I’ve heard people say that there is no excuse to get lost if you have a decent set of topographic maps in hand. While that is mostly true, there are a few things you can do to greatly improve the readability and reliability of your map.

If your projected route from point A to point B is a series of turns and twisted through contour lines, you must have confidence that at every point along the way you are still on the right track. Wouldn’t it be nice to have confirmatory landmarks spaced out along the way to reassure you that the perceived truth is actual truth?

The best way I’ve found to do this is to draw in some features that topo maps don’t necessarily emphasize but that can be easily seen when accessing online maps of other types – aerial maps being the best resource. Features such as rock faces, avalanche chutes, and uniquely shaped meadows don’t always show up well on topo maps but can provide a reassuring boost of confidence that you on the right trail in the backcountry.

Here’s an example of a topo map from central Colorado with a bunch of potentially confusing contour lines.

It shows that outside the open terrain on the far left and far right sides of the map, everything else is timbered and without any dramatic terrain features could potentially be confusing for some hikers or hunters. Switching to an aerial map of that exact landscape (all I did was switch from topo to satellite view on an online mapping resource, ACME Mapper), you can see that the topo map was missing some valuable information.

You can see that there is an easily distinguishable meadow oriented north to south in the middle of the satellite image and a larger complex of meadows in the northeast quadrant of the same topo map that showed a monoculture of timbered country. The topo map also doesn’t highlight any of the transitions from deciduous (leaf on in the summer, off in the winter) to coniferous tree cover – another potentially useful feature that can only be drawn from an aerial map. I highly recommend overlaying your topo maps with an aerial image resource and penning in some features that will surely make your hunt go a little smoother this fall.

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Images from ACME Mapper 2.0