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.