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Guerrilla Camping 101.13 The Map Is Not The Territory

Guerrilla Camping 101.14
The Map is Not the Territory

More than halfway up the pacific northwest rail line, my fiance and I encountered some creepy stuff in the woods that had us humming the theme to deliverance; voodoo crosses and piles of polished pennies sat on the tracks in the middle of a woodlot with stumps wearing animal masks and wedding veils. As the last bars of deuling banjos crossed my lips, I spied a man on an over grown black ATV approaching from the north.

“Hi there”, I said, smiling and puffing my chest out a bit, attempting to look both friendly and, at the same time, large.
“Holy ****!, did you guys walk all the way from Cloverdale?”
“All the way from San Francisco”, we replied, my fingers slipping under the Velcro tab holding my hatchet to the bottom of my bed roll.
“Holy ****, do you know where you’re at?”
“About three quarters of a mile south of Hopland, I hope.”
“Holy ****! How did you know that? “We’ve got maps, we’re not totally wandering.”
“Holy ****….”.
It turned out our friend on the ATV was a very friendly young farmer who gave us a breath taking one-mile ride to town on his four wheeler.

Likewise the time we told a dairy farmer that we had slept on Neil’s island, a rather large, sheltered hilltop in the middle of a vast convergence of wetland and his dairy pasture.

“Now, how do you know Niel?”
“We don’t. It was on the map. You man there really is a Niel?”
“Was, he died about 50 years ago. Used to live out there, sometimes during the rainy season there would be months on end that he had to use a boat across the pasture to get to in and out from his home. Even in the summer he had to carry everything in with a wheelbarrow. Never thought it would be called that on a map.”

There is a lot to be said about knowing where you are and a lot and be said about a person who knows right where they are. Talking with a random local as you “trespass” across a corner of his property, it is surprising the amount of respect you gain if you know exactly where you are. You immediately transform from “another shiftless homeless guy with a pack” to “Interesting traveler” I have gone from a hostile stare to a offer to have a beer and rest for a while with just the question, “Is this Leslie creek?” (Note, this usually works best if it actually is Leslie creek.)

And of course, let’s not forget that maps and a compass are the most reliable tools to keep you un-lost and on-track. But only if you know how to use them.

Types of Maps

Maps come in an astounding variety. There are maritime maps, data maps, aerial maps, topographic maps, line maps, relief maps, political maps, historical maps and hundreds of other maps. The two types of maps particularly important for the nomadic traveler are topographic maps and simple line maps.

Topographic, or topo maps are the mainstay of backwoods travelers. Using contour lines to represent the lay of the terrain, it is possible to determine your location almost anywhere you can get a good view, without the need for any manmade landmarks such as street signs. Topographic maps are widely available; Offered by the U.S. Geological Survey for about $7 each, found in countless trail guides, commercial map books such as DeLorme’s Gazeteer and on DVD and CD-Rom such as National Geographic’s TOPO! Series.

Line Maps are simply the representation of roads and landmarks in a series of lines and symbols and almost never indicate geological features. Just about every map you see is a line map, most often only detailing streets and landmarks. These range from the maps offered for free by the Automobile Association to multi-county bus route maps. Some are artfully designed with cartoonish pictures depicting landmarks. Some towns even offer themed business maps from their chamber of commerce and any gas station will carry run-of-the-mill road maps and atlases. Even the “you are here” maps in hospitals are variations of line maps.

Acquiring Maps:

By Computer:

Map Sites
Map sites such as Google Maps and MapQuest are mostly worthless for the true nomad. They often only give you a strip map to a specific location leaving out the details in between. The need to be online to use them makes them impractical for any significant use. They can be useful when planning since they can automatically generate routes, but since those routes are designed for drivers, they are often impractical or impossible on foot or by bicycle.

There are a few exceptions however. features an online collection of trail guides and maps available for download to your computer. Their subscription fee is moderate, and their volumes of trail and camping guides are useful, allowing you to forgo a book for every state you hope to find a legal campground in. While it is limited by being an online resource, the trail guides are easily printed or saved as Adobe PDF allowing you to use them offline.

Google Earth

Google earth is certainly fun and it has its uses when planning a trip. Using it for aerial reconnaissance is fast and simple, and making routes is just as easy. However it again relies on automobile roads, and lacks any significant way to create usable trail maps.


USAPhotomaps is the best program I have ever seen for planning long walks. It’s shareware from and uses publicly available data sets from USGS and Terra Server. It allows you to work directly with USGS topographic maps, and with the hit of a button switch to high and low resolution aerial and satellite photos. Use of tiger streets data overlays everything from 4wd jeep trails, to 10 lane highways, and allows you to choose which to display. Searching is simple and you can search for Addresses, Populated Places, USGS landmarks and latitude longitude coordinates.

