How to Use a Map


Using maps is an essential skill for the Recreational Prospector, the Metal Detectorist, and the Treasure Hunter. Anytime you travel in or through unfamiliar areas, a map (properly used) can tell you exactly where you are. You can also tell exactly where you want to go. In addition, you can use the same map to get you from one location to another. 


So what, exactly, is a map?


The book answer is:

A map is a graphic representation of a portion of the earth's surface, as seen from above and drawn to scale.


In layman's terms, a map is a picture of the earth as if drawn by an artist that was hovering above the earth in a balloon. Since his field of vision is quite broad (since he is so high up), he can draw a large area on a small paper. This is called "scale" (more on this later).


Maps come in many different sizes and types, but in general, can be classified into 4 basic types.


Road Maps: Everyone has seen a road map before.  The typical road atlas, as well as the folded state road maps are on sale almost everywhere. These maps are good for traveling from one urban area to another, but not much good for navigating "off road."


Nautical Maps: These maps are used by ships and are drawn to navigate in and around inland waterways and along coastal areas. There is almost no detail for land navigation.


Pilot's Maps: Used by flyers to travel long distances by air. Although there is some land detail, they are drawn to small to be of use to us.


Topographic Maps: These maps are drawn specifically for use "off road." Although these maps do have a considerable quantity of road and urban area information, their real value is in the "terrain features" that are drawn onto the map. Using these terrain features, you can navigate across countryside that has no roads. For the remainder of this discussion, the term "map" will mean topographic map (unless otherwise noted).


Topographic maps also come in a variety of sizes and "packages." The most commonly used topographic map is the "map sheet," which is a single map that covers a particular section of the earth. There are also map books, which contain all the topo maps for that state or region of the state. An example of this is the Delorme series of topographic maps. 



Delorme has produced a "Gazetteer for each state, which has the entire state's topographic maps in one book. If you have looked at any of the states we have listed in the Research area, then you have seen a picture for each of the Gazetteer for that state. These are extremely useful tools for the off-road user. But, even these have their limitations, as the scale is so large that detailed land navigation is all but impossible. If, however, you are using these gazetteers to gain access through unimproved roads, logging roads, 4-wheel drive trails and the like, then this is what you want. At about $20 a book, it's a real bargain and well worth the cost.


Smaller scale maps are available from the United States Geological Survey, who has the responsibility of mapping the United States. These come in several scales, but the most useful for our purposes is the 1:24,000 (7 1/2') series. We will get into scale later. These maps are detailed enough to identify small terrain features on the ground. If you can see a terrain feature on the ground, and then point to that same terrain feature on the map, then you can locate your position on that map, sometimes to within a few feet! The only drawback to these maps is that each map only covers a small area on the ground. So, if your moving a long distance, you would need a large number of maps. At about $4 - $6 a sheet, this can add up to quite a lot of money.


A good technique to balance need of distance verses the need of detail is to get the Delorme Gazetteer for the state you working in, and the USGS map sheets for the particular area your in. That way, you have enough coverage to get into and out of the region, and the detail for the exact location. 


Another idea is to have a handheld GPS thatr displays topographical maps. A GPS is a device that shows your exact position on that map display based on the reception of three or more satellites. These are "Global Positioning Satellites, hence GPS.


GPS's have become very detailed, reliable, and full of various features. If you decide to go this route, make sure you practice with it well before going out "into the woods." Also remember that a GPS may show your exact location on a map display, but that does you know good if you cannot read the map.


One thing to remember is that, no matter who produces the topographic map your using, the basics of the map will be the same. So, what you will learn here the "the basic" of reading and using topographic maps. These basics can be used on USGS map sheets, Delorme Gazetteers, military maps, Forest Service maps, Metzker maps, and anybody else's topographic map.



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