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Topo Maps: The Treasure Maps of Backcountry Hunting

Learning how to properly use this old-school tool can lead to the hunt of a lifetime.

Topo Maps: The Treasure Maps of Backcountry Hunting

A battery-operated GPS unit is beneficial, but never completely rely on it. Always carry a paper map. (Photo courtesy of Nick Trehearne)

From the pages of Backcountry Hunter

Any publication devoted to the art and craft of backcountry hunting is constitutionally required to have an article on the analytic skill of reading a map. After all, one of the definitions of the backcountry is that there are no navigational beacons or wayposts to guide you. Because help can be a long time in coming, the ability to find your way out of remote areas is even more important than the ability of getting into them.

Smartphone mapping apps, many of which feature backtracking capabilities that allow you to reverse course all the way back to the trailhead, are wonderful tools. But smartphones, and those handheld GPS units which smartphones are rapidly replacing, also break, lose power, or fail to fetch a satellite signal, rendering them useless just when you need them the most.

We will get into the details of using a paper map to stay found, but this piece is really about the overlooked virtues of a detailed map: specifically, its ability to help you find game.

Topo Maps: The Treasure Maps of Backcountry Hunting
Most know that paper maps can be a lifesaver when electronic devices fail, but few understand how to utilize them to find the game they seek. (Backcountry Hunter photo)

Spending time studying a map of the place you intend to hunt has an added benefit. By familiarizing yourself with the topography, hydrology, and accessibility of a place, not only will you be less likely to get lost, but also you’ll be able to find key features that attract and concentrate the critters you intend to pursue. Secluded water sources, gentle saddles that funnel migrating game animals, and food sources close to escape cover all can be identified once you learn the hidden language of maps.


Conversely, knowing the arrangement of those features in the two-dimensional universe of a map will help lead you to your vehicle once you walk into the three-dimensionality of the landscape itself 


Mapping Options

I’m indifferent about what cartographic format you use for preseason scouting. Google Earth, the sprawling satellite-mapping program, is a great place to start, and it allows you to peek into just about any landscape on the planet. Mapping apps like onX, ScoutLook, and Powderhook have similar, if not identical, base maps. One of the secrets of the digital-mapping providers is that they share resources, the open-source maps that are the foundation of their businesses. What each provider brings to the table is a different way to view, annotate, save, and share its maps.

The benefit of a digital map is that you can easily zoom in and out, which allows you to zero in on a small detail or pan out to get a landscape view of the area. You can also easily change the boundaries of a digital map, focusing your area of interest. You can change layers, say, switching from a satellite photograph to a topographic view that shows elevation changes. You can add or highlight items, such as campsites, trails, or that alpine lake chock-full of pan-sized trout, and then digitally share the personalized map with hunting buddies.

Topo Maps: The Treasure Maps of Backcountry Hunting
SImple tools should never be overlooked; matter-of-fact, they should be reconsidered. (Photo courtesy of Libux77 | dreamstine.com)

I’m unapologetically old-fashioned when it comes to maps. To me, nothing replaces a paper map for its ability to show a landscape—and where I might find game in it—from the comfort of my kitchen table. More specifically, I’m partial to the Surface Management Maps from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), where every 3/4 inch of map equals about one mile on the ground. These maps show public land (BLM land is denoted in yellow or orange, state land in blue, and Forest Service land in —what else!—green), roads, drainages, ponds and reservoirs, and recreational accesses. Some also show cross fences, vegetation changes, and hunting-unit boundaries. And all updated BLM maps show elevation contours, with interval lines at every 150 feet of elevation rise or decline.

It’s easy to identify my favorite BLM maps. They’re stained with coffee, blood, and grease from sweaty cheese, with which they shared space in my backpack. The edges are ripped, and they’re marked up with highlighter or pen (or, in some cases, the lead from the tip of a hunting bullet) showing where I found bucks, or where I parked my pickup, or the direction of the prevailing wind. On one of my favorite maps, I marked the spot where I stumbled onto a constellation of teepee rings, reminders that I wasn’t the first hunter in that drainage.




Game-Locating Keys

So let’s dig into that “secret language” of maps I mentioned earlier. The most useful key is contour lines, which show elevation changes. Unless you bring a topographic map into the field to see how the landscape is depicted, it can be hard to recognize elevation features on a map, but the best way to describe them is that when you see contour lines squished together, that indicates a steep slope. The tighter the lines, the steeper the slope. Lines that are farther apart indicate a gentler terrain.

