Disclaimer: This article will give you a general explanation of why you should bring a map and how to read it. This is NOT a cartography or navigation primer and I am NOT an expert in those subjects.
Okay! Even if you plan to bring your smartphone to take pictures with or to have that security blanket weight in your pocket, be mindful that you are NOT guaranteed cell service on any trail. Connectivity has improved more and more lately, and will likely continue to do so, but no amount of Google can beat the real deal of having a current map to look at and guide you. For trip planning purposes and preparedness on the trail, I highly recommend getting a topographical map. This kind of map has billions of squiggly lines on it that show elevation changes. This information is critical when you are planning your trip.
For example, let’s look at some images of National Geographic’s topographical map for the Mount Rogers Recreational Area.
If this isn’t confusing to you right off the bat, then why the hell are you reading this series of blog posts. If this is confusing, then hurray, you’re in the right place! The trails are marked with dotted lines, and the major ones are highlighted in yellow. Boundaries are highlighted in green. And those light tan/green/gray curvy lines throughout? Those are the elevation lines. The elevation change between each line is 50ft. The further apart the lines are, the more gradual the elevation change.
This bit? A walk in the park.
THIS bit? Absolute murder. Probably a cliff.
Get it? When you’re planning your hike, take these lines VERY seriously. Sure, you can do 10 miles in a day of gentle elevation changes, no problem. But 10 miles which includes more strenuous ups and downs and steep switchbacks? You’re gonna regret that one in the morning. And remember, when you’ve stopped for the day and made your camp, streams and water sources are generally down a slope of some kind. Plan for a little more exercise even after you’ve put down your pack!
And one more word of warning: yes, the Appalachian Trail (or AT, indicated in the white diamond on that second close-up image) is considered to be a maintained trail. That DOES NOT necessarily mean it’s easy. It likes to follow the ridge lines, and when there isn’t a ridge line it has to go down and back up to find the next one. Sometimes spur trails are kinder.
For a really great resource on navigating with a map, click this link here!