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What Type Of Map Is Good For Backpacking


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Ambur Waddle



When it comes to backpacking, having the right map is crucial. Whether you’re exploring a remote wilderness or navigating through a well-established trail, a good map can be your most reliable companion. With technology advancements, there are now various types of maps available to backpackers, each with its own unique advantages.


In this article, we will explore different types of maps that are well-suited for backpacking adventures. From topographical maps to GPS and online maps, we will discuss their features and how they can enhance your backpacking experience.


Regardless of your level of expertise or the type of terrain you plan to explore, having a map is essential for a safe and enjoyable journey. Not only do maps provide valuable information about the landscape, but they also help you navigate through various trails, locate landmarks, and plan your route effectively.


Now, let’s dive into the different types of maps that will serve you best during your backpacking adventures.


Topographical Maps:

Topographical maps are a staple for backpackers due to their detailed depiction of the natural features of the land. These maps use contour lines to represent elevation, allowing you to visualize the terrain and plan your route accordingly.


One of the key advantages of topographical maps is their accuracy. They provide precise information about the elevation, slopes, and geographical features such as rivers, lakes, and forests. This level of detail is invaluable when trekking in unfamiliar terrain or navigating through rugged landscapes.


Topographical maps typically come in large paper formats or can be accessed digitally. If you prefer the traditional approach, acquiring a paper map allows you to have a physical copy that you can easily carry and mark up as needed. Many outdoor retailers and national park visitor centers offer a wide selection of topographical maps.


For those who prefer digital navigation, there are numerous apps and websites available that provide digital versions of topographical maps. These digital maps can be downloaded to your smartphone or GPS device, offering convenience and ease of use during your backpacking trip.


Some popular topographical map resources include the United States Geological Survey (USGS) maps and the National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps. These maps cover a wide range of regions and provide accurate details to support your backpacking endeavors.


While topographical maps are valuable tools, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the map’s key and symbols before you venture out. This will allow you to interpret the information correctly and effectively navigate the terrain. Additionally, keep in mind that topographical maps may not have the most up-to-date information on trail conditions, so it’s always a good idea to check for recent updates or local trail reports.


Overall, topographical maps are a reliable and essential companion for backpackers. They provide a wealth of information about the land, elevations, and natural features, enabling you to plan your route and navigate with confidence.


Trail Maps:

When embarking on a backpacking trip, having a dedicated trail map specific to the area you’re exploring can be incredibly beneficial. Trail maps focus on providing detailed information about the network of trails in a particular region, making them invaluable for hikers and backpackers.


One of the key advantages of trail maps is their specialization and focus on the specific trails and routes in the area. These maps offer detailed information about trail distances, difficulty levels, and points of interest along the way. They may also include additional information such as water sources, campsites, and scenic viewpoints.


Trail maps come in a variety of formats, including paper maps, digital downloads, and mobile apps. Paper maps are often available for purchase at local outdoor retailers or visitor centers. They provide a tangible tool that can be easily folded and carried in your backpack. Some trail maps even come in waterproof and tear-resistant versions, which are ideal for backpacking in rugged conditions.


Digital trail maps offer the advantage of interactive features and real-time updates. Many hiking and outdoor apps provide downloadable trail maps that can be accessed on your smartphone or GPS device. These apps often include features like GPS tracking, distance tracking, and even user-generated reviews and trail conditions.


In addition to dedicated trail maps, many national parks and wilderness areas also provide their own trail maps. These maps are often available for free at visitor centers or can be downloaded from the park’s official website. These maps are designed specifically for the park’s trails and provide valuable information on regulations, closures, and safety considerations.


When navigating with a trail map, it’s important to understand the map’s legend and symbols. This will allow you to interpret the information correctly and make informed decisions along your backpacking journey. It’s also helpful to cross-reference the trail map with other resources such as topographical maps or local guidebooks for a comprehensive understanding of the terrain and surroundings.


Trail maps are an essential tool for backpackers as they provide invaluable information on specific trails and routes. Whether in a paper or digital format, these maps enhance your navigation and allow you to make the most of your backpacking adventure.


GPS Maps:

In the digital age, Global Positioning System (GPS) technology has revolutionized the way we navigate and explore the outdoors. GPS maps, accessed through GPS devices or smartphone apps, provide real-time location data and navigation assistance for backpackers.


One of the primary advantages of GPS maps is their accuracy and precision. These maps utilize satellite signals to pinpoint your exact location on the map, ensuring that you stay on track and navigate with confidence. GPS maps often offer a variety of basemaps, including topographical maps, satellite imagery, and street maps.


Gone are the days of relying solely on paper maps and compasses. GPS maps provide advanced navigation features, including route planning, waypoint marking, and tracking your progress along the trail. These features help backpackers stay on course, avoid getting lost, and make necessary adjustments to their route if needed.


GPS maps can be accessed through dedicated GPS devices specifically designed for outdoor navigation or through smartphone apps that utilize the device’s built-in GPS receiver. Many popular outdoor GPS devices offer preloaded maps that cover a wide range of trails and regions, while smartphone apps provide a convenient and compact way to access GPS mapping features.


There are numerous GPS mapping apps available for both iOS and Android devices, many of which offer offline capabilities, allowing you to access maps even when you’re in remote areas without cell service. Some popular GPS mapping apps include Gaia GPS, AllTrails, and ViewRanger.


