Thursday, December 15, 2016

Want to plot your own adventure route? First, navigate the world of maps

At Backcountry Byways LLC, we are often asked what maps we rely on to develop personalized travel routes for clients who prefer to explore the wilds of the American West on their own--without the expense and limitations of a hand-holding guided tour.

Without divulging too many secrets, here are some tools we use and recommend.
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Benchmark Road & Receation atlases: This series, focused on Western states, is an indispensable tool and the best of the atlas genre. Each page of shaded-relief cartography illustrates primitive two-track roads (faint red hairlines), primitive high-clearance or 4x4 roads (orange-hued dashed lines), and unpaved roads (dark red dashed lines). Landmarks abound, both natural and man-made, as do place names and countless other details. We have found that the faint hairline roads often are better than their designation suggests, and thus often are suitable for adventure motoring.


At $20 or more each, Benchmarks are pricey. And being large paper atlases that can well exceed 100 pages, they aren't convenient for motorcycle travel. Nor are they as durable as one would hope given the price (the covers typically become detached with use).

To protect ours and make them easier to carry, we've been trying out a large-size SealLine map case by Cascade Designs. Intended for water sports, it's water-tight, made of tough and transparent 12-oz. vinyl, and plenty big.
A large SealLine map case protects an atlas.


Benchmarks do not depict private- and public-land ownership, which is important. Despite this, and despite their lack of durability, they are quick and easy-to-use references that work well for off-highway exploring. We don't go anywhere without one -- or even several, since we often cross state lines. Benchmarks are available from many online retailers as well as brick-and-mortar bookstores and visitor centers. We got our SealLine map cases on Amazon for $19.95 each.

Butler Motorcycle Maps: Maps geared toward automotive travel have been commonplace for generations. Drawing on the same cartography that has made Benchmark Maps the gold standard in the atlas genre, Butler Motorcycle Maps has put its spotlight on the motorcycle travel market. And it has taken a big step further, developing an indispensable series of information-packed, plastic-coated, detailed maps for the multistate Backcountry Discovery Route adventure-motorcycling initiative sponsored by gear suppliers Touratech USA, Klim, NEMO Equipment and others. Pricey at $14.95 each, but these rugged maps are almost encyclopedic in the amount of information they contain and their attention to detail. And they will endure the hard use of wildland travel.

GTR Mapping: Years before digital mapping, GPS and other of today's commonplace tools were available, we relied on this Colorado-based company's folded, statewide topographic recreational and travel maps (right). And for good reason. They are detailed and data-packed ... campgrounds, 4WD roads, mileages between junctions, contour lines ... the works. They aren't durable, unfortunately; but they are packable, lightweight, and priced at only $4.95.

U.S. Forest Service forest visitor maps: For a detailed, comprehensive view of individual national forests, these government-issued maps should be your primary reference. Everything from foot trails to primary highways are clearly depicted among the elevation contours familiar to users of USGS topographic maps. Information about recreation sites, such as campgrounds, is detailed with icons. Importantly, gates--both seasonally closed and permanently locked--are depicted, as is private- and public-land ownership. Text explains historical and cultural background as well as no-trace camping tips and other information. They are excellent references, useful when detailed insights into a national forest are needed. But you'd need quite a few of them to plan a long ADV ride or drive, and at $10 each that can quickly become costly. Their plastic-coated durability weighs in at about seven ounces each, even more, so weight-conscious adventure motorcyclists may not want to carry many. Finally, their sheer size (adding useful information over the years has added substantially to their mass) has made folding some of them a real challenge. They can be purchased at public-lands visitor centers, ranger stations, or online at the National Forest Store.


U.S. Forest Service motor-vehicle use maps: Restrictions on motor-vehicle travel on public lands change as land-management agencies respond to an expanding range of pressures: protecting natural ecosystems, keeping ATVs, motorcycles and such off private lands, and accommodating the ever-increasing size of OHVs. These simple black-and-white maps, available for free from local ranger stations and visitor centers, illustrate with graphic designations and charts which roads and trails are open to motorized travel, which are closed, and when. We use them regularly for plotting routes.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management: The BLM, like the U.S. Forest Service, manages millions of acres of publicly owned Western lands whose use is hotly contested by competing interests. Among the many maps local field offices have available are surface management status maps. Graphically utilitarian, and printed on plain paper, their greatest value to route planners is their depiction of private and public lands. That is important, because off-highway travelers can be surprised by how much of the West's wide-open spaces actually are off limits because they are privately owned, unless the land owners grant permission to access their property--which can be thousands of acres, and can include the banks of waterways like the Sweetwater River and its tributaries on Wyoming's historic South Pass. They are available at $8 each from local field offices, or online from the Public Lands Information Center.



