Even if you’re not planning to use your map and compass to navigate, bring them along. Some trail guides are poorly written or out of date; checking things out on the map can help resolve some confusion. Also, a map might help you navigate around unexpected obstacles. Whether you’re facing an emergency, or you simply want to change your plans, a map gives you options. It also adds enjoyment: it’s fun to be able to identify the mountains, lakes, and other features on your route. Maps also give you access to trails not described in guide-books, which are often more remote and less crowded.
There are several different kinds of maps to choose from; the one you choose will depend on where you’re going and what kind of hiking you plan to do. If you’re going cross country, you’ll want a map that has a high level of detail. If you’re going to use a well-maintained and more heavily used trail, a map showing more area but less detail may be sufficient.
Topographic maps, or “topos” are maps with a great deal of detail. If you’re going into a remote wilderness area, it will be your most important tool. In fact it would be foolhardy to hike into a remote area without a good topo map. Topo maps show roads, rivers, and borders as well as contour lines and names of important geographic and geologic features. The standard for topo maps is set by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The scale on topo maps is such that a large map covers a relatively small area of land (usually 1”=2/5 mile). You may find yourself hiking over several topo maps in one day. Topo maps for the areas around the Verde Valley and Flagstaff can be purchased at Canyon Outfitters in West Sedona, or from various online sources.
BLM maps cover larger areas than topo maps, and don’t have nearly as much detail. They don’t contain topographic information. Another problem with forest service maps is that they are often out of date. On the plus side, they do show the numbers for forest roads, which can sometimes help you get your bearings. You can purchase BLM maps for the national forest areas in our vicinity such as Coconino, Prescott, Tonto, and Apache Sitgreaves national forests at the USDA Forest Service Store.
Hiking trail maps are often quite adequate for helping you select trails and find your way around areas like Sedona. Emmitt Barks is a small cartography company in Flagstaff that makes a good trail map for the Sedona area. Beartooth also makes a good map for hiking Sedona. Maps are available for purchase at local outfitters as well as the Red Rock Ranger District office in VOC. Both maps have recently been updated with the new trails recently adopted by the forest service.
Generally, the maps that are printed in trail guide books are not of much use except to give you a general idea of where the trail starts and ends, and perhaps where it intersects other trails.
If I plan to go into a more remote area that I’m unfamiliar with, I usually like to take along a couple of different maps, one with larger scale and more detail, and another that provides an overview of a larger area.
Map reading is an acquired skill. The best way to acquire it is through practice. If you want to get comfortable with maps, make them part of your everyday hiking. Take a map and compass along on a well-marked trail and consult them regularly. On an exposed ridge, try to figure out which peak is which and where your route goes. Compare what it looks like on the map to what it looks like on the ground.