Photomaps biggest drawback is in trail planning and printing of routes. While sections of map are easily printed, and the ability to create giant JPG files of high resolution photo or topo maps is present, the route entry and printing is problematic, often forcing you to kludge results.

One interesting aspect of Photomaps is that in some places, it seems to pull older pictures from terra server. This can be problematic, as bridges may be gone, roads added, freeways built. But in wilderness areas, I have been able to find timber skid roads using these old areal photographs that are now completely overgrown.

Delorme Topo

Delorme has been map making for ages. Their popular gazetteer guides are concise, organized for outdoor enthusiasts, and indexed for a wide variety of activities from camping to skiing. The Delorme Topo program takes all of those features and presents a VERY useful program for working with maps. Unfortunately, I find the data sets to be incomplete, and the simple data based topo maps are often left lacking when you are passing down a valley with no real landmarks printed on your route sheet.

The ability of Delorme’s program to generate guide books is its saving grace. With a few clicks to configure, you can print out a series of one page maps at any scale, from 5-500 miles per page. When walking, I generally opt to carry a self printed guide at a 15 mile per page scale. On average, this leaves me at a page per day, making it much easier to plan resupply points, anticipate long stretches without access to water and other logistic hurdles.

National Geographic Topo

National Geographic makes a HUGE variety of map programs, ranging from their flagship TOPO, distributed with discs for individual states, the weekend explorer series which focuses on smaller geographic regions for a reduced price and National Parks Explorer, which included maps of the major national parks, their trails and services offered.

It seems to me that while the data in the National Geographic line is quite similar to the Delorme series, most likely culled from USGS data sets, the tools in the software are nowhere near as advanced. I will be quick to admit that my exploration of the software has been limited, however, so it may be that I just haven’t found the good tools yet.

Printing Maps

National Geographic also offers a product billed as Adventure Paper. It claims to be waterproof and tear proof. I only recently discovered it, and have three maps stapled to the outside wall of my shop. They have lasted about two months, shaded with about a dozen storms and have not run. As such, this is amazing. Sweating on an ink-jet printed map on normal paper will create blotches. It’s pricy, but I have to admit it works.

Printed Maps

As have mentioned, the USGS Topographic maps are the best out there, unless you can get access to military quadrant maps. However, their utility can be limited by scope, scale and size. The fact that USGS maps are meant more for surveying and not sight seeing, is one aspect of this, it can take seven or eight maps for a two week walk, and you wind up with a generally unneeded periphery.

Delorme Gazeteer
A great alternative to the USGS topo maps are the Delorme Gazetteer series, available for every state. These books are oversized atlases, featuring topographic information and trails from 4wd jeep trails to major highways. Although the maps are not as detailed at the USGS maps, basic orienteering is still easy. The books are easily pulled apart for easy packing, letting you keep the sections you don’t need at home. Again, like all map packages, these maps are geared for the automotive traveler, so be warned, about 75% of the “campsites” labeled in the book are nothing more than parking lots for RVs, a fact that becomes obvious and painful thirty minutes after sundown when you arrive at a trailer park with your pack and tent, only to realize you’ll be sleeping somewhere else.

Unfortunately, Delorme did not follow the cartographic standard of putting magnetic declination on the bottom of every map page, so you either have to remember it, or make notations on each page you carry. I’ll explain more in a bit.

Bus Maps
In urban and suburban areas, the best maps I have found are the municipal bus maps. Free, pocket sized and free of extraneous information, they often give you enough information to navigate your way through larger developed areas, aside from telling you which busses to catch if you wish to simply bypass them altogether. In some places with great public transit, these maps include routes to state and national parks and even essential services, such as hospitals and police stations.

If you happen to be an Autoclub member, or know someone who is, they offer many free regional maps and tour books. I carry AAA maps in my trucks, but have never used them for more than additional background information while researching trips, as they obviously focus on travel by car. If you are a hitchhiker by habit, it’s as good as a bus route.

Park Maps
Yes, national and state park maps DO have trails. However, these trails tend to be loops, and they leave off tons of features in an attempt to keep people from getting lost. I have found unmarked airstrips in national parks, something I consider criminal, since it would be an important feature to know should you become hurt or sick out there. Park maps are great for day hikes, useless for through-travelers, unless you just want to find your way to the camp showers.

Bike Maps

As much as it bothers me to get passed by a blur of a mountain biker on a remote single track; the community, ingenuity and determination of mountain bike enthusiasts have done much to aid the long distance pedestrian. Lobbying for legal right-of-ways along storm washes and rail road lines, fund raising for green belt bike paths and scouting nearly impassable, forgotten mountain roads have created a loose network of trails all around the country. Most important to nomads, is the fact that they have put all this information into map packs in many places. A few minutes work on Google, or a quick visit to a local bike co-op can net you a wealth of information on roads too obscure to even appear on published maps. I’ll continue to put up with the terror of a sixty mile collision with 200 lbs of aluminum alloy and spandex sheathed sinew as long as they keep scouting those trails for us.


