Written by 10:41 am Wilderness Navigation Masters

1) Choosing your map (Type, Scale & Things to consider)

Hello and welcome to this video of the online course Wilderness Navigation Masters, where you will learn how to choose your map.

In this video, I will introduce you to three different types of maps, and let you know the one that suits our needs? what scale to choose? and things to consider before you buy, download, or print your map.

So, let’s start with the three types of maps.

Types of maps:

  • Road maps: this type is great for getting you from home to the starting point of your trail or the trailhead. Because he shows you only where a vehicle can access. So in this course, we will not discuss it.
  • Topographic maps (or topo maps for short): this is the one that suits our needs in the wilderness. Because it combines natural and man-made features, a scale, contour lines, a legend, and is oriented.
  • Trail maps: this type is a little bit similar to topo maps, it’s a simplified topo maps but it sometimes lucks the contour lines, which is essential for us to know exactly what is the safest way to navigate in the wilderness. So, we will not discuss it either.

There is not an all-around good map, all maps are good for different needs and situations. But for us, outdoor enthusiasts, like hikers, skiers, hunters, bikers, etc, what will serve us better is the topographical map.


What is exactly a topographic map? 

In general, a topographic map must always have these three main elements:

  • Map scale: this will allow you to know the real distance you will have to travel. In general, the map scale is located at the bottom of your map.
  • Map legend: the map legend will allow you to recognize the different elements on your map. Which will help you read it well.
  • Contour lines: This is what allows you to read the topographical relief and let you know also how much elevation there is at every point of the map. This information is very useful in outdoor activities, especially when you are not familiar with the area.

Now that you know the different types of maps and the one that will suit us in the wilderness, and the three main elements of topographic maps, let’s see what is a map scale and which one to choose.


To simplify what a map scale means, a map scale is how much land area is represented on the map, in another way, how much details that the map represents.

An example of scales are (starting from the most detailed to the less one) is:

  • 1:20,000
  • 1:24,000
  • 1:50,000
  • 1:100,000
  • 1:250,000

To understand what these numbers say, the scale of 1:24,000 means that every 1 inch on the map, equals 24,000 inches in the real world, which equals 2000 feet (or around 600 meters).

Because a pilot flies a plane way above the earth, he doesn’t need to know land details like a hiker, so if he had to choose one of these scales, it’s better for him to choose the 1:250,000 scale.

For us hikers, skiers, or any outdoor enthusiast, to have a reliable and clear map, we should opt for a scale of 1:24 000.

This is the scale that will give us the best indications.

If you are more experienced or you are already familiar with the area, a map with a scale of 1/50,000 can be enough.

However, if you are a beginner, this map will not be as clear as a map with a scale of 1:24,000.

Now that you know exactly what scale to choose, let’s see what other things to consider.

Other things to consider :

The other little things to consider when you are about to buy, download or print a topo map, is the water-resistance and tear resistance paper, and has additional useful information on the side, as we see often on this National Geographic map.

So, if you search for a map to use outdoor, consider having one that is water and tear-resistant.

Even if you try to print your map, you can have a water-resistant paper to print on.

This is all for the little things to consider when you buy, print, or download your map.

Before I head to these video exercises, I want you to know that what you see on a topographic map may be slightly different from what is really on the area represented by this map.

This can be due to the changes that appear after the release or the creation date of the map, and sometimes can be just a reason to make it more readable.

A quote that I love from Daniel Colde, the Chief Cartographer in Smithsonian Institution said :

“You can’t put everything on a map, because part of the process of map making is, you’re always deciding what not to include as mush as what you’re deciding what to include.”

For that, I recommend you to be aware when you depend on man-made features because it’s the kind of landmarks that can disappear more often.



The correct answer is “No” because even we have a scale bar, a legend and we can figure out where the hill is, we still don’t have contour lines, which is essential for wilderness navigation.



Which one of these scales will give you more details of the area that they represent?

The correct answer is 1:20000. Because the difference between a 1 inch in a map with the scale of 1:20000 and a 1 inch in a map with the scale of 1:24000, is that in the first one we have only 20000 inches so we will have more details of the area.



If you plan to hike, which of these scales will be good for you?

The correct answer is 1:24000 because, on the scale of 1:100000, we will have too much land in a little paper which will make our navigation less accurate.


That’s all, I invite you to interact with me in the comments section below, saying simply how did you found this lesson.

Updated on June 7, 2021 by Ben

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 5 / 5. Vote count: 1

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.