We rely on GPS but we also should have physical maps; not just road maps but topographic maps of our area. There are places to download free ones. Also free location and navigation apps that can be very useful. Do you know how to read a topo map?
What You Need To
Know About MAPS.
How to Read a Topographic Map.
Where to Get Free Navigation
Apps and Free Topographic
Most of us rely on GPS, whether in our car or via our
“smart phones” or a handheld GPS while
However, that requires a number of things to be
The GPS satellites.
Cell phone coverage for the phone.
A solar flare could interrupt GPS signals.
Why Do You Need Topographic
and Road Maps?
There are places where there is no cell coverage and if
you don’t have the map tiles you need already
downloaded, you have nothing other than your location
on a blank screen.
It is always critical to have a physical backup that you
know how to use.
I use both physical and GPS maps in conjunction with
each other. Often physical maps can give me the bigger
picture better than GPS. There are also times when the
GPS map is wrong or offset.
The GAIA map app I discuss later is excellent in that it
lets you toggle between various types of maps and
Why Do You Need
Topographic and Road Maps?
Learn how to read a contour map
When you look at a topo map, you immediately see that
it’s different than your road map. Features on it include:
Roads, buildings, boundaries, railways, power
Water: lakes, rivers, streams, swamps, rapids, kraken,
Relief: mountains, valleys, slopes, depressions, ridges,
knolls, gnomes, etc.
Vegetation: forested or clear areas, orchards, vineyards,
Toponymy: a fancy word for the names of the various
things on the map.
Reading a Topographic Map
Use the map legend to learn how to use the symbols,
colors and lines on the map.
Scale is the relationship between size on the map and in
the real world.
Everything always looks a lot closer on a map than
when you’re walking.
Reading a Topographic Map
Here is my
from the closest
paved road in
southeast Utah and
was quite glad I
was prepared with a
I was visiting Hole
in the Rock.
It took over six
Escalante, Utah, to
reach this spot.
How far do you
escarpment is in the
It gives you a guide to the
various symbols on the map.
The types of roads will be
defined in the Legend.
This is critical.
People have died misjudging
the type of road they’re going
to take and getting stuck.
This gives you an idea if elevation. If you trace a contour line on the map, you are
tracing a line of equal elevation. If you walked that line, you will not go up or down.
Check the legend for the contour interval—this is critical. There’s a big difference
between a 10 meter contour interval and a 50 meter one. As you go from one contour
line to the next, that is the contour interval difference.
The closer lines are, the steeper the terrain. When they’re piled on top of each other,
that means a cliff. Do not walk off it. If they are very far apart, that equals relatively
smooth terrain. Contour lines always dive in toward streams and rivers.
The key to using a map is orienting it to the terrain.
While there are many field-expedient ways of doing this,
the easiest is to orient using a compass. Next easiest is to
use roads or easily identifiable terrain features around
Depending on where you live, you might have useable
boundaries that can keep you oriented. For example, in
Boulder, CO it is usually easy to tell which way is west:
just look for the big mountains. On Hilton Head Island,
the Atlantic is east, the Intracoastal is west.
Reading a contour map
Keep a road map in your car.
The image on the left is a large scale road atlas.
The state map of TN is part of a series covering all
states that has contour maps for the entire state and
surrounding area. I recommend getting the one for your
state. I have my own state and the surrounding ones.
click on images for links
Or download the contour map for your area for free,
then print it out, or order the map sheets.
Click here or on image below for USGS free
downloadable topo maps.
I also have a series of National Geographic area
specific maps for various National Forests and Parks
Always put your map in a waterproof map case.
A rule of survival is: what can get wet, will.
Click on image to get the one below. Note it has a
“dummy cord”. Always tie critical things off to you.
Another rule of survival is: what can get lost, will.
I have the one below tied of to my survival vest.
I also have various smaller, survival compasses on
different gear including in my Jeep and in my various
You also have a compass on your cell phone.
Is covered in detail in my survival guide.
The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
If you’re in the northern hemisphere, the sun is arcing
across the sky to the south. In winter, it is farther south.
If it’s sunny, put a stick in the ground and mark the
shadow point; wait 15 minutes and mark the next
shadow point. Midway between them is a north/south
Learn the basic constellations where you live such as
the Big Dipper and the North Star.
Water runs downhill. You can usually follow streams to
rivers to civilization.