It’s important to note that while GPS maps are incredibly useful, they should not be relied upon as the sole means of navigation. It’s always a good idea to bring backup paper maps and compasses, as well as familiarize yourself with traditional navigation techniques.


Using GPS maps effectively requires some learning and practice, so make sure to familiarize yourself with the device or app before your backpacking trip. Understand how to set waypoints, track your route, and interpret the information provided on the GPS screen.


GPS maps are a powerful tool for backpackers, providing accurate navigation assistance and real-time location data. Whether using a dedicated GPS device or a smartphone app, incorporating GPS maps into your backpacking toolkit can greatly enhance your outdoor adventures.


Online Maps:

With the prevalence of technology and internet access, online maps have become an increasingly popular resource for backpackers. These maps are accessed through various websites and offer a wide range of features that can assist in trip planning and navigation.


One of the primary advantages of online maps is their accessibility. With just a few clicks, you can access detailed maps of virtually any location around the world. Online maps are often interactive and allow you to zoom in and out, toggle different layers, and customize your view to suit your specific needs.


Many online mapping platforms offer a variety of maps to choose from, including topographical maps, satellite imagery, and street maps. These maps often provide valuable information such as trailheads, points of interest, and even user-generated content like trip reports and photos.


Some popular online mapping platforms for backpackers include Google Maps, Bing Maps, and OpenStreetMap. These platforms offer easy-to-use interfaces, quick search functions, and the ability to save and share maps with others.


In addition to basic mapping features, some online platforms offer advanced tools for trip planning. For example, certain websites allow you to create custom routes, measure distances, and estimate hiking times. These features are especially handy when planning multi-day backpacking trips or when exploring unfamiliar areas.


An additional benefit of online maps is their ability to be accessed on multiple devices. Whether on your computer, tablet, or smartphone, you can access your saved maps and information from anywhere with an internet connection. Some platforms even offer offline capabilities, allowing you to download maps for use when you don’t have access to the internet.


While online maps are convenient and versatile, it’s important to be mindful of their limitations. Online maps rely on internet connectivity, so they may not be reliable in remote or secluded areas without access to network coverage. It’s always a good idea to have backup maps and navigation tools when relying on online maps.


Overall, online maps provide backpackers with a wealth of information and tools at their fingertips. From trip planning to real-time navigation, these maps offer convenience and accessibility that can greatly enhance your backpacking experience.


Aerial Maps:

Another type of map that can be incredibly useful for backpackers is aerial maps. Aerial maps provide a unique perspective by showing an overhead view of the landscape using high-resolution satellite imagery or aerial photography.


One of the key advantages of aerial maps is their ability to give you a bird’s-eye view of the terrain. This allows you to get a better understanding of the overall layout of the area, including the shape of the land, the distribution of water bodies, and the surrounding vegetation. Aerial maps can help you identify potential hazards, find alternative hiking routes, or spot interesting features that may not be as apparent from ground-level.


Aerial maps can be accessed through various sources, including online mapping platforms, dedicated software, or even drone imagery. Many online platforms provide satellite imagery or aerial views as a layer option that you can toggle on or off. This allows you to seamlessly switch between different map views, such as topographical maps or street maps, and aerial imagery.


Aerial maps offer a unique perspective that can complement other types of maps, such as topographical or trail maps. By combining the information provided by aerial maps with the detail and accuracy of other maps, you can gain a comprehensive understanding of the terrain and make informed decisions during your backpacking journey.


When using aerial maps, it’s important to keep in mind that the imagery may not always be up to date. Changes in landscapes, such as new trails, roads, or construction, may not be reflected in the imagery. It’s a good idea to cross-reference the aerial maps with other sources, such as trail reports or local knowledge, to ensure you have the most current and accurate information.


While aerial maps may not be the primary navigational tool for backpackers, they offer a valuable perspective that can enhance your overall understanding of the landscape. Whether used for pre-trip planning or during the journey itself, aerial maps provide a unique and informative view that can enrich your backpacking experience.



Having the right map is essential for a successful and enjoyable backpacking adventure. The different types of maps available each offer unique advantages that can enhance your navigation and overall experience in the great outdoors.


Topographical maps provide detailed information about the terrain, elevations, and natural features, allowing you to plan your route and navigate with confidence. Trail maps focus specifically on the network of trails in a particular area, offering invaluable information on distances, difficulty levels, and points of interest along the way.


GPS maps utilize satellite technology to provide real-time location data and navigation assistance. These maps offer accuracy and advanced features such as route planning and waypoint marking. Online maps offer accessibility and interactive features, allowing you to customize your view and access a wealth of information. Aerial maps provide a unique overhead perspective, giving you a comprehensive understanding of the landscape and helping you identify key features and potential hazards.


While each type of map has its advantages, it’s important to remember that no single map should be relied upon as the sole means of navigation. It’s always a good idea to bring backup maps, compasses, and familiarize yourself with traditional navigation techniques.


By incorporating a combination of these maps into your backpacking toolkit, you can ensure that you have the necessary information and tools to navigate safely and confidently. Whether you prefer the traditional approach with paper maps or the convenience of digital maps and GPS devices, finding the right combination that suits your needs will greatly enhance your backpacking experience.


So, before you embark on your next backpacking adventure, take the time to consider which type of map or combination of maps will best serve your needs. With the right map in hand, you’ll be well-equipped to navigate the trails, discover hidden gems, and make lasting memories in the great outdoors.