Mountain Education Resources
Navigation and Color Maps
When you aren’t sure where you are in relation to the trail, you know that
you’re near it, but you want to know exactly and your GPS has died, turn to your trusty USGS color topos and look for the following color clues:
-blue lines: creek directions, shapes, slopes, waterfalls, marshes
-blue circles: lakes, bodies of water–look for their shapes and
orientation to the topography in which they sit
-green boundaries: tree lines, edges of meadows, avalanche paths, creek edges–their shapes, direction, density
-brown contour lines: shapes indicate rock or dirt outcroppings/depressions, ridges, peaks, valleys, points on a ridge, etc. as
well as slope steepness (obviously, these appear as black if reproduced).
Now, look around you to identify the shapes of what you can see. Does
anything have a similar shape, slope, direction, or position relative to
what’s around it compared to your map? Can you see any points of reference up high like a peak, prominent rock outcropping toward which you can orient your map? Does the creek have a distinguishing curve that can be found on the map? How about the shape of the meadow or lake?
So many clues are all around you all the time. If you are “mindlessly”
hiking down the easy trail, you are not paying attention to the details of
“what’s out there,” so it’s simple to suddenly discover that you do not know where you are.
Color maps help tell you the clues to watch for as you hike through your
day. Once you know the clues to see (gee, sounds like a song we know!), you can go most anywhere and constantly be assured that you’re on the right path, because you already have reviewed on your map what you expect to see so, when you don’t see the clues, you know to stop and reassess.
None of this requires a compass, just awareness and a keen eye. You’re out there to see and appreciate the Wilderness. Paying attention not only
blesses your soul with things you might have otherwise missed, but keeps you certain of where you are, how far you’ve come, an expectation of what’s ahead, and how far you have yet to go (if you’re out of daylight, maybe you should stop at this creek or lake or meadow!). The other blessings of this awareness is peace of mind, confidence, security, self-assurance, independence, and, of course, safety.
Simple! Now, go and practice for yourselves!