and a river guide to Canyonlands National Park just to name a few.

For this trek I am also consulting Steve Allen’s Canyoneering 2.  Allen’s style is very different from Kelsey.  His guides give an hour by hour breakdown of hikes.  Most of them are arranged in a longer, loop format of five to seven days or longer.  They are easily amended however and you could add days to each hike, or use his guides simply for in-and-out dayhikes or overnights, or combine parts of his hikes to create loops of your own.  His instructions for entrances and exits into canyons are very clear.  His guides include instructions for technical climbs on all hikes, along with recommended equipment such as slings, rope lengths and belay points.

Besides these two guidebooks I am also consulting the Rivermaps Escalante River, Utah guide (scroll to the bottom of the page for the Escalante guide if you follow the link).  Rivermaps guides are waterproof, spiral bound guides that have all the maps facing the proper direction- you start at the bottom of page one and float to the top.  Turn the page, and float from the bottom to the top of page two, and so on.  Opposite each map page are mile by mile notes on history, prehistory, geology, hikes, overlooks, and so on for the entire float.  It is a great design for a river guide.

In the end, before I head into the bush, I will photocopy a page or two of Kelsey (decreasing the size, and making two-sided copies), and write down any necessary information from Allen.  If I make copies, they are of hikes that I will do in their entirety, in this case overnights up side canyons.  Otherwise I usually make a few notes here and there on some of the mapsheets regarding locations of springs, entrances and exits, and known ruins and rock art panels and that is all.  In this way, there is no need to ever carry an entire guide book on the trail.

More information on ultralight backpacking in the desert is on the Desert Explorer Ultralight pages.  You can find more of my recommended guide books as well as other titles on the Desert Explorer Book Store page.