First off, as I did when I wrote a bit about foraging, I will make the disclaimer that I am providing enough information in this article to be dangerous. I spent enough time with maps in the military to pull off some of my walks using questionable routes. What I offer here is enough information to keep you found on anything down to mapped jeep trails. It is not enough information to try to do a straight traverse across two dozen miles of uncut forest. If you hope or plan to do such adventuring, I not only recommend reading a few books, and if possible find a local orienteering group. It is also possible to learn a lot about navigation by geocaching without a GPS. The most important thing, as with many things, is to practice a skill before you really NEED it.

The first step to using a map and compass is orientation. If you are the type of person to turn a street map upside down to get a better feel for an area, you’ve already got it. Orientation is simply the act of lining up a map in the same direction as the terrain. With the aforementioned street map, it is easy. Put the last street you passed below the street corner you are on. If you’ve never done this, try it, you’ll be amazed how much simpler navigation becomes.

However, with good maps, topo maps or places where the road is not so easy to orient, you will need to use a compass. The easiest for this purpose is a map compass with a straight edge. Place it along side the north arrow, then turn the map until they line up. The map is now, close to oriented. For road travel this is enough.

When you are actually navigating by map and not a road, you must take into account declination, also known as magnetic variation. There are actually three norths; Magnetic North is not True North, or even Map North. Map north, sometimes called grid north is distorted by the very nature of converting a round surface to a flat object, causing an increasing degree change as you approach the equator. Magnetic north, is not only no where near the north pole, it moves around constantly. If that were not bad enough, because earth magnetic field also curves, the further you are from a pole, the more the angle between true north, map north and magnetic north vary. Lost yet? Good. If you want to go from point a to point B without a road or trail, At least read a reputable book on orienteering and blame them when you get lost.

Now that you have your map almost oriented, tell yourself it’s good enough. Its time to locate your position. On a big street map, this is easy, look at whatever intersection you are on. Well, on a lonely mountain road, it’s still that easy, all you have to do is find your intersection. You do this by finding two distant landmarks. The farther away, the better. You first want to point your compass as object one. Draw a line on your map tracing that angle. Next you do the same thing with a second landmark. It’s most accurate at 90 degrees, but you take what you can get. Where those lines intersect, is your rough position.

Now, this is a fine way to figure out where you are, when you land there. But honestly, it’s over kill. I keep track of where I am by carrying my map page in a neck pouch with my compass. I look at the map at every sharp turn or landmark, and always know where I am. It’s not so much a matter or staying found as it is a matter or setting my pace. My keeping a mental overview of how far I have gone in a day, I can pick up or slacken my pace, by seeing the spacing of campsites behind me, I can anticipate the length of time it will take to complete upcoming legs, allowing me to anticipate needing more food, or even dictating a lazy sunny day spent swimming and reading because I’m ahead of schedule.

In the simplest terms, it is much easier to stay found than get un-lost, and while the map is not the territory, it should at least help you find your way around it, and eventually out of it. The most important thing about staying found is that it gives you constant practice with your maps. And when you do, one day, become lost, it are those skills that will let you find your way again.

Savage intellectual
1,866 Posts
Luckily, in my AO, magnetic north is only 5 degrees west of true north.

Premium Member
5,483 Posts
Really good information..Thank You.

I've got to know; What was this all about???>>

voodoo crosses and piles of polished pennies sat on the tracks in the middle of a woodlot with stumps wearing animal masks and wedding veils.

Watchin tha world go by
8,151 Posts
excellently informative read--thank ya

33 30 38 20 34 45 56 52
412 Posts
Really good information..Thank You.

I've got to know; What was this all about???>>

voodoo crosses and piles of polished pennies sat on the tracks in the middle of a woodlot with stumps wearing animal masks and wedding veils.
Sacrificing of bleeding heart democrats that want to steal your guns, your right to take responsibility, your right to think for yourself, AND……

Oh, lets leave that to the rest of the community to comment on:cool:

1,978 Posts
Discussion Starter · #9 ·
Thanks for the feedback guys, and thanks for the award! Starting to get a regular fruit salad up there. ;)

Two things: According to the guy on the ATV, he had a tweaker friend who had been shoting on of the neighbor's hogs. The tweaker lost his mind and set up the mask menagerie in an attempt to curse the guy, who had called the cops on him. Harmless, if unsettling artifacts.

Thing two: Using a third landmark will allow you to pin point your location, however I did not mention that in the article, since I hope that people get my gist when I say that this is not for off road navigation. Simply trace back your line from the third landmark to create a triangle. If you shot you azimuths right, you are somewhere inside that triangle.
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