Field Expedient Navigation
To understand how GPS works, check my slideshare
on that topic using the link below or at the end. Knowing
how GPS works will improve your ability to use it.
This is another free slideshow on my web site.
There are several topo map Apps you can get. I’ve used a
number over the years but the best one I’ve found is
Gaia. The basic app is free and then there is a premium
Gaia allows you to layer various types of maps, such as
National Forest Service Roads with Topographic with
Public Lands, and adjust it to your preferences.
The premium, which is discounted 20% via my affiliate
link, is $32 for a year, but for the number and types of
maps you get, it is definitely worth it.
(All proceeds from my affiliate links, including Amazon, go
to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation).
One useful thing to using any map app is to download the
map tiles you want to use beforehand (for when you’re
out in the wilds with no signal) and learning how to use
the app before you need it.
Gaia also sends interesting and useful email updates on
various outdoor activities that are very informative from
maps you can download and use. You can
have multiple maps on screen at the same
time, adjusting them as you need. In this
case, I have the US Forestry Service Map at
max along with USFS roads and trails along
with public lands. I can bring up hidden layers
as needed. Also note the Historic Topo for
1930 which is fun to play with. You also have
National Park Service Visitor, topo maps,
streets maps, weather and more.
They even recently introduced latest satellite
imagery, which is by far, the most up to date
There are dozens of different types of maps
available to premium members.
Family Locator-GPS Tracker for Android.
GPS Tracker for Android. Family Locator simplifies life in the
digital world by making it easy to stay connected to the people
who matter most. With Life360 you can:
• Create your own groups, called “Circles,” of loved ones,
friends, teammates -- whoever matters most and chat with them
in Family Locator for FREE.
• View the real-time location of Circle Members on a private
family map that’s only visible on Family Locator
• Receive real-time alerts when Circle Members arrive at or
leave destinations (Eliminate disruptive “Where are you?” texts)
• Track stolen phones or lost phones
Emergency Alert System for Apple.
Alert, track and notify loved ones as well as
911 in an emergency situation. Silent Beacon
provides you with the peace of mind that
comes from knowing that you and your loved
ones are able to instantly connect. The
emergency alert system for the digital age.
Road ID eCrumbs App (Apple and Android)
for Apple and Android. This is one I use when off by myself
running, biking or hiking. It’s a way of alerting people by
email and text if something happens to me and I stop moving
for a certain period of time (mine is set for 5 minutes), or past
a set overall time limit.
Another useful thing about this app is that if you have a
tumble while biking or hiking and lose your phone, just wait
five minutes and it will start making noise and vibrating. I’ve
done this a couple of times during mishaps while single-
tracking when my phone got ripped out of the mount.
Orienteering and Map Reading
There is no substitute for practice. Pull
out the road map every so often and
For topographic maps, nothing is better
than a little orienteering.
REI offers courses on orienteering via
their various stores.
Also check you local community college
for outdoor courses.
I carry a SpotX 2 Way Satellite
messenging system that also gives me
my exact GPS coordinates anywhere in
There are places all over the country,
including in the Smoky Mountains, with
no cell coverage. I view this as a
potentially life-saving investment.
Also peace of mind as my family can get
hold of me any time and I can update
them on my progress.
Every evening when I stop, I hit the
update button and my location is
automatically sent out.
The bottom line is that maps and map-
reading are critical skills.
Spend some time getting the right
equipment and apps.
More Free Information
I constantly update free, downloadable
slideshows like this on my web site for
preparation and survival and other topics.
I also have YouTube Survival videos. HERE
Also, I conduct Area Study workshops for
those interested in properly preparing for
their specific circumstances.
The guide on the left is the complete preparation and
survival guide. The one on the right is a pocket-size
manual with just the survival portion. Useful in your Grab-
n-Go bag, car and kitchen drawer.
New York Times bestselling author, is a graduate of West
Point and former Green Beret. He’s had over 80 books
published, including the #1 bestselling series Green Berets,
Time Patrol, Area 51, and Atlantis. He’s sold over 5 million
books. He was born in the Bronx and has traveled the world.
He’s lived on an island off the east coast, an island off the
west coast, in the Rocky Mountains, the Smoky Mountains
and other places, including time in East Asia studying martial
He was an instructor and course developer/writer for years
at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School which trains
Green Berets and also runs the SERE school:
Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.