Look for places where the contour lines transition from tight to wide in just an inch or less. Those indicate transitions from steep canyons to ridges, which can be useful for hunters navigating mountainous terrain. Contour bends that turn outward indicate ridges; lines that turn inward are basins, places that are likely to hold both water and grass—and elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep.

Topo Maps: The Treasure Maps of Backcountry Hunting
A compass will help you get the most out of your map. Paired together, they'll lead you out to distant peaks or back to the trailhead. (Photo courtesy of Shaiith | dreamstime.com)

Most topographic maps also use light-green shading to indicate stands of timber. Use that element in conjunction with contour lines to find places where an animal might hide from danger in trees, but in close proximity to grass. You get bonus points for locating some water feature—designated in blue—on your map close to those other features. A mature elk requires 12 gallons of water daily simply to digest its food, and if you can identify a spot on your map where food, water, and cover converge, you’ve found a place to be on opening morning.


Look for roads or trails that come close to those key habitat features. Accessibility is great, but too much will push animals into more remote areas. And take note of private-property boundaries. Private land that limits hunting often holds more animals than adjacent public land.

Staying Found

We promised some details on reading a map and using it to find your way home. A map can definitely chart your route out of the backcountry, but the real benefit of reading a map if you’re lost is that it forces you to stop and keep from getting further lost. It’s just as the old saw says about getting out of a metaphorical hole: The first step is to stop digging.

You’ll need a simple compass to get the most out of your map, but the main benefit of a compass is to help you find the cardinal direction north. If you have other ways of finding direction points for certain—for instance, knowing that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west—then you don’t need a compass, but it’s a good tool to verify at least one known direction.

With your map pointing in a known direction, find your specific location on the map, using landmarks like peaks and hills, which should be visible on the map if you know how to use contour lines (see earlier section). You can also use creeks and streams to find your location by triangulating a significant bend on the map or the confluence of two streams with another landmark.

Topo Maps: The Treasure Maps of Backcountry Hunting
Learning how to pair your electronic devices with your paper map makes for a deadly combo. (Photo courtesy of Nick Trehearne)

Now that you know where you are—and which way the map points—you should be able to pick out landmarks, like peaks and valleys or creeks and streams. You don’t have to start heading north, but you should know a direction that leads you out of being lost. Maybe it’s due south or slightly southwest of west. Whatever it is, align the map with a known direction, take note of your route, and then figure out a way to safely navigate to the next landmark. It could be that there’s a cliff in your way or a stream to cross, so you’ll have to get safely around those obstacles and then refind your bearing.

Getting unlost is basically negotiating a series of map segments, ensuring that each segment leads in the direction you intend to go.

The problem with following your map to safety is that it can be a circuitous path, so make sure you have enough gear and provisions to take you through the terrain that will keep your route from going straight. If you’ve used your map to scout effectively, you’ll have the added challenge of packing meat while you’re staying found.

Rugged Maps

Nearly 20 years ago, Derek Fergus figured out a way to print high-resolution topographic maps on durable, flexible vinyl. Since then, his Rugged Maps have been used for everything from rain protection to tablecloths, emergency canteens to ground tarps underneath backcountry tents.

Topo Maps: The Treasure Maps of Backcountry Hunting
Rugged Maps are built to last and remain readable in the toughest backcountry conditions. (Photo courtesy of RuggedMaps)

But Fergus says the best use of his maps isn’t for staying found or as a substitute piece of gear. Instead, he says Rugged Maps are essential scouting tools.

“We make a good map, but what makes it good isn’t necessarily the material it’s printed on,” said Fergus, who founded Rugged Maps nearly 15 years ago as a sideline to his job as a transportation planner for the state of Oregon. He’s now making his custom maps full time. “What makes our maps so useful for scouting is that we show features that digital maps don’t—or can’t.  Any time a land-management agency decommissions a road, it disappears from the most current master map that the mapping apps use. But we archive all that information and include it on every iteration of our map. We’re not saying that it’s open to driving, but it’s good to know where there are roads, even in officially roadless areas.”

Rugged Maps also show the perimeters of wildland fires and the year of the burn. That’s useful to know because deer and elk often flock to the succulent grass that grows in the first years after a burn. Older burn areas can be difficult to navigate because of blown-down trees.

Hunters can customize Rugged Maps for most areas of the West, including specific hunting units, parcels of public land, or private ranches.

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