Automobile Club of Southern California (ACSC): For quality folded travel maps that are easily carried and readily available (at least to Southern Californians), those published by this 4.5 million-member AAA affiliate--the world's largest auto club--are simply the best. We've used them, and recommended them to our customers and clients, for 20 years. ACSC cartographers' attention to the details is remarkable. They even include precise mileages from junction to junction along remote 4x4 roads. (They have a wide range of maps for such first-class ADV-travel locales as California's Eastern Sierra, Death Valley National Park and much more.) We've even seen ACSC's researchers in the field in their SUVs, traveling the backroads to check mileages and verify road quality. The Auto Club's Indian Country Guide Map, which covers the Southwestern United States, is the best folded paper map we have ever seen or used. And at $4.95 for non-members, and free to members, it's a bargain. It's available at the many ACSC Travel Stores throughout its Southwest service area.


Heart of the West ADV Route in Google Earth
Google Earth: There is no substitute for on-the-ground inspection of a road or trail. Second-best: zooming in on a proposed route with this remarkable--and free--global geographic imaging tool. While close-up inspection to determine precise road quality isn't quite possible, G.E. is unsurpassed for visualizing the lay of the landscape you'll be traveling through. It is particularly useful to verify that roads, junctions and such are in fact as other resources (e.g., Garmin's sometimes-inaccurate City Navigator GPS mapping program) depict them. Sometimes they are not, and G.E.'s satellite imagery doesn't lie. City Navigator includes a command to view a route in G.E., and one is wise to use it.


National Geographic's Trails Illustrated: These clear, easy-to-read, well-researched and verified maps measure up in every way to the standards we expect from National Geographic (not the originator of Trails Illustrated, sold to N.G. some years ago). We've used them for years, since the inception of our Backcountry Byways guidebook series. These durable maps are printed on heavy coated paper. They cover specific areas like national parks and limited wildland regions, e.g., Utah's San Rafael Swell. Being more destination-oriented, they don't cover entire states; nor do they necessarily encompass contiguous areas. Oddly, Idaho is the only Western state not covered by the 165-plus maps in the series. And at $11 each, they, too, are pricey. But if you're headed to, say, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and adjacent lands, the appropriate T.I. map, if available, is indispensable.


National Geographic Topo!: This DVD-based series is based on simple scans of USGS topographic maps, but includes a range of tools that make it useful in planning a route. It's a multi-state series, and each state sells for $50. Load it onto your hard drive, and you're on your way. Defined sections can be printed, and GPS waypoints downloaded and uploaded from your GPS unit. We've found them to be accurate tools for pinpointing locations. Some are out of date, however, and may not depict the latest changes in public-lands management.

USGS topographic maps: A mainstay for backcountry travel in decades past, we use them from time to time now, typically to verify locations and routing. Other maps available use USGS maps as their base maps, so the originals aren't as necessary as they once were. Still, there's no substitute for spreading out a map and looking over the terrain one plans to traverse as it is depicted in elevation contours. Today, USGS topo maps--many of them old and out of date--can be downloaded for free from The USGS Store, then viewed on-screen as PDF files or printed. Look under the heading "Map Locator & Dowloader."

Garmin's City Navigator: This isn't a research tool, but a routing program. We all know it's useful for making routes, tracks and waypoints that we can upload to and follow on our GPS units. But when combined with the topographic overlays that are available online, it becomes an important tool for, again, verifying that roads are where other resources say they are. Online sources for topographic maps that we've used from time to time are caltopo.com and GPSFileDepot.

There are many resources online to help you plot an adventure route, whether it's on local roads or--like our Heart of the West Adventure Route--across multiple states. We hope these resources help you get started.

Do you have a favorite route-planning tool that should be mentioned here? Just comment so it can be added to the post.

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