Are Maps One of the Ten Essentials?

Maps and compasses appear on nearly every list of essentials for the experienced and inexperienced backcountry traveler alike. While there are many situations where a map is absolutely essential for safe travel, under what circumstances might an experienced backcountry traveler consider going mapless? 

There are at least four contexts that are candidates for going into the backcountry mapless. Before describing these contexts, one needs to be clear about the real issue being analyzed in this article. To get clear on the real issue, there are several side issues that are not the focus of this article:

  • it is not one of consulting maps in the planning process (paper or electronic)
  • it is not that of utilizing electronic maps in place of paper (an interesting issue in its own right)
  • it is not whether one feels more secure and comfortable carrying adequate maps into the field. (Most do because of prior conditioning about the ten essentials?)
  • it is also not the utility of consulting maps in the field (e.g., helping others less familiar with an area to get oriented or settling a dispute about some land form)
  • it is not whether to carry a map if you have one (most do because they are readily available, nearly weightless and take up little space).

 The issue addressed in this article:

Whether to go out of one’s way to both obtain and carry maps into the field that are adequate for the trip as planned  (i.e., treat the carried map as an essential for either normal or emergency use)?

Assuming an understanding about the real issue being analyzed in this article, what contexts might one consider going mapless?

Familiarity and Predictability

The first situation or context to seriously consider going mapless is commonplace and revolves around familiarity and predictability. To make this argument as strong as possible involves making several assumptions:

  •  person knows the area intimately based on both field experience and extensive home study of maps, guidebooks, trip reports, etc.
  • trails are well defined and well marked and that little off trail travel is anticipated
  • geography of the area (e.g., drainages, peaks, lakes) is predictable and well defined. A typical example of this latter criteria would be a trail that wanders up a steep river valley to a high lake in a cirque bordered by steep ridges.

These preconditions are common for many hikers and scramblers much of the time. These preconditions are a matter of degree (e.g., How much field experience?), but taken as a whole they provide a sound argument for going mapless.

Dead Reckoning Skills

A second much more controversial line of argument for going mapless revolves around what is usually referred to as "dead reckoning". In these situations, the person has a good sense of direction and is a skillful "dead reckoning" navigator. They have developed a good memory for recognizing crucial landmarks on the return route (even in bad weather). They keep close track of time, speed, direction, landmarks, etc. (similar to sailors who use dead reckoning on the sea). In line with this last characteristic, assume the navigator has both a watch and compass. Dead reckoning is an important skill to develop. The more time a person spends in the wilds without navigational aids, the more likely one will develop these dead reckoning skills. A logical extension of this line of reasoning is that use of traditional navigational devices (map, compass, altimeter, GPS) decreases the likelihood of developing these navigation skills.

Quality Wilderness Experience

A quote from an unknown source captures this rationale for going mapless: "Navigation devices are not essentials. The need to engage yourself in the wilderness is." Following are two longer quotes that follow a similar line of reasoning. They go beyond the issue of essentials to the interesting issue of high quality wilderness experiences.

I think mapless hiking would free you up to think more about macro-level navigation. Instead of point-to-point, you start to consider broad, general trends in terrain and ecology and use your knowledge to predict the specific type of terrain you will encounter ahead of time. Seems like higher-order, integrated thinking, which will be much more rewarding. —Mark Larsen, forum, 10/19/2005

 Sometimes, walking is more pleasant when it's inspired by the microcosm of real-time information that is impossible to extract from the best available maps and technologies. Technology had slammed squarely into my desire to feel the terrain below my feet and bring some art back into the act of navigating. I camped where I felt like it, walked where I pleased, and enjoyed the beauty of navigating artfully, focusing on choosing a route based on efficient walking along ecological and geological edges: a treasure that could have never been granted to me by any navigation technology, trail network, or topo map.
—Ryan Jordan, forum

 Getting Intentionally Lost

A fourth and final potential rationale for going mapless (there might be others) is that of intentionally getting lost for the shear adventure of it. Yes, hikers sometimes do this and report that the experience can be quite rewarding. Usually this situation involves a planned itinerary where the person has the time and is equipped to spend a few extra days getting oneself found (if successful in getting lost). Granted, this context for going mapless stretches this debate about essentials somewhat, but it is nevertheless relevant to the issue being analyzed.

Reader Participation: Evaluating Reasons for Going Mapless

      Above are four lines of reasoning designed to question the almost universally held position that maps are one of the ten (12 or 14 or more) essentials for all backcountry trips. They are four arguments for intentionally going mapless that deserve serious consideration. If you are aware of others, add a brief heading above that captures the essence of the argument. Then consider evaluating each line of reasoning from 0-6 (with six being highly persuasive for going mapless at least some of the time).

Author’s Conclusions About Maps

What conclusions can be drawn from the above analysis of issues and contexts for going mapless (whether or not you agree with the arguments given)? Consider the following:

 —   Maps might not be essential in some situations, but are absolutely essential in others.

—   Backcountry skills and experience are necessary to know when one can safely go mapless (i.e., novices on their own must have maps).

—   Developing navigational skills in absence of navigation aids is an invaluable asset.

—   Regular use of common navigational devices can easily interfere with the development of navigational skills.

Additional Issues for Reflection

1.    Under what circumstances are maps an absolute essential?

2.    What besides a compass might be considered an  essential for most trips into the backcountry?

3.    Should everyone in the party have adequate maps of the area to be traveled?

4.    Are electronic maps sufficient (e.g., in a GPS or smart phone) if the decision is made to always carry a map as one of the essentials? Or should one always carry a paper map or two?

5.    Should one carry at least one map that is scaled so as to be able to view the large picture of the surrounding terrain?

6.    What about printing one’s own custom maps from various sources? What are the best